The Battle of Messines remembered, 100 years on


A century ago, the largest man-made explosion until the arrival of the nuclear bomb signalled the start of the Battle of Messines, an operation in which more than 40,000 soldiers were killed

Making history

In the early hours of 7 June 1917, the German 4th Army holding the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold south-east of Ypres, was coming under fierce artillery bombardment. It had been going on for days. In the previous week, more than 2,200 artillery guns had pounded their lines, firing as many as 3,000,000 shells.

Suddenly, at 2.50, the barrage stopped. General Friedrich Sixt von Armin, aware that the silence was likely to presage an infantry attack, moved his men into position. They stared through the dark and the smoke, armed and alert to repel the enemy, not realising that the danger lay beneath their feet.

On the Allied side, a countdown had begun.

Preparations had started the previous year for an ambitious operation directed, like the Battle of Messines that followed, by Field Marshall Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Second Army. He was aware that taking the Messines Ridge – one of the strongest points in the German line – was vital to the Allies’ chance of success.

By 7 June, preparations were complete: 21 tunnels over a distance of 8,000 metres had been built underneath the Messines Ridge and filled with 455 tons of explosive.

General Sir Charles Harington, chief of staff of the 2nd Army, told British officers: “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” The statement made it into the press and became history.

At 3.10, the mines underneath the German lines were detonated. Over the next 20 seconds, 19 huge explosions (two mines failed to explode) rocked Flanders in what would remain the largest man-made explosion until the arrival of the nuclear bomb.

The crest of Messines Ridge was catapulted into the air, taking 10,000 German soldiers with it. Watching journalists reported seeing “clods of earth the size of houses hurtling through the air”.

At Lille University’s geology department, the shockwave was mistaken for an earthquake. Tremors were detected by seismographs near Utrecht and on the Isle of Wight. Reports suggested that the sound was heard in London and Paris.

“First, there was a double shock that shook the earth … like a gigantic earthquake,” artillery officer Ralph Hamilton recalled. “Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go halfway up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic darkroom.”

The surviving German troops were stunned and dazed. The remains of their comrades lay in huge craters opened by the mines; the largest was 15 metres deep and 80 metres in diameter.

One British lieutenant inspecting a crater reported finding no human remains larger than a single foot encased in its boot.

Tactical success

Immediately after the explosions, 80,000 infantrymen, largely from the British 9th and 10th Corps and the 2nd Anzac Corps, attacked, covered by a rolling artillery barrage. In the afternoon, the second phase of the attack started, with reserve divisions pushing on further, supported by tanks and artillery.

By this time, the Germans had regrouped, and their artillery, once it had found its range, inflicted significant casualties on the advancing Allied soldiers.

The Battle of Messines lasted for seven days. It was considered a British tactical and operational success that greatly boosted morale among the Allies.

In particular, there was praise for the successful co-ordination of various parts of the Army – artillery, infantry and engineers. An estimated 25,000 German soldiers were killed in and after the explosions. The cost to the Allied forces was almost as high: 17,000.

Unfortunately, Allied senior commanders, boosted by their victory in Messines, became complacent and saw victory in their next major attack – the Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele – as a foregone conclusion. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Irish effect

Amid the audacity of the plan and the success of its implementation, one feature of the Battle of Messines often goes overlooked: its significance in Irish history.

“At the start of the First World War, the dominant issue in Ireland was Home Rule – the British government’s pledge to transfer power to an all-Ireland parliament in Dublin,” explains Richard Grayson, professor of 20th-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Although it was popular with the bulk of the Irish people and the main political cause of the Irish Nationalists for almost a century, it was deeply unpopular with Ulster Unionists in the north-east of Ireland – what is now Northern Ireland.” 

These were two units of the British Army that under different circumstances could have been fighting against each other in a civil war in Ireland

- Richard Grayson

As a result, the Unionists pledged to “use all means necessary” – including violence – to resist the imposition of Home Rule and set up the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. In parallel, the Irish Nationalists set up their own paramilitary group, the Irish Volunteers, to fight in favour of Home Rule.

By 1914, Ireland was on the brink of civil war. When the First World War broke out, the causes of both groups were somewhat subsumed by a greater cause, and they joined the British Army to form the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division.

Grayson: “These were two units of the British Army that under different circumstances could have been fighting against each other in a civil war in Ireland.”

The Battle of Messines was the first time these two divisions had lined up and fought side by side; it happened again at the Third Battle of Ypres. Grayson is wary of attributing too much contact between the groups, though.

“It’s important to understand that even though they fought together, they didn’t necessarily mix much,” he says. “There is a story of a football match taking place between battalions of the two divisions. However, even here, somebody in the Ulster Division said to their officer ‘I thought we weren’t supposed to be fraternising with the enemy!’”

After the war, the survivors returned to Ireland – and took up their own political causes once again. “In many cases, when the men got back home, the gulf reasserted itself,” explains Grayson, “and in the years that followed, the co-operation that had been seen in Messines was not overtly celebrated.”

In memory

On 7 June, the UK and Irish governments will hold a shared commemoration ceremony of the Battle of Messines. A series of other events is taking place in West Flanders to mark the battle’s centenary.

Richard Howard walk
Richard Howard, a music hall performer from Leeds, was conscripted in 1915 and killed two years later at the Battle of Messines. During the war, he started to make a violin. It lay for nine decades until it was found by Sam Sweeney, fiddle player with British folk big band Bellowhead. 6 June, CC Het Perron, Fochlaan 1, Ypres

Made in the Great War
Speaking of Sam Sweeney, the violinist has collaborated with award-winning storyteller Hugh Lupton, Bellowhead bandmate Paul Sartin and concertina player Rob Harbron to create a music and spoken-word performance based on the story of Richard Howard, and featuring Howard’s actual fiddle (pictured above). 6 June, CC Het Perron, Fochlaan 1, Ypres

William Redmond Walk
Early morning walk and musical story-telling in commemoration of Major William Redmond, a victim of the Battle of Messines. The walk takes you to the mine craters around Wijtschate and then to Redmond’s grave in Loker. 7 June, Redmond’s Pub, Dikkebusstraat 135, Loker (Heuvelland)

7 June ceremonies
8.00, National New Zealand remembrance ceremony, Messines Ridge cemetery, Mesen
10.00, Remembrance ceremony Australia , Strand military cemetery, Comines-Warneton
14.00, National remembrance ceremony Ireland & UK, Ireland Peace Park
16.00, Closing Ireland, Northern Ireland & UK ceremony, Wijtschate military cemetery, Wijtschate (Heuvelland)
19.30, New Zealand evening ceremony, Messines Ridge cemetery, Mesen

Zero Hour concert
A musical commemoration of the battle, featuring Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club (New Zealand), Mary Black & Band (Ireland), Chris Latham (Australia), Koninklijke Harmonie Ypriana, Wannes Cappelle and Flanders’ Ozark Henry. 10 June, Prefamed, Kemmelstraat, Heuvelland

Crater Front
An artistic sound and visual happening in 11 illuminated craters, featuring Brussels artist Shelbatra Jashari and Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The event will also incorporate 2,100 candles made by West Flemish children. 10 June, Kemmelstraat, Heuvelland

Photo: Elly Lucas

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

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1 914

First Battle of Ypres