Hill 60 is an area of ground which remains relatively undisturbed since the end of the Great War. It is located around three miles south-east of Ypres, just off Werviksestraat between Zillebeke and Zandvoorde. Because it was higher ground in an otherwise flat landscape, it obviously had great strategic importance in the battles here. The hill isn’t natural; it was made from the spoil removed during the construction of the railway line nearby.
During the Great War, there was fierce fighting here, and the hill changed hands between the Germans and the Allies several times. Both sides also dug tunnels and planted mines underneath the hill. Because of this, the remains of many soldiers from both the Allied and German forces still lie here.
Following the end of the War, the land was left undisturbed. Hill 60 was purchased in 1920 by Lieutenant-Colonel Cawston for 15,000 Belgian Francs. He later sold a half share to a Mr J J Calder. In 1930 Mr Calder donated the site ‘to the nation’, and it was taken over by the Imperial War Graves Commission, who (as the CWGC) still maintain it today.
There is a small car parking area, which is just in front of a memorial to the 14th Light Division. This records that the Division landed in France in May 1915, and the battle honours of the Division are listed and include Ypres, the Somme and Arras.
To the left of the car park, there are railings around a square area of grass, and there are information boards here to the left and the right. In the centre of the grass is a memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company.
The plaque on the memorial is marked by bullet holes (see middle picture below). These date not from the Great War, but from the Second World War, when this area was fought over again. The plaque on the front explains that this permanent memorial replaces one erected in 1919 by comrades of those who fell here. An early picture of this memorial shows the devastation of the land here shortly after the war.
The entrance to the Hill 60 site itself is via a gate to the left of the railed area with the Tunnelling Company memorial. There is a stone near the entrance with an inscription giving some of the history of Hill 60, and that it was finally taken by the British on the 28th of September 1918.
The inscription also emphasises that because of the nature of the fighting here, Hill 60 is effectively a mass grave for soldiers of all sides. After the war, the trenches were filled in, but the land remains cratered and still bears the scars of the battles fought over it. The photos below show the ground as it is today, and also a preserved trench at Hill 60, probably sometime between the wars.
There are large depressions in the ground on the right-hand side as you enter, resulting from the craters blown by mines during the war. Nearest the front as you enter are craters from 1915 and 1916, and a little further back on the right is the larger depression of a crater dating from 1917. This was one of those blown at the start of the Battle of Messines.
Lumps of fortified concrete remain scattered around the bottom of this crater. As you walk further towards the rear of the site, more lumps of concrete can be seen protruding from the ground. In a clump of brambles towards the rear are the remains of a pillbox. On the top of the Hill, the remains of at least four bunkers (plus an almost intact one) can be seen.
On top of the Hill is another memorial, this one to Queen Victorias Rifles, commemorating where the regiment fought their first open engagement. They lost 12 officers and 180 men in casualties. The original memorial was erected in 1923, commemorating all ranks of the QVR who died in the First World War. It was unveiled by General Sir Charles Fergusson, at a ceremony at which Captain G.H. Woolley VC was the clergyman. Woolley, then serving as a Second Lieutenant in the QVR had won the Victoria Cross here at Hill 60 on the night of the 20th-21st of April, 1915. The original memorial was approached by an impressive fenced track with steps, shown below along with a close-up of the memorial.
However this original memorial was destroyed in 1940 by the Germans, and the plaque on the current memorial was later placed on some of the stones from that original memorial.
Towards the rear of the site is a pillbox which is still largely intact. This was originally German but was modified by the Australians in 1918. The marks of bullets/shells can still be seen in the concrete.
Close inspection reveals just how massive the construction of this pill-box is. The walls are at least three feet thick, with metal reinforcing bars protruding. This can be seen in the picture below; the view through the pillbox in the centre of the picture shows the width of the walls. No wonder this pill-box withstood several assaults and is still there nearly 90 years later.
Hill 60 is quite a large site, and from the front and the rear, through the trees, you catch glimpses of the commanding views that made it such a prize. Looking from the front towards the road, the taller buildings of Ypres can be seen.
The whole site is riddled with bunkers, reflecting the importance that both sides attached to this small elevated area in an otherwise largely flat landscape.
Across the road from Hill 60 used to stand the Hill 60 museum, which held a large collection of arms, weapons and personal effects. This included, among many other exhibits, Webley & Scott flare pistols, “toffee apples”, a buckle from the Church Lads Brigade and wooden aeroplane propellers. There were also signboards for trenches named Henry Street and Vince Street.
The museum also held an early grave marker for Lance Corporal David Williams of the 24th Signals Division, killed on the 19th of June 1917. He is now buried at Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) Cemetery, which is a little north-west of Hill 60 next to the railway.
In January 2006 however, the museum at Hill 60 closed, and in its place is now a restaurant with the name Hill 60.
In 1928, a Great War veteran complained in The Scotsman that Hill 60 even then had been “adapted for sight-seers” and “at the entrance gate vendors of souvenirs, mostly disabled soldiers, offer for purchase old rifles, badges, pieces of shrapnel picked up from the Hill”. He described how in the roots of thistles rusty barbed wire could be seen, and in a shell hole were “rusty relics”: fragments of bombs, helmets and old water bottles.
Today, although the ground has been left undisturbed, nature and time have softened the scars. There are no relics, although the remains of concrete fortifications can be seen. For many who fought here, however, the place remained in their memory. At least one First World War veteran, Mr P G Arnold from Birmingham, asked his widow to scatter his ashes here after he died in 1931.
Just to the right of the car park near the railway line, is a memorial to two French members of the Resistance in World War 2. This was erected in 1969 and remembers these two brave men, who were arrested near Lille and put on a train which passed this way. Their bodies were found near this spot. Exactly what happened will probably never be known.
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