(Artillery at Messines in 1917, via Australian War Memorial)
This Shocking Allied Plan Made The German Defenses Just Disappear
There comes a time in everybody’s life when obstacles seem too daunting to face. In moments like these, we sometimes wish these obstacles would just disappear. This is exactly what happened in the June 7thBattle of Messines (Belgium), when the German line of defensive trenches simply disappeared from the view of allied observers. The German line did not disappear in a puff of magic—in reality, the German trenches disappeared in an eruption of fire and soil, followed by a rain of blood, gore and all sorts of mysterious debris.
In 1917, well into the First World War, the Second Army led by General Herbert Plumer faced off against the German IV Army along the Messines Ridge near Ypres. General Plumer was a pragmatic and cautious man, who cherished the lives of the men under him; therefore, it should be no surprise that there was more than a year of planning and preparation before the commencement of the Battle of Messines.
Plumer recognized the failings of other generals in WWI, who called for repeated Allied charges across no-man’s land to take minuscule gains of territory. Instead of charging over land, Plumer decided to tunnel underground. The Second Army spent the year leading up to the Battle of Messines by digging anywhere from 21 to 24 tunnels reaching underneath the German trenches.
General Plumer’s tunnels were no ordinary tunnels. They were not for sapping, to cause the German trenches to collapse. They were not for surveillance of the enemy positions. They were not even made for commando raids behind enemy lines. No, these tunnels had a much more dynamic function—before the battle on June 7th, they were filled with 19 mines, totaling 455-600 tons of explosive. General Plumer reportedly stated on the night before the battle, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
June 7th started with an artillery barrage that was commonplace in WWI. The Allied batteries, with around 2,200 guns, peppered the German trenches with heavy shells. At 2:50, the artillery barrage ended, and in the 20 minutes of peace that followed, the German forces prepared to defend against a charge. The allied charge, however, never happened.
The Battle of Messines, codenamed ‘Magnum Opus’ (Great Work) began with the detonation of the 19 mines located underneath the German trenches. The next moment can be best explained with a quote by the Allied Private, Albert Johnson, who observed the event: “Our trench rocked like a ship in a strong sea and it seemed as if the very earth had been rent asunder.”
The simultaneous detonation of the mines beneath the German trenches let out such a loud explosion of sound, that people reported hearing explosions as far away as London, Paris and Dublin. Most sources agree that the explosion likely killed 10,000 German soldiers immediately upon detonation. The scale of the explosion is recognized in Robert A. Doughty’s war manual, Warfare in the Western World (Vol. II), which calls the Messines Ridge “one of the most devastated areas ever encountered in the history of warfare” (page 597).
Immediately after the explosion, the infantry of General Plumer’s Second Army launched an assault on the remnants of the German position. The Allies advanced quickly—the German trenches that had been blocking their path had been reduced to craters of wreckage and death. One of the largest craters reportedly was 80 meters wide and 15 meters deep. By June 14th, the Allies had taken the whole Messines Salient.
Of the tunnels that were dug beneath the German trenches and filled with explosives, 2 were left undetonated by the Allies. Unfortunately, with WWI over, no military personnel were ordered to diffuse the explosives. Truth be told, the locations of the remaining mines were long forgotten by the time WWII began. The remaining live mines somewhere under Messines Ridge were only brought back to memory when, in 1955, one of the mines randomly detonated, killing a cow. The last mine remains missing—so watch your step in Messines.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Links and sources:
- Robert A. Doughty et al. Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 (Vol. II). Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company. 1996.