The Opening of the Battle of Messines, 7th June, 1917

At 0310 hrs on Thursday 7th June, 1917 the British Second Army under General Sir Herbert Plumer started an attack which in three hours resulted in the capture of the whole of the Messines Ridge on the South side of the Ypres Salient. I hope you find this account of the attack interesting.

The attack effectively began on 3rd June when the preliminary bombardment intensified, and was kept up until 0250 hrs on 7th June. By this time, 100 000 men of the Second Army were lying in position waiting to attack. The weather was clear with a bright moon. The sudden silence spooked the Germans who started firing flares in an effort find an explanation. Twenty minutes of tension packed waiting culminated in a loud bang, followed seven seconds laterby a continuous series of huge explosions which tore at the German front line and threw the watching British, 400 metres away, off their feet.

The British rose from their trenches under cover of the renewed barrage of every gun available. Nine divisions of infantry advanced through the clouds of smoke and dust and within minutes, the whole of the German front line was in British hands. Three hours later, the whole of the Messines Ridge was taken. No official figures were ever released regarding German casualties but there were 7 354 prisoners taken. There were 10 000 reported missing and over 6 000 known dead. British casualties numbered 16 000 of which about 30% were killed.

The success of the assault was in large part due to the explosion of 19 mines tunnelled under the German front line. Preparation work started in 1915 but it was only in the winter of 1916 that serious preparations took place. Twenty two mines were dug, some up to 2160 feet (658 metres) long and up to 125 feet (38 metres) deep. One mine (at Petite Douve Farm) was discovered by German counter miners on 24th August 1916 and destroyed. Two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood were not exploded as they were outside the attack area, more about these mines later.

The explosion was heard by David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister who was in his study in 10 Downing Street in London, there is even a report of an insomniac student hearing it in University College, Dublin.

The nineteen mines were located as shown below:

Name of Mine

Charge (lbs)

Crater Diameter

Dug By

Hill 60 A

53 500

191 feet

1st Australian Tunnelling Company

Hill 60 B

70 000

260 feet

1st Australian Tunnelling Company

St Eloi

95 600

176 feet

1st Canadian Tunnelling Company

Hollandscheschour 1

34 200

183 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Hollandscheschour 2

14 900

105 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Hollandscheschour 3

17 500

141 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Petit Bois 1

30 000

175 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Petit Bois 2

30 000

217 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Maedelstede Farm

94 000

217 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Peckham

87 000

240 feet

250th Tunnelling Company

Spanbroekmolen

91 000

250 feet

171st Tunnelling Company

Kruisstraat 1 }

30 000

235 feet

171st Tunnelling Company

Kruisstraat 4 }

19 500

 (linked explosions)

171st Tunnelling Company

Kruisstraat 2

30 000

217 feet

171st Tunnelling Company

Kruisstraat 3

30 000

202 feet

171st Tunnelling Company

Ontario Farm

60 000

200 feet

171st Tunnelling Company

Trench 127 Left

36 000

182 feet

3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company

Trench 127 Right

50 000

210 feet

3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company

Trench 122 Left

20 000

195 feet

3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company

Trench 122 Right

40 000

228 feet

3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company

 

The two unexploded mines were planned to be dismantled by the British but with the impending start of the Third Battle of Ypres, there was always something else to do. When the Germans launched their Lys Offensive in April, 1918, the British HQ was overrun and the documents relating to these two mines was lost and they never were dug up. The precise location of them was not known and they were forgotten until during a thunderstorm on 17th July, 1955, one of them exploded. No one was killed but the explosion did some slight damage to some distant property. The other mine is still, as far as anyone knows, still lurking under the Flanders countryside.

I have gleaned this information from sources to numerous to mention but I am very grateful for their efforts. One source which should be quoted is:

"War Underground - The Tunnellers of the Great War" by Alexander Barrie - ISBN 1-871085-00-4.

The story of this endeavour is dealt with in great detail in this book

I hope you have found this interesting, let this be my little contribution to the effort of keeping alive the memory of those troubled times.

Ian Jones

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