The taking of Hill 60, April 1915


This is the biggest thing of the war. This is the biggest thing that this war has given us yet, and I have been in it all from the time when we fell back, yard upon yard and mile upon mile, from Mons, with lumps of lead going into every other man, and the man who didn't get it falling down and going to sleep because he couldn't march any further.

That was part of an interview given by one unnamed member of the Beds Regiment about the battle of Hill 60, south of Ypres. The soldier was wounded in the fighting and was in hospital in London to tell his story to the Press.

Think of...batteries trained on a front of six miles and doing their worst. Then you will understand what our artillery was like. We went deaf, but it was splendid. We knew it was coming, and we were anxious that it should come our way. We'd had so much of the deafening overture from the guns that we wanted to be in the play itself.

We of the Bedfordshires had been in front of Hill 60 for days and terrible nights. In fact, they thought we were so worn out that when our hour came for the assault they told us to get out and give place to fresher men. But we would rather have mutinied than gone back, so they let us go on with the others and take the crest of that hill.

Hill 60 isn't really a hill at all. It is just what we call a little mound. It's a sort of pimple on the face of the earth, but it was the little gateway we wanted, and we meant to take it and hold it. It had been in front of us for days and for weeks, always the point from which the Germans were firing upon us, and always the point against which we could never reply.

We all knew what Hill 60 meant to us. We had been sapping and burrowing under Hill 60 for weeks. We knew it had to be taken even at a great sacrifice of life. And while the men underground dug their way slowly along we nodded to each other and wondered when the time would come when Hill 60 would go up in the air and be no more.

It was early on Friday morning, the 16th, that we heard that at last our preparations for attack upon Hill 60 were completed, and the attack itself was to be made at any moment. Our coffee tasted different that morning. We shook off our trench weariness as by a miracle. The time for advance had sounded and there was not a man in the lot caked with mud or rotten with rheumatism who was not inspired by the news.

The Bedfords had been in the advance British trenches at Zillebeke, only 120 yards distant from Hill 60, for days. We had been there so long that we thought they had forgotten us. Then a cheer went up that must have surprised the Germans on the hill when the news came round that the West Kents were coming to our relief.

We were a pretty bad lot at that time, pretty well done up, but two of our companies, under Major Allison, volunteered to remain in the trenches and do the double with the West Kents when they went up the hill. We knew what they had come for, and we wanted to see that little bit of ground go up in the air.

The blowing up of the hill was terrific. It went off like a big volcano. Everything in front of us went black for a moment, and yet through the blackness we could see distinctly bits of flying earth. And underneath our own trenches the earth was quivering. I was in the first line of out trenches, and it seemed as if its walls which we had built up in the face of spitting bullets would collapse.

Our sappers had done their work slowly but thoroughly. They had burrowed deep into the hill from different point, and the extremities of the tunnels which they had mined were only a few feet apart underneath the dug-outs of Hill 60 itself.

When the blackness came up before our eyes, when the earth was torn up before us, when clods of it came whistling like cricket balls into our own trenches, or at least into our own advance trenches, the trouble began. I don't know what happened very much better than do the Germans who were lying there in advance dug-outs on Hill 60. A terrible sound smote upon our ears as our guns woke and started talking. Batteries concentrated themselves suddenly upon the front for six miles.

We started pouring shot into them like hail because we had made up our mind that we would not allow the German supports - and there were any amount of these - to creep over the crest of Hill 60 and aid the men whom we had tossed up towards the skies.

After an interval, during which the Germans continued their fire, the British guns broke out again. Then a young chap with a wrist watch said to me, "It's almost eight." It was eight before I understood what he meant. It was eight before the order came to charge, with the great guns throwing volleys of the big stuff beyond it and above us.

We scrambled out of the trenches and doubled, like fellows in a sprint, for the smoky blackness of that hill. We were nearly a thousand strong and we dashed up the hillside until we reached the crest. When we got there we knew what to do. It wasn't shooting Germans. It wasn't bayoneting. What Germans there were we had to drag out of the ground.

What we had to do was fill sandbags, build up new trenches and make some sort of fortification against the trouble which we knew was bound to come. And the boys did it, and they whistled and sang while they did the sandbagging business, and every now and again someone who was singing went down through the spit of a German bullet that came from their other lines.

Within about quarter of an hour we had dug ourselves in and firmly established ourselves. There was little rest. In about an hour and a quarter afterwards - about ten o'clock - the Germans came along suddenly with their great counter-attack.

We were not surprised. We knew it was going to happen. On both sides the batteries were blazing away, and for half an hour the cannonade had developed all along the opposing fronts.

In the flare and flash of the guns, while we sang and banked up those sandbags on the top of the hill which had been so cheaply won, we saw masses of their troops suddenly advance from their lines of support. Over 3,000 of them, many holding their rifles at the shoulder, and as they came along we had our revenge for those eight cold hungry days in which we had waited for them and suffered from them in the trenches before Hill 60.

We kept up our rifle fire and a man fell here and a man fell there. The rest of then laughed and came on. But we had, of course, anticipated the counter-attack, and in the hour's lull that followed the capture of the crest of the hill we had brought up a score of machine guns. They waited while our desultory rifle fire allowed their great-coated battalions to come on and on, until suddenly they stopped.

Behind that ragged infantry fire of ours, the most ineffectual infantry fire that tried to stop an obstinate infantry, were the machine guns. As the enemy came on, more confident at every step, and their front lines formed themselves to charge, our masked battery spoke out. We went into them, line after line.

It was like a great harvesting and nothing was spared. I have seen plenty of slaughter since Mons, but nothing like this. They simply fell in heaps, hundreds and hundreds were mown down while their officers shouted the orders to "open out". As we drove them back on their support trenches our artillery caught them midway. They went down like ninepins.

Our officer told us that they must have lost at least a third of their attacking force in this simple attempt to retake Hill 60. After this attack they were very quiet - most of them silent and dead.

[Extracts from  The Luton News, April 29th, 1915 - based on an interview for the Sunday Pictorial]