Topic: BatzWF - Westn Front
The Battle of Messines
Belgium, 7 - 14 June 1917
Messines, a major action in the Flanders region of southern Belgium, undertaken on 7 Jun 1917 for the purpose of' capturing the Wytschaete - Messines ridge south of the British salient at Ypres. Since these low heights-part of the crescent of high ground running east of the battered town-were occupied by the Germans and overlooked British positions, the ridge's capture was essential to plans for an offensive to occupy the Belgian coast. Three army corps were allocated to the task, one of these being II Anzac commanded by Lieut.-General Sir Alexander Godley which comprised three divisions: the 25th British, the New Zealand and the 3rd Australian (Major-General John Monash). In addition, the 4th Australian Division (Major-General William Holmes) was sent to reinforce the corps.
A seven-day preliminary bombardment began on 31 May At 3.10 a.m. on 7 June mines containing a million pounds of ammonal, placed in nineteen tunnels which had been dug under and behind the German lines during the preceding two years by Canadian, Australian and British miners, were detonated. The resultant explosions created massive craters, obliterated enemy front-line positions and left survivors stunned and demoralised. The British advance was rapid and largely unopposed, so that by 5.30 a.m. the heights had been easily occupied in one of the most complete local victories yet seen in the war.
Stunning though this success had been, there was drama in the 3rd Division when Monash's men were caught in a German attack using phosgene shells while on approach through Ploegsteert Wood to its start-lines. Some 500 men were gassed and temporarily put out of action, and hundreds more fell to shrapnel rounds, but the division proceeded and was in its correct position for the attack. A further hitch developed that afternoon, when reserve formations moved through to press the advance down the eastern slopes against the German depth positions known as the Oostaverne Line. Delays held back the British corps moving in the centre, forcing the 4th Australian Division to attempt to plug a widening gap so that by the end of the day it was effectively holding half the battlefront.
Engineering plans and actual placement of an observation tree by the Australians at Hill 63 during the Battle of Messines.
During this battle the Australians also encountered for the first time the German innovation of concrete blockhouses, which were dubbed 'pillboxes'. Despite strong enemy counter-attacks the next day, and heavy casualties due to artillery fire-from both German and Allied batteries which mistakenly targeted friendly troops-the attacking forces were able to continue expanding their gains to the final objectives laid down for them. For the Australians, success in this operation came at the price of nearly 6,800 casualties, close on two-thirds of these in the 3rd Division. Total losses in II Anzac Corps were about 13,900 - slightly more than the combined total of the two other British corps involved. German losses for the same period were about 23,000, including 7,548 missing.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 129-130.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
C.E.W. Bean, (1933), The Australian Imperial Force in France 1917, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
P.A. Pedersen, (1985), Monash as Military Commander, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.
Citation: The Battle of Messines, Belgium, 7 - 14 June 1917, Outline