The Battle of Messines 1917 Part Two

This photograph, taken in November 1917, shows a German concrete pillbox that has been blown over by the force of a mine explosion.

The Battle of Messines in June 1917 was an important attack that sought to seize the strategically important heights of the Messines/Wytschaete ridge in southern Belgium. Pre-empted by the detonation of 19 enormous mines containing one million pounds of ammonal, the assault was launched by three Corps under General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army.

The photograph above, taken in November 1917, shows a German concrete pillbox that has been blown over by the force of a mine explosion. Nineteen such mines were detonated to signal the start of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917.

Click here to read The Battle of Messines Part I

The detonation of nineteen mines along the Messines/Wytschaete ridge signalled the start of an attack designed to capture the strategically important high ground to the south of Ypres; a vital precursor to the larger Third Battle of Ypres (known to history as the battle of Passchendaele). Despite General von Kuhl suggesting the withdrawal of the German front line troops away from the ridge as it had become apparent a major British offensive was to be launched, front line commanders argued vehemently against this. Consequently, many thousands of German troops were simply obliterated as the earth erupted beneath them. As the historian of the 37th Battalion wrote, “Nothing could have withstood such an onslaught; and nothing did.”

The II Anzac Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley comprised the 25th British Division, the New Zealand Division and the 3rd Australian Division. The 4th Australian Division moved through the attacking units following the capture of the ridgeline, and pressed forward the assault to the final objective line. Map from Wikipedia

The II Anzac Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley comprised the 25th British Division, the New Zealand Division and the 3rd Australian Division. The 4th Australian Division moved through the attacking units following the capture of the ridgeline, and pressed forward the assault to the final objective line. Map from Wikipedia

Climbing out of the trenches, waves of attacking British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers of Godley’s II Anzac Corps sought to capitalise on the shock of these explosions and the accompanying artillery barrage and occupy the enemy’s positions before they had the chance to form a new defensive line. The scale of the mine explosions neutralised both the enemy’s guns and disrupted their planned counterattacks. One mine had detonated in front of the British 25th Division’s sector, while three detonated in front of the 3rd Australian Division’s sector with a fourth just to the right of that. A great machine gun barrage fired over the heads of the attacking infantry and pioneers as they moved forward in the pre-dawn darkness, with choking smoke and dust in the air from the great disruption of earth further hampering visibility. German troops directly above each of the mines had been wiped out by the blast along lengths, Bean estimates, “of some 150 yards of trench.”

Mine crater, Factory Farm

Most mine craters from the great explosions in the Battle of Messines now represent a more tranquil scene by serving as dams on local farms.  Discovered around Ultimo Crater at Factory Farm, in front of the 9th Brigade’s line, was evidence of Lewis Gun emplacements as the new crater was fortified.  Photo by author.

The German survivors in II Anzac’s sector were largely stunned and demoralised due to the great concussion of the blasts, the heavy artillery barrage and the heavy machine gun fire that now poured upon them. Many German prisoners were taken during this phase.

The 3rd Division’s objective was to push all the way through to the Green Line. This was achieved comparatively easily, especially in light of the AIF’s battle experiences on the Western Front, the growing tactical skills of the Australian infantry, and to the overwhelming firepower of the allied assault. Rigorous training on Salisbury Plain and in France had prepared them as well as possible for the ensuing attack – including training in preparations for consolidating craters such as they would encounter at Messines.

Consolidation of crater, June 1917

Diagram showing the 33rd Battalion’s consolidation of Ultimo Crater, from the Battalion’s War Diary.  Shallow trenches were dug outwards from the crater with machine guns providing a wide arc of fire toward the enemy positions.  Source: Amended from AWM4, 23/50/8 – June 1917.

One of the only places of resistance along the 3rd Division’s frontage in this early phase of the attack was found on the extreme southern edge, where the 33rd Battalion (under command of LTCOL Leslie Morshead) faced some determined German opposition from beyond the flank of the attacking line. Following some accurate sniping to keep the enemy back, the position was consolidated. It was here however, on 8 June, that 1983 Pte Alan Mather of the 33rd Battalion was killed in action in Ultimo Trench, just north of Factory Farm.

PTE Alan Mather

1983, Private Alan Mather, 33rd Battalion, killed in action 8 June 1917.  Mather was killed north of Factory Farm at the approximate location where the Black Line passed through Ultimo Trench on the top map. Image courtesy of the Mather family.

Mather is notable because his remains were uncovered by a British Archaeological Team in 2008 led by Richard Osgood and Martin Brown, excavating trenches used during the Battle of Messines. Mather was eventually identified mainly by DNA comparison, and buried with full military honours in July 2010. His uniform, rifle and personal effects were returned to Australia, conserved, and with the co-operation of Pte Mather’s descendants, now feature in the new Australian Army Infantry Museum at Singleton.

Infantry museum artefacts

Private Alan Mather’s rifle, personal effects and ‘battlefield souvenirs’ (including German pickelhaube helmet) are now on display at the Australian Army Infantry Museum, Singleton. They were recovered in 2008 alongside Private Mather’s remains, having lain undiscovered in a Belgian field for 91 years. Image courtesy of Australian Army Infantry Museum.

From approximately 4:30am, the barrage halted for an hour to allow fresh battalions to move forward in preparation for the second phase of the initial attack. Prior to this, battalions had moved relatively unimpeded through the choking smoke and dust to their objectives, in line with the various lifts of the creeping artillery barrage. The halt gave the Germans a chance to regroup, and after the initial onslaught, they began to provide greater resistance to the attack, slowing down the rate of the infantry’s advance. The New Zealand Division was tasked with the capture of the village of Messines. Their battalions passed through and around the village ruins, subduing enemy activity where they found it. The 25th Division on their left similarly achieved its objectives. The long halt in the middle of the day saw success throughout II Anzac’s sector.

Plumer planned to resume the attack at 1pm, however delays by the central IX Corps (to II Anzac’s left) in moving their troops up meant that the afternoon attack did not go in until 3pm. When the attack was pressed forward again, two brigades of the 4th Australian Division moved through the 25th and New Zealand Divisions to the final objective (Green) line. Their success was only possible because of the successful capture of the ridgeline by the British 25th, the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions. The New Zealand Division had captured and held the village of Messines with comparatively little difficulty, while pill-boxes were able to be isolated and destroyed.

PTE Goerge Forrest

66 Private George Forrest, 34th Battalion, was killed at Messines soon after the start of the battle. A veteran of the Boer War, he lied about his age on enlistment, and at time of death, was 60 years old.  AWM P08568.001

In the afternoon, the 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division pushed up to the Oosttaverne Line, capturing and holding sections of it as the remainder of the attackers made their way to that objective. It was here that German resistance hardened significantly. The capture of the remainder of the Oosttaverne Line in II Anzac’s sector took another four days and nights of hard fighting.

Messines

The Messines battle ground, showing the village of Messines in the background.  The village was captured by the New Zealand Division.  AWM E01293.

By the evening of the 7 June, Plumer’s bite and hold attack to take the Messines ridge-line was a tactical and strategic success. In the II Anzac Corps sector, the 3rd Division had been ‘blooded’ in its first major battle of the war, the New Zealanders had confirmed their standing as one of the BEF’s best formations, while the 25th Division too fought very well to achieve its objectives. Supporting, the 4th Division had consolidated the ground already won and pushed on to hold the final objective. Along the entire attacking front, the three Corps offensive had been a success and the salient south of Ypres had been eliminated. Two Australian Victoria Crosses were awarded from the battle at Messines – to Robert Grieve and John Carroll. Such a spectacular victory came at a price, with some 26,000 casualties sustained, while II Anzac suffered 13,500 of that total figure. The Germans sustained an equivalent number of casualties. The Battle of Messines was the most complete success of any major Western Front attack by the Allies to that stage of the war.

Dr Andrew Richardson
Australian Army History Unit

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