Marple Remembers - 2003
The Ypres Salient
By Ian Rice

Day 3 p1 Day 4

 WEDNESDAY 17th APRIL 2003 (Day 3, part 2)


Hill 60 was one of the most feared and fought-over areas in the Salient. So named because it was a mere sixty metres high, it was not a natural hill but the man-made result of spoil left over when the nearby railway cutting was dug in the 1860s. The cutting had produced enough spoil to form three piles. Across the line from Hill 60 was another heap known as the "Caterpillar". In 1914 the Germans captured these features and established defences on them. Even from their moderate heights they were able to command the plain leading right up to Ypres and rain down artillery fire on any movement by the allied troops.

By 1915, when British troops took over this part of the line from the French, Hill 60 already had a fearsome reputation. It continued to deserve it as repeated assaults by the British failed to move the enemy defenders from their trenches. For example, the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire regiment lost sixteen men in June 1915 when the Germans opened a surprise artillery bombardment on Trench 39 that ran along the base of the hill. Despite doing considerable damage to the trench there was no follow-up attack.

The hill was assailed again in April 1917 during what came to be known as the Battle of Messines. A 1,380 feet-long underground gallery, known as the Berlin Sap was dug under the hill. This led into a number of smaller chambers with a further extension running off under the Caterpillar. Into the chambers under the hill the tunnellers packed 45,700 pounds of ammonal and 7,800 pounds of guncotton with another 70,000 pounds of ammonal under the Caterpillar. The detonation of these mines, several months after they had been dug and filled with explosives, led to the capture of the hill by the British in whose hands it remained until the German advance of 1918.

The afternoon began at Hill 60. There is no cemetery here although it is estimated that anywhere between 4,000 and 8,000 men still lie undiscovered beneath its blasted surface. Although a mere sixty metres high (hence its name) this small rise dominated the plain leading on to Ypres. Even today it is clear that the still-uninterrupted view must have made it a place of importance to both sides. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that it was fought over throughout the war and again in 1940. It was subjected to attack by poison gas and subterranean mining and it is here that one of our party believes his great-uncle still lies.

Only a few days before our departure Alan E had discovered that his great-uncle, Sapper Walter Griffiths, had died while attached to a Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. He discovered also that Walter's name is on the Menin Gate, indicating that he has no known grave. From the date of his death it is likely that he died during the extensive tunnelling operations under Hill 60.

We gathered round Andy as he graphically brought to life the terrible fighting that took place on this spot. By April 1915 the enemy was heavily entrenched on and around the hill. It was becoming essential to remove them but the commanders were faced with a dilemma. The position was too big to be taken by a raid but too small to warrant an all-out assault. Their solution was to sap under the defences and place five mines 100 feet below the surface. On the evening of 17th April 1915 these mines were detonated, one at a time, at ten second intervals. Great chunks of the hilltop disappeared, taking around 800 German soldiers with it and leaving deep craters that are still visible today. Now years of exposure to the weather and a covering of grass soften their edges. The trees today were springing into new leaf and some were decorated with gentle white blossoms. In 1915 it would have been an infernal tableau of blasted tree trunks, gaping, smoking craters and unimaginable carnage. Those of the enemy manning the defences who were not blown to pieces would have been staggering around, horribly injured in both body and mind. Not surprisingly the assaulting British troops were able to gain the top of the hill with ease. It was considered the most successful attack of its kind of the war up to that date.

As the new defenders of Hill 60 began to consolidate their positions they had time to look around them. Although it dominated the view towards Ypres it was itself overlooked by surrounding, taller hills including, just across the adjoining railway cutting, a higher ridge known as The Caterpillar. On to these higher positions the enemy were soon in the process of cramming fifty artillery batteries - up to 300 guns of various calibres. To respond to this threat the British had very few artillery pieces and these were extremely short on ammunition, which was being rationed in preparation for a forthcoming offensive in another part of the Salient. Soon the German guns opened up on Hill 60. The nearest were so close that they could fire over open sights. The top of the hill disappeared in a cloud of explosions as whole platoons were wiped out and those remaining dug furiously into the steep, blasted sides of the craters, desperate to find some cover. Throughout the night they endured the barrage, augmented by grenades hurled from the enemy trenches only yards away. With the dawn came the expected counter-attack.

Three companies of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment were holding the craters: perhaps around 600 men. In the to-and-fro of the ensuing battle, following bayonet charges and countercharges, this force lost 15 officers and 406 other ranks. But they held. On 20th April about 260 men of the East Surrey Regiment crawled forwards over the dead and mangled bodies of their comrades to reinforce the position. The German barrage and counterattacks continued with, if anything, increased ferocity.

Leading his men in defence of one crater, Lieutenant George Roupell was wounded eight times but refused to be evacuated. Using everything at their disposal he and his men repulsed repeated attacks. During a brief lull he retired to have his wounds dressed and to request reinforcements. Not long after Roupell had left it to return to his men the Headquarters position was hit by heavy shellfire causing many casualties. Back with his dwindling band of defenders and despite his wounds Roupell continued to hold his position, still under murderous German shellfire. No reinforcements had arrived and his company was still further weakened through casualties. He once again personally ran the gauntlet to the rear. He managed to organise some reinforcements that he brought back to his beleaguered position, which he held until relieved the next morning. For these actions Lt. Roupell was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on the 20th April 1915, when he was commanding a company of his battalion on Hill 60, which was subjected to a most severe bombardment throughout the day. Though wounded in several places, he remained at his post and led his company in repelling a strong German assault. During a lull in the bombardment he had his wounds hurriedly dressed, and then insisted on returning to his trench, which was being subjected to a heavy bombardment. Towards evening, his company being dangerously weakened, he went back to the battalion headquarters, represented the situation to his commanding officer, and brought up reinforcements, passing backwards and forwards over ground swept by heavy fire. With these reinforcements he held his position throughout the night, and until his battalion was relieved the next morning.

Not very far away from Lt. Roupell, Private Edward Dwyer was busy winning his Victoria Cross. This nineteen-year-old had already seen his closest friends killed and on several occasions had left his trench to treat some of his wounded comrades. When he saw some Germans trying to work around to the flank and rear of his position, without apparent thought to his own safety, Dwyer jumped onto the parapet of his position and though under heavy fire himself, opened up with rifle and grenades on the assaulting forces. He dispersed the attack and won his VC. His citation describe his actions thus:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Hill 60, on the 20th April 1915. When his trench was heavily attacked by German grenade throwers, he climbed on to the parapet, and although subject to a hail of bombs at close quarters, succeeded in dispersing the enemy by the effective use of his hand grenades. Private Dwyer displayed great gallantry earlier in this day in leaving his trench, under heavy shell fire, to bandage his wounded comrades.

Acting in support of Lt. Roupell, Second Lieutenant Benjamin Geary had secured the left-hand crater and with his few men had gallantly defended it against repeated assaults. The three runners he had sent for help had all been killed so he went personally to the rear, under heavy fire, where he was able to organise a small group of reinforcements including some men from the Bedfordshire regiment. Returning with them he continued to lead the defence by reckless example until he was hit in the eye by shrapnel early on 21st April. He, too, was awarded the Victoria Cross:

For most conspicuous bravery and determination on Hill 60, near Ypres, on 20th and 21st April 1915, when he held the left crater with his platoon, some men of the Bedfordshire regiment and a few reinforcements which came up during the evening and night. The crater was first exposed to a very heavy artillery fire which broke down the defences, and afterwards, during the night, to repeated bomb attacks, which filled it with dead and wounded. Each attack was, however, repulsed, mainly owing to the splendid personal gallantry and example of Second Lieutenant Geary. At one time he used a rifle with great effect, at another threw hand grenades, and exposed himself with entire disregard to danger in order to see by the light of the flares where the enemy were coming on. In the intervals between the attacks he spent his whole time arranging for the ammunition supply and for reinforcements. He was severely wounded just before daylight on 21st April.

Over on the right of the hilltop Second Lieutenant G. Harold Wooley of the Queen Victoria's Rifles and his men were under such a constant barrage from German guns on the Caterpillar that almost no movement of any kind was possible. Heavy machine-gun fire added to the carnage. When Lieutenant Kennedy in an adjacent crater was wounded, Wooley took over his men too. As the British troops began to run short of ammunition and as casualties steadily rose there began a move towards the rear that would have left the whole hilltop position exposed. Wooley was able to stem this retreat and was able to feed a few reinforcements from the Devonshire Regiment and the Queen Victoria's Rifles into the position. Some time later, after suffering further casualties, Wooley made the perilous journey back to Headquarters to seek further reinforcements. It took two trips, each under murderous fire, before he was able to begin to return with 30 men for the Devonshire Regiment. Somehow these men were redirected elsewhere before he could get them into his position. He did manage to get a few to follow him and also picked up some members of the Northumberland Fusiliers. With these and the remnants of his own platoon, Wooley was able to hold out and for this was awarded the fourth Victoria Cross of the action. His was the first VC won by a Territorial Army soldier during the Great War. As his citation explains:

For most conspicuous bravery on Hill 60 during the night of 20th and 21st April 1915. Although the only officer on the hill at the time, and with very few men, he successfully resisted all attacks on his trench and continued throwing bombs and encouraging his men until relieved. His trench during all this time was being heavily shelled and bombed, and was subject to heavy machine-gun fire by the enemy.

Eventually the ferocity of the German assaults lessened and the British survivors were able to consolidate their position and build up their defences.

In May the Germans attacked again, this time under cover of a cloud of poison gas. The British troops withstood one attack even though a whole battalion of the Dorset Regiment was effectively wiped out. However, a second gas attack two days later was successful and the top of the hill, so dearly bought, reverted to German control, only to be recaptured by Australian troops in 1917.

All this horror was described by Andy so vividly that, despite the sunshine and the spring blossoms, for a brief time we could all imagine ourselves back there amid the carnage and suffering, witnessing the mad bravery of the soldiers. The four VCs, though worthily won, must only stand as typical examples of the courage and recklessness that must have been commonplace under those hellish conditions. The hill now has three memorials on it. One is to the Queen Victoria's Rifles, which was the only Territorial Army unit involved in the 1915 action. The original memorial was damaged during the Second World War and was subsequently replaced. Near the car park is a memorial to the 14th Light Division and on the road, near the little bar, is one to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. It was here that Alan E laid a small wreath to the memory of his dead great-uncle, Sapper Griffiths. It was a very pensive group that made its way down the hill to the little bar at its foot where the ancient patron has a small museum of rusting relics.

As a reminder that Germany also invaded this area again, by the car park is a small memorial to two Belgians who were shot while escaping from a German deportation train during the Second World War.


The initial pressure for a major British offensive in the Flanders region began when Admiral Jellico informed the War Cabinet that shipping losses due to U-boat activity would prevent the British from continuing the war into 1918. In his opinion it was vital that the U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge be put out of action. This idea appealed to Field Marshal Haig who believed that if only the British could break out of the Ypres Salient and capture the high ground at Passchendaele the whole German right wing would be compromised, her industrial heartland of the Rhur would be threatened and he could unloose his beloved cavalry to sweep the enemy from the field.

To counter Haig's optimism, the situation he faced was less than encouraging. Italy and Russia were both reeling from heavy defeats and the future belligerence of each country was unclear. The French were near collapse following the Neville offences and a series of mutinies that had paralysed her army. As a result of all this Britain was now facing the main body of the German army in the most heavily fortified part of their line. Finally, the Flanders weather is notoriously unpredictable, especially in July and August, and heavy rainfall would have a disastrous effect on any planned assault.

Although officially named the Third Battle of Ypres it is universally known as the Battle of Passchendaele because it was really a series of engagements with the one objective of taking Passchendaele village and its ridge. In reality it was more a small campaign, being made up of a number of smaller battles and engagements. It began on 31st July 1917 with an attack on the Northern Flats at Pilcken and on the Gheluvelt Ridge. Though initially successful, the attacks soon began to falter, Gheluvelt Ridge failed to be captured and the rain that started at 16.00 and continued for several days meant that the promised tank support could not be used.

Despite advice from even his most aggressive generals to abandon the attacks, Haig decided to continue with further assaults towards Langemarck. It was not until 26th August and after further heavy losses that he decided to call a halt.

The battle was resumed with drier weather, this time to the east of the Salient and under a new commander, General Plumer. General Plumer was an advocate of small-scale, limited advances under the cover of a creeping barrage. On 20th September the Battle of Menin Road began, using these new tactics. After a five-day bombardment the Australians, supported by a Scottish Division, advanced. The reached Polygon Wood and Black Watch Corner for the loss of 5,000 casualties.

On 26th September the weather continued to be fine and the battle was renewed with the 4th Australian Division taking the rest of Polygon Wood and the Butte.

The Battle of Broodseinde began at dawn on 3rd October. As the Australians left their trenches they were more than a little surprised to see German troops advancing towards them. By chance both sides had launched an assault on each other at the same time. The Germans were seen off at the point of the bayonet and were then caught by the British creeping barrage. The Australians advanced behind it and eventually captured the Ridge the next day from where they could at last see the German rear lines. The only obstacle was the German occupied village of Passchendaele.

On 5th October it began to rain. Despite the steady downpour creating a quagmire of the battlefield Haig insisted in continuing the battle. He even alerted the cavalry to be ready for the follow-up. When the Australians attacked towards Passchendaele on 9th October the rain had been augmented by an all-out gale. The enemy wire had not been cut and the Germans had used the short respite to bring up fresh reinforcements. The Australian casualties were horrific. Although Captain Clarence Jeffries and twenty men reached Passchendaele church (Capt. Jeffries winning a VC at Tyne Cot on the way) by the end of the day the Australians had been forced to retreat to their starting line.

The weather continued to make conditions worse but on 12th October Haig ordered another attack. It only resulted in a further 7,000 casualties.

The Australians were eventually replaced with fresh Canadian troops and on 12th November Passchendaele was finally taken and the battle declared over. It had cost over half a million lives in its three weeks. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the British 300,000 of whom 36,500 were Australian. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never identified. 42,000 were never recovered.

The U-boat bases were shut off when the Royal Navy sank blockships in the entrance to their bases.


The rest of the afternoon was to be devoted to the archaeological investigation of the Great War around Ypres. First we visited Varlet Farm. This old farm, situated between Passchendaele and Poelkapelle, was part of the German front line. Various excavations have uncovered trenches and at least one machine-gun strong point. In the barn and in large piles outside, Charlotte Cardoen-Descamps, the proprietrix, showed us some of the munitions and equipment that are regularly unearthed by her husband, Dirk, as he goes about his daily work on the farm. She calculates that an average annual crop from his potato fields yields about 20 - 30 live shells and probably the same number of live hand grenades. They keep no count of the small arms ammunition or the other, less dangerous items they discover. Once or twice a year the bomb disposal teams from the Belgian Army collect the live munitions for appropriate disposal. In the case of gas shells this is becoming a national problem. Still deadly after all this time, they can only be made safe at a special installation and then only one shell at a time. At the current rate of treating only five shells a day, and taking no account of future finds, it is estimated that it will take a minimum of thirty years to clear the present stockpile.

Varlet Farm, on its original site, was assaulted by sailors of the Royal Naval Division, supported by the Artists Rifles. During October and November 1917, the Hood Battalion attacked and finally took the position although the farm buildings were reduced to a ruin in the process. The present buildings were erected in 1920 under a government scheme financed from post-war reparations paid by Germany.

Over coffee in the new building, where she is happy to welcome bed and breakfast guests, Charlotte showed us copies of old trench maps and described the attack that led to the farm's liberation by British sailors in 1917.


Our final stop was on an industrial estate just outside Boezinge. Here a group of Belgian amateur archaeologists known as The Diggers have uncovered a forgotten part of the front line. Few professional archaeologists in Belgium devote their efforts to the Great War so The Diggers have been licensed to carry out appropriate investigations. When work commenced on the construction of the industrial estate they were asked to work ahead of the builders to record any finds unearthed by them. What they uncovered surprised everyone.

Jacque, a friend of Andy's and an ex-member of The Diggers, acted as our guide to the excavations. He was able to describe how they had unearthed the German and British front line trenches. Here they were only a few hundred yards apart and well within sight of each other. The excavations produced staggering amounts of ammunition including thousands of rounds of live bullets, boxes of grenades and vast quantities of cartridge cases. The latter items suggested that a battle of some ferocity had taken place here. It took a great deal of research to piece together the evidence but eventually Jacque and The Diggers were able to add a forgotten battle to the recorded history of the war.

Fleeing French soldiers, escaping the first gas attack at Langemarck in April 1915, established the first defences here at Boezinge to stem the German advance that ensued. They were subsequently relieved by British units who dug new defences slightly behind the original French trenches. On 6th July 1915, following a heavy artillery barrage, the British attacked the German lines. In the ensuing battle more than 600 British soldiers were killed for an advance, at its deepest, of only thirty yards.

The Diggers' excavations supported this research. The British and German trenches had clearly seen much action. Behind the British trenches they found several Livens projectors, crude weapons for firing poison gas shells. Nearby they found projectiles full of phosgene gas. But above all they found the gruesome remains of the attackers and defenders. Although no complete skeletons were discovered they found remains of 160 men. Only one was identifiable, the remainder are now buried in a nearby military cemetery as Unknown Soldiers.

Later in the excavations two complete skeletons were discovered. They were identified as unnamed soldiers of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Their remains were found between the front lines and it is assumed that they were manning a listening-post in no-man's-land sometime in 1917 when they were killed and subsequently buried by artillery fire.

Much of the early excavations by The Diggers are now covered by the industrial estate but one section of the British line has been acquired by the Municipality of Ypres and is being restored. It includes a large dugout complex of thirteen underground rooms that in 1915 would almost certainly have been a battalion headquarters. When it was first opened up by the archaeologists it was found to contain all the original contents including clothes still hanging from its panelled walls as though their owners had just stepped out for a moment and would soon return to claim them. The trench and the dugout had been abandoned during the 3rd Battle of Ypres so it is impossible to know if the occupants ever managed to survive the war and return home. I wonder what their thoughts would be about their old underground home being turned into a memorial?

Later that evening most of us once again attended the Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate. By a pleasant coincidence Jacque, our guide from Boezinge, was on duty in one of his other roles as a member of the Last Post Committee. Tonight he delivered the exaltation in a loud, clear voice.

Before the ceremony Alan E and Kath placed a cross and a poppy below plaque No 8, the one that bears the name of Sapper Griffiths, Alan's great-uncle.

The various members of our group spent the rest of the evening in different ways. Some, like Alan, Kath and myself, opted for a quiet dinner while others sought out a bar with satellite television where they could watch the Manchester United v Arsenal match. I took this opportunity to sample a local delicacy - eel in a spinach sauce. It was surprisingly light and very tasty. As we ate we had a wonderful view of the Market Square of Ypres and its beautiful, subtly illuminated reconstructed buildings, dominated by the ornate Cloth Hall. It was a perfect end to our stay in this ancient and historic city.


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