Private Alexander William (Will) Sanders) of the 1st Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment, who came from Shipton Gorge near Bridport, was one who lost his life on the Western Front at the infamous Hill 60 near Ypres in Flanders (Belgium). Will died on 2nd May 1915, along with around 150 of his comrades, as a result of the second ever gas attack mounted by the Germans. The memory of Will Sanders and the other Dorsetshire soldiers who perished at Hill 60 was commemorated when his great-niece Barbara Montgomery from Glasgow, accompanied by a group of members of the local branch of the Western Front Association, laid a wreath at Hill 60.
The story of the gas attack starts on 1st May 1915, at which time the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment was holding part of the front line at Hill 60, a large spoil heap from the construction of the nearby cutting for the Ypres-Comines railway line that derived its name from the 60 metre contour line that ran through it. The Regimental History records that 1st May 1915 was a fine sunny day with a very slight south-easterly breeze. The enemy was unusually quiet until around 7.15 p.m. when they opened a severe bombardment of the Hill and the trenches to the right and left, also of the railway cutting in rear. And then, before the sentries could give the alarm, thick white and yellow clouds of gas were shot out of cylinder nozzles from the German trenches opposite.
CSM Ernest Shephard said in his diary entry for 1st May:
“The scene that followed was heartbreaking. Men were caught by 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.”
What followed is described in this graphic extract from John Keegan’s “The First World War” (1998):
“Today the pockmarks and tumuli of this tiny battlezone still exude an atmosphere of morbidity sinister even among the relics of the Western Front. On 1st May, when the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Dorset Regiment clung to the firestep of their trenches as gas seized their throats and the German infantry pounded towards them across no man’s land, the scene must have been as near to hell as this earth can show. The situation was saved by a young officer, Second Lieutenant Kestell-Cornish, who seized a rifle and, with the four men remaining from his platoon of forty, fired into the gas cloud to hold the Germans at bay……The line was held by the Dorsets’ almost inhuman devotion to duty and the Ypres Salient, though pushed back to within two miles of the city, was thereafter never dented.” Robin Kestell-Cornish, an old boy of Sherborne School, was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry but many believed that he should have been awarded a Victoria Cross for his extraordinary courage in this action. In 1917, then serving as a temporary Captain, he was awarded a bar to his MC for marked courage and ability in charge of a working party under heavy fire. His close friend Lieutenant Charles Douie of the Dorsets records how, at Houthulst Forest on 8th March 1918, “in the desolate wastes of the Ypres salient, he fell wounded by the side of his general, and died in June 1918 at Wimereux (Northern France).”
The names of three of the four riflemen who held off the German attack at Hill 60 are known. They were 4346 Private Mullins, 8432 Lance Corporal Sunderland and 8701 Corporal Webb. The identity of the fourth Dorset man will never be known, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it might have been Will Sanders.
Captain Colin Parr MBE, who who was formerly the Curator of the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester and a member of the Dorset & South Wiltshire Branch of the Western Front Association for some years, takes up the story of the visit to Hill 60:
“Sadly, Will Sanders was never recovered from this small but very significant hill and so his name is engraved as one of the missing of the Great War on the magnificent but extremely emotionally inspiring monument, The Menin Gate. This memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and constructed in the late 1920s, marks the historic entrance into the City of Ypres (known to the Tommies as ‘Wipers’) from the Menin Road, a Roman road which intersects the Salient on its way to the town of Menin and which was the scene of bitter fighting for much of the war.
“During the commemoration ceremony at the main German bunker on Hill 60, which marks the limit of exploitation by Allied Troops in the Great War, Barbara Montgomery not only laid her wreath but also planted a poppy cross with her great-uncle’s name written upon it. This act was followed by three other wreath and poppy cross bearers carrying out the same act of commemoration, this time remembering three other Dorsets, firstly Corporal Christopher Thomas King from Wimborne who also succumbed to the gas attack and who had two weeks earlier gone into no-man’s land under intense enemy fire to retrieve the body of his Platoon Commander, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore Wood. Christopher King was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this brave act. Another wreath and cross was laid to Tom (Theodore) Wood and finally a wreath and cross was laid in memory of Private Harry Woods, a young man who had only been with the Battalion for three weeks and was killed on 5th July 1915 along with fifteen of his chums, all of whom had come from the Depot at Dorchester and were manning Trench 38 on Hill 60 when this was hit by an artillery bombardment, killing them all. Such was the shock amongst those who survived this attack that Harry Woods’ remains were gathered in and later that evening interred at Larch Wood Cemetery, a short distance from Hill 60, where a number of Dorsetshire men are buried.”
Later that day the group visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world, where another of Barbara’s great-uncles, Private John Johnston of the Border Regiment, is remembered as one of the missing with no known grave, along with 32,000 others. A further 11,000 are buried at this cemetery, many of whom are unknown, their headstones bearing the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God”. Another of Barbara’s great-uncles, William Morrison, was killed in the failed British attack at Gallipoli. She has a heart-rending letter that William wrote to her great-grandfather – he wanted to get married before he left for the Dardanelles but couldn't get the half day’s leave and then never came back.
After the visit, Barbara said:
“I visited Hill 60 a few hours after I visited the Menin Gate Memorial for the first time and saw my great-uncle’s name on the Dorsetshire Regiment’s panel there. It was a privilege to be the first family member to visit Hill 60 in the 98 years since Will died there, to be able to take part in that act of remembrance, and to reflect on how such a peaceful wooded hillside could have been the scene of such horror. I heard Colin say that several thousand men still lie beneath the hill and wondered if Will might be one of them. Though I understand that the reality was that any grave might later have been shelled and destroyed. I also saw the site of Trench 38 at the foot of Hill 60, where Will would have spent his last days. It is strange to think that today that site is just a grass verge on the side of the road. To have been able to be in the places where Will spent his last days and near the spot where he was killed brings me a little closer to someone I never knew, but would have liked to have known. For me this visit felt like a kind of culmination to several years of family tree research and also to the research of Will’s time in the Dorsets that I have been able to do with help from Ernie Thomas and The Keep Military Museum.
“I listened yesterday to a CD I have called “Far Far from Ypres” (Greentrax Recordings). One of the songs by Dick Gaughan is entitled “Why Old Men Cry”. He wrote two verses about his grandfather which struck a chord with me:
My mother’s father walked these fields some 80 years ago.
He was half the age that I am now, no way that he could know
That his unborn grandchild someday would cross his path this way,
And stand here where his fallen comrades lay.
He’d been dead for half a century by the time that I was born.
The mustard gas which swept the trenches ripped apart his lungs.
Another name and number among millions there who died
And at last I understood why old men cry.”
Originally published in The Bridport News