relative location of Hill 60 on the Western FrontIn researching the stories of the men of Middlewich and Winsford in the Great War I hoped to find some mention in the local newspapers of Private Peter Mahon. Eventually I did so.

Private Mahon’s name appears on the Middlewich War Memorial but it does not appear in the semi-official list of Soldiers Died in the Great War published in the 1920s or in the Roll of Honour in the History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War.

I was informed that Private Mahon served with the 7th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment.

It occurred to me that there could have been a problem with Private Mahon’s name. Mahon indicates Irish ancestry and Irish surnames are often mispronounced and often mis-spelled. Sometimes the mis-spelling has become accepted over the years by families - “Maher”, for example, has become “Marr”; “Malone” has become “Mullowney” and so on.

I decided to comb the names of the Cheshire Regiment’s war-dead for names which looked something like or, when pronounced, would sound something like Private Mahon’s surname.

There were no similarities of the kind I was looking for in the list of the 7th Battalion or, more correctly, the 1/7th Battalion.

Eventually I looked at the list of the 1st Battalion. And there, I think, he is. The entry reads:

“Mahore, Peter, b. Middlewich, Cheshire e. Middlewich,
Cheshire, 18769, Pte., k. in a., F. & F., 7.5.15”

Private “Mahore” was born and enlisted in Middlewich and was killed in action somewhere in France or Belgian Flanders on 7 May 1915.

Since there is no Private “Mahore” recorded on the Middlewich War Memorial I think it is reasonable to assume that Private “Mahore” and Private Mahon were one and the same person.

The confusion of names was not, as can be seen, quite as I had anticipated. The error quite possibly arose from the transcription of someone’s poor handwriting. Transcription errors are not unknown. The Memorials to the Missing, for example, have numerous neat inlays their stone panels indicating corrections of names.

I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Maidenhead, Berkshire, to discover where Private “Mahore” had been killed and where his grave was.

They had no record of any Private “Mahore”. The record of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission shows his name correctly spelled! Private Mahon was killed somewhere in the Ypres salient and his final resting place is unknown. His name is carved on the Cheshire Regiment panel on the Menin Gate at Ypres (south side).

Private Mahon was therefore, in a sense, twice missing – once from some of the records and once, of course, as a soldier lost on the battlefield.

Bunker on Hill 60 today

To complete Private Mahon’s story as best I could I referred once more to the History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War and to other works listed below. On 23 and 24 April 1915 the 1st Battalion was “in the line” (ie in trenches) to the north of Hill 60 about four and a half kilometres to the south east of Ypres.

From 24 April to 4 May the Battalion was in the Ypres “casemates”, ie in chambers inside the thick stone walls of the city.

On 4 May the Battalion was ordered to move to a support trench (ie a trench between the front line trench and the reserve trench) facing Hill 60.

Hill 60 is not really a hill but a large somewhat elongated mound formed by the spoil taken from the adjacent cutting made for the Ypres-Comines railway. It gets its name from the fact that it is 60 metres above sea level. From the top of Hill 60 Ypres could be seen quite clearly and was an excellent site for artillery observation.

The French lost the hill to the Germans in 1914 and when the British took over from them at the end of 1914 it was decided that the Hill should be retaken.

Because the earth of Hill 60 was soft, tunnelling was relatively easy and it was decided to blow the Germans off the Hill with mines. Probably the first British mine of the war was blown there by Lt White RE on 17 Feb 1915.

Three tunnels were begun early in March 1915, some 50-100 yards from the German front line. Almost immediately dead bodies were discovered and quick-lime had to be brought up to cover them. Many more bodies were uncovered in the coming months and the smell of quick lime was to hang over the hill for several years.

The three tunnels were splayed out into six as they approached the Hill. About four tons of gunpowder in 100-pound bags were packed into the six mineheads. On 17 April the mines were fired over a 10 second period. A huge quantity of earth exploded 400 feet into the air. Simultaneously, British, Belgian and French artillery laid down a barrage on the hill which was captured by the Royal West Kent Regiment.

The Germans wanted to regain control of the Hill and launched a series of desperate counter-attacks all of which were repulsed until on 4 May they recaptured it by using poison gas.

This was why the 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment found themselves facing Hill 60 on 4 May having been shelled and gassed on the way. The troops only had hastily issued mouth pads to protect themselves with. Failing that, they had been instructed to hold wetted handkerchiefs to their mouths. No proper “respirators” were available.

map Hill 60 1915 - note map orientationThe Battalion got to Larch Wood - half a kilometre to the north west of Hill 60 - which they had to attack and clear of Germans before they could occupy trenches in the wood.

Heavy shellfire continued and the Battalion’s commanding officer Colonel A de C Scott was killed while Captains Woodyer and Savage and Lieutenants Pym and Clay were wounded on 6 May. Deaths and casualties among NCOs and the ranks were evidently very high but are not numbered in the Regimental History.

There was considerable confusion in the shattered trenches in front of Hill 60. A vivid account was written in letters home by Arthur Greg (see footnote). The Battalion was shelled by both sides - British shells falling short of their targets on the Hill just beyond the Cheshires. The Germans occasionally managed to infiltrate the British trenches and attacked the Cheshires with rifle fire and grenades. The Battalion was almost attacked in error by men of another British regiment (the Royal West Kents who had captured the Hill the previous month). Greg was badly wounded and taken off to a casualty clearing station.

The Regimental History’s account of the battle for Hill 60 in 1915 ends with the brief comment: “Further attempts on the Hill were made at dawn on the 7th but all failed.” It is probable that, by this time, communication within the Battalion had become very difficult to sustain. The Chester Chronicle of 5 June 1915 actually gives a slightly more detailed account from an unacknowledged source. At about 3 am on 7 May “ ‘A’ Company after desperate fighting, retook 70 yards of the trenches. Owing to the supports missing their way, the Cheshires were unable to hold them. ‘A’ Company in this action lost very heavily. This Company lost many officers and men.” Having been gassed, shelled, bombed and shot at continuously since 4 May ‘A’ Company was almost certainly well below its full strength of about 250 men and one must wonder who ordered this attack and what prompted him to imagine that it had any chance of success.

This was “Journey’s End” for Private Peter Mahon. His name appeared (but not until well over a month later) as the last on a list of “missing” released from the headquarters of the Cheshire Regiment at Chester Castle and published in the Chester Chronicle on 26 June 1915. His name is correctly spelled. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown and will probably remain so for ever. One can all too easily imagine what they might have been as he and his comrades struggled in vain to win back what became known as “the bloody pile of earth”. His remains may rest in the Larch Wood Cemetery in front of a gravestone with the inscription “A soldier of the Great War Known Unto God” carved on it; they may rest in the ruins of the Larch Wood trenches; they may rest in Hill 60 itself.

For the time being I have followed Private Peter Mahon as far as I can. I visited Hill 60 and Larch Wood Cemetery some years ago. I left a poppy at each place. I make a point of looking at his name on my frequent visits to the Menin Gate. I will remember the soldier “twice missing”.

May he Rest in Peace.

 

Article contributed by Peter Crook.

Bibliography:

History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War - A. Crookenden, Evans, Chester 1939

Ypres 1914-18 - Les Coate, Tressell Publications 1982

Subalterns of the Foot: Three World War I Diaries of Officers of the Cheshire Regiment - Anne Wolff, Square One Publications 1992

Battlefields of the First World War - Tonie and Valmai Holt, Pavilion Books 1993

1915: The Death of Innocence - Lyn Macdonald, Headline Book Publications 1993

Footnotes:

i The 1901 Census for Middlewich reveals that Peter Mahon was an “ordinary agricultural labourer” living at 1 Billington Court off Lewin Street. He was unmarried and aged 28 years. This would make him 42 years old at the time he was killed – which was quite old for a soldier in the First World War. The 1911 Census shows that he was still a labourer and living in Middlewich. It would seem, then, quite likely that he was one of the first volunteers in his home town.

ii Arthur Greg was a member of the well-known cotton manufacturing family, the Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, Cheshire. After he had recovered from the wounds he suffered at Hill 60 he joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed in 1917. The temporary cross which marked his place of burial is displayed at Quarry Bank Mill, as is his uniform.

By the end of the fighting for Hill 60, British casualties amounted to100 officers and 3,000 men. Probably about one-third of these men were killed. German casualties are unknown but almost certainly were of at least a similar magnitude. Officially, the action on and in front of Hill 60 in 1915 was not counted as a “battle” and therefore it does not appear on the colours of any of the regiments that were involved.

When Hill 60 is remembered today it is usually for the explosion of a huge mine there over two years later in 1917 - one of 19 detonated simultaneously to drive the German army off the Messines ridge. The action of 1915 is often overlooked, as indeed it was by most of the newspapers at the time. The tragic events of Hill 60 were overshadowed by what was happening on a larger geographical scale elsewhere in the north and east of the Ypres salient and in the Dardanelles. Coincidentally the Cheshire Regiment was also involved in this latter disastrous campaign and sustained more heavy casualties. But that is another story

 

See Major and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Ypres Salient:

Key to section N

Only numbers relevant to the actions at Hill 60 are covered

3. Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery

4. Hill 60 Museum

5. Queen Victoria Rifles Memorial

6. Bunkers, Hill 60

7. 1st Australian Tunnelling Company Memorial

8. 14th (Light) Division Memorial

Maps courtesy Wikipedia

The top of the second map is south-east.

Second map attribution: Wyrall, E. (1921) The History of the Second Division, 1914–1918 Vol I (N & M Press 2002 ed.), London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

 

Photograph: Bunker hill 60" by Sven Beddeleem - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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