Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Two Heroes of Hill 60

Two Victoria Crosses were awarded for distinguished service in the famous struggle for Hill 60. The gallant soldiers who received them were Second-Lieutenant Geoffrey Harold Woolley and Lance-Corporal Edward Dwyer. In order to appreciate their heroic exploits it is necessary first to describe the events leading up to them.

Sir John French has described the fight for Hill 60 as "the fiercest fight in which British troops have ever been engaged." The hill in question was an eminence south-east of Ypres, the possession of which was essential to the British, for it dominated the surrounding country. As long as the Germans held it, this commanding hill afforded them excellent artillery observation toward the west and north-west. For months our men had been preparing to mine it. After much hard work the sapping was complete, the mines laid, and one hundred tons of explosives placed in position.

Saturday, April 17, 1915, was the appointed day for the great event. The explosion was timed for seven o'clock in the evening, and, according to programme, up went the hill—Germans and all. It was like an earthquake. Simultaneously our artillery opened on the spot and poured in shells at the rate of five a minute. At a quarter past seven the infantry attack was launched, and our men were in possession of the ruins. This brilliant mining operation was planned by Major-General Bulfin, and the troops were commanded by Lieutenant-General Fergusson. The regiments employed were the 1st Battalion, Royal West Keats, and the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers. The attack was well supported by the Divisional Artillery, assisted by French and Belgian batteries.

Then came the second phase—the holding of Hill 60, which was the hardest task of all. It is said that our troops could hear for hours the steady beat of men marching—the German reinforcements were arriving. They came to the assault in their thousands, but as fast as they came our rifle and gun-fire mowed them down.

At dawn next day they renewed their counter-attack, thousands of them surging against the British defences, throwing bombs and hand-grenades. How the fight swayed, how the enemy succeeded in regaining part of the lost ground, only to be turned out of their trenches by the Highlanders with the bayonet—these are now matters of history.

During the next few days the Germans continued to attack fiercely, so much importance did they attach to the position.

A private in the East Surreys, writing in The Evening News, gave the following vivid word-picture of the battle:

"The fight on Hill 60 was awful. The Germans used every kind of explosive, from small bombs to shells that shook the ground like an earthquake.

"This went on from four o'clock in the afternoon to about four the next morning. Every German gun for miles around was trained on that hill.

"Some of the German shells were filled with a stinking acid, which blinded one. I would rather take my chance in half-a-dozen bayonet charges than face such an awful bombardment again. The enemy charged four times, but we beat them back each time, and kept the hill until we were relieved next morning."

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Special interest attaches to Lieutenant Geoffrey Harold Woolley, for he was the first Territorial officer to win the V.C.

The youngest son of Rev. G. H. Woolley, Old Riffhams, Danbury, Essex, he was educated at St John's School, Leatherhead, and Queen's College, Oxford. While at the University he joined the Officers' Training Corps. He studied for Holy Orders, and is all but a curate of the Church of England, inasmuch as he was on the eve of being ordained when, at the age of twenty-three, he decided to fight for his country. It is a singular co-incidence that Essex possessed another clerical V.C., for a clergyman of this county won the reward in the Afghan War, where he served as chaplain with the forces.

Lieutenant Woolley has been described as British and unassuming to the core, and a typical specimen of muscular Christianity. He excels at cricket, tennis, and football, and played the greater game of war with all his heart and soul. Notwithstanding his deep religious principles and his connection with a clerical family, this young Briton waived his intentions of entering the Church from a sense of duty to his country.

"My son is a clergyman at heart," said his father. "He never dreamt of being a soldier. But when war broke out he felt that he should throw up everything and go."

Lieutenant Woolley did not join until after the declaration of war. He received his commission in the 9th Battalion London Regiment, popularly known as the Queen Victoria Rifles, after his regiment had been some time in training at Crowborough. With the experience of the Officers' Training Corps to help him, the young lieutenant soon made himself very efficient, and when, in November 1914, the Queen Victoria Rifles embarked at Southampton for the front, he had already become very popular with his men, and shown high promise as a leader. Soon after landing in France the regiment was at the front, near Ypres, where it was usefully employed, chiefly in trench work.

On the very first day that he went into the trenches, Lieutenant Woolley showed his mettle. A hand-grenade was flung into his trench; without a moment's hesitation the young officer picked it up, and before the fuse had burned to the charge, flung it out. His prompt and plucky act saved not only his own life, but the lives of at least six or seven of his men.

Rescue in the trenches


On the night of April 20-21 the Germans made a desperate attack on the trench held by Lieutenant Woolley's regiment. The Queen Victoria Rifles fought with a dogged determination not to be excelled by the most seasoned Regulars. Every German gun for miles around was trained on the hill. Some of the German shells were filled with an evil-smelling acid which blinded the gallant defenders. Again and again the Germans charged with the ferocity of despair.

One by one Lieutenant Woolley's superior officers—a major, captain, and a lieutenant—had been killed.

The force under Lieutenant Woolley numbered at the start 150, including some Regulars. As the German attack grew fiercer, he noted how his little company was being thinned. The gallant young officer did not despair. He was in sole command of Hill 60, and he realized that a hard and terrible time awaited them before relief came, but he summoned up all his courage and made up his mind to hold on at all costs. He went up and down the line calling to his brave men to 'stick it ' and he infused all with his dauntless spirit.

Then came a critical moment.

A particularly fierce onslaught by the Germans had commenced. Guns raked the trench with shells, enemy troops swarmed up, throwing bombs. Lieutenant Woolley moved among his men, giving orders as coolly as if on parade. The already diminished band of heroes dwindled more and more. Lieutenant Woolley knew that the situation was perilous, but he had no thought of giving in. The knowledge that so much depended upon him stirred his blood, and called forth every ounce of his British fighting spirit and powers of leadership.

He organized counter-attacks and led his men in throwing bombs at the vastly superior force of the enemy. Standing on the parapet of the trench, fully exposed to the enemy, Woolley hurled bomb after bomb. His men urged him to seek shelter, but he refused. For some time this amazing contest continued, a handful of British against thousands of Germans. But this little band of heroes by their superb bravery, led by a hero, kept the enemy at bay. When welcome relief eventually came, the company of 150 men had been thinned to 20—14 Territorials and 6 Regulars, a pathetic proof of the dauntless fight put up by our men.

Congratulations were heaped upon the brave young Territorial officer by his comrades as well as by his superior officers. "Without a doubt he saved Hill 60," one of them remarked.

He had indeed acquitted himself nobly and the price was now to be paid, for the hero had to lie up in hospital, suffering from a nervous breakdown as the result of his terrible ordeal.

When the news that Lieutenant Woolley had been awarded the V.C. became known, there was a remarkable outburst of enthusiasm, especially among the Territorials, who were naturally proud that one of their number had received the prized distinction. In particular, there was great joy at the headquarters of the Queen Victoria Rifles. At Danbury, where his home was, a beautiful village eight miles from Chelmsford, were stationed some 6000 Territorials. "We would like," said one of them, "to carry Lieutenant Woolley shoulder-high from Chelmsford Station to his father's house at Old Riffhams, up all the winding hill paths, for the whole eight miles, with the band playing 'The Conquering Hero.'"

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The second hero of Hill 60 is one of the most popular V.C.s of the war. He is Lance-Corporal Edward Dwyer, of the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment, who at the time was the youngest soldier to obtain the prized decoration, being only eighteen years of age.

This boy hero took the public imagination by storm, and with the possible exception of Sergeant O'Leary, no V.C. was more noticed on his return to England. He received enough hero-worship to last a life-time. When home on leave Dwyer was bombarded by the attentions of admirers, kissed by women in the streets, and, as he confessed, subjected to greater trials than on the bomb-swept slopes of Hill 60.

There was something romantic about the slim boy of eighteen who proved himself so heroic in the field, and his handsome appearance and jolly ways captivated every one. As his father confessed, with no little humour, "They're making such a fuss that Ted wants to get back to the battle-field for a rest."

Lance-Corporal Dwyer is a native of Fulham, where his parents live at Lintaine Grove. He is still remembered at St. Thomas's School as a lad of sunny disposition and high character.

Before enlisting Dwyer was a greengrocer's assistant. He used to show remarkable diligence in his work, and customers liked to be served by the methodical, yet smart, young fellow with the pleasant smile.

"Fancy that!" said one who recalled Dwyer in those days, on being told of his gallant deed. "But I always knew the young chap would do something, he seemed to have it in him."

After joining the East Surreys, Dwyer showed the industry that had marked his conduct at school and in business. His officers were quick to note his aptitude for soldiering, and all his chums were impressed by the serious way in which he applied himself to his work.

Dwyer had been fighting in France for nine months when the struggle at Hill 60 provided his great opportunity.

We have already described how the mines were successfully fired and the hill attacked and gained without difficulty.

During the night of the great assault, April 17-18, several of the enemy's counter-attacks were repulsed with heavy loss, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place. On the morning of the 19th the enemy succeeded in forcing back the troops holding the right of the hill to the reverse slope, where they hung on throughout the day. On the evening of the 19th the hill was again stormed by our men, and the enemy driven off by the bayonet.

Then came the 20th, when unsuccessful attacks were made on our positions by the Germans.

During a particularly fierce attack Lance-Corporal Dwyer was in a trench on the side of Hill 60, about fifteen yards distant from where the Germans had entrenched themselves. So close were they, in fact, that Dwyer says he could actually hear them "talking their lingo." His section had suffered severely, and Dwyer risked his life by tending many of them as best he could. Some he brought from the open to the side of the trench, leaving the comparative safety of his position in order to save their lives.

Then, later on, he heard some one call out: "The Germans are coming!"

He looked through a spy-hole in the parapet and saw a number of the enemy creeping silently and stealthily across the intervening space between the trenches.

Like the methodical soldier he is, Dwyer had kept a number of hand-grenades, some fifty, all ready to fire.

Thus provided, he gallantly sprang on to the parapet of the trench. The Germans were creeping forward, thinking to surprise the British, but they had reckoned without Lance-Corporal Dwyer. He stood fully exposed to their fire, and threw his deadly missiles steadily and with excellent effect. For five minutes this eighteen-year-old hero stood all alone hurling grenade after grenade at the oncoming foe.

The Germans, led by an officer, showed great stubbornness. Had they known that a lad of eighteen alone was guarding the trench, they would have doubtless redoubled their efforts to capture it.

As cool as if on parade, young Dwyer kept throwing his grenades. He had now sent twenty into the ranks of the enemy; now he had used up thirty. At this juncture the officer leading the Germans was hit, and this loss seemed to damp the ardour of the attackers.

Dwyer, however, began to show the first signs of uneasiness. His stock of grenades was fast running out. He had only half a dozen left, soon these had each found a target. Then in the nick of time reinforcements arrived, and the trench was saved. Dwyer alone had saved the situation. How many Germans he killed he does not know. But he remarked, "I didn't see one go back."

A week later he was in the trenches with his battalion, and the shelling of the enemy had become very fierce. It was the expiring effort of the Germans to recover Hill 60, and during this attack Dwyer was hit on the head. When he was well enough to make the journey home, he went to Buckingham Palace. His Majesty," said Dwyer, "smiled and came forward to me, then shook me by the hand. 'I'm very glad to meet you,' he said, very quietly. 'You are extremely lucky to have escaped after so daring and plucky an act. I congratulate you on being the youngest V.C. in the Army, and wish you the best of health and all good fortune, with a safe return after the war.' The King then pinned the cross on my breast. He could not have been nicer to me, I'm sure. He was charming, and I wasn't the least bit afraid."