Battle of Messines

Messines was the first time Australians and New Zealanders had fought side by side since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as being the first time that the 3rd Australian Division saw service on the Western Front.

The Battle was launched on June 7th with the objective of capturing the Messine Ridge - the high ground south of Ypres.

The aim was to drive the Germans from this 10-mile ridge and allow for the Allies to launch a larger campaign to take the ground to the east of Ypres.

The planning for the battle began in mid-March 1917 using large models so that the troops were able to familiarise themselves with the terrain and gain an awareness of the objectives.

General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army was chosen along with Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley’s II Anzac Corps (25th British, 3rd Australian Division – under the command of Major General John Monash and the New Zealand Division) which was to capture the village of Messines and advance to the flat ground beyond.                                                                                       

The 4th Australian Division was reinforcement for II Anzac for the attack and was to complete the second phase of the battle.

For the previous two years Australian, British and Canadian miners were involved in subterranean warfare digging an intricate tunnel system under the enemy’s front line.

At Messines three Australian Tunnelling Battalions along with others from Britain, Canada and New Zealand were formed to assist in the massive undertaking of tunnelling under the German Trenches.

Many of the Australian tunnellers were coalminers from the Hunter Valley and such was their skill that the Germans were unable to locate the mines

For seven days prior to the attack the ridge was bombarded with heavy artillery fire in order to put pressure on the enemy.

As the Germans realised that an attack was imminent, on the evening of June 6th, they shelled the Australian 3rd Division with gas just as they were moving to their positions. This attack caused up to two thousand casualties.

At 3:10am on the 7th  June 1917, the detonator switches were triggered resulting in explosions from nineteen enormous mines. This was the signal for the attack, codenamed ‘Magnum Opus’ to begin.

The explosions, heard across the English Channel, were the largest planned detonations until the advent of the atomic bomb.

It is thought that 10,000 Germans were killed in the initial blasts.

As the historian of the 37th Battalion wrote, “Nothing could have withstood such an onslaught; and nothing did.”

Before the shocked Germans had time to form a new defensive line, waves of Allied soldiers moved out of the trenches to take the Ridge.

The scale of the explosions destroyed many of the enemy’s guns as well as stunning and concussing many of the German survivors, consequently preventing an effective counter attack.

They were also subjected to a heavy artillery barrage and incessant machine gun fire. Many German prisoners were taken at this time.

For the first time since Gallipoli, the New Zealanders attacked alongside the Australians at Messines on 7 June 1917. Here New Zealand troops watch British tanks advance towards Messines Ridge.

Initially the Allied Battalions moved forward relatively easily through the devastation to gain their objectives.

However, the attack halted for an hour at 4.30am to allow for fresh battalions to move forward. This break gave the Germans time to regroup and provide stronger resistance to the Allies, thus slowing down the advance.

Nevertheless, by the evening of the 7th June the majority of the objectives had been achieved.

The Messines ridge-line was in Allied hands and the New Zealand Division had captured and held the village of Messines with relatively little difficulty.

Two Australian Victoria Crosses were awarded from the battle at Messines – to Private Robert Grieve and Captain John Carroll.

Such a spectacular victory came at a price.

Compared to the battles that had been fought previously on the Western Front, the attack on Messines Ridge was a major success.

More than 7,000 German prisoners were captured and an unknown number killed.

The Allies lost 24,000 men; 3,538 killed and just over 20,000 wounded or missing.

This was more than acceptable to Plumer and his senior staff when compared to the near 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 with limited territorial gains,

“The Battle of Messines was the most complete success of any major Western Front attack by the Allies to that stage of the war.”

- Dr Andrew Richardson - Australian Army History Unit

The photographs reproduced here are (left) For the first time since Gallipoli, the New Zealanders attacked alongside the Australians at Messines on 7 June 1917. Here New Zealand troops watch British tanks advance towards Messines Ridge.

Top right: A German pillbox that was destroyed by an underground mine on June 7th 1917.

Bottom right: Men of the Australian 13th Brigade studying a large scaled map of the Messines Battle field.

In context

For Australia, the First World War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

After the loss of 8,708 Australian lives at Gallipoli the AIF was reorganised and expanded from two to five infantry divisions, which were transferred to France, beginning in March 1916.

By the time the AIF arrived, the war on the Western Front had long been in a stalemate, with the opposing armies facing each other from trench systems that extended across Belgium and north-east France, all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss border.