The Battle of Messines

The Battle of Messines

Historical significance

Commencing on 7 June 1917, the Battle of Messines remains one of the most historically significant battles for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Not only was it the first time that Australian troops had seen action in a large-scale campaign in Belgium, but it was also the first time that the 3rd Australian Division, led by Major-General John Monash, had seen service on the Western Front. Furthermore, the battle was the first time since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 that the Australians and New Zealanders had fought side by side.

The primary objective of the Messines offensive was to drive the German enemy from the main battlefront of Messines, so as to secure the Wyschaete-Messines Ridge. Forming the high ground south of Ypres, the ridge had long been sought after by Allied forces due to the tactical advantage it provided on the Western Front.

Australian involvement

Plans to attack the Wyschaete-Messines Ridge and its surrounding villages had been developed for some time by General Herbert Plumer’s British Second Army. Those who were to participate in the attack included the Second Army, 16th Irish Division, 36th Ulster Division, and the II Anzac Corps led by Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley. The II Anzac Corps comprised the 25th British Division, the 3rd Australian Division, and the New Zealand Division. Additionally, the Corps received reinforcement by the 4th Australian Division, led by Major-General William Holmes, in May 1917.

The Battle

In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Messines, Plumer ordered a preliminary bombardment on the German enemy aligned in forward trenches along the Wyschaete-Messines Ridge.

Waves of attacking Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers, supported by strong artillery fire, climbed out of the trenches and through to the front line, occupying the enemy’s positions. This initial phase of the Allied attack went almost completely as planned. The only glitch was experienced by the 3rd Australian Division, which was overcome by gas on their approach march through Ploegsteert Wood, an area that had been heavily shelled some four hours before zero. Not only did this shelling leave the Division with between 500 and 1000 casualties, but also many battalions were forced to operate at a considerably reduced strength heading into battle. Remarkably, and despite the obstacles facing them, the troops who did not succumb to the attack were able to push on to their assembly position by zero.

Planned objectives for Messines battlefield
Planned objectives for Messines battlefield
Planned objectives for Messines battlefield

Given the devastation of the initial explosions, the 3rd Australian and New Zealand Divisions were able to reach their objectives within two hours, capturing Messines village and the land to its east. The surviving Germans were left so dazed and demoralised that they offered little resistance. By mid-morning, the Second Army had captured all primary objectives and was digging in on the first objective, the Black Line, on the eastern crest of the ridge. Concurrently, the three reserve divisions of the Second Army, including the 4th Australian Division, moved forward and passed through the attacking divisions to dig in on the top of the ridge.

With no time to prepare for this next phase of attack, Plumer was forced to use his reserve divisions. Amongst them was the 4th Australian Division, which had just six weeks prior suffered tremendous losses in the First Battle of Bullecourt. With the shock of once again being thrown into battle, the 4th Division moved off some four hours after the first assault, climbing the ridge to their assembly point at the very top. Once they had crested the ridge, in full view of the enemy, a pause was called for, leaving the Division badly exposed.

This had disastrous consequences for the 4th Division, which had already passed over the ridge and were ready to attack when they received news of the delay. Men of the 12th and 13th Brigades were left to shelter in shell holes for two hours, all the while being subjected to heavy enemy artillery shelling. Suffering many casualties, the 4th Division finally set off at 3:10pm. As if to add insult to injury, the Division found themselves under fire from friendly supporting artillery whose shelling was wildly inaccurate. The troops who had successfully made it to their final objective on the Green Line were forced to take cover, and others driven back to their start lines and beyond. Though the 12th Hstrong German counter-attack. It was not until 11 June that the remainder of this line was won.

It was within this charge that the Australian 45th Battalion lost some 171 men, 141 with no known grave to this day. But records indicate that up to 86 of them were once buried near to a key road, known to them as “Hun’s Walk.”

By the evening of 14 June, all original objectives were in British hands, and the Battle of Messines officially ceased. Despite considerable Allied losses, the battle was one of the most complete successes of the war. It was the first time whereby defensive casualties exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 versus 17,000. According to the Australian Official Historian 1941, II Anzac Corp losses from 1 to 14 June 1917 were recorded as 4,978 casualties in the New Zealand Division, 3,379 casualties in the 3rd Australian Division, and 2,677 casualties in the 4th Australian Division.