The Battle of Messines can be regarded as the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front. It was carried out by General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army and was launched on 7 June 1917 with the detonation of 19 underground mines underneath the German lines.
The aim of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914. The attack was also a precursor to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele which was decided upon by the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig following the collapse of the French Nivelle Offensive earlier in May 1917.
General Plumer (pictured right) began planning to take the Messines Ridge a year early in 1916. Meticulous in manner, Plumer preferred to plan for limited successes rather than gamble all on a major breakthrough.
Plumer authorised the laying of 22 mines under strong points in the German lines along the ridge. Work on laying these mines began some 18 months before zero hour planned for 7 June 1917.
A heavy preliminary artillery bombardment of the German lines commenced on 21 May involving 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars which ceased at 02:50 on the morning of 7 June. The German, sensing imminent attack, rushed to their defensive positions to man their machine guns and send up flares to detect British movement towards the ridge. Silence would prevail for 20 minutes until, at 03:10, the order was given to detonate the mines which totalled 600 tons of explosive. Of the 21 mines laid 19 were exploded after which infantry, supported by tanks and the use of gas, would then secure the ridge from the presumably dazed German defenders.
One mine, at Petite Douve Farm, was discovered by German counter miners on 24 August 1916. It remains to this day under the forecourt of Petite Douve Farm. A further two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood were not exploded as they were outside the planned attack area.
In the face of German counter-mining, 8,000 metres of tunnels were constructed under German lines. Occasionally the tunnellers would encounter their German counterparts, engaged in the same task, resulting in vicious underground hand to hand fighting.
The mines blew the crest off the Messines-Wytschaete ridge and were audible in Dublin and by Lloyd George in his Downing Street study, the combined sound of the simultaneous mine explosions comprised the loudest man-made explosion until that point. The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to ‘pillars of fire’.
As planned, the effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders was devastating. Some 10,000 men were killed during the explosion alone. In its wake, nine divisions of infantry advanced under protection of a creeping artillery barrage as well as tanks and gas attacks from the new Livens projectors which were designed to throw gas canisters directly into the enemy trenches.
All initial objectives were taken within three hours. Reserves from General Gough’s Fifth Army and the French First Army under Anthoine reached their own final objectives by mid-afternoon.
A German troops counter-attacked took place on 8 June, without success, in fact they lost more ground to the Allies as the attacks were repelled. German counter-attacks continued until 14 June but by this stage the entire Messines ridge was in firmly in Allied hands.
The Battle of Messines boosted morale among the Allies and signified for the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties actually exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000.
Details of the two mines which remained undetonated on 7 June were mislaid by the British following the war much to the discomfort of local townspeople. One of the mines was detonated in a thunderstorm on 17 June 1955 but fortunately the only casualty was a cow and several broken windows. The second mine remains undetected, although in recent years its location is believed to have been pinpointed. No-one has as yet attempted its recovery.
The 19 detonated mines were sited as follows:
|Name of Mine
|Hill 60 A
|Hill 60 B
|Petit Bois 1
|Petit Bois 2
||(1 & 4 linked explosions)
|Trench 127 Left
|Trench 127 Right
|Trench 122 Left
|Trench 122 Right
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