The battlefield area of Hill 60 just to the southwest of Ypres will always be one of my must-see areas whenever I am guiding someone around the Salient. There are, in my mind, few places left around Ypres that match the description given by the late great Richard Holmes of the battlefield being “a strip of murdered Nature.”
What makes Hill 60 so special is it’s such a compact area, with the main fighting in April 1915 taking place on a patch of land only a little larger than Trafalgar Square in London. But, it was on this hilltop, that a remarkable 4 VCs were won, 3 by men of the 1st East Surrey’s (Private Edward Dwyer, Lt. George Roupell, and 2nd Lt. Benjamin Geary) and one by a man from the 9th London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles). The London Regiment VC, won by 2nd Lt. Harold Woolley, was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a member of a Territorial Battalion during the Great War. In a mark of how severe the fighting was in this small area, the 1st East Surrey’s won their three VCs in the space of just 48 hours.
Hill 60 sits to the southeast of Ypres and was once a lover’s lane, where young couples take an afternoon sojourn and enjoy peace and privacy. The landscape was entirely man-made from spoil made during the cutting of the Ypres-Comines railway. The spoil created a “hill” that stood approximately 60ft above sea level, hence the name as it appeared on maps. The remaining spoil was dumped in two locations, one called the Caterpiller, due to its shape, and the third spoil pile an ugly pimple on the landscape known simply as The Dump.
The area around Hill 60 had been taken by the Germans from the French in 1914 and provided an unparalleled view back toward Ypres. The Germans appreciated the tactical significance of the hill and were determined to keep hold of it at all costs. Equally, the British too wanted to take control, and the scene was set for the fighting of 1915.
You can hear all about the VC winners in the podcast, but of all of them, it’s Edward Dwyer that really stands out to me. Dwyer was born in Fulham, West London, on the 25th of November 1895. He worked as a greengrocer in London before deciding that he wanted some adventure in his life and joined the Army at the age of 16. He served with the battalion from the start of the war and was 19 when we performed the act that won him his VC. His VC was presented to him by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 15th of June 1915, and during a period of leave, Dwyer entrusted his medal to Canon Brown of the Catholic church in Holloway, who kept hold of the medal.
In 1916, Dwyer was recorded talking about his time in the military, pay, leave, and conditions at the front, and this recording is in itself a remarkable thing, being the only recording made of a serving soldier during the Great War. You can listen to the recording by clicking on the link below:
Edward Dwyer was to lose his life on the Somme in 1916 and lies buried in Flatiron Copse.
The heroic struggle of the four battalions of infantry to capture Hill 60 was in vain as the hill was captured by the Germans shortly after the fighting of the 21st, and was to remain in their hands for a full two years until it was captured as part of the Messines offensive.
It’s a battlefield that still very much bears the scars of the fighting that took place during the Great War, and is a must-see for any trip to the Ypres salient.