The Battle of Messines was a preliminary operation to take the high ground of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge that ran to the south of Ypres, and a necessary precursor to Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s main Ypres offensive (3rd Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele). Haig had long held the view that Ypres was pivotal, not just for the defence of the Allied position and ports in the north, but also to attack and force the German Navy out of the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge that were the base for a flotilla of small submarines that were a constant menace to the Allied cross-channel shipping. Thus given the strategic importance of this area, preparations had begun in 1915 with the commencement of mining operations from the British lines under the German front line system. With the failure of the Spring 1917 Offensive by the French at the Chemin des Dames and the British held to a stalemate at Arras, the forthcoming Ypres campaign had now become the main focus for the Allied armies on the Western Front.
The 10 mile frontage for General Plumer’s Second Army was to be attacked by three British Corps (X, IX and II Anzac). General Godley’s II Anzac Corps would be on the right of the offensive in the vicinity of the villages of Wytschaete and Messines and consisted of the British 25th Division on the left, the New Zealanders in the middle (in front of Messines village), and the AIF 3rd Division on the right slope of the ridge and what would be the right flank of the whole operation. The AIF 4th Division would also be called into action in the second wave pushing through to the second objective, the Oosttaverne Line.
At 3.10am on the 7th June 1917 the big guns began to fire and at that moment the first of the great mines exploded. Within the following few seconds the Messines – Wytschaete Ridge erupted from right to left as one after another 19 huge mines were detonated, causing an explosion so loud that it could be heard in London. The mines blew vast craters as much as 300 feet in width and 50 -70 feet deep and the devastation caused by the mine explosions plus the tremendous barrage enabled the assaulting companies advancing under the dust cloud to make easiest gains yet experienced by the Australians in the war.
At 3.10pm the barrage for the next phase to the Oosttaverne Line began and the Australians advanced close to the barrage, and for the 47th Battalion behind three tanks that would lead the way. Unlike the disaster that fell upon the AIF 4th Division at Bullecourt just two months previous, these tanks were of a later model with improved protection and greater reliability and did their job, helping the inner flanks of the 47thand 45th Battalions to seize the first trench and take 120 prisoners. The attack then moved to the main objective, the Oosttaverne Line which contained a mixture of trenches, hedges and concrete blockhouses (photograph left) that concealed and protected the German machine-gunners. This was the first time that the Australians had encountered these ‘pillboxes’ en-masse, a form of defence structure favoured by the Germans in Flanders due to the waterlogged nature of the ground. The taking of these blockhouses often required the infantry attacking from the rear supported by rifle grenadiers keeping the defenders under cover. By sunset the final British objective had been won along practically the whole of the battle-front, and with a speed beyond any other major achievement attained by the British Army in France thus far.
German General von Kuhl described the battle as one of the worst tragedies of the war. For the British the Battle of Messines was not just a military victory but demonstrated the impressive success of a co-ordinated effort namely the mining operation, the benefits of an overwhelming bombardment with effective counter-battery fire and creeping barrage, effective air observation, use of tanks, efficient transportation of materials and relatively swift evacuation of the wounded. For the Australians it was a welcome turnaround from the lack of confidence that they had in the British High Command, particularly following Bullecourt, at last seeing an operation that was well planned and executed, not witnessed since the evacuation of Gallipoli eighteen months previously. The battle also saw a disciplined and well fought entry of General Monash’s AIF 3rd Division into the war.
However and as often seen during the war, this victory came at a heavy price for the Australians. The comparative severity of the fighting on the southern flank is shown in that of the 26,000 British casualties incurred in the battle, more than half occurred in the II Anzac Corps sector, of which the New Zealanders suffered a total of 4,978 casualties. The three Brigades of the AIF 3rd Division had 112 Officers and 4,010 other ranks as casualties, and the two Brigades of the AIF 4th Division lost 108 Officers and 2,569 other ranks. In addition and at the far northern end of the battle, it is estimated that thirty tunnellers of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company (photograph of monument above) were killed during the construction and defence of the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines.