Battle of Messines Ridge
In order to break through the German front line in the Ypres Salient Douglas Haig’s intention in 1917 was, first, to take the high ground on the right, following which, the high ground on the left could be taken in an operation which would see his troops advance, unthreatened by the high ground on their right and rear, aided by an ambitious sea-borne landing, and take Roulers, the main German railhead.
The first part of this plan, The Battle of Messines, was achieved, although the second part, The Third Battle of Ypres, failed due to a combination of poor performance by Gough, the commander of the Fifth Army responsible for the great thrust northwards, and appalling weather conditions. Unable to shut down the battle due to the need to keep pressure off the French Army, which had largely mutinied after the failed Nivelle Offensive, and was still in no real state to withstand a determined German attack, the campaign turned into one of slogging attrition, culminating in the capture of the village of Passchendale at the highest point on the ridge.
The Battle of Messines. 7th June 1917
The first day of the battle of the Messines Ridge saw the simultaneous firing of nineteen enormous deep mines under German strongpoints. 25 mines were actually prepared and five remain unfired (One detonated in a thunderstorm in 1955). Below are photos of some of the craters remaining.
Various massive charges of Amatol (The most powerful explosive then available) were fired over a 20 second period at 3:10 am on the morning of 7th June 1917. As a result of over a year of careful planning by Plumer’s Second Army the battle was a complete success. All objectives were taken on the first day.
While German casualty figures are always difficult to establish the Official History reports them as about 23,000, including 10,000 missing, between 21st May and 10th June.Prisoners taken by the BEF ammounted to 7,154, and It can reasonably claimed that at least 10,000 Germans died in th attack.
BEF casualties were also high, at 20,940; 18,646 being from the 158 attacking infantry battalions. Approximately 7,000 Britsh troops died, in the view of the Official History, ( 1917 Vol II Ch. V) , partly because of crowding on the Ridge itself after the assault, and partly due to difficulties in co-ordinating barrages owing to the use of two separate artillery organisations by the British.
A journey along the sites of the remaining mine craters is a good way to understand where the front lines on the right hand side of the Ypres salient lay in mid 1917.
Scroll down to see the images
Messines Ridge map: Department of History at the United States Military Academy
1. Hill 60. & 2. The Caterpillar.
3. St Eloi. The 1916 craters are on private land. The 1917 crater (which destroyed craters 3 and 4 of 1916) is open in the Spring & Summer, but you need to buy tickets from the Ypres Tourist Office to get the gate combination. At 96,500 lbs of amatol the St Eloi mine of 1917 was the largest of all the Battle of Messines mines.
A trench map extract from 1916 showing the existing craters at St Eloi. The four large ones are numbered 1-4 from the right.
4.Hollandschesshur (showing the location of the nearby Bayernwald and the location of the German front line in 1917.)
6. Maedelstede Farm . 94,000 lbs fired at 217ft depth. (Below). The huge spoil banks remain and give a clear impression of the power of these mines. Wijtsheate church can be seen on the horizon.
7. Peckham Farm. (Below) The crater in the foreground was caused by 87,000 lbs of Amatol at a depth of 240 feet. A 20,000 lb mine remains intact under the farm house in the immediate background. (Mine 6 is behind the building in the left background).
8. Spanbroekmolen (Lone Tree) , (Below), 91,000 lbs fired at 250 feet. The second photo shows a german bunker, partly covered by spoil from the explosion. This bunker is on the NE side of the crater, which is open to the public.
A destroyed German bunker, partly buried by the mine debris, can still be seen on the NW side of the crater.
9. Kruistraat (below). Three charges totalling 109,500 lb of amatol fired at a depth of between 200 and 235 feet. Two craters remain. Note: crater 8 is behind the buildings in the left background.
10. Ontario farm.(Below) 60,000 lbs fired at 200 feet under soft clay. Due to the nature of the ground (wet slippery clay) only a small crater, in the group of trees on the left, was formed, but the shockwave did massive damage to the German position here. Ontario Farm can be seen in the right background.
11. Petite Douve Farm (Now called La Basse Cour). A 50,000 lb mine remains, unfired, below one of the barns next to the house. The farm is on the outskirts of Messines village, on the road to Ploegsteert.
12. Trench 127, where one crater remains. Two were fired, with a total of 86,000 lbs of amatol at 182 and 210 feet. The second crater has been filled in. The North side of Ploegsteert wood can be seen in the background.
13. Factory farm. The enormous spoil bank (immediately below) and the crater pool. 20,000 lbs of amatol.
14. Trench 122. Across the road from the Factory farm mine. 40,000 lbs of amatol.
15. The Birdcage. 4 mines were prepared here, but not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated this area by Zero Hour. One mine (about 75 yards from the point this picture was taken from, just to the left of the road) exploded in 1955. Three remain charged to either side of the road, two to the left and one to the right, all within 150 yards of this spot.