The Battle of Messines 1917
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.
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 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.
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.
Dr Andrew Richardson
Australian Army History Unit