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Webmatters : 1st Australian Tunnelling Company Memorial at Hill 60

1st Australian Tunnelling Company

Location

The Hill 60 memorial park at Zillebeke is easily reached from Ieper or the French border.

From Ieper come out of the Rijselpoort and continue straight across at the roundabout onto the N365 following the signs for Rijsel (Flemish for Lille).

Within a short distance you will come to a railway crossing with a Belgian Military Barracks and the road to Mont Kemmel on your right. This crossroads was known as Shrapnel Corner during the war and was under constant bombardment.

Immediately before the railway line is a road off to the left, alongside the railway, and signposted to a number of CWGC Cemeteries.

Take this road and continue towards Zillebeke passing Railway Dugouts Cemetery on your right. You cross over the railway and continue on for two kilometres until you see a sign for Hill 60 directing you off to the left and back over the railway.

From France via either Bailleul/Kemmel or Armentières/Ploegsteert follow the directions for Ieper. Near Voormezele you will reach the Barracks and see the Railway crossing. Coming from Ploegsteert you have to cross the railway and turn immediately right.

Hill 60, the 14th (Light) Division Monument

14th (Light) Division Memorial at the car park

Just over the bridge there is parking space immediately in front of the Light Division Memorial — relocated from its original site at Railway Wood.

Immediately to the left of the parking area is a small enclosure containing the memorial to the 1st Australian Tunnellers. The entrance to the Hill 60 Memorial Park is further along to the left.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 50.824178 2.928229 Map

 

Background

Hill 60 was the scene of some of the very first mining operations carried out by the British Army. The first mine exploded here was detonated on 17th February 1915 shortly after their arrival in the sector.

Three mine shafts were dug into the hill for the assault on the 17th April 1915 resulting in the position falling (for a few weeks) to the British.

Later, two long tunnels were dug under Hill 60 and the Caterpillar position, on the far side of the railway bridge, and these formed the two most northerly of a series of twenty-four planned for an assault on Messines Ridge. They were completed by British and Canadian tunnellers and had already been charged with twenty-four and thirty-one tons of explosives respectively by the time the Australians arrived in the area on 7th November 1916.

The Australians however had the responsibility of ensuring that the tunnels and explosives remained sound and undiscovered by the Germans over the next seven months until they were finally detonated on the 7th June 1917. The tension in working with fifty tons of already placed explosives at the end of a 421 metre gallery, which passed under the railway line in the case of the Caterpillar, can well be imagined.

The Caterpillar Crater

The Caterpillar Crater on the far side of the railway line is easily visited.
Cross the bridge and walk along the pathway through the turnstile into the wood.
If you look between the trees on the far side you can make out a person standing by the edge.

Drainage and ventilation shafts had to be dug in the unfamiliar blue clay, whilst listening posts had to be manned at all times. These posts were only a few metres underground and therefore susceptible to collapse during bombardments. The Germans were by no means inactive in trying to find British tunnels and numerous counter tunnels had to be dug towards the German excavations so that they could be mined with small charges and destroyed.

In April 1917 the German infantry conducted a raid into the British lines trying to find the entrances but failed to do so. Then on the 25th (ANZAC Day) a detonator exploded in the Australians’ underground HQ killing ten men. Altogether approximately thirty of the Australian tunnellers were killed on the hill (perhaps more correctly — under it).

The Official Australian History states that at Hill 60:

… underground warfare reached a tension which was not surpassed anywhere else on the British front.

 

The Memorial

Hill 60, The Australian Tunnellers Monument

This memorial (inaugurated in 1923) replaces the original, raised by the tunnellers themselves in 1919. The bullet holes are from the Second World War.

There are information panels giving a good summary of the action here.

If you have not seen the film about the Australian tunnellers at Hill 60 then to my mind it is worthy of viewing.

 

This is one of few memorials to commemorate tunnellers of any nation. Because they often worked in the utmost secrecy their stories were often overlooked and too few were decorated for acts of bravery that would have made headlines up-above.

The New Zealand Tunnellers have their memorial in Arras near to the Wellington Quarry.

There is another memorial to Tunnellers in France at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée.

A memorial to British, Canadian and Belgian Tunnellers can be found alongside the Belgian canon at St Elooi — one of the other Messines craters not far from the railway crossing you passed on the way here.

A basic introduction to the tunnellers and their work can be found in the pages about the Battle for Messines.

 

The other memorials at Hill 60