A Much Needed Boost: Messines Ridge
Today, 7th June marks the anniversary of the Battle of Messines Ridge…
The Messines Ridge, situated a few thousand yards to the south of the town of Ypres, had been taken by the Germans in 1914 and they had fought tenaciously to keep it ever since. Strategically this ridge was hugely important; although at 260 feet above sea level it was no Mount Everest, it still offered whoever sat on top of it commanding views across the flat Flanders plains. If Haig was to push the Germans out of this area, he needed 1 of 2 things; either the British take control of the ridge by physically kicking the Germans off of it, or level the ridge completely, thus taking it out of the equation.
Such was the difficulty of any offensive succeeding in taking a large piece of heavily defended high ground, that the British High Command deemed it easier to alter the geography of Flanders than launch an offensive. So plans were put in place to blow Messines Ridge (and as many Germans as possible) to Kingdom Come.
The first tunnels had been started in the summer of 1915, and over the years and months these tunnels were drawn out and extended, culminating in over 8000m of deep tunnels, packed with 21 separate mines. By zero hour, in early June 1917, there would be 500 tons of explosives ready to rip apart the ridge. It was not all straightforward, however. The Germans were counter-mining too, and in some areas the enemy’s work could be heard clearly. All in all, during the height of mining activity in 1916, there were about 20,000 British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand tunnellers digging deadly holes in the Ridge, with about as many Germans tunnelling straight towards them. The tension of this underground war was not helped by terrible working conditions with tunnels frequently flooding, collapsing, or filling with gas, even without German meddling.
Slowly, each tunnel was completed and the explosives were laid. Many sat in situ for several months waiting for zero hour, which was destined to be 7th June 1917.
The plan was not dis-similar to other British attacks: A dirty great big artillery bombardment, followed by the blowing of the mines, followed by the infantry (some 80,000 British and ANZAC men in this instance) who would spring into action, with tank support, as soon as the mines went up. The main difference was that there was no breakthrough required, the infantry just had to take the ridge (or what would be left of it) and kill lots of the enemy while doing so.
On 21st May, more than 2,500 guns and heavy mortars let rip. Before long the Germans realised this bombardment was the opening act for something a bit bigger, and they rushed as many of their own guns as possible into the area and started giving it back to the Allies. The ensuing artillery fight was particularly savage, with millions of shells being thrown at each other day and night. British counter battery work was very successful and one by one the German gun batteries were knocked out. Then, just before dawn on 7th June the British guns fell silent.
Sensing an infantry attack, what was left of the German front line troops scrambled to their posts, manned their guns and waited.
At 3.10am the mines were detonated. The eruption was so colossal it destroyed an estimated 10,000 Germans instantly and was clearly heard in London and other parts of Southern England. Synchronised with the mines, every available gun the Allies had in the area started to fire a creeping barrage to aid the infantry attack. In retaliation the Germans shelled No Man’s Land and the Allied front lines. The noise was impossible and confusion reigned, this was not going to be easy.
Following behind a steadily advancing creeping barrage the forward infantry moved towards the enemy lines. There were isolated strongholds that put up some resistance, but these were eventually eliminated, helped in no small part by continual harassment from the Royal Flying Corps and their thermite bombs which were being used for the first time. Thermite was a mixture of iron oxide and powdered aluminium, which when set alight set off a serious chemical reaction and threw lumps of molten metal everywhere. Soldiers suffered horrific burns as their clothes caught fire; trenches and dugouts made of wood also caught fire and caused massive damage. Chemical warfare had become even more brutal.
With the German front line captured, the Allies pushed on towards the village of Messines, which was captured after some intense close quarter fighting. By 5.00am all of the German defensive positions along The Messines Ridge had been captured. Soon after the village of Wytschaete (or what was left of it as it had been almost totally destroyed by artillery fire) had been captured and the Allied forces were moving down the eastern slopes of the ridge. By late afternoon all objectives had been captured. It was now time for consolidation and preparation for the inevitable German counter-attack.
That counter-attack emerged the following day, but it failed and the Germans lost more ground as they were pushed back. Nonetheless the counter-attacks continued until 14th June, but without any success. By this time the entire Messines salient was in the hands of the Allies.
The victory at Messines was a much needed boost to British and indeed Allied morale. It was proof that a limited attack, if planned and carried out properly can succeed. It was far removed from the sweeping breakthroughs and epic victories promised from earlier campaigns such as on The Somme.
In just a few short months the defensive bastions of Vimy and Messines had been taken. The Germans were rocked; surely breaking out of the Ypres Salient was just a matter of time?
Narrative taken from my book ‘World War One: A Layman’s Guide’ available on Kindle for the bargain price of £1.53!