The Battle of Messines

Discussion in 'World War 1' started by Jeff Simmons, Apr 26, 2010.

  1. Jeff Simmons

    Jeff Simmons New Member

    (This is a more extensive version of an answer I gave to an inquiry about a "trench explosion" on the Western Front. The explosion to which he referred was the dramatic Battle of Messines.)


    The Battle of Messines (Belgium) on June 7, 1917, was one of the few clear-cut Allied victories of World War I and possibly the greatest example of thorough combat engineering in modern history.

    The Messines Ridge was directly southeast of the dreaded Ypres sector. The line formed somewhat of a backward "S" curve, as historian James Stokesbury described it; the Allies held the top bulge into German territory, and the Germans held the southern bulge. The line basically followed a ripple of ridges, and as was the case in most of the Flanders region, the Allies held the vulnerable low ground. According to one source, the Allies were taking hundreds of casualties there daily, even when the fighting wasn't "hot."

    The necessity of taking Messines Ridge was part of an overall plan to break out of the Ypres Salient, push toward the coast, and hook up with an amphibious landing there. The intentions were to encircle the German line leading to the coast, and to take out U-boat bases there. Things didn't quite work out that way, but I'll get to that later.

    The job of taking the ridge was handed to Gen. Herbert Plumer, a man who was very much admired by his troops; they referred to him as "Daddy." Knowing that he had a number of units comprised of coal miners, he made the decision to attack from beneath No Man's Land by digging a series of mines, packing them with explosives, and detonating them in one massive, devastating blast just before the British and ANZAC troops went "over the top." Mining had been used to some success in other areas, but none matched the intensity that Plumer envisioned.

    Plumer selected 21 key points along the ridge to mine, stretching from Hill 60 in the southeast corner of the Ypres Salient (a man-made hill 60 meters above sea level, created with spoil from the Ypres-Comines railway cut) and the adjacent "Caterpillar," another man-made hill adjacent to Hill 60, down the line through St. Elois, Hollandasches-Churr Farm, Petit Bois, Maedelstede Farm, Peckham, Spanbroekmolen, Kruisstraat, Ontario Farm, Petit Douve Farm, "Trench 127," Factory Farm, "Trench 122," and ending at Ploegsteert Wood. Tunneling began in 1915.

    Tunnels -- roughly 100 feet in depth -- ranged from listening galleries in which a man could walk upright, down to smaller shafts in which a man had to work sitting down with a back brace (the troops referred to this as "working at the cross"). Naturally, problems developed. First, all of the blue clay excavated had to be bagged and hauled to rear areas, as German aerial observers might spot the clay and reveal the plan. Second, the Germans knew enough to start countermining; in some cases, mines intersected each other and small battles were fought in the dark. Third, the Germans continually tried to shut down the Allied tunnels by detonating charges on top of them; this, and continuous use of poison gas above, led to a buildup of foul air in the tunnels, and 30-pound breathing devices much like aqualungs were often necessary to work.

    Despite these problems, mining continued and plans remained the same. When the tunnels reached their target, massive charges of ammonal or gun cotton were planted and wired. Only the mine at Petit Douve Farm was captured and defused by the Germans. The rest remained in place, although no one was certain that they would work properly.

    After nearly two years of work, the attack was ready to go. It began with a massive shelling that lasted more than a week. In the early hours of June 7, troops were issued cotton to put in their ears, and those in front-line trenches were advised to climb out and lay on top, as the explosions might collapse their trenches. At 03:17, moments after the guns fell silent, the plungers went down. Columns of fire, smoke and debris went flying skyward. The ground itself rippled. One soldier said that for a split second he could see the skeleton of the man in front of him. The captured mine at Petit Douve Farm and two more at Ploegsteert Wood (at the far end of the ridge) did not detonate, but the remaining mines did the trick. Many objectives were captured in a matter of minutes, thousands of dazed Germans surrendered, and the battle was deemed a success. Gen. Plumer received knighthood as a result.

    The rest of the plan went to hell in a hand basket. The effort to break out of the Ypres Salient is now better known as Passchendaele, one of the Allied low points of the war. With its failure, the amphibious landing never took place. And things pretty much stayed the same at Ypres for the remainder of the war.

    As a postscript, one of the mines at Ploegsteert Wood did eventually detonate in 1955. Electric towers were erected across the battle some years after the war, and one was placed directly atop that mine. Lightening struck the pole, and the mine went off, leaving a crater 100 feet deep and 300 feet across. The remaining mine at Ploegsteert Wood remains undetonated, and its exact position is now unknown.
  2. Will Belford

    Will Belford New Member

    This was my grandfather's first and last battle. He arrived there a few days before the barrage, went over the top after the bombs went off and got stuck in the mud for two weeks before being shot in the face by a sniper and invalided out to England for three months. He survived to tell me all about when I was 12 years old!
    skyblue likes this.
  3. Barnbarroch

    Barnbarroch New Member

    My great uncle Frank Vans Agnew was there, commanding a tank. He admired Plumer, for his meticulous preparation, he describing Messines as '‘the model show of the whole war’.
    He wrote, 'Zero was to be at 3:10 am, the first peep of dawn. As my section was not going over until noon we had a fine opportunity to watch. About 2 minutes before Zero, all along our front, machine guns began to play and everyone stood looking at his watch and waiting for the 19 mines to go up. Still a comparative silence and, suddenly, sheets of flame high up in the sky and an appalling roar. To me it sounded like seven explosions all in a few seconds. The ground rocked and a hedge near us nearly flattened in the blast. At the same moment every gun in our massed batteries opened up and the battle was on. At once the enemy front was a beautiful display of white and red and green rockets and star shells, despairing SOS signals to their batteries and reserves.'
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  4. skyblue

    skyblue Active Member

    Wow! What a survivor your grandfather was! Interesting story, Will.
  5. skyblue

    skyblue Active Member

    Your uncle's diary entries are quite something, Barnbarroch. Keep 'em coming!
  6. Barnbarroch

    Barnbarroch New Member

    I'm delighted to say that I've got a publisher for my great uncle's WW1memoirs! He was a most remarkable man:

    He was 46 when he travelled from America in 1914 to enlist, having been a veterinary surgeon, a farrier in Roosevelt’s Roughriders, an assayer at gold and copper mines in Western Canada and Kazakhstan, and an orange grower in Florida.

    Posted to the front in May 1915 Frank was soon in the thick of the action and in 1917 was transferred to the Tank Corps, winning an MC at Messines. He was wounded and captured in November and spent 13 months in POW camps before a spell in Copenhagen helping to repatriate British soldiers.

    His later career saw him in Belize, prospecting for chicle trees, ranching in New Mexico and growing daffodils in Cornwall before his retirement, which was interrupted by two years in the Home Guard and three in the Royal Observer Corps.

    He died in 1955. I only met him once, about a year before that.

    Memoir of the Trenches, Tanks and Captivity 1914 – 1919 by Frank Vans Agnew (Ed. Jamie Vans) is to be published in about April 2014 by Pen & Sword Books.
  7. Interrogator#6

    Interrogator#6 Active Member

    You might find this interesting.

    About the same time that I found and watched that I found another programme, this one about secret welch(?) miner unit doing the same sort of thing you described, but now I can not find it.

    Military mining and counter-mining dates long before explosives.
  8. Barnbarroch

    Barnbarroch New Member

  9. Interrogator#6

    Interrogator#6 Active Member

    Thank you for the heads-up. Alas, I can not view as I live in the US.
  10. Barnbarroch

    Barnbarroch New Member

    What a drag! Is there no way round that? I have a DVD of it but that raises a) copyright issues and b) regional DVD issues. But if you can see how I could help, let me know.

    When the prog was made, there was talk of it being shown in the USA - but I haven't heard anything more about that. You could ask the production company.
  11. Barnbarroch

    Barnbarroch New Member

    Veteran Volunteer, Memoir of the Trenches, Tanks and Captivity 1914 – 1919 by Frank Vans Agnew (Ed. Jamie Vans) is now available from Pen and Sword at pre-publication price of £15.99, see and from Amazon (UK) as well.

    Do buy it! And enjoy it!


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