Day 4 – Part 1: The Victory on Messines Ridge

Up at the crack of dawn, going to be a busy day. Over breakfast I met a charming mother and daughter who were over for the commemorations from NZ. They were with a tour group but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room at the inn so they were billeted at my hotel. It was great to have some company as there was a noisy group of German business men in who just wouldn’t shut up.

Breakfast over, I headed about 20 km south towards the French border to the site of another battle which preceded Passchendaele and in which the Kiwi soldiers played a decisive role in June 1917 – The Battle of Messines.  Messines Ridge was one of the highest points along the western front with dominating views of the surrounding area, and had been held by the Germans for most of the war.  The attack was a precursor to the much larger 3rd battle of Ypres to come a few months later – Passchendaele.  In preparing for the Messines battle, 21 mine shafts were laid underneath German lines all along the ridge, All 22 to be detonated at zero hour 03:10 on the 7th of June 1917, to be followed by infantry attacks so as to secure the ridge from the dazed German defenders.  The infantry would be heavily supported by the use of artillery bombardments, tanks and the use of gas.  Work on laying the mines began some 18 months before zero hour.  General Plumer remarked to his staff the evening before the attack, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

Heavy artillery bombardment of the German lines begun on 21st May, involving 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars, ceasing only at 02:50 on the morning of the 7th of June, 17 days later.  The German troops, sensing imminent attack, rushed to their defensive positions, machine guns ready, meanwhile sending up flares to detect British movement towards the ridge.  At 03:10, the order was given across the line to detonate the mines, which totaled 600 tons of explosive. Of the 21 mines laid 19 exploded.

The effect of the mines was colossal!  They blew the crest off the Messines ridge.  The explosion was audible in Dublin (870 kms away) and by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George in his Downing Street office in London.  The combined sound of the simultaneous mine explosions comprised the loudest man-made explosion until that point.  The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a ‘pillar of fire’.  The effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders was devastating.  Some 10,000 men were killed instantly during the explosion.

With the Aussies on the right, the British on the left, the New Zealand Battalion charged the centre.  Within 3 hours all the major goals were achieved and then some, but with heavy casualties for the NZers – 3000 wounded and 700 dead.  However, this was considered a major victory for the Allies and the first major success of the war after 3 years of stalemate and it was all down mostly to the ANZACs.

Wandering along the ridge it was easy to see the commanding views the Germans had of the areas and the uphill battle the ANZACs had.  The size of the crates after the mines are massive and can still be seen today. The biggest one Hill 60 is almost 80 metres deep.

I made a visit first to the NZ Memorial Messines at the top of the ridge where the Kiwis came up.  Then moved onto the Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial with the names of the missing at the entrance to the Messines Ridge British Cemetery.  Here I was again able to mark the names of several soldiers on the Gore RSA Roll of Honour with poppies.  While wandering around the cemetery I run into the Maori group who would be paddling the Maori waka at the Menin Gate ceremony in the evening. It was good to have a chat, hear the kiwi accent and catch up from news back home.  I also paid a visit to Messine town square where there stands a bronze statue of a NZ soldier erected by the people to thank the Kiwis for what they did. They even named one of the streets after New Zealand.  Also visiting the square was the statue commemorating Christmas eve 1917 where the Kiwis & Germans came out of their trenches to meet in no-mans land, wish each other a Merry Christmas, exchange small gifts of food & cigarettes and to play a little football only to retire back to their trenches and start killing each other the next day.

From Messines I headed down to the end of the ridge to Ploegsteert Wood (Plug Street Wood).  After fierce fighting in late 1914 and early 1915, Ploegsteert Wood became a quiet sector where not much action took place. Units were sent here to recuperate and retrain after tougher fighting elsewhere and before returning to take part in more active operations.  Most of those who died here did not die in major offensives, such as those which took place around Ypres to the north. Most were killed in the course of the day-to-day trench warfare or wounded who died in the field dressing station here.  Nearby in Ploegsteert Wood were the ‘Catacombs’ or deep shelters capable of holding two battalions where soldiers could rest up between battles.

I visited Strand Military Cemetery on the road from Ploegsteert to Armentieres, again to visit some graves for the RSA back home.  Here lye a lot of casualties from the dressing station, most of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to those whose graves were destroyed by shell fire in other areas.  The cemetery fell into the hands of the Germans towards the end of the war so it has some German graves also.  I made a quick stop also at the Berks Cemetery Extension in Ploegsteert. Beautiful cupola memorial to the Berkshire regiments but I also found NZ soldiers were also buried here.

With the morning visit over and in need of lunch I headed back to spent the afternoon exploring Ypres before the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate.

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