The Western Front of 1914-18 is characterised by a continual series of bloody stalemates, but the Battle of Messines was a relatively rare example of a successful offensive. Between 7-14 June 1917, the British Second Army under General Sir Herbert Plumer planned an offensive to take the Messines ridge to the south east of Ypres.
A significant part of the British plan was the laying of 22 mines that would be detonated at the same time under the German positions before infantry would take the ridge. Such was the high-content of explosive that Plumer famously stated before the attack:
“Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
In the resulting explosions, from 19 mines that were described as a ‘pillar of fire’, around 10,000 Germans were killed and despite heavy casualties of 17,000 men, the British were able to take the entire Messine salient in a week. The Germans eventually had casualties of 25,000 men and the victory at Messines boosted Allied morale but it became relatively forgotten as it immediately preceded the brutal Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres) the following month.
As part of the 2014-18 Flanders Fields centenary commemoration events, Professor Mark Connelly of the University of Kent discusses this unique battle and its overall importance to the history of World War I.
It has been argued that the Battle of Messines was the most successful local operation of the Western Front, would you agree with that?
Yes, I would set it alongside the first day of Arras and the capture of Vimy Ridge. I think what something like Messines shows is just how brilliant the British Army was by the summer of 1917 at a limited objective battle. When it was given the time, space and material to do something and in a very controlled scenario, it really was a fabulous war machine.
1918 is now recognised as one of the most successful years for the British Army, do you think that starts in 1917 at Messines?
Yes and what was happening in 1917 was that everything that had been learnt on the Somme was finally being digested. They were reflecting on what went right, what went wrong and their ability to think through the problems of the initial breaking in, and then holding, a series of German trenches.
We’re talking about a relatively limited operation at Messines, but their skill at reflecting on the past and working through different problems had grown enormously, which is what served the British again in very good stead come 1918. They actually showed the additional skill of being incredibly flexible because they managed to break beyond the trenches. It required a different skill set and yet they proved pretty adept at that as well.
Is the commander at Messines, Sir Herbert Plumer, an unsung general?
I think in terms of people that are really into their WWI history someone like Plumer does stick out, but the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme means that people like Sir Douglas Haig pop up in people’s heads and then every other WWI general becomes a bit-part player. Nevertheless, for those who are interested in the period, Plumer does stick out as a bit of a hero because of the sheer method of his approach. He’s also clearly helped by a very good staff team. His chief-of-staff, Charles ‘Tim’ Harington, was also a very meticulous planner and its one of those instances where you can see that to get things right in a lot of modern warfare, its actually all about the bureaucratic processes. If you do the planning correctly, have the right staff in place and used in the right way, then hopefully the soldiers will have that military dream of ‘the walkover’.
We have to understand the staff element of the Great War because that is what delivering military ‘punch’ is all about. It’s actually about the work you put in behind the lines. It was General Slim in WWII who said, “Amateurs are obsessed by tactics, professionals talk about logistics.” It’s about delivering the stuff in the right way and ensuring that you unlock the secret of the battlefield.
Is it arguable that Messines marked the zenith of mine warfare and if so, in what sense?
It did mark the zenith of mine warfare because of the sheer length of time involved. They had been working at those mine shafts for well over a year and therefore every bit of that mining operation had been thought through. It wasn’t not just about the fact that they could mine, but that they knew why they were doing it. There was an end in sight to all of it and the mining is fully integrated into the rest of the operation.
On 1 July 1916, there was famously a series of great mines that were exploded along the front as part of the curtain-raising moment of the battle. However, in many ways no one was quite sure what that was meant to do, whereas at Messines it was well known. Everyone had this clear idea that it was going to be a massive dislocation, that it was not just going to have a small local effect. It was integral to the plan of completely dislocating the German defence across a broad area. So I do think that this was the zenith of mining operations on the Western Front.
How large was the mining operation?
We’re talking about the largest man-made explosions outside of the atomic bombs, that’s how many explosives were down there. It was a massively extensive operation that involved troops from across the Commonwealth. It wasn’t just about muscle power shifting the stuff around, the technical expertise of those guys meant that they really knew what they were doing with surveying officers in charge.
When those mines went up, you find references in war diaries that men were spooked when they got into German dugouts and saw totally spotless dead men. There wasn’t a mark on them, yet concussion had caused heart failure and killed them. There were men in the early stages of rigor mortis who were like waxworks. Hardened soldiers who had seen hideous things were spooked by seeing these men, dead, sitting there without a mark on them. They were spectres in the trenches and the shockwaves broke bones.
It’s a prime example of total war. We were really seeing that shift where for every fighting man there were six or seven men behind him preparing stuff for him to use, and also the sheer number of people on the home front. Something like the mining operation was swallowing whole forests with the demand for timber. The fact that we now have a Forestry Commission and softwood growing all over the United Kingdom is a result of 1916-17 and the mass demand for pit props and timber for trenches. Every last bit of kit was needed.
Geographically, there are bits of the southern Ypres salient arc that are no longer there anymore. If you look at topographical maps of 1914, Messines slopes more gently today than it once did.
Would this operation have had an effect on mining production back in Britain as an essential reserved occupation?
Yes, and during the course of 1917 as in WWII, one of the most fractious elements of British home front industrial production was in coal. The ‘black diamonds’ are what the war effort was run on and coal still dominated despite the rise of petroleum. So there was a strain on coal in Britain and then because France had lost its coalfields to the Germans in the north east of the country, the French were also burning British coal. Therefore the coal was needed to keep the French war effort going as well as the British, so every component was needed to continue fighting.
Despite its importance, why has Messines been relatively forgotten?
What is very interesting about Messines is how its shadow is rising again in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland because of their two respective divisions fought side by side during the battle. They are all remembered on the Island of Ireland Peace Park near Messines. It’s interesting how a particular memory to one part of the British Isles is now very important again considering that it had died away during the 1920s.
Because Messines is a limited operation that worked well, it is arguable that it clashed with the big bit of the British national character that was half in love with the tragedy of the Great War. The tragedy of the war is poignant, but there’s not much poignancy about Messines because everything went right! The Brits love a heroic failure and so Passchendaele is better than Messines in that sense.
For more information about the centenary commemorations for the battles of Messines and Passchendaele visit: www.flandersfields.be/en/1917. For more on World War I, pick up new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.