Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Second Battle of Ypres April 1915
Rough Map of Area

Hill 60

Hill 60 gassed

By the 1st May 1915 Hill 60 was occupied by 1st Bn Dorset Regiment (15th Brigade). The first gas attacks using chlorine had taken place on the far side of the salient and the men were now equipped with very basic gauze and cotton face masks.

Chlorine is a gas that attacks the lungs. A high enough exposure will prove fatal as the lungs fill with liquid. It can however be counteracted reasonably simply by a mixture of photographer’s hypo solution. Even a damp cloth will help alleviate some of the discomfort (though not for long in a concentrated cloud).

Although some gas shells had already been tried by both sides the large scale uses of gas were deployed by the means of releasing it from cylinders and allowing it to waft across on the breeze.

As chlorine is heavier than air, wounded men falling into the trench would suffer the greatest effects.

The Germans had in fact already prepared this area as a possible target for a gas attack, but a change in the wind direction resulted in the attack being mounted against the French.

 

Hill 60, Queen Victoria's Rifles Monument

The QVR’s Monument on Hill 60

By now the Official History describes Hill 60 as:

…a medley of confluent mine and shell craters, strewn with broken timber and wire: and in this rubbish heap it was impossible to dig without disturbing the body of some British or German soldier.

At 1917 hours on the 1st May 1915 the Germans put down a bombardment on the hill and almost immediately released a cloud of gas. With the two front lines less than a hundred metres apart the defenders had very little time to react and many were overcome by the gas before being able to adopt their rudimentary gas masks.

Jumping up onto the parapet Lt Robert Kestell-Cornish avoided the denser part of the cloud and with a handful of men put down such a volley of rifle fire at random into the cloud that it discouraged the German infantry from rushing in. The little party’s action gave the supporting units of the Dorsets just enough time to come up and charge into the gas cloud stopping the German advance in its tracks.

Despite the fact that this was the first time that such a gas attack had failed to gain the perpetrators any advantage the casualties to the Dorsets were considerable. 85 had been killed and over 200 wounded by the gas cloud (of whom 58 died). Just two men had become casualties as a result of other wounds. Kestell-Cornish was himself later evacuated for gas inhalation but was back at the front within a week refusing to accept a Blighty (meaning a trip back to the UK).

On their left the 1st Bn Bedfords were not directly attacked by the gas cloud (Though many of them suffered its effects) but as the Dorsets succumbed so their trenches emptied.

Private Edward Warner took a party into the gas ridden trenches and despite becoming gassed himself helped fight off the German attacks and rescue wounded men. When reinforcements couldn’t get through to him he came back out to lead them in to the position. Exhausted and overcome by the gas Warner died shortly afterwards. He became the fifth soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross on Hill 60.

 

Hill 60 is lost

5th May 1915

Looking across the railway cutting towards Hill 60

Looking towards Hill 60 from the far side of the railway

As the 2nd Battle of Ypres was drawing to its close the 15th Brigade were one again back in the line at Hill 60. On loan to them was one of the original attacking units of 13th Brigade — 2nd Bn Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. By chance they were in occupation of the cluster of debris and shell holes that formed the front line over the mound.

At 0845 hours on the 5th May the Germans released a dual gas cloud either side of Hill 60 with the intention of cutting the garrison off.

The gas not only wafted across the front line but then drifted down the trench system. In theory the defenders were supposed to rally to the flanks of a gas attack but this time the gas cloud was actually coming in from those flanks.

By the time the German infantry arrived in the cloud’s wake most of Hill 60 was theirs for the taking.

From support the 1st Dorsets rushed forward along the railway embankment and engaged the attackers throughout the rest of the day. As reserves were being brought forward the Germans released another gas cloud against the 1st Bn Bedfords who were holding the left flank of the hill. They in turn were forced to concede some ground but for the most part hung on for the ninety minutes it took the 1st Bn Cheshire Regiment to march from Hooge.

The assortment of front line units and reinforcements managed to steady the line and even regain some of the lost ground but the hill remained resolutely in German hands.

Despite two days of counter attacks the line moved no further.


The last few days fighting had cost 15th Brigade 1,553 casualties and overall the 5th Division had suffered over 3,000 casualties in its efforts to take and then hold Hill 60.

This small piece of fiercely contested ground would change hands again during the remainder of the war. The next time as a result of the mining operation conducted by the British in preparation for the Battle of Messines on the 7th June 1917.

Hill 60 can be visited and there are a number of monuments to those who served in the area — above and below ground. Its mine ridden summit says more than these words can about the suffering of those who fought and died here.