As part of an ongoing feature, every so often I will be watching a film, TV series or documentary and assessing how I feel is represents the First World War. I won’t be giving a complete run down of the media sources that I write about, but I hope to give an insight into the programs and to encourage you the reader, to watch and enjoy for yourselves. In this third instalment, I will be discussing the 2010 film Beneath Hill 60.
The story of Beneath Hill 60 is about those who served with the tunnelling companies. The tunnelling companies were specialist units in the Corps of Royal Engineers during the First World War. Their main objective was to dig tunnels for a variety of purposes; dugouts for protection and living quarters, and tunnels underneath the enemy trenches and positions, with the intention of blowing them up with explosives. Men from around the world with experience working underground were recruited to these units – miners being a significant proportion of these men. Tunnelling was a difficult and particularly intense part of warfare. The tunnellers were always at risk of the tunnels collapsing around them, due to structural issues or the Germans (who were also tunnelling) setting small charges to cause the British tunnels to collapse and entrap the men building them. Conditions in the tunnels were variable, sometimes being hot and sticky, other times cold. It was very cramped in the tunnels with the main section being dug underneath the enemy sometimes being no bigger than 5ft high and 4ft wide. The tunnellers had to remain as quiet as possible so as not to give away their positions to the Germans. Sometimes, both sets of tunnels would intersect and the tunnellers found themselves face to face with their German counterparts. Even though the men were trained to use rifles, the restrictions of tunnel construction and the conditions prevented this, forcing the tunnellers into hand to hand combat using whatever they could lay their hands on; picks/shovels/pieces of wood, their fists and so on, making this a particularly brutal part of warfare.
Beneath Hill 60 shows the true story of Captain Oliver Woodward and the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company and is based on a book of the same name by Will Davies and the personal diaries of Woodward. The film is set on the Western Front, with flashbacks throughout to Australia and the young woman that Woodward falls in love with, Marjorie. One of the first instances of the intensity of war is a scene where two German tunnellers break into the Australians tunnel and attack two of Woodward’s unit. It is a scene of great intensity, as part way through the screen goes blank, and we can only hear not see, what is going on. We find out that both of the Germans are killed, but that one of the Australians is killed when a German explosive goes off, bringing down the tunnel on top of the Australians. One is rescued alive. This scene is designed to show the viewer the brutality and seemingly random nature of underground warfare. We follow the company through their time on the Western Front and their eventual move to section around Hill 60, in the Ypres Salient – known even today as one of the most dangerous places on the Western Front, due to its elevated position in a relative flat part of Belgium. It is at this point in time that we are introduced to the fact that there has been substantial tunnelling carried out under the Messines Ridge for months, with a total of 21 mines placed underneath the Germans. Woodward and his unit are tasked with maintaining the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines, in preparation for the coming offensive in which they will be used. The film culminates in the use of the mines at the start of the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917.
The film highlights certain elements of the First World War extremely well. The realities and brutalities of being in a tunnelling company are shown in great detail, the close contact with the Germans, the working conditions of the tunnellers, the reality that the unit are just as vulnerable to death as any other unit in the British Army. This level of detail will have come from research done by the author of the book and also from Woodward’s diaries.
However, as with any piece of media, there is definitely a use of artistic license. There are a few instances involving British officers, who stereotypically are aloof, cold and unfeeling. The officers do not seem to have much care for the ordinary soldier as it were. The first instance of this which comes to mind from the film is a scene where a British officer orders one of the tunnellers back into a tunnel, even though it is believed that the Germans are getting ready to blow it up, even with Woodward protesting. Unfortunately, the tunneller who is sent back is killed. Whilst there is no doubt that there were officers like this, much as you would find management in the modern world, there were plenty more officers who carried out their duties in the correct manner. The scenes with the British officers are also made up. They do not appear in the book of the film, nor do they appear in the personal diaries of Woodward. It is understandable why these scenes have been embellished in the way they have, to add drama and emotion to the story. However, I would argue that this is not needed in a film which is already full of emotion and that the continued use of this stereotype is one that has a negative impact on the general understanding of the viewer who may have a limited knowledge of the First World War.
Regardless of this point, I do enjoy watching Beneath Hill 60. It is a well put together film and is the only one that tells the story of mining during the First World War (to my knowledge). The fact that is has been based on historical documents and truth makes the film even more poignant. You urge the characters on, you want to know what happens to them. It is a very enjoyable film to watch and I would highly recommend it. If you ever happen to visit Hill 60, you can see the remains of the Caterpillar crater and the area around Hill 60 has been left as it was, to commemorate what happened there. There is also a memorial to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, which as you can see from the picture below, sustained damage during the Second World War.