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The Devonshire Regiment and the Dorsetshire at Hill 60 – April/May 1915

Today Hill 60, situated three and a half miles south east of the town of Ypres is just a quiet, pock-marked piece of land with little to attract the attention of the passing traveller. But here in the spring of 1915, over a period of just 10 days, some 3,100 British troops lost their lives in an action that was to change the course of modern warfare.

For it was at Hill 60 that the Royal Engineers first undertook a mining enterprise of any magnitude and detonated mines in conjunction with a simultaneous infantry operation. It was there also that on May 1st 1915, units of the British Army were first subjected to, and overcame the effects of the Germans’ new and deadly weapon – asphyxiating poison gas.

The French had lost possession of the Hill to the Germans in the First Battle of Ypres in the latter months of 1914 and, in order to regain possession, they had started mining under the Hill. Subsequently in early 1915, by which time the British had assumed control of that sector, the Royal Engineers continued the digging and, by way of a 125 yard tunnel into the Hill, laid mines beneath the German trenches on and around the summit. In a planned attack to recapture the hill the mines were to be detonated to coincide with a full infantry assault. It was decided that the 1st Royal West Kents would mount the attack with the 1st Devons in support and the 1st Dorsets as reserves. It was the first time in the Great War that these two West County Regiments were in action together.

At 7 pm on 17 April 1915, at 10 second intervals, a total of 5 mines were exploded; the 2 under the summit caused the German trenches there to collapse and some 150 of the enemy were buried. Then the West Kents stormed the Hill and immediately occupied the resulting craters. Hill 60 was back in Allied hands.

 Over the following few days the enemy counter attacked strenuously with both heavy artillery and infantry assaults, causing multiple casualties to both sides. Against all the odds, the occupiers consolidated their position and a new trench was constructed and held on the crest.

 It was during this time that Private Dwyer (East Surrey Regiment) and 2nd Lieut Woolley (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) earned their Victoria Crosses, as described by Lord Ashcroft.

While the battle was raging on the summit, the 1st Battalion Dorsets held a sector leading up to the Hill and within a few hundred yards of the railway line. There, under constant bombardment from the enemy across the Hill, 3 officers and 24 other ranks were wounded.

In the early hours of 21st April the 1st Devons were called up and, on reaching the Hill were confronted with a scene of total devastation. Under constant artillery and trench-mortar bombardment they set about reinforcing the defences while fighting off repeated counter-attacks and attending to the many wounded and dead, from those whom they had relieved. It was an almost impossible task but they achieved it and held on tenaciously until relieved in the early hours of the 23rd, by then having suffered some 120 casualties.

The fighting continued but by the 25th, when the Devons returned to the Hill, things were quieter and they were able to begin clearing up and repairing the defences, while keeping vigilant for enemy encroachment. On the following evening the bombardment recommenced followed by an attempted night attack, in which they suffered further casualties, before relief came. Within 2 days the Devons were back on the Hill.

During all this activity the 1st Dorsets had been close by in reserve trenches, suffering like everyone else from the enemy bombardment. On the 29th they moved closer to the Hill, taking over shelters, dug in the hillside and covered with corrugated iron and sandbags. Their instructions were to provide support for the Devons, who were still in action on the top and so far, had suffered over 200 casualties. At 3 p.m. on 30th April, two Companies of the Dorsets went onto the Hill to relieve the Devons by taking over the front line trenches. Meanwhile the remaining Companies, B and D remained in local reserve.

Foremost in the minds of all British troops at that time was that just 2 weeks earlier, at nearby St Julian,  the Germans had for the first time  used gas on French troops, mainly Algerian,  , with devastating consequences. High Command had instructed that all troops were to be provided with makeshift respirators consisting of bits of flannel and pieces of gauze. The men were told that in the event of a gas cloud coming over, they were to wet the flannel and cover their faces.  Additionally, in the event of a gas attack, troops should evacuate their positions and move to the flanks. While these respirators were making their way to selected troops, all ranks were advised that, in an emergency, they should take a handkerchief, dip it in water and place it over the mouth and nose.  In the absence of water urine would be a substitute!

When the Dorsets took over the front line trenches in the early hours of the 1st May heavy and sustained shelling continued as the Devons retired a short way down the Hill to Larch Wood.

 The rest of the day was fine and  for the most part  the enemy were unusually quiet   At about 7pm B Company,  then in reserve,  fell in for night duty and, on the instructions of Capt. Batten, all men carried their make-shift respirators and had water readily available. Soon afterwards a sudden enemy bombardment covered the Hill and surrounding trenches and, before sentries could sound any form of warning, a thick white and yellow cloud was seen; it was poisonous gas and, as it oozed across, the men instinctively crouched down into their trenches in order to attempt to escape the deadly fumes.  The concentration of the chlorine gas was so strong that most were soon completely asphyxiated.

Company Sergeant Major Ernest Shephard wrote in his diary:  “The scene that followed was heartbreaking.  Men were caught by the fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting and rolling on the ground.  I ran round at intervals and tied up lots of men’s mouths, placed them in sitting positions and organised parties to assist them to the support dugouts.”

While the gas was taking effect enemy fire opened up all along the line in an attempt to prevent relief forces from support trenches moving forward.

On the crest of the Hill and probably in the most exposed position, was C Company. All the officers except 2nd Lieut. R Kestell- Cornish, then just 19 years of age, and 4 other ranks remained unaffected by the gas.  Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the young subaltern and his four gallant men seized rifles and jumped onto the parapet and began firing into the poisonous cloud billowing across the sector.  By standing up they had escaped the worst effects of the gas and by maintaining their rapid fire they led the Germans to believe that the trench was fully manned and strongly held. It also enabled Capt. Batten with his B Company to reach the summit. They were joined by a detachment of Devons, who   had heard the word “Gas” and, without awaiting instructions, had rushed back to assist their comrades.  There they found the trenches “full of men choking and gasping for breath, some foaming at the mouth, in every degree of agony and distress, incapable of offering any resistance to the advancing enemy”

Some 400 yards of the front line was open to the enemy, almost totally unmanned. The Devons immediately engaged the advancing Germans with whatever weaponry came to hand and, by a stroke of fate, a shift in the wind carried the gas cloud back towards the German lines.

One who witnessed this turn of events was another young subaltern, 2nd Lieut. Mansell-Pleydell From A Company. In a subsequent letter to his parent he related that at about 7 o’clock as he emerged from his dugout, he saw a hose sticking over the German parapet and emitting a thick yellow cloud. As he instructed his men to don their “respirators” a terrible bombardment began and, either because of a miscalculation of the wind direction or because it had changed, the gas went off its intended course and partly went directly into the German trenches. He then describes how the enemy bolted at the “first whiff” of the gas and how, being the only officer not in the firing line, he tried to assist those retreating from the gas. Some 200 men passed through his hands of whom many fell to the ground as they passed and died on the spot.

His letter concluded, “I am absolutely sickened. Clean killing is at least comprehensive, but this murder by slow agony absolutely knocks me. The whole civilian world ought to rise up and exterminate those swine across the hill.”

On the 1st May the Dorsets suffered some 337 casualties, of whom 130 had died on “the bitterest Sunday I have known or wish to know.”  So wrote CSM Sheppard in his Diary. Describing the scene, he wrote, “A lot of our men are missing, having crawled over (the) back of the trench when gassed and the enemy shelled them as they crawled away. We spent a morning looking for these, a few were just living, majority dead. We found our dead everywhere where they had crawled to get out of the way. Hill 60 apart from our losses is a terrible sight. Hundreds of bodies all over the place terribly mutilated a large number of our own men, and larger numbers of Hun.  Stench is awful as they cannot be buried……..So they lie as they fell, silent spectators to modern warfare.”[1]

In a subsequent Diary entry C S M Shephard mentions that in the following days  bodies of more dead comrades were discovered  in scattered places, even as far back as the fringes of Ypres.

2nd Lt. Kestell-Cornish and five of the men from the trench were admitted for medical treatment as a result of the gas; all recovered and were back with the battalion within days, except for one who subsequently died.  In all the battalion 90 men died where they fell from gas poisoning; 207 were admitted to dressing stations and most did not survive and  46 died almost  immediately upon arrival  another 12 died later.

For his gallantry and devotion to duty 2nd Lieut Kestell-Cornish was instantly awarded the Military Cross “in the field” by his Commanding Officer but many at the time felt that he deserved the Victoria Cross. The citation in the London Gazette, published in 29th June 1915 read, “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the night of May 1st, 1915, on Hill 60. When most of the officers and men had been asphyxiated and he himself was suffering from the effects of gas, he rallied the men who remained and held the hill till reinforcements arrived”.

Of his comrades in the trench sadly only three can be identified. They were Cpl. W Webb, L/Cpl H.A. Sunderland and Pte J Mullins. In total 5 DCMs, 1 MC and 1 MM were awarded to members of the Devons and Dorsets.

On the 2nd May the Dorsets were relieved by the Devons, who took over defence of the Hill and the adjacent trenches. The Germans showed no inclination to reclaim the summit and, after a relatively quiet few days, the Devons were relieved on the evening of 4th May by the 2nd   Duke of Wellingtons and wearily returned to Brigade Reserve at Kruisstraat.

This was the last that the Devons were to see of Hill 60, which by this time had become a ” rubbish heap of shell and mine-torn earth, timber and dead bodies – a scene of utter desolation. The British trenches were shapeless cavities and the enemy was less than 100 yards away.”[2]

On the 5th May, when the Hill and a strip about 1 mile either side of the line  was held by a combination of  the 1st Norfolks, the 2nd Duke of Wellingtons and the 1st Bedfords, the Dorsets were in reserve at nearby Larch Wood. At 9 am a message was received, “Gas coming over”.  Units of the Dorsets, already weakened in numbers, were ordered forward, against a stream of gassed and demoralised troops, to support the Dukes.  Gas was seeping along the trenches and it soon became clear that the Germans had regained control of the summit and were occupying trench 40 and a portion of   39. The Dorsets held the several trenches, including 38 and part of 39.

The situation was grave; the Germans had begun to advance in the direction of Ypres and the British units occupying parts of the Hill were greatly depleted and exhausted. The Cheshires were summoned and were able both to head off the German advance and, with the help of the Dorsets, to consolidate trench at 39 and retake 40.

The Dorsets remained in the trenches until 2 am on the 6th May when they were relieved and wearily returned to Kruisstraat. The Battalion had gone into the line on the 30th April over 800 strong, had endured 2 gas attacks, had engaged in the bitterest of fighting for possession of Hill 60 and had been reduced to 173 all ranks.

Further unsuccessful efforts were made to retake Hill 60 and on 24th May the Dorsets returned to the Hill, again occupying not only trenches 38 and 39 but also 42. The Germans, who still held both trench 40 and the summit, remained, on the whole, fairly inactive although their snipers continued their activities and persisted in breaching the parapet of trench 38. But the Dorsets were not to be cowed and they carried out several daring raids, in the course of which part of trench 40 was retaken.

The Dorsets then went into reserve bringing to an end their courageous and historic association with Hill 60. Total British casualties at Hill 60 were 100 officers and 3,000 other ranks.

A Brigade Order following the events of April and May 1915 stated that both Battalions had shown “resourcefulness, devotion to duty, cool temerity and endurance” and both were subsequently awarded Battle Honours for Hill 60.

Hill 60 was to witness further death and destruction in August 1915, August to October 1916 and again in 1917 and it was not until late 1918 that the Germans were finally ejected and countless Allied and Germans lost their lives there.

 History is said to repeat itself; twenty three years later, in May 1940, Hill 60 again saw the same armies fight for its occupation.

 


[1] CSM Ernest Sheppard, “A Sergeant Major’s War”.

[2] Military Operations 1915