Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The taking of Messines Ridge

'Daddy Plumer'
Orpen's portrait of General Sir Herbert
Plumer, architect of the Messines victory.
The dramatic success at Messines ridge in June 1917 was sandwiched between the attritional carnage of the Nivelle Offensive and the forthcoming nightmare of Passchendaele – a thin but satisfying filling to a very tough sandwich for the longsuffering British army and public.
Released from slavish adherence to Nivelle’s plans, Haig was able to resume planning for his own favoured approach to winning the stalemate of the Western Front (but for Verdun, and Joffre’s insistence on the joint offensive at the Somme he might even have pressed for it in 1916). The plan was a good one on paper, and if successful would bring three major gains to the Allied cause. Firstly, advancing as far as possible north eastwards from Ypres, through Passchendaele, along the Belgian coast towards the Dutch border would liberate large areas of occupied Belgium – a likely key factor in any future cease fire negotiation. It would also put an end to two vital U-boat bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend. Finally it would allow the Allies to attack and weaken the German main lines of communication to their front in northern France. But of course it would not be easy. The high ground on the southern aspects of the salient would need to be captured first. The Germans were aware of the risks and had made the usual formidable defensive preparations. The Arras campaign in support of Nivelle had delayed Haig, and with German reinforcements able to move from the Eastern front (where internal chaos in Russia had nearly closed down the front), time was of the essence.

The nose of the Ypres salient had been appreciably flattened since the first battle line were redrawn after Ypres 1 in October 1914. Most of this occurred during Ypres 2 in 1915, but periodic actions since then meant that the easternmost point was now at Hooge, only two miles from the town centre. From here, southwestwards, ran the shallow slopes that would be the focus for the attack. From Mount Sorrel (south of Hooge) the Messines ridge ran past Hill 60 (see Post 30/05/2015), westward round St. Eloi; then to the west of Wytschaete the ridge turned south, running west of Messines (Mesen) itself before sloping down to the bed of the river Lys – in this area the border between Belgium and France (see map).
The Battle for Messines Ridge 7th June 1917
The weight of assault was to fall along these six miles from Mount Sorrel to just south of Messines. The task was allocated to the Second Army, commanded by Sir Herbert Plumer, one of Britain’s more successful WW1 generals. An impressively visible leader, Plumer was popular with his officers and men, and the troops referred to him as ‘Daddy Plumer’ or ‘Old Plum and Apple’. He was promoted to command the Second Army after a strong performance at Ypres 2. Since that time there had been no major action along this section, and Plumer had had ample time to marshal his men and develop his plans to regain the high ground south of Ypres. His tactics were nothing short of sensational. From mid 1915 he had authorised extensive mining operations along the front, utilising the deep clay stratum, and employing the best miners and engineers that could be procured. More than two dozen main tunnels were dug, ending in galleries deep beneath the German positions. These they stuffed full of high explosive (ammonal, also used at the Somme) before the fateful day. Some of the galleries were in place and ready by mid-1916. German counter-mining efforts were less successful, but led to an underground war in both senses of the word. Plumer’s artillery and infantry preparations were planned with equal meticulousness. Following the detonations, the infantry were to rush what remained of the German first and second lines, sheltered behind a creeping artillery barrage. Plumer organised his assault forces into three groups. From Mount Sorrel to Wytschaete General Morland’s 10th Corps would strike south east to the ridge. Two other corps the 9th (led by General Hamilton-Gordon) and the 2nd Australian (led by General Godley) would strike east from Wytschaete to south of Messines.
The German defences were daunting, and after the Somme bombardment they must have been confident of withstanding any amount of shellfire. The Army Group was commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the Western Front since the first shots of the war. His two senior general were von Armin and von Below, also very experienced (the latter being the cousin of Fritz von Below, supremo of the German defence at the Somme. Their first line of trenches followed the upper ground of the ridge, creating a reverse ‘min-salient’ for this section. They built very strong 3rd and 4th lines across the base of this salient, running through Oosttaverne to the east of Wytschaete. This village was a key objective for the British. The Germans knew what was coming – they just were not sure when and how.
Once Haig was able to resume his focus on Flanders, preparations accelerated. While the subterranean galleries were completed and packed with explosives, an absorbing air battle took place in the skies. Both sides now had more, and greatly improved, machines, but generally the British held air superiority and prevented German planes from getting close enough to see the preparations. From the last days of May the British began a remorseless bombardment that leveled any remains of the villages of Wytschaete and Messines and surrounding woods. The Germans responded with counter barrages from deep positions, and the days leading up to zero hour (7th June) were loud and chaotic. Then, on the evening of 6th, a gigantic storm engulfed Flanders and it seemed that yet again the weather would intrude on Haig’s plans. But around midnight the skies cleared and zero hour was confirmed for 3.30am, the early dawn of high summer. At this point over one million pounds of ammonal had been packed into 24 galleries – 19 of them on the designated front line. At 3.30 all but one detonated simultaneously (the last one exploded in 1955!). The result was the largest man-made explosion in history – only exceeded at Hiroshima 28 years later. It was clearly heard across southern England and Wales, even in Dublin. At the site the devastation was unprecedented. The whole crest of the Wytschaete Messines ridge disappeared. It was estimated that 10,000 Germans, and all they occupied, were obliterated. Thousands of men from both sides - well away from the explosion -were, nevertheless, incapacitated by the force of the blast. Eighty years later the term ‘shock and awe’ was coined by the American military. There could be no more graphic example.
The British artillery began its creeping barrage, and as the infantry scrambled up the craters and slopes to the new ridge, they found the German first positions completely destroyed. By noon they had reached Oosttaverne and by the end of the day attained all of their objectives. The Australians were north east of Messines; and the Ulsters and Cheshires of the middle group reached’Hell Farm’, east of Wytschaete. The northern approach by 10 Corps found Mount Sorrel and Armagh wood completely destroyed but then had a hard days fighting before capturing their objective, Battle wood.
The day had been an outstanding success, and a great triumph for Plumer’s planning. The losses were only 500 (sic) but the German estimates were well in excess of 10,000 – a complete reversal of the Somme day 1 outcomes. The action continued for five more days to achieve the final line shown on the map. Plumer’s tactical victory was perhaps matched on the western Front throughout the war only by Nivelle’s late victory at Verdun. Fortunately for Plumer (and the Allied cause) he did not suffer Nivelle’s Icarus style demise.

Thereafter diversionary British attacks to the south were designed to draw attention away from the follow up breakthrough towards Passchendaele, to which we will return.