Messines, Belgium, 7th-14th June 1917.
"Gentlemen, we may not write history tomorrow, but we are certainly going to change the geography". With those prophetic words, General Sir Herbert "Daddy" Plumer's Orders for his Second Army's attack on Messines Ridge began.
After the Canadians at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Messines was the second large-scale victory wrought by British and Commonwealth forces on the Western Front. It was the 3rd Australian Division's first major operation and marked the successful application of underground mine warfare and General Sir Herbert Plumer's "Bite and Hold" tactics.
Messines heralded the start of what has become known as the Third Ypres Campaign. It was to be a key turning point for the Allies, complementing the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. After months of meticulous preparation, the battle commenced with the detonation of 19 underground mines, dug beneath the German lines along the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, the high ground south of Ypres. They literally blew the top off the ridge-line, ensuring that General Plumer and his men did 'write history' and 'changed the geography' as well. The detonations were allegedly heard across the English Channel. More than 10,000 German soldiers are thought to have become casualties as a result.
A map showing the plan for the II ANZAC Corps attack at Messines. Yellow flashes indicate mine sites all of which successfully detonated. Source unknown
Advancing behind the coordinated artillery fire of 1500 field and 700 heavy guns, British, Australian and New Zealand troops captured their objectives within hours. German counterattacks the following day were repelled and although the battle continued over seven days the result was never in doubt. It was a resounding success along similar lines to the Canadians' capture of Vimy Ridge near Arras in April 1917.
Both operations included underground tunnelling and mining of a scale not seen previously, nor indeed subsequently.
Plumer, although in appearance somewhat like the stereotype "Colonel Blimp", was one of the most effective British Commanders of the Great War. Meticulous planning was exemplified by a large scale model of the terrain over which the troops would fight (see main photo AWM Negative ). This was viewed by the troops so they could gain a clear understanding of what was expected.
This operation also exemplified Plumer's strident advocacy of "bite and hold" tactics. This entailed massive concentration of force on a broad front with the object of seizing and reinforcing limited intermediate objectives rather than striving for a "breakthrough" as favoured by some of his cavalry colleagues. That ended more often than not in the attacking forces over-reaching and being outflanked, cut off and annihilated as had happened to the Australians at Fromelles in 1916 and at Bullecourt earlier in 1917. Messines completely vindicated Plumer's approach and his troops were certainly grateful for it.
Messines was a key preliminary operation for the subsequent 'Third Battle of Ypres' campaign which was conducted over the last four months of 1917, and ended in the mud and misery of Passchendaele.
Messines was the first battle to which General Monash's Third Australian Division was committed. It was backed up and relieved by the Fourth Division during the course of the battle.
Battalions comprising large number of South Australians committed to the battle included the 43rd Battalion in the Third Division, and the 48th, 50th and 52nd Battalions in the Fourth Division. The First Australian Tunnelling Company were famously involved in the underground battle at Hill 60 on the northern extremity of the ridge. Their exploits were portrayed in the movie of the same name (Beneath Hill 60).
Excellent first hand accounts of the battle are contained in "Somme Mud" (trove.nla.gov.au) by EFP Lynch (45th Battalion), and "Backs to the Wall" (trove.nla.gov.au) by George Mitchell, MC (48th Battalion).
Postscript - there were actually 25 mines dug. 21 were intended to be fired but only 19 went off. The same situation had occurred at other points along the front. They were more or less forgotten about until one detonated spontaneously during a thunderstorm in 1955. This has caused the French and Belgian Governments to take steps to try and locate unexploded mines. "The Durand Group" formed to investigate and map tunnel systems under the Western Front battlefields starting at Vimy Ridge (south of Messines). A series of unexploded mines have been located and disarmed - including one under the Vimy Ridge Visitors centre in 1998. See the link (at right) relating to their activities and the link to "The Underground War" in which Australian Tunnelling Companies played a key role.
Steve Larkins March 2013