Launched on 7 June 1917, the Messine offensive was designed to force the German enemy to withdraw from the main battlefront of Vimy – Arras.” The Battle exemplified tactical success through careful planning and overwhelming firepower.
The primary objective was the strategically important Wyschaete-Messines Ridge, the high ground south of Ypres. The Germans used this ridge as a salient into the British lines, building their defence along its 10 mile length. Winning this ground was essential for the Allies to launch a larger campaign planned for east of Ypres. General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army was chosen for the task, with three Corps allotted to secure the objective. Australian involvement came under Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley’s II Anzac Corps (25th British, 3rd Australian, and the New Zealand Division) which was to capture the village of Messines and advance to the flat ground beyond. The 4th Australian Division was reinforcement for II Anzac for the attack and was to complete the second phase of consolidation.
Plumer’s reputation was one of caution and thoroughness in every aspect of operational planning and training. Battle plans were drawn from mid-March 1917, using large models so troops could familiarise themselves with the terrain and their objectives.
The 3rd Australian Division, commanded by Major General John Monash, was the last of the Australian Infantry Divisions to join the front line in December 1916. The II Anzac Corps formed part of a 12 division attack; supported by 1,500 field guns and 700 heavy guns; relying on photographs of the enemy’s defensive positions taken by the Royal Flying Corps.
For two years Australian, British and Canadian miners had engaged in subterranean warfare digging an intricate tunnel system under the enemy’s front line. The Allies used these tunnels to further tactical advantage, packing massive charges of the explosive ammonal to obliterate enemy defences. The main Australian effort was at Hill 60 where Tunnelling Companies worked for months, reinforcing and protecting the large mines in its region. The professionalism and skill of all the Allies was demonstrated by the Germans’ inability to locate mines.
The attack, codenamed ‘Magnum Opus’, was set for 7 June 1917 with ‘Zero’ hour at 3:10am. A seven day preliminary bombardment was conducted to put pressure on the enemy during the days leading up to the infantry assault. Battalions were brought forward from their billets in Pont de Nieppe to the farms around the south and west of Ploegsteert Wood. Raiding parties regularly captured enemy prisoners to extract vital intelligence on German preparedness for an attack. Battalion working parties prepared for the impending battle, digging assembly or communication trenches, stockpiling shells (gas, shrapnel, High Explosive and mortar) and assisting in the bringing up of supplies to forward positions.
The Germans were aware of the impending offensive, but it was coincidence that they shelled the Wood with gas while attacking troops were forming. At 11pm on 6 June, the 3rd Division was subjected to a gas attack, causing between 500 and 2000 casualties.
Every German gun seemed to be pouring gas shells over, and the air was full of the whine peculiar to the aerial flight of a gas-shell. They burst all round the columns, and a number of men were killed or wounded by flying nose-caps. Occasionally the monotonous whine and pop of impact was relieved by a high explosive or an incendiary shell, and the casualties were fairly heavy. The remainder of the approach march was like a nightmare. The actual wearing of a small box-respirator is a physical discomfort at any time, but on a hot dark night for men loaded with ammunition, arms, and equipment, it is a severe strain. Wounded and gassed men were falling out, and officers and non-commissioned officers were continually removing their respirators to give orders and to keep their platoons together. A shell would burst in a platoon, the dead and wounded would fall, and the rest of the platoon would pull themselves together and move on, for above everything was the fixed determination to be in position at the Zero hour, and the realisation that this terrible gassing, if it prevented our arrival on time, might easily result in the failure of the whole operation.
Messines was the first time Australians and New Zealanders had fought side by side since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The 3rd Division’s attacking front line stretched from St Yves to La Petite Douve Farm. They were to capture the ground to the east of Messines village all the way to the final Green Line objective. The 10th Brigade was on the left of 3rd Division’s front (alongside the New Zealand Division) and the 9th Brigade on the right, forming the southernmost flank of the great Messines offensive. The 10th Brigade was tasked with fording the La Douve River. Bridges were constructed to reach the enemy’s front line. The New Zealand Division was tasked with the capture of Messines and onwards until the Black Line was reached, whereupon the 4th Division passed through them up to the final objective of the Green Line.
At 3:09am, eyes peered nervously through the darkness at watches as the final seconds ticked down. Along the front line, men waited anxiously for the subterranean cataclysm that signalled battle had commenced. At 3:10am on 7 June 1917, the detonator switches were triggered. The earth erupted into pillars of fire and earth, instantly obliterating the thousands of German troops above them.
Click here for The Battle of Messines Part II.
Dr Andrew Richardson
Australian Army History Unit