British Gen. Sir Charles Harington: “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography”.
At 3:10 AM on June 7th, 1917 Royal Engineers detonated 19 explosive mines placed by tunneling companies under major German strongpoints known as stellungs. A creeping barrage delivered by 756 guns followed, and IX, X and II ANZAC Corps advanced behind this firestorm. This was the beginning of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge (usually abbreviated to Messines) attack to drive the Germans off of the high ground south of Ypres and north of Ploegsteert in Belgium. This was a necessary first objective of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s 1917 Offensive to End the War, regrettably called ‘The Big Push’, later officially labelled the Third Battle of Ypres.
The 24 tunnels used to charge these mines had actually been started in 1915. Most were finished in 1916 although two were not ready until days before they were fired. The tunnels were deep, well over 80 feet below grade, and the Germans only detected one of them, partly because the British also dug tunnels above them. The largest mine (almost 50 tons) was set by a Canadian tunneling company under St. Eloi in a tunnel 138 feet below grade and 1,339 feet long.
Four of the mines at the southern end of the lines were not used because the Germans had already pulled back from the targeted positions. One of these exploded in 1955 with no loss of life and the others remain in situ.
The mine detonations were heard in London, even by David Lloyd George at 10 Downing St., and the shock wave was recorded in Dublin. In all, just over 500 US tons of ammonal were shot off, and it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 German soldiers were killed. Messines is sometimes claimed to be the largest man-made explosion in history prior to the nuclear age, but not so: the Black Tom disaster in 1916 was about 1 kiloton and the Halifax harbor disaster in December 1917 was nearly 3 kilotons.
The Messines battle was regarded by Haig as a complete success – in seven days of fighting all of the high ground was captured. Everything seemed in order for the next phase of the offensive, however, it took much longer than anticipated to relocate the artillery and so the Germans had time to reorganize their defenses. According to the Official Historian, British casualties at Messines totaled 24,562 and German losses were 21,886. New Zealand forces suffered 4,978 of these casualties, including 700 dead and 842 missing, a big tragedy for a little nation of about 1.2 million people.
The New Zealanders captured the village of Messines, which was on the highest point on the ridge, and there is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing situated there (which will be the subject of my next article), as well as a monument erected by the government of New Zealand, a 30 foot tall obelisk that marks the last objective taken by the ‘Kiwis’.
Also on the site are the remains of two German bunkers. As you can see in the photograph, these reinforced concrete structures were built to last.
And there have been recent additions, too: the ‘Kiwi’ statue in the center of the village and a visitor’s center, which has a Christmas Truce monument in front of it (although the truce site was several miles south of Messines).
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