Film digs up forgotten past of war's Hill 60 tunnellers


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

Australian and Allied soldiers created the largest blast the world had yet seen

THEY made the earth quake; their handiwork was heard and felt across the seas and they crafted a great battlefield victory. Then they faded away and were forgotten. But not for much longer.

The men who tunnelled beneath Hill 60, on the Ypres salient in Belgium, in 1917 and caused the largest man-made explosion the world had seen, are the heroes of a new Australian movie to open on April 15 in time for Anzac Day.

Beneath Hill 60 is a $9.6 million film that came into being because of one man's chance discovery and his subsequent obsessive campaign to overcome years of political and military amnesia to create a lasting legacy for the 4600 men who fought a dirty, dangerous and forgotten war.

Ross Thomas, 57, was an inspector of mines for the Queensland government, based in Charters Towers, in the mid-1980s. During an office reorganisation he stumbled across old files relating to military mining.

"I thought military mining had to do with the extraction of things like copper, which was a vital part of munitions," Thomas says. "I was amazed to learn that men with mining experience were recruited to tunnel under no man's land and blow up the enemy."

Then Thomas hit paydirt. He discovered that the man who flicked the switch to ignite the mines that blew up the Messines Ridge on June 7, 1917, had occupied the office next to his.

Oliver Holmes Woodward had graduated from the Charters Towers School of Mines in 1910. Seven years later, aged 32, he was responsible for setting off the two main mines in the greatest explosion then known to humankind -- 460 tonnes of ammonal explosive in 19 mines that, when set off, were described as "19 gigantic red roses [that] sprang suddenly from the ground". The blast was heard in London and, some say, felt in Dublin. It is estimated up to 10,000 Germans died instantly or in the battle that followed. Thousands were captured as they staggered, dazed, incoherent, unwilling and unable to fight on.

After the blast, 2000 artillery guns opened up and 100,000 Allied men stormed the German lines. The operation was a success: the Germans were pushed back and the Allies captured the high ground overlooking Ypres.

But victory came at a high cost. Australian, Canadian and British miners had been recruited to labour and wage war underground for years in preparation. Conditions were incomprehensibly harsh, as described by Will Davies in the film's companion book, Beneath Hill 60 (Vintage Books): "All along the line, with only a flickering candle for comfort, thousands of men sweated at the chalk walls before them, clawing at the face with bayonets and bare hands, wondering when the next German camouflet [explosive charge] would explode.

"They all knew the results of a blast. They had seen liquid, oozing chalk that ran red, pieces of human flesh clinging to the tunnel walls, perhaps a hand protruding from the white, gluey bottom.

"The men knew death was everywhere, imminent and close, and that there was no way in this deep, black and uncharted hell, their mothers would visit their grave. Dante's inferno was very real and they lived it."

The high cost and relative inefficiency of tunnelling, measured in time and lives, was clearly apparent nine months after the Hill 60 explosions. The Germans re-took the land they lost. Tunnelling, part of military history since medieval times, was abandoned. So were the memories of the men who did it.

Woodward's daughter, Barbara Woodward, 88, who lives in Hawthorn, Melbourne, has a theory about this.

"Most of the men stayed on after the armistice because their engineering skills were needed to rebuild roads and bridges, so not many of them took part in the homecoming parades," she says.

"There was also a low level of recognition of the work they had done. Theirs was a secret war and people had no concept of what tunnellers did. There was also the feeling that mining was not quite right; that is, was not glorious soldiering, with men charging the enemy on horseback, swords drawn. Digging underneath and blowing people up was seen to be a bit unfair, really."

Other factors were at play. Many of the miners were older men, some in their 60s, recruited for their specific skills. They therefore died earlier than younger soldiers. As well, men who returned from the war were encouraged to put the horrors behind them and get on with their lives.

Barbara Woodward remembers little household discussion about her father's role in the war.

"He wrote of his war experiences in 1932 when he was a manager at the Port Pirie smelters," she says. "It was the second of five volumes of his autobiography, which he self-published. There are copies today in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, the Mitchell Library, Sydney, the State Library of Victoria and the Imperial War Museum in London."

Thomas's chance discovery of Oliver Woodward's papers in Charters Towers led him to the Australian War Memorial for more information about the truest diggers of them all.

"They said, `Oh, the tunnellers, they were part of the engineering corps,' as if their work could be dismissed." Thomas says. "I thought: `What an insult', and I vowed to do something about it."

His thirst for information took him to Belgium and Hill 60, where he discovered there was a 1923 monument to the men of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company: all the more poignant for its four bullet holes, courtesy contemptuous German machinegunners of World War II.

Thomas was not satisfied. He wanted an Australian memorial, but no one in Canberra shared his vision. He lobbied politicians, applied for commonwealth grants and talked about the miners at seemingly endless Anzac Day and RSL club functions.

"I wanted recognition at the Australian War Memorial, but when support from Canberra was found to be wanting I pushed for it to be located in my home town of Townsville, where an Army museum is being established," Thomas says. "It was there I learned of Oliver Woodward's diaries and I was able to make contact with Barbara Woodward.

"I was staggered by the diaries and dismayed at the loss of this part of the nation's heritage. I felt that this story must be told and approached a number of film companies and television stations trying to get up a documentary. I couldn't get any interest."

Thomas discovered a British company was planning to make a documentary on the tunnelling and invested $50,000 in the project. When he learned the producers wanted to make the key players British rather than Australian he withdrew, writing off his investment. Eventually he was introduced to filmmaker Bill Leimbach and, with scriptwriter David Roach, produced a documentary treatment. "Then we realised the only was to do proper justice to the story was to turn it into a feature film," he says.

Beneath Hill 60, directed by Jeremy Sims, was shot in Townsville last year and stars Brendan Cowell as Woodward. Young actor Harrison Gilbertson, tipped to have a Hollywood career ahead of him, appears in a key role as Frank Tiffin, a 16-year-old who lied about his age to join up. Alex Thompson and Alan Dukes play Walter and Jim Sneddon, real-life father and son miners from Wallsend, NSW.

Thomas is within sight of his goal. He is well on the way to raising enough funds -- mostly through selling rum in stone jars -- to cover the cost of a $146,000 bronze plaque depicting tunnellers in action. This will be displayed at the Townsville premiere of the film next month and later installed at the new Army museum. But, more importantly from Thomas's perspective, the film will tell the movie-going world of the exploits of the tunnellers.

"Throughout this long process I've felt a great empathy with Oliver Woodward," he says.

"Perhaps it is because we're both miners, but I've found amazing coincidences and perhaps divine connections along the way.

"This whole business has cost me about $300,000 so far, but I have been repaid many times over with satisfaction.

"There's a wonderful feeling of achievement because now Australians will know a story about themselves they should have been told decades ago."

lFootnote: Twenty-one mines were laid under Messines Ridge, but only 19 detonated. One was set off by a lightning strike in 1955, killing a cow.

The last mine remains undetected, to the discomfort of local townspeople.
Very cool indeed.
lFootnote: Twenty-one mines were laid under Messines Ridge, but only 19 detonated. One was set off by a lightning strike in 1955, killing a cow.

LOL, that would've been a little unexpected!

Lest We Forget.
60 Minutes here, which ran a profile on the job, said the one that's left is under a farmhouse. Noice!