The Battle of Messines was fought on June 7th 1917. The battle for the Messines Ridge was an attempt by the Allies to capture land to the southeast of Ypres to gain control of the higher land in the Ypres Salient. The standout features of the battle was the successful co-ordination of various parts of the Army – artillery, infantry and engineering tactics and consequently the sheer speed of the successful Allied assault on the Messines Ridge. The only negative from the attack ironically came from its success. Allied senior commanders, boosted by their victory at Messines Ridge, became too complacent and saw victory in their next major attack – the Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele – as a foregone conclusion.
The attack on Messines Ridge was scheduled for June 7th 1917. The assault was tasked to men from General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. Planning for the attack had taken a year and included the building of deep tunnels dug underneath German lines.
Their aim in capturing the higher ground of the ridge was to greatly reduce the German’s tactical advantages in the region, and consequently to increase their own. Plumer wanted to attack to be developed over three days but after further discussions with General Rawlinson, agreed that the attack could and should be accomplished in one day. This received the support of Field Marshal Haig who, after the experiences of the Somme, wanted all Allied attacks to be ones of constantly moving forward with momentum – Haig no longer had any faith in ‘phased attacks’ as these suggested to him time when there was no momentum; pauses in forward momentum. An attack completed in just one day was exactly what Haig had in mind.
What made the battle different to any battle that had been fought in the Ypres Salient prior to Messines Ridge was the successful use of a co-ordinated effort by various parts of the Army. Engineering troops had dug tunnels underneath German lines at Messines and filled them with explosives. Artillery and infantry units had become practised in using the rolling barrage tactic whereby advancing infantrymen – so often exposed to machine gun fire in the past – were covered by artillery shells that exploded some distance in front of them and effectively covered their advance.
Twenty-one tunnels (though some reports claim the total was 24) were dug underneath German lines and filled with a total of 455 tons of Ammonal explosive. Germans engineers later discovered one of these tunnels before the explosives in it could be fired.
Three corps from Plumer’s Second Army were involved in the attack:
Each corps was made up of three divisions. A fourth division was held in reserve by each of the three corps.
Facing them were men from the German IV Army commanded by Friedrich von Armin. The Germans were well versed in a tactic known as the ‘elastic defence method’ whereby the German front lines were lightly defended and men occupying these trenches at the start of an Allied attack could quickly retire to far more heavily defended lines about half-a-mile behind them – once it became clear just how strong an Allied attack was going to be. In a sense these front lines acted as reconnaissance for the Germans at a time when communications in the field were less than reliable.
The attack on Messines Ridge started with the tried and tested artillery assault. In the week leading up to June 7th over 2,200 artillery guns pounded German lines and it is thought that as many as 3 million shells may have been fired. However, they did not fire indiscriminately. Allied reconnaissance had provided artillery gunners with up-to-date maps of where German artillery positions were and by the time of the infantry attack some 90% of German artillery guns in and around Messines had been destroyed.
At 02.50 on June 7th the artillery bombardment stopped. As in many other Allied assaults, the Germans knew that this heralded an infantry attack and they moved into their positions accordingly. At 03.10 the mines underneath the German lines were detonated. Nineteen explosions killed about 10,000 German defenders and disorientated those who survived. One mine did not go off and another had been discovered and destroyed by the Germans. On the night prior to the attack General Plumer had told his senior staff that “we may not make History tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” The largest of the mines created a crater 40 feet deep and 250 feet in diameter. Shockwaves were felt as far away as Lille – some twenty miles distant and some reports also claimed they were felt in London and Paris.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, infantry from the three corps attacked covered by an artillery rolling barrage. Even if the surviving defenders had not been disorientated by the explosions, they would have found it difficult to focus on a target as a result of this barrage as the men advanced behind what was effectively a screen.
The first of the major targets had been taken by 05.00. The only real hold-up on the day was in the northern sector where troops from the 47th Division had to cross the Ypres-Comines Canal. However, even here all the targets set for the day were reached by 12.00.
Despite this initial success there was no let up. At 15.00 the second phase of the attack started when reserve divisions carried on from where the initial attackers had left off. Supported by tanks and artillery that had moved up to the front line, they moved on to the next set of targets while those involved in the initial attacks had time to rest, albeit briefly, before they moved on. The next targets as set by Plumer were reached by 16.00. There were a number of German counter-offensives on the day but they failed. However, surviving German artillery, once it had found its range, did inflict numerous casualties on the advancing Allied soldiers. The Germans did plan for a major counter-offensive on June 10th but this did not occur.
Compared to the battles that had been fought in the Ypres Salient in the past, the attack on Messines Ridge was a major success. It did show senior Allied commanders the power of a combined attack on static defences. 7,000 German prisoners were captured and the Allies lost 24,000 men; 3,538 killed and just over 20,000 wounded or missing. Compared to the near 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and the limited territorial gains, this was more than acceptable to Plumer and his senior staff.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts of outstanding bravery: Private John Carrol (Australia), Captain Robert Grieve (Australia), Lance-Corporal Sam Frickleton (New Zealand) and Private William Ratcliffe (British).
The only negative that came from the attack on Messines Ridge was that it lulled Allied senior commanders into believing that one size fitted all. Tactics for the next major Allied attack – at Passchendaele – were based around the success at Messines Ridge and were not duly shaped for the characteristics of Passchendaele itself.