Beneath Hill 60: Inside the circles of hell

There is a scene in the excellent Australian film “Beneath Hill 60” where two German soldiers are talking about the consequences after they realise the enemy is about to blow their position sky high.
“Why don’t we just move back,” said one, reasonably. “After all Europe is a big place, one hill is not going to make any difference.”
The other is mortally offended.
“Our High Command would never consider it. The place is filled with German blood. You simply don’t understand war,” he concluded imperiously.

Understanding war is difficult, particularly one as nasty, brutish and long as the First World War. The drab Hill 60 (too anonymous for a name) was a senseless battlefield that changed hands several times during the war. One of those times was during the 1917 Battle of Messines near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. Based on the diaries of Captain Oliver Woodward, David Roach’s screenplay tells the stories of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company a group of miners and engineers cobbled together to dig passages under enemy lines. Woodward was a Queensland miner brought in specially for the task. The plan at Messines was to lay 21 mines with almost 500 tonnes of ammonal explosives underneath German lines deep in the blue clay 25 metres below the soggy upper-level soil.The plan was the brainchild of Viscount Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer. Despite the blimp-like name, Plumer was one of the finest army commanders on the Western Front. He had an infantry background and was not addicted to the grand but futile charges beloved of many of his peers.

The idea for tunnels came from the Germans. When trench warfare was deadlocked in 1915 German engineers realised the possibilities of literally undermining British morale by building tunnels under their lines and detonating large charges of explosives. The British retaliated and began a rapid recruitment program of English and Welsh miners. The mine owners objected and the net was cast further wide to Canada and Australia.

For almost 12 months before the Messines battle, Plumer organised the digging of the mines to be detonated prior to a ground assault. The evening before the attack, he told his staff, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

Nineteen of the 21 mines exploded and according to the British newspapers, Londoners were startled out of their sleep at 3.10am by the sound of the explosion. German defences were shattered and their high ground defence disappeared in an instance. The British advanced a few miles but poor condition in the shell-torn terrain prevented them from following up the advantage.

Hill 60 was just another death-ridden pointless postscript to an endless war of attrition that destroyed a generation of young men. As foreshadowed by the American Civil War 50 years earlier, industrialised nations fighting with technologically advanced, mass-produced weapons enabled killing and wounding on an unprecedented scale. Twenty million people died and 20 million more were injured. The callous lack of regard for life led to the other war to end all wars 20 years later.

Jeremy Sims’ film Beneath Hill 60 gives us a window into that world. It is a below-basement level window and the claustrophobia of the Australian tunnellers is deftly handled. Though set in the warmer months leading to June 1917, the weather is invariably cruel, wet and miserable. It is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sims takes us under the dull roots of the waste land to confront a human-engineered hell. The story contrasts spring fertility with the black and muddy stench of death. The Australian flashback scenes invert the seasons as well as tone of the film. But as the only Australian scene in the film that is not a flashback shows, there is little redemption for those who have visited the circles of hell under Hill 60; the best anyone can hope for is a painful and memory-scarred survival.

No wonder so many survivors don’t like talking of their war experiences. War is the antithesis of life.


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