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  • Battle of Messines

    (Originally posted today under the wrong thread...Sorry for the confusion)

    The Battle of Messines (Belgium) on June 7, 1917, was one of the few clear-cut Allied victories of World War I and possibly the greatest example of thorough combat engineering in modern history.

    The Messines Ridge was directly southeast of the dreaded Ypres sector. The line formed somewhat of a backward "S" curve, as historian James Stokesbury described it; the Allies held the top bulge into German territory, and the Germans held the southern bulge. The line basically followed a ripple of ridges, and as was the case in most of the Flanders region, the Allies held the vulnerable low ground. According to one source, the Allies were taking hundreds of casualties there daily, even when the fighting wasn't "hot."

    The necessity of taking Messines Ridge was part of an overall plan to break out of the Ypres Salient, push toward the coast, and hook up with an amphibious landing there. The intentions were to encircle the German line leading to the coast, and to take out U-boat bases there. Things didn't quite work out that way, but I'll get to that later.

    The job of taking the ridge was handed to Gen. Herbert Plumer, a man who was very much admired by his troops; they referred to him as "Daddy." Knowing that he had a number of units comprised of coal miners, he made the decision to attack from beneath No Man's Land by digging a series of mines, packing them with explosives, and detonating them in one massive, devastating blast just before the British and ANZAC troops went "over the top." Mining had been used to some success in other areas, but none matched the intensity that Plumer envisioned.

    Plumer selected 21 key points along the ridge to mine, stretching from Hill 60 in the southeast corner of the Ypres Salient (a man-made hill 60 meters above sea level, created with spoil from the Ypres-Comines railway cut) and the adjacent "Caterpillar," another man-made hill adjacent to Hill 60, down the line through St. Elois, Hollandasches-Churr Farm, Petit Bois, Maedelstede Farm, Peckham, Spanbroekmolen, Kruisstraat, Ontario Farm, Petit Douve Farm, "Trench 127," Factory Farm, "Trench 122," and ending at Ploegsteert Wood. Tunneling began in 1915.

    Tunnels -- roughly 100 feet in depth -- ranged from listening galleries in which a man could walk upright, down to smaller shafts in which a man had to work sitting down with a back brace (the troops referred to this as "working at the cross"). Naturally, problems developed. First, all of the blue clay excavated had to be bagged and hauled to rear areas, as German aerial observers might spot the clay and reveal the plan. Second, the Germans knew enough to start countermining; in some cases, mines intersected each other and small battles were fought in the dark. Third, the Germans continually tried to shut down the Allied tunnels by detonating charges on top of them; this, and continuous use of poison gas above, led to a buildup of foul air in the tunnels, and 30-pound breathing devices much like aqualungs were often necessary to work.

    Despite these problems, mining continued and plans remained the same. When the tunnels reached their target, massive charges of ammonal or gun cotton were planted and wired. Only the mine at Petit Douve Farm was captured and defused by the Germans. The rest remained in place, although no one was certain that they would work properly.

    After nearly two years of work, the attack was ready to go. It began with a massive shelling that lasted more than a week. In the early hours of June 7, troops were issued cotton to put in their ears, and those in front-line trenches were advised to climb out and lay on top, as the explosions might collapse their trenches. At 03:17, moments after the guns fell silent, the plungers went down. Columns of fire, smoke and debris went flying skyward. The ground itself rippled. One soldier said that for a split second he could see the skeleton of the man in front of him. The captured mine at Petit Douve Farm and two more at Ploegsteert Wood (at the far end of the ridge) did not detonate, but the remaining mines did the trick. Many objectives were captured in a matter of minutes, thousands of dazed Germans surrendered, and the battle was deemed a success. Gen. Plumer received knighthood as a result.

    The rest of the plan went to hell in a hand basket. The effort to break out of the Ypres Salient is now better known as Passchendaele, one of the Allied low points of the war. With its failure, the amphibious landing never took place. And things pretty much stayed the same at Ypres for the remainder of the war.

    As a postscript, one of the mines at Ploegsteert Wood did eventually detonate in 1955. Electric towers were erected across the battle some years after the war, and one was placed directly atop that mine. Lightening struck the pole, and the mine went off, leaving a crater 100 feet deep and 300 feet across. The remaining mine at Ploegsteert Wood remains undetonated, and its exact position is now unknown.

  • #2
    There is a movie clip of the hawthorne explosion. It shows men loading the mine shaft and detonating the charges:



    Here is a link to a web page on the battle: http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/messines.htm
    Last edited by Admiral; 29 Apr 10, 20:46. Reason: Added YouTube Viewer

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    • #3
      Impressive video clip of mines

      Thanks for directing me to the YouTube clip on mining. It truly shows the awesome power of these explosions. The only thing that puzzles me is that the clip was labeled as "July 1917." The Messines mines were fired in June, 1917. Of course, I am certain that with the success of Messines, mining most likely continued along that front for the duration of the war. Thanks again!

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      • #4
        Originally posted by Jeff Simmons View Post
        Thanks for directing me to the YouTube clip on mining. It truly shows the awesome power of these explosions. The only thing that puzzles me is that the clip was labeled as "July 1917." The Messines mines were fired in June, 1917. Of course, I am certain that with the success of Messines, mining most likely continued along that front for the duration of the war. Thanks again!
        The clip shows the Hawthorne explosion, which evidently happened in July. There are no clips AFAIK of the Messines explosion although if there was, it would probably look pretty similar..

        Supposedly they are still finding unexploded mines from WWI. The You tube link also had videos of news clips talking about them.

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        • #5
          The Battle was well planned by General Plumer and his staff. When at a staff meetings discissing the use of giant mines he said 'We may not change history but we will change geography'.
          War is less costly than servitude

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          • #6
            Originally posted by TJN006 View Post
            There is a movie clip of the hawthorne explosion. It shows men loading the mine shaft and detonating the charges:



            Here is a link to a web page on the battle: http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/messines.htm
            That first explosion is definately the Hawthorn mine but it signalled the start of the First Day of the Somme July 1, 1916 and not Messines/Ypres 1917. I get the feeling they put togther bits and pieces from various videos and then put them under the single heading. The months and years seem to be mixed up a fair bit. Very interesting none-the-less and first time I've seen those particular videos of the men carrying explosives into mines, setting up charges etc. Thanks for posting!

            Can anyone identify some of the other explosions or confirm if they are from Messines?

            Here's a photo from the Hawthorn mine video:

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            • #7
              A guess

              I've looked at the video, and although I cannot be certain, I am more or less leaning toward the idea that none of the explosions were at Messines. My reasoning is that the explosions in the film are very well back-lit against the sky. The initial Messines mine detonations were fired at 03:17, which would have been pre-dawn (as Plumer planned it). Therefore, the skies would have been much darker and the explosions harder to see on black-and-white film. I could be completely wrong about this, but that is my guess.

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              • #8
                I remember reading that it was heard in London (which I can understand) and also Dublin. Can anyone confirm that?
                Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the cheesemakers

                That's right bitches. I'm blessed!

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Jeff Simmons View Post
                  I've looked at the video, and although I cannot be certain, I am more or less leaning toward the idea that none of the explosions were at Messines. My reasoning is that the explosions in the film are very well back-lit against the sky. The initial Messines mine detonations were fired at 03:17, which would have been pre-dawn (as Plumer planned it). Therefore, the skies would have been much darker and the explosions harder to see on black-and-white film. I could be completely wrong about this, but that is my guess.
                  Jeff, I wasn't aware that they were pre-dawn detonations so you're assumption that none of the explosions shown are Messines sounds logical.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Rojik View Post
                    I remember reading that it was heard in London (which I can understand) and also Dublin. Can anyone confirm that?
                    That's something I've heard as well. My question... if the sound of the explosion was that great, wouldn't there be some cases of deafness amongst those who were in the vicinity?

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                    • #11
                      Was it heard in England?

                      Rojik, historian/writer James Stokesbury states in his book, "A Short History Of World War I," that the Messines explosions were "heard clearly" in England, which is about 70 miles west of the battlefield.

                      As far as deafness among soldiers involved in the attack, I have never read anything about it. They were given cotton earplugs, but that seems like a rather modest effort to protect their hearing. I've got to admit that I didn't give this possibility a lot of thought when I wrote my novel on Messines, because I didn't come across any tidbit of information about it. I'll have to check this out in some other sources.
                      Last edited by Jeff Simmons; 01 May 10, 15:56.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Jeff Simmons View Post
                        Rojik, historian/writer James Stokesbury states in his book, "A Short History Of World War I," that the Messines explosions were "heard clearly" in England, which is about 70 miles west of the battlefield.
                        OK. Thanks. I'm still not sure about the Dublin bit but then again it is claimed that Krakatoa was heard in Melbourne so...

                        Either way it was an impressive achievement and must of given the surviving Germans a scare that they never got over.
                        Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the cheesemakers

                        That's right bitches. I'm blessed!

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                        • #13
                          quite a scare

                          Yes, the mines at Messines were quite a scare for the Germans. The size of the mining operation was unheard of. When detonation occurred, thousands of surviving Germans on the ridge stumbled out of the smoke completely dazed, dropped their weapons and started heading for the Allied line in a state of surrender. In fact, so many Germans were staggering down the hills to surrender that some on the Allied side of the battlefield mistakenly believed it was a German counterattack. The Allied soldiers were then told to simply point the Germans in the right direction and they would be sorted out after the ridge was secured.

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                          • #14
                            Further reading

                            If you are interested in further reading on the Messines tunneling campaign, I suggest "War Underground" by Alexander Barrie or "Pillars of Fire" by Ian Passingham. I, myself, have written a historical fiction novel that centers on the Messines effort (building up to it via Neuve Chapelle and Second Ypres) titled "Wipers: A Soldier's Tale From the Great War," available on Amazon.com. Naturally, it is a bit more light-hearted than the non-fiction accounts, but I did my best to make it historically-accurate without being too heavy-handed. There are several reviews if you visit Amazon and search using my name or "Wipers."

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                            • #15
                              Mines at Messine Ridge

                              Originally posted by Canuckster View Post
                              That first explosion is definately the Hawthorn mine but it signalled the start of the First Day of the Somme July 1, 1916 and not Messines/Ypres 1917. I get the feeling they put togther bits and pieces from various videos and then put them under the single heading. The months and years seem to be mixed up a fair bit. Very interesting none-the-less and first time I've seen those particular videos of the men carrying explosives into mines, setting up charges etc. Thanks for posting!

                              Can anyone identify some of the other explosions or confirm if they are from Messines?

                              Here's a photo from the Hawthorn mine video:
                              There were several other mines laid beneath Vimy Ridge prior to the attack by the Canadian Divisions, and there were at least two on Messine Ridge. One left what is best decribed as a moonscape now covered in grass and the second a water filled crater both now surrounded by woodland.

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