7:00pm on the night of the 17th April 1915. You’re standing ready in your trench waiting for the signal to go. The minutes tick by, surrounded by your comrades until 7:05… You don’t see it but you hear it, a massive explosion, as over 7,000 pounds of explosive are detonated under the German trench line.
Tonight, you’re taking Hill 60 in the Battle of Ypres.
The battle for Ypres had already been raging for many months by this point with little sign of progress on either side. Just south of the Belgian town of Ypres, the embankments and diggings of the Ypres-Comines Railway line had created an artificial hill; Hill 60 from where German observers could see towards Ypres itself and the small village of Zillebeke, and had free reign over the British and Allied positions there.
The German observers had to be removed, the hill had to be taken and the 13th Brigade of the UK’s 5th Infantry Division would have the honour.
The attack would mark the first British use of Tunnelling forces to plant mines under the German position. The mines would precede the infantry attack by 13th Brigade.
And so at 7:05 the mines were detonated and the German garrison on Hill 60; Saxon Infantry Regiment 105 was devastated by the blast and the survivors were overwhelmed by the British attack.
The Brigade dug-in and prepared for the inevitable German counter-attack and Artillery bombardment which arrived at 4:00am on the 18th April. 3 separate counter attacks began and were repelled by the British garrison, taking severe losses. To dig the British out, the Germans dropped High Explosive artillery on them and gas shells as well as intense Machine Gun fire and eventually the Tommies were forced to retreat. But this would not be the last action that day.
At 6:00pm the British counter attacked and re-took the hill fending off the Germans yet again. At dawn on the 19th most of the battered 13th were relieved by the 15th Brigade, but elements remained such as the 1/9th Battalion of the London Regiment – The Queen Victoria’s Rifles who reinforced the 15th Brigade on the 20th April.
The brutal German bombardment continued and the Queen Victoria Rifles were attacked by German bombing parties that inflicted serious casualties including two of the unit’s senior officers. It was here that Lieutenant Geoffrey Harold Woolley inspired a spirited defence by the 40 men of the QVR who had survived. Lieutenant Woolley left a position of safety to urge his comrades on, telling them reinforcements were coming and to keep fighting, throwing bombs and grenades back at the attacking Germans.
The troops of the 13th and 15th Brigades, held on as the opening engagements of the battle ended on 22 April. British attention switched elsewhere as the French were caught by the first German gas attack on the Ypres salient.
Lieutenant Woolley, for his actions on the 20th would be awarded the Victoria Cross. Sadly many of his comrades did not survive, by the 22nd April nearly 1500 men of the 13th Brigade had been killed and a further 1500 of the 15th brigade would be lost at the resumption of the battle in the first week of May. The hill would eventually be recaptured on 5th May by the Germans, further reinforcing the perception of wasted effort during the First World War.
Forces War Records has many records of soldiers from this battle and you can extrapolate even more by cross-checking dates of death and units with actions on particular days. For instance, we know that the 1/9th Battalion of the London Regiment, the QVR were present at Hill 60 on the dates of this battle so it is very likely that soldiers listed from this regiment as killed on these dates fought in this battle.
Check out the record for Lieutenant Geoffrey Harold Woolley we have in our database. He would go on to be promoted to Captain, be mentioned in dispatches twice and be awarded the Military Cross. He sadly passed away on 10th December 1968.
This is what Genealogy is all about, finding the little bits of information that by themselves don’t mean much, but by bringing them together you can uncover so much more!
Don’t forget to have a look at the unit war diaries being digitsed and provided by the National Archives. They are another invaluable source you can use to trace what your military ancestors did during the First World War: