Major General Charles Harington, Chief of Staff of British Second Army, to correspondents during a press conference, June 6, 1917
So far, the third spring of the First World War had not gone well for the Allies. The French Army was in the midst of a mutiny; Russia, the Tsar having just been overthrown, was a paper tiger; and the United States, which had declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, was unprepared to fight. It was agreed that there must be no letup in the perpetual pounding given to the Germans on the Western Front, and out of all the powers Britain—with no discontent in its army and navy, a stable government, and all the unpreparedness gone through years of being at war—was the only one that could do so.
That was the broad picture when Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), met with his army commanders on May 7, 1917. Haig thought that the best way to end the stalemate on the Western Front was by making a thrust through Flanders; he also believed that an offensive there would quell the discomfort caused by the submarine bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. At the beginning of the meeting Haig approached General Sir Herbert Plumer—a 60-year-old, plump, brilliant, detail-oriented, and professional soldier with a white moustache who commanded British Second Army and was dubbed by a subordinate as "the Cinderella of the [British] Army Commanders" and by his men as "Daddy" for his compassion towards them. What is the earliest possible time you can attack Messines Ridge?, Haig, referring to the 12-kilometer, seven-mile long promontory whose highest point was 85 meters (280 feet) tall that overlooked the otherwise flat countryside of Flanders, asked Plumer. Not skipping a beat, Plumer replied, "Today, one month, sir."
Now where did the capture of that ridge fall into Haig's scheme? As the field marshal told his generals that day "the objective of the French and British will now be to wear down and exhaust the enemy's resistance by systematically attacking him by surprise." Hence, assualts would continue in the Arras sector (the British had launched an attack there back in April), and an attempt to capture Messines Ridge would be made as a preliminary operation to ensure the Germans would not see the troop movements for the predominant push to the north, which would take place "some weeks later."
When Plumer returned to his headquarters after the conference, he resumed planning how to take the ridge. With the help of his Chief of Staff, Major General Charles Harington, who had "an extreme simplicity of manner [and]... a memory like a card index system," he had conceived an operation that had a limited objective: Messines Ridge, of course. The purpose of the operation was absolutely not to break the deadlock on the Western Front. From three axes of advance X and IX Corps and II ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), with XIV Corps in reserve would attack, moving across colored lines denoted on a map: the Red Line (Initial objectives); Blue Line (Intermediate objectives); Green Line (Second intermediate objectives); and finally the Black Line (Phase one culmination). Since the German occupied ridge created a bulge in the front lines, the final push beyond the Black Line towards a location a little east of the Sehnen Stellung—a defensive position known to the British as the Oosttaverne Line that resembled the bowstring to the bow that was Messines Ridge—would only see the employment of one division per corps. So, in essence, the operation involved "bite and hold" tactics—the capture of a small piece of ground followed immediately by consolidation to repel enemy counterattacks.
Nobody in Second Army, even the enlisted men, was ignorant of these plans. Every brigade practiced what they would do in the coming struggle in French fields six times. Officers and their men studied a model of Messines Ridge, a work by Cecil Thomas that was as long as two tennis courts. Then, on May 21, the preparatory barrage began, although Second Army's artillery had been firing more shells than usual since the beginning of that month. The skies above were teeming with Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots, who assailed the enemy below and fought his pilots in the skies and achieved air superiority for the British. Down below, machine gunners gave paths used by enemy ration parties plenty of led in the night. The Germans who had to withstand this torment were ordered to leave their concrete pillboxes unoccupied at daytime, the irony being the structures were a magnet for artillery fire and that a shell hole was less dangerous. Their units were at the front lines for two days instead of the typical five. "We were worn down so much that careful watchfulness... gave way to complete indifference," attested the adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Grenadier Regiment, 2nd (East Prussian) Division. "It was all the same to us if we met our fate... Our situation was desperate."
So, too, was the situation desperate at the headquarters of General Sixt von Armin, a capable infantryman who received many wounds and an Iron Cross in the Franco-Prussian War and whose German Fourth Army opposed the British at Flanders. Right before the British artillery fire became more intense on May 31, he declared that the enemy was about to launch an attack and he was unready to meet it. That dire forecast was supported by General Maximilian von Laffert—the commander of Gruppe Wytschaete, which held Messines proper, who, in 1874, started his career in the infantry, switched to the cavalry two years later, and was now back in charge of foot soldiers—when he conveyed in a message of June 4 that his men probably could not hold the outpost zone of their flexible defense if attacked. However, neither man intended to concede ground to the enemy, and acting on this information, Kronprinz Rupprecht, the commander of German Army Group North, sent Armin and Laffert more aircraft and artillery. Unfortunately for the Germans, the order—signed on June 6, the day before attack was to commence—was too little, too late.
Meanwhile, across no-man's-land at Plumer's headquarters, with the weather prediction certain, Zero Hour was promulgated that same day: 0310hrs. The clearing mist would offer his men to see 100m (330ft); Plumer insisted that a portion of Messines be seized an hour and 31 minutes later. The troops informed were New Zealanders from Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, and Wellington; Australians from New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland; Irishmen from Munster, Dublin, Inniskilling, and Ulster; Welshmen from every corner of Wales; and Englishmen from Lancashire and Lincolnshire, and London; Worcestershire and Wiltshire; Middlesex and Manchester; Durham and Dorset. They were given good nourishment before embarking for the front line in the dark, and as they were heading towards there a thunderstorm erupted, causing their uniforms and equipment to soak and frequent use of profanity as the pouring rain hit their helmets: tat-tat-tat-tat. Then came 12:00 A.M., June 7, 1917, the big day; around that time the rain ceased, and the moon showed itself, providing some illumination. In the vicinity of Wytschaete, nightingales were allegedly heard, no doubt reminding some soldiers of both sides of home, of the Prussian or Irish countryside, of a lover who loved the bird's beautiful call. Like all warriors about to go into battle, these men from every corner of Britain and her vast Empire were silent, nervous. Could I die in this battle? Will I be wounded? Will I come out of this fight in one piece? As for Plumer, kneeling by his bed, he prayed to the Almighty at 2:30. Despite these worries, some managed to fall asleep in the warm night. "One's nerves seemed to be strained to the breaking point," recalled Captain Oliver Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. "I approached the task of final testing with a feeling of intense excitement. When each proved correct I felt greatly relieved."
What Woodward was talking about had been in the making for almost two years. Since 1915, the British had been tunneling under the ridge, successfully tamping and priming under the Germans 19 mines, which had been lying dormant... until now. Woodward added, "Breathlessly we watched the minute hand crawl towards ten... Three minutes to go, two to go—one to go—45 seconds to go—10 seconds to go... and then FIRE!"
|A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917. Note the British officer with an enemy map board.|
In the pale light, it appeared as if the whole enemy line had begun to dance, then, one after another, huge tongues of flame shot into the air, followed by dense columns of smoke, which flattened out at the top like gigantic mushrooms. From some craters were discharged tremendous showers of sparks rivalling anything ever conceived in the way of fireworks.
The Germans agreed with such testimony. "Suddenly there was an enormous flash just where we had come from, to the right by St. Eloi and to the left of Messines," remembered Paul Schumacher of the 33rd Fusilier Regiment, who would have died in the onslaught had he not been relieved. "Blood red flames shot up into the sky and a dull crack and boom penetrated the roar of the guns. The earth heaved and rocked as though it was trying to tear itself apart."
|A German prisoner captured in the battle, June 8, 1917|
At 5:00, the majority of Second Army made it to the Blue Line, which meant that there was an operational pause to allow ammunition to be replenished and artillery barrels to cool lasting two hours. It was around this time that the sun in the clear sky started to appear over the horizon. In the cool, humid air, the British dug in while mules, pioneer battalions, and reserve units arrived with barbed wire and other tools for the defense "It didn't matter how tired you were," wrote Private Fagence of the 11th Battalion, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment. "You dug as fast as you could, because it was a matter of life and death to get some protection against enemy shell-fire."
|A British munition carrying party on the move in the foreground while shells rain down upon the ridge in the background, June 11, 1917.|
|Captured German trenches on Messines Ridge, June 11, 1917.|
The Londoners tried to take that bally place again... and they were repelled again. Stokes mortars were brought up in support. Then they gave it another try, both the 6th and 7th Londons assaulting the Chateau simultaneously this time. One of their sergeant majors climbed pile of masonry and gave an enemy machine gun nest two Mills Bombs (British grenades) before throwing bricks at the Feldgrauen—he had no more grenades left—and directing a flanking movement through the fluctuation of his arms. The 64-man garrison capitulated.
That wasn't the end of the Londoners' problems. They next had to take "Spoil Bank," a mound spanning 400m (1,300ft) that was located north of the Ypres-Comines Canal and had two machine gun positions on each end. Brigadier General V. T. Bailey sent the 1/21st Battalion (1st Surrey Rifles), 1/23rd Battalion (The Queen's), and the 1/24th Battalion (again, The Queen's) London Regiments, and after two assaults in which the attackers suffered heavily, a toehold on the western portion of Spoil Bank was seized. It was there that the British endured a deadly crossfire to their front and from Battle Wood. (The 23rd Division had been tasked to clear Battle Wood but it, too, was held up by fierce opposition.) Consequently, after two hours of this torment, the Surrey Rifles and Queen's Battalions abandoned what so much of their blood had gained so Spoil Bank could be pounded by their artillery. Despite this pounding, the Germans were actually augmented by the arrival of more Feldgrauen and still occupied Spoil Bank on the eighth.
The advance toward the Black Line was also not without acts of valor. The location of two machine gun emplacements in the outskirts of the village of Messines was identified by Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Battalion, New Zealand Division. Frickleton led his section into the friendly creeping barrage, giving the nests one Mills Bomb each. For his gallantry, he would receive the Victoria Cross.
While the British were busy consolidating at the Black Line, Laffert contemplated how best to respond to them. Eingreifentaktik—“intervention tactic," the Germans' defense doctrine which essentially called for an elastic defense—had failed him. All his preparations were of no use to him now. Instead of the expected 12 hours, the Vorwärtszone—“forward zone," composed of strong-points that offered mutual support to each other (Widerstandsnester) and, in the case of Messines, positioned on the crest of the ridge—had resisted for a mere hour, and the 3rd (Bavarian) and 35th (Prussian) Divisions, the Eingreif divisions designated to counterattack, had to relieve front line formations weakened by the perpetual preparatory shelling. Their replacements were the 1st Guards Reserve and 7th Infantry Divisions.
Therefore, those units were ordered to enter the fray. Both divisions had trouble embarking for the front. The 1st Guards Reserve Division, which had arrived at Flanders from Arras in the night, received orders to head toward Messines in the wee hours of the morning but it was unable to do so for a time since many of its men were still disembarking from their box cars. The 7th Division did not move toward the sound of the guns until 7:00 in the morning because it was held back at Gheluvelt by Armin, who believed (incorrectly) that the British would make a thrust toward Menin on the Ypres-Menin road soon after they commenced assailing Messines Ridge; it wasn't until Armin was certain their would be no secondary push that he sent it off to stem Second Army's advance.
Yet Laffert was terribly misinformed; events were beyond his control. Not only had the mines virtually annihilated the battalions holding the Vorwärtszone but they cut off communications with the front line, leaving Laffert in the dark. Thus he ordered the Eingreif divisions to counterattack, with only a vague notion of what he was facing and unaware that the British were well-entrenched and outnumbered him.
Beginning their assault at 1:45 P.M., 1st Guards Reserve Division's lead regiment met a hail of shell- and machine gun fire. The shells on impact spewed forth dirt and shrapnel in explosions that could hardly dwarf the detonation of the mines earlier in the day, killing the attackers or at least causing their uniforms to get a little dirtier. All the while machine guns riddled them with bullets or unintentionally peppered the ground with their fire, causing little wisps of dirt to jump up into the air. Three out of ten men managed to reach the safety of their lines unharmed. It was then wisely decided to not have the other two regiments repeat such gallantry.
|Using a light railway, German prisoners help their captors |
transport their wounded from Messines, June 8, 1917.
Exactly 12 hours after the operation had begun, Second Army's advance resumed. As mentioned previously, each Corps fielded one fresh division that had been held back in reserve during the initial thrust to the Black Line: the 4th Australian Division for II ANZAC, 11th Division for IX Corps, and 24th Division for X Corps. A creeping barrage once more ahead of them and supported by the few Mark IV tanks of II Brigade Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps (forerunner of the Tank Corps) that participated in the whole operation, the troops—carrying Lee-Enfields, with "rifle bombs" (Mills Bombs fired from a cup put on the end of the rifle) or bayonets attached, or Lewis light machine guns on their shoulders—pressed on to the Sehnen Stellung, their bodies and faces covered in sweat as the sun started going down in the west behind them.
The 24th Division's advance was a paradox. While its 73rd Brigade had some troubles due to Spoil Bank, its 17th Brigade's two leading battalions suffered a total of only six casualties! Their objectives were seized successfully if uneventfully.
|A German machine gun position at OOsttaverne Wood that has |
been destroyed by Second Army's artillery, June 11, 1917.
Temporarily half mad, their pulses pounding at their ears... the less self controlled are for the time being governed by reckless, primitive impulse. With death singing about their ears, they will kill until they grow tired of killing. The routing out of enemy troops from behind several feet of concrete is almost inevitably the signal for a butchery of at least the first few who emerge... It is idle for the reader to cry shame on such incidents for this frenzy is an inevitable condition in desperate fighting. Ruthlessness is a quality essential in hand-to-hand fighting.
Such ruthlessness was witnessed by Private Wilfred Gallwey, who had received fire in the rear from wounded foes he and his comrades had given mercy to, of the 47th (Queensland and Tasmania) Battalion that afternoon at Messines:
The gun in this blockhouse was now silenced... walked right up the place and a couple of men went to the entrance where the gun crew was found all huddled up inside. No time was lost here however and... men fired point blank into the group. There was a noise as though pigs were being killed. They squealed and made guttural noises which gave place to groans after which all was silent. The bodies were all thrown in a heap outside the blockhouse to make sure all were dead... It was a good thing this hornet's nest had been cleaned out so easily. Nearly all were young men.
A portion of the Sehnen Stellung was taken, but Blauwepoortbeek Valley remained in German hands.
Despite the rather slow progress, there were Australians who were able to maneuver more freely. They belonged to the 52nd (South and Western Australia & Tasmania) Battalion and were given the job of advancing through the Wambeek Valley along with Brigadier General A. C. Daly's 33rd Brigade, 11th (Northern) Division. However, there was no British brigade to attack alongside; the 33rd Brigade was tardy. Realizing he was facing only light opposition, a company commander of the 52nd turned his course to the left, capturing objectives that were supposed to be for Daly. Due to this move, the British, when they arrived at 4:30 P.M., were able to take Joye and Van Hove farms. Nevertheless, the company's move resulted in a gap in the 4th Australian Division's front one kilometer in length.
Then there was the 57th Brigade, on loan from the 19th (Western) Division to the 11th. Like the 17th Brigade, it had an easy time of it; Oosttaverne village fell 20 minutes into their assault.
There was still one last act to be played out before the curtains closed on June 7. At 5:30 in the afternoon, the Germans of the 1st Guards Reserve and 5th Bavarian Infantry Regiments counterattacked the 4th Australian Division's isolated 12th Brigade, then consolidating on both sides of "Hun's Walk," the Messines to Warneton road, and ahead of not only the division's 13th Brigade to the north but of their objectives as well. Onward the Germans charged, a sea of field gray coming towards the Australians. The sun was in front of them, its rays reflecting off their coal-scuttle helmets. They met a withering fire from defenders behind a hedgerow. The sound of Lewis Guns and Maxim 08/15s filled the air with its noise: taka-taka-taka-taka. Bolts of Mausers and Lee-Enfields alike went back and forth, ammunition clips being inserted into or old shell casings ejecting from the rifles before the bolt was pushed forwards and the trigger pressed once more. A gigantic Australian used his shoulder to steady his Lewis Gun as he fired. The Feldgrauen fell in heaps, and the ones still able to walk on their own two feet retreated.
As they were retreating, one of those mistakes of the damnable "fog of war" occurred. The Australians called in for artillery support, but since they were further than expected the barrage landed on them. Because they could not tell the artillerymen that they were firing on their own men, the Australians withdrew. Seeing them do so, the formations on their flanks followed their example. By 10:00 that night, the 4th Australian division, with exception of the 52nd Battalion, was back at the Black Line. (A similar accident happened to IX Corps when German reinforcements arrived, but the men were able to reoccupy their positions.) Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley, the English commander of II ANZAC who was a veteran of Gallipoli and would oddly enough a command a platoon in the Home Guard of 1940, ordered that the division, this time with the 3rd Australian Division, retake its objectives tomorrow.
|British troops in their communications trench in Ploegsteert Wood, |
located in the southern part of the battlefield, June 11, 1917.
The following day, on the German side, Armin conferred with his superior, Kronprinz Rupprecht of Bavaria—a lean, erect, and handsome man with a neat mustache and eyes that conveyed sincerity who was the Stuart heir to the throne of England (he was descended directly from Henrietta, daughter of Charles I) and had married a woman whose sister was the wife of King Albert of Belgium, whom he was fighting against. Laffert, it was agreed, would withdraw to a line between Warneton and Houthem, and if he wasn't assailed by the British, they might make the position permanent for him.
Of course, the men of the 50th (South Australia) Battalion and the supporting 45th (New South Wales) Battalion didn't know of this development when they commenced another attempt to carry Blauwepoortbeek on June 9. Despite the darkening atmosphere, the 50th was detected not long after they had set off. Next, the battalion blundered into the Germans' barbed wire, which had not been penetrated at all. For their part, a company of the "desperately weary" 45th and an enemy pillbox exchanged thrust and parries for the entire afternoon.
Suffice it to say that an attack by the 3rd Australian Division and elements of the 4th was by far more successful the following night. At last, all phase two objectives had been taken! However, it was not necessary. German prisoners imparted to their captors that they had been withdrawing in accordance with Armin's and Rupprecht's decision. Acting on this information, Plumer moved forwards his attack- the southern part of the Sehnen Stellung wasn't as advantageous as expected, causing him to formulate a plan to attain more gains—by 48 hours, from June 14 to the night of June 11-12. The assault was not as adrenaline-pumping as the previous ones had been; nothing much really happened that is worth noting, the exception being that Spoil Bank was finally in British hands. Two days later, on the 14th, the Battle of Messines officially ended.
"The capture of Messines Ridge by Plumer's Second Army was almost the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war," Sir Basil Liddell Hart stated in his 1970 book History of the First World War. "It was also one of the few attacks until late 1918 in which the methods employed... fitted the facts of the situation." He was right. True, Second Army did have its problems—of restrictions in communications, of an inadequate amount of contact between phase one and phase two divisions, which resulted in many a victim of friendly fire—but in spite of these obstacles it fought superbly. The engagement not only involved the age-old technique of mining, but foreshadowed things to come: the airmen functioned as the eyes of Second Army as well as dropped payloads on enemy installations, creating a "low level mayhem." By the standards of the Western Front, casualties had been light: Second Army had 24,500 hors de combat for the first twelve days of June; the German Fourth Army, 27,400 from May 21 to June 20. It is a thousand pities that such success was followed up by such failure...
Groom, Winston. A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.
Turner, Alexander. Messines 1917: The Zenith of Siege Warfare. Oxford: Osprey, 2010.