Posted by: michaeldaybath | May 5, 2015

The Dorsets at Hill 60

The Dorsetshire Regiment at Hill 60, May 1915

Hill 60 from Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen

View of Hill 60, from Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) Cemetery, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen

Hill 60 is an artificial hill south east of Ypres (Ieper) near Zwarteleen, constructed from spoil displaced from the construction of the railway line to Comines. While of relatively modest height, the hill was of great strategic importance in the battles around the Ypres Salient during the First World War. Hill 60 had a particularly grim reputation, especially during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915, when it was the subject of major mining operations and when poison gas was used in at least two German attacks in early May.

The war diary of the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment for the 1st May 1915 records the beginning of the first attack:

7:15 pm | Enemy turned on asphyxiating gas from 3 nozzles in front of 38 trench and from 2 in front of 43 to 45 trenches. And also probably from others in front of 60 [1].

This was not the first use of chemical weapons on the western front, as there had been devastating attacks on French and Canadian positions north of Ypres on the 22nd April. The gas used at the time was chlorine released from pressurised cylinders, which was extremely potent (although unpredictable), while countermeasures at that stage of the war remained crude.

By April 1915, the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment had been on the western front for around eight months. In late April, they had moved to Zillebeke, and then took over support positions near Larch Wood, west of Hill 60. On the 30th April, ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies took over front line trenches on the hill itself. In the evening of the 1st May, the Dorsets were suddenly confronted by the latest horror weapon. Company Sergeant Major Ernest Shephard described its effects in his diary [2]:

First we saw a thick smoke curling over in waves from enemy trenches on the left. The cry was sent up that this was gas fumes. The scene that followed was heart-breaking. Men were caught by fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting, rolling on the ground in agony.

Name of Captain Robert Vaughan Kestell-Cornish, MC and Bar, on the Fairford War Memorial, Gloucestershire

The name of Captain Robert Vaughan Kestell-Cornish, MC and Bar, on the Fairford War Memorial, Gloucestershire

With so many men incapacitated or dying, reinforcements were sent forward, while Major Hugh Norman Ramsay Cowie, the Dorsets’ C.O., moved up to the front line. The young subaltern in charge of Trench 60, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Vaughan Kestell-Cornish, found himself in a desperate position. In their account of the Dorsets at Hill 60, Spagnoly and Smith elaborate:

All officers were down and all but four of his men incapacitated from the initial effect of the gas with an imminent rush from the enemy expected. Then, in response to the situation pending a remarkably instinctive and courageous action took place. Using a piece of rifle flannelette soaked in water as a protection against the overwhelming fumes, this gallant young subaltern accompanied by his four good men, seized rifles, jumped onto the parapet and opened fire into the cloud of poisonous gas billowing across their sector.

The position was successfully reinforced, and Captain Algernon Lee Ransome (the adjutant) considered Kestell-Cornish’s actions to have saved the day. Major Cowie conferred on 2nd Lieutenant Kestell-Cornish an Military Cross ‘in the field’, which was later confirmed in the usual way. The citation read [4]:

Lieutenant Robert Vaughan Kestell-Cornish, 3rd Battalion (attached 1st Battalion), The Dorsetshire Regiment.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the night of 1st May, 1915, on “Hill 60.” When most of the Officers, Non-commissioned Officers and men had been asphyxiated, and he himself was suffering from the effects of gas, he rallied the few men who remained fit and held the hill until reinforcements arrived.

Grave of 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Charles Roberts, in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Nord

The grave of 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Charles Roberts, in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Nord, France

Kestell-Cornish’s exploits aside, the aftermath of the attack was devastating. C.S.M. Shephard described it as “the bitterest Sunday I have known or ever wish to know” [5]. The worst hit company lost well over a hundred men. The vast majority were the victims of gas poisoning, which at that stage of the war was simply seen as ‘barbaric.’ 2nd Lieutenant Henry Grove Morton Mansel-Pleydell of ‘A’ Company wrote to his mother that he was absolutely sickened, “Clean killing is at least comprehensive, but this murder by slow agony absolutely knocks me.” [6]. According to the regimental history, the casualties included 2nd Lieutenant Butcher and 52 other ranks dead; 32 other ranks missing, and around two hundred men admitted to the field ambulance [7]. Many of these died later, including 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Charles Roberts of Dorchester, who is buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery [8]. Also amongst the dead was Private Will Sanders, a bellringer at Shipton Gorge in West Dorset, whose name is carved on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

The scenario was to be repeated a few days later. By the 5th May, the Dorsets had been relieved in the front line trenches by the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. That morning, the Germans attacked with gas again, and the Wellingtons were badly hit. The remnants of the 1st Dorsets found themselves again having to go to the rescue. Captain Ransome later wrote [9]:

Hill 60, on the 1st May; 1915, was the Dorsets’ battle; the whole weight of the gas attack fell upon them; and they did not fail. In spite of their experiences on that day they did not hesitate for a moment when, five days later, they saw another unit, demoralised by gas fumes, streaming away to the rear. They faced again the forbidden weapon in the full knowledge of what its effects could be, either a painful death or severe illness with possible lasting after-effects. Led by four gallant officers – Lilly, Shannon, Mansel-Pleydell and Clayton – they went forward through the gas cloud to their old positions on the hill and remained at grips with the Germans throughout that long day, shelled sometimes by their own artillery and facing an enemy flushed with success and armed with hand grenades, so important in trench fighting, which were superior to their own. They held all their gains until relieved at night.

War Memorial Cross at Winterborne Whitechurch

The war memorial cross at Winterborne Whitechurch, Dorset, featuring the names of Henry Grove Morton Mansel-Pleydell, M.C. and his older brother, who had died earlier in 1915 at Kemmel

Awarded an Military Cross for his action on the 5th was 2nd Lieutenant Mansel-Pleydell of ‘A’ Company. After the company commander (Captain Lilly) was wounded, Mansel-Pleydell – himself wounded – took charge, as his MC citation states [10]:

Second Lieutenant Henry Grove Morton Mansel-Pleydell, 3rd (attached 1st) Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment.
Showed gallantry and ability on “Hill 60,” near Ypres, on 5th May 1915. Although wounded early in the attack, he commanded his platoon in the trenches (which had been vacated by the unit holding them in the morning) with great skill and coolness, and later took charge of the whole of his company after his Captain had been wounded.
It was largely due to him that a considerable length of trench, which had been occupied by the enemy, was gradually regained.

Grave of Lieutenant George Strangman Shannon, Larch Wood (Railway Cuttings) Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen

The grave of Lieutenant George Strangman Shannon, Larch Wood (Railway Cuttings) Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen

Despite these heroics, C.S.M. Shepherd described the 5th May as “another bitter day for the Dorset Regt.” (p. 42). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records twenty-four members of the regiment that died on that day, the names of twenty-one of whom appear on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Amongst the officer casualties that day was 2nd Lieutenant George Strangman Shannon, who was killed when the Dorsets, together with the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, were engaged in clearing trenches with grenades. Before the war, Shannon had been a mathematics master at Winchester House School in Deal and was evidently a fine sportsman, playing cricket, football and golf. He had previously been Mentioned in Dispatches, then awarded the Military Cross in February 1915 [11].

The names of the Dorsets that died as a consequence of these attacks at Hill 60 lie on war memorials all around Dorset and elsewhere. I have come across a fair few in my travels around Dorset, including at Beaminster (Paull, Pomeroy), Briantspuddle (Lucas), Glanvilles Wootton (Paulley), Hooke (Lemon), Winterborne Kingston (Jeans), and Wool (Bowering). Most of these names feature on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, although other Hill 60 casualties are buried in CWGC cemeteries in the Ypres area (including a group in Transport Farm Annexe Mem. 13. at Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke) as well as further afield in Reninghelst, Bailleul, Hazebrouck and Boulogne.

Lyme Regis War Memorial, Dorset

The war memorial in St Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis, which features the name of 2nd Lieutenant E. A. Shepherd

Many of those that survived the attacks at Hill 60 did not outlive the war. Major Cowie was wounded by shellfire early on the 5th May 1915, and died on the 20th, being buried in the churchyard at West Woodhay (Berkshire) and commemorated on the war memorial at Bagshot (Surrey). Lieutenant Henry Mansel-Pleydell became the battalion’s Intelligence Officer, but died in strange circumstances with two other members of the 1st Battalion near Thiepval in May 1916, and is buried in Miraumont Communal Cemetery (Somme) [12]. Henry and his older brother Edmund are both commemorated on the war memorial at Winterborne Whitechurch (Dorset), where they were the sons of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Morton Mansel-Pleydell (12th Lancers) and Emily Kathleen Grove of Whatcombe House. Ernest Shephard was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in November 1916, but died, aged 24, on the 11th January 1917 and is buried in the A.I.F. Burial Ground at Flers (Somme). Shephard’s name is listed on both war memorials in Lyme Regis, his home town. Robert Vaughan Kestell-Cornish went on to be awarded the Military Cross a second time, then became a staff officer (G.S.O.3 of 32 Division), but he died-of-wounds on 17th June 1918. He is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (Pas-de-Calais) and commemorated on the war memorial at Fairford (Gloucestershire) [13]. By contrast, Captain Ransome became C.O. of the 7th Battalion, Royal East Kent Regiment and survived the war. He remained in the army, eventually becoming a divisional commander in the late 1930s. After the Second World War, Ransome lived in Braishfield (Hampshire) and died in 1969.

Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing

Panel from the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing, featuring the name of Private Will Sanders and others of the Dorsetshire Regiment that died at Hill 60

A service of remembrance for those that died at Hill 60 was held at St. Martin’s Church in Shipton Gorge (Dorset) on the 2nd May 2015.

Remembering Will Sanders, a peal was also rung at the church where he had been a member of the bellringing team:

Dorset County Association
Shipton Gorge, Dorset
St Martin
Friday, 1 May 2015 in 2h 41mins (4-3-24)
5040 Surprise Minor (7 Methods)
One extent each of London, York, Beverley, Norwich, Bourne, Ipswich and Cambridge.
1. Michael Hatchett
2. Lesley A Knipe
3. Robert D S Brown
4. Thomas R Garrett
5. Jeffrey Knipe
6. Timothy F Collins (C)
Rung to mark the 100th anniversary of the gas attack at Hill 60, Ypres. As a result of this, Private Alexander William (Will) Sanders, a bellringer at Shipton Gorge, lost his life (May 2nd., 1915.)

References

[1] War Diary, 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment. The National Archives, WO/1572/2.

[2] Ernest Shephard, From Hill 60 to the Somme, ed. Bruce Rossor (Ramsbury: Crowood Press, 1987), p. 40.

[3] Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith, Cameos of the Western Front: Salient Points Three: Ypres and Picardy, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2001) p. 73.

[4] London Gazette, No. 29210, 29 June 1915, p. 6271: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/29210/page/6271

[5] Shephard, op. cit., p. 40

[6] H. G. M. Mansel-Pleydell, cited in Spagnoly and Smith, p. 76.

[7] History of the Dorsetshire Regiment, 1914-1919 (Dorchester: Henry Ling; London: Simpkin Marshall, 1932), p. 66; cited in Nigel Cave, Battleground Europe: Hill 60 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1998), p. 52.

[8] John Henry Charles Roberts was born at Parandhur, India in 1878. His father later became superintendent of the Royal Artillery Hospital in Dorchester. John joined the 2nd Dorsets and served in the South African War; being commissioned in December 1914. Roberts’s name can also be found on the Dorchester Cenotaph. See: Brian Bates, Dorchester Remembers the Great War (Frampton: Roving Press, 2012), pp. 65-66

[9] W. L. Ransome, cited in Spagnoly and Smith, pp. 84-85.

[10] Edinburgh Gazette, No. 12826, 6 July 1915, p. 975: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/Edinburgh/issue/12826/page/975

[12] London Gazette, Supplement No. 29074, 16 February 1915, p. 1694: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/29074/supplement/1694

[12] The circumstances around the deaths of Captain W. B. Algeo, Lieutenant H. G. M. Mansel-Pleydell and Sergeant W. Goodwillie near Thiepval are described in Ernest Shephard’s diaries (pp. 96-97): “Wednesday 17th May 1916 | A fairly quiet night. I took trench duty from 6.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. A fine day, very hot. A great calamity befell my Company and myself at 10 a.m. The enemy trenches opposite run behind a small wood which we call Diamond Wood. Since we have been in this sector the Intelligence Officer went out 2 days ago and brought some iron plates back belonging to enemy. Yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. in broad daylight Captain Algeo went out from Hammerhead sap and went into the enemy wood smoking his pipe quite cool, returning an hour later. At 10 a.m. this morning, without saying anything, Captain Algeo and Lt Mansell-Pleydell (The Intelligence Officer) went out from the sap. They were seen crossing ‘No Man’s Land’ between sap and wood. When nearly up to edge of wood M-P was seen to beckon, and he and Captain ran into wood. There was a scuffle and Captain Algeo was heard shouting ‘Hands up, hands up, put it down.’ A volley of rifle fire and revolver shots followed, a scream, silence. I heard the commotion and ran up to sap. On finding out the cause I decided it was madness to attempt a rescue party as the enemy would be waiting under cover of the wood, with every advantage. I ordered extra sentries up, and no firing except at enemy plainly seen. (I thought there was a chance that they had been wounded or situated in a position where they could not move.) I ran to Bn HQ and reported, also asked that our artillery should be warned not to fire on the area. The CO was very upset, and gave me permission to send a man to reconnoitre to see if any signs of them. He also ordered me not to go myself on any account, although I wished to do so. I returned to sap and Sgt Goodwillie (the Pioneer Sgt and very well liked by Captain) was given permission to go out, and Sgt Rogers to follow a little way behind. They went out through valley on left of sap, and entered wood safely. A lot of revolver shooting took place, and after ½ hour Rogers returned alone to say he had lost Goodwillie, as he pushed on too quickly. Rogers heard a lot of jabbering and shooting, could see no sign of the Captain, M-P or Goodwillie, so he returned. The CO had meanwhile come up and he ordered that no one should be allowed in ‘No Man’s Land’ for further reconnoitring. We kept a sharp lookout all day and at dusk sent out a patrol who reported that the enemy were working on forward edge of wood. Realised no more could be done, only thing to hope is that they were taken prisoner, and not killed, although I fear the latter, as they were not the sort to give in. The loss of my gallant Captain to the Battalion, my Company, and myself cannot be estimated. He was the bravest officer I have met, first and last thought was for the good and honour of the Bn, his Coy and his men.” All three men were buried in Miraumont Communal Cemetery (Somme).

[13] R. V. Kestell-Cornish came from a family with a long clerical pedigree. His grandfather, Robert Kestell-Cornish was the first Bishop of Madagascar. His mother Lucy was a member of the Keble family, her great uncle being John Keble, the well-known poet and ecclesiastic.

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Responses

  1. […] [6] The Dorsetshire Regiment at Hill 60, May 1915. Opusculum, 5 May 2014: https://opusculum.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/dorsets-at-hill-60/ […]

  2. […] [2] “The Dorsetshire Regiment at Hill 60, May 1915,” Opusculum, 5 May 2015: https://opusculum.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/dorsets-at-hill-60/ […]

  3. […] mostly as a Company Sergeant Major (CSM). CSM Shephard was with the 1st Battalion when the Dorsets were attacked with gas at Hill 60 in May 1915 as well as on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Shephard’s diary, […]


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