The Messines Ridge
The Messines Ridge was a natural stronghold that lay to the south of Ieper and had been lost to the Germans during the First Battle of Ypres creating a small German salient. Engineers from both sides had been tunnelling under the Messines Ridge since 1915 and by the spring of 1917 the British had placed 21 huge mines totalling 455 tonnes (1,000,000 lbs) of the high explosive Ammonal. At 03:10 hrs, 7th June 1917, after perhaps the most intense preparatory bombardment of the entire war, 19 out of 26 British mines were detonated killing an estimated 10,000 German troops in moments. The explosions were so great that they were said to be heard as far away as London and Dublin.
By June 1917 the Germans no longer consider it necessary to physically occupy every inch of the ground and were more flexible with the frontline lightly held. Their defences were centred on mutually-supporting bunkers or "pillboxes" with regiments in reserve ready to counterattack where necessary.
For the assault on the Messines Ridge the three Corps of the British Second Army commanded by General Herbet Charles Onslow Plumer would advance over a 2-mile frontage south of Ieper (Ypres) between St Eloi and Mesen (Messines). The plan was for X Corps to take and hold St Eloi and Mount Sorrel to the north, IX Corps was to assault and capture the village of Wijtschate in the centre and II ANZAC Corps to assault and capture the village of Mesen on the British right. The intention was to drive the Germans off the ridge seizing the enemy strong points and villages, then consolidate and hold them.
Immediately following the detonation of the mines the British moved forward under the cover of the full ferocity of the British Artillery. About 700 machines guns fired over the heads of the advancing infantry into the German lines as they advanced behind the creeping barrage. The Germans that had been in the vicinity of the largest mines had been blown to dust. In some of the bunkers the advancing British would find dead Germans laying on the floor seemingly unmarked. They had been killed by the pressure waves created by the explosions.
In the south on the right of the II ANZAC Corps' area the Australian 3rd Division commanded by Major General John Monash moved up in the area of Ploegsteert. As they came through Ploegsteert Wood they were shelled by the German Artillery firing gas rounds and lost around 500 of their men. The mines went off as they reached their line of departure and they had to go straight into the attack. The Germans, however, put up little resistance and those that the Australians encountered were so shocked and confused that they were beyond resisting.
In the centre of the II ANZAC Corps' area the New Zealand Division made swift progress towards Mesen, but the mine in the area of Petit Douve Farm was one of those that failed to detonate. The village of Mesen was almost completely demolished by the British preparatory artillery barrage, but the Germans had made use of the cellars. As the barrage lifted they crawled out of their hiding places into the rubble of the village that provided excellent cover for their machinegun positions and men. After two and a half hours of fighting Mesen and the trenches on the hill to the east were in the New Zealander's hands. The Germans had put up a stiff fight but had proved unequal to the tanks and men from down under. During this assault Brigadier Brown, the commander of the 1st New Zealand Brigade, was killed by shellfire.
On the left of II ANZAC Corps the British 25th Division assaulted the German stronghold of Ontario Farm. This should have been the site of the mine. The tunnelling had initially been started along the site of an old river bed, but this had proved to be too wet and the mine had to be restarted further back. By the time of the attack it had not been extended to the full distance and only reached under the German frontline trenches. When this mine was set off a large crater was created, but it had little depth because "the wet sand flowed back almost as if it had been exploded in treacle."
On the right of the IX Corps area the 36th (Ulster) Division advanced against one of the heaviest defended sectors of the German line near the village of Wijtschate. This was why there were a greater number of mines in the area - the Kruisstraat group, Peckham mine and the massive mine at Spanbroekmolen. The Spanbroekmolen mine had only been finished the day before the assault and it detonated slightly later than the others. Unfortunately the Ulstermen were already out of their trenches attacking when this happened and a number of them were killed. The crater left behind by the Spanbroekmolen mine was the largest of them all and is today filled with water. This pool is called the pool of peace. The Ulstermen went on to capture an entire German Battalion headquarters before eventually coming up alongside of the 16th (Irish) Division.
The 16th (Irish) Division attacked against the village of Wijtschate. The village had been heavily defended by the Germans, but the Irish achieved their mission with relative easy due to the impact of the mine at Maedelstede Farm and the twin mines at Petit Bois.
On the left of IX Corps was the 19th Division attacked the Grand Bois. They met no resistance from the Germans at all as the Hollandscheschur group of mines had obliterated the German trenches. Those Germans that survived either fled or surrendered as the 19th Division approached. At the Grand Bois the 19th also met with no resistance, the German positions had been shelled with incendiary and gas rounds and those defenders that were left made no fight of it at all.
On the right of X Corps was the 41st Division who were attacking over the battlefield of St Eloi. The 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company had dug the deepest of the mines in this area which they had charged with nearly 100,000 lbs of ammonal. The effect of the explosion was impressive, the whole German frontline and the stronghold defending it was obliterated. The Canadian engineers were said to be disappointed by the size of the crater it made.
To their left was the 47th Division who had no mines in their area at all, but when they attacked they crossed the 300 yards or so of no mans land in less than 15 minutes. The devastating effect of the mines either side had, however, taken their toll on the German defenders who surrendered as the 47th Division advanced.
The most northerly unit of the attack was the 23rd Division who were tasked with taking Hill 60. Hill 60 and the corresponding spoil heap on the other side of the railway were both mined and when detonated the German positions were reduced to rubble. Hill 60 was once again in British hands.
Join one of our Expert guides on a tour of the Messines Ridge to follow the battle and see how it developed. The following are just a few of the many sites that we have visited during past tours: -
Ypres Grotte Market
The Flanders Fields Museum
Hill 60 and the Caterpillar craters at Zillebeke
St Eloi crater
The London Scottish Memorial
The Miner's Memorial, Wijtschate
16th (Irish) Division Memorial, Wijtschate
Wytschaete Military Cemetery, Wijtschate
Maedelstede Farm crater
The 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division Memorials
Peckham Farm crater
Spanbroekmolen 'Pool of Peace'
Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial to the Missing
Messines Ridge British Cemetery
The New Zealand Division Memorial, Mesen
Ireland of Ireland Peace Park
Petit Douve Farm
Trench 127 crater
Bethleem Farm West cemetery
Bethleem Farm East cemetery
Factory Farm craters
Christmas Truce Memorial
Prowse Point Military Cemetery
Mud Corner Cemetery
Toronto Avenue Cemetery
Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery
Berks Cemetery Extension
The Ploegsteert Memorial
and many, many, more ...
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