The actions of the First Battle of Ypres left the slopes Hill 60 defended by the French XVI Corps and the German 39th Division occupying the summit of the hill, which provided them with a great advantage only 4.5 km from the center of Ypres. The British 28th Division took over the sector from the French in February, followed by the 5th Division in April.
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Summary: During the Second Battle of Ypres, at 19:05 on 17 April, explosives were fired and the hill erupted in a shower of debris and German bodies. Rushing forward under the cover of an artillery barrage, the men of the Royal West Kent Regiment, 2nd Kings Own Scottish Borders, and 1/9th Battalion County of London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) quickly occupied the still-smoking craters after bayoneting most of the survivors of the German Infantry Regiment Nr 172; only twenty prisoners were taken. Then the real fight began. The Germans refused to forfeit the hill, and within hours they launched the first of many counterattacks. By morning they won a section along the railway cutting, only to be evicted that night. Artillery pulverized the already smashed dugouts and trenches, while machine guns fired into British positions from both flanks as the hill now presented a salient into the German line.
The British presented a heroic defense, repulsing attack after attack with bombs and bayonets while attempting to improve their positions. Reinforcing battalions were summoned to occupy trenches filled with the dead and dying. Particularly heavy fighting occurred on the night of 20/21 April, when artillery barrages alternated with grenade attacks. Testimony to the intensity of the battle is given by the award of four Victoria Crosses for actions on that day, three of them to two officers and a private of the East Surrey Regiment. On 5 May, with British dead totaling almost 2,000, the hill finally fell to the Germans after a huge bombardment followed by an infantry assault that may have also utilized gas. Further British efforts to regain the hill were repulsed by fire from the nearby Caterpillar position, which was across the railway cut from Hill 60.
Tunneling and counter-tunneling efforts continued through 1915, with deeper shafts being bored under the hill. The Germans held the hill until the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917, when enormous explosions rocked Hill 60 and the nearby Caterpillar Crater, killing 687 defenders of the German 204th Division. The 11th Battalion West Yorkshires quickly occupied the hill, suffering only seven casualties. As with much of the ground in the salient — except the city of Ypres — Hill 60 changed hands twice during the German advance and retreat of 1918.
The ridge line that runs from Passendale to Messines is bisected by the Ypres-Comines rail line near where the ridge changes direction south of Zillebeke . Nineteenth century engineers cut through the ridge, moving the spoil to a nearby site and thus creating an artificial mound that was only 60 meters in height, but still was a mountain relative to Ypres’ flat terrain. Hill 60 has remained essentially unchanged since the great explosion and engagements of 1915. Whereas not officially a cemetery, most of the German and British soldiers killed remain buried beneath its grassy slopes. Today the small 110-meter by 230-meter hillock is rich in memorials and ruins of defensive positions scattered among the numerous craters . (50.823675, 2.929992)
A huge stone block memorial to the British 14th Light Division was relocated from Railway Wood, north of Hill 60, due to subsiding ground. The division was formed from volunteers after the start of the war and saw its first action during the Second Battle of Ypres in Railway Wood. (50.824001, 2.928124)
British Headquarters was anxious to reclaim the hill, and after traditional infantry attacks failed, they imported professional miners to dig tunnels from their lines to the German positions. After great hardship and with a constant fear of collapse, the tunnels were forked into five branches and packed with explosives. The 1st Australian Tunneling Company Memorial commemorates the Australians who assumed responsibility from their British and Canadian predecessors for the digging operations in November 1916 until the detonations of the battle of Messines in June 1917. The plaque still shows bullet holes from the Second World War. (50.824187, 2.92822)
The Queen Victoria Rifles participated in the initial April 1915 assault when 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey H. Woolley earned a Victoria Cross. Slightly below the memorial are the ruins of a concrete machine gun emplacement. (50.824158, 2.929812)
Originally constructed by the Germans, a relatively complete pillbox shows British modifications — as would be expected on a site that changed hands so frequently. Scattered over the hillside are the ruins of several other fortifications, including a bunker with a barely discernable entrance. (50.823596, 2.930404)
A small memorial stone remembers French Resistance Fighters, who were captured near Lille in 1944 and taken aboard a train bound for Belgium. Their bodies were later found trackside near this memorial. (50.823992, 2.927758)
Water-filled Caterpillar Crater was formed by the second of the 7 June 1917 explosions. The name comes from the shape of the wooded area before the explosion. The surrounding forest hides other small pillboxes and observation posts. (50.822395, 2.928738)
Railway Cutting Cemetery was begun in April 1915 at the North-end of a small plantation of larches, thus its alternate name, Larch Wood Cemetery. It was used by troops holding this sector, particularly the 46th (North Midland) Division and the 1st Dorsets, until April 1918. It was enlarged after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the battlefields of Ypres and from smaller cemeteries. The cemetery contains 856 burials, 37 percent of which are unidentified. There are memorials to 82 burials that were known to be in the cemetery, but were lost during subsequent fighting. A cemetery with a similar name is located south of Arras. (50.828107, 2.923061)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium