This page deals not just with Messines, but also areas around that were involved in the Messines offensive in 1917. An excellent book dealing with the Battle of Messines in depth is Ian Passingham's Pillars of Fire
Messines area map
The battle for Messines ridge which commenced on June the 7th 1917 was hailed as a triumph in strategy. Following the harsh lessons learned on the Somme the previous year, the taking of Messines ridge preceded the main Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), and was General Plumer's more cautious approach using "bite and hold" tactics. Rather than attempting to making sweeping gains on a wide front with very large numbers of troops, the attack on Messines ridge was one of limited, but realistic, objectives, utilising a "creeping barrage" and preceded by the detonation of nineteen mines. The overall front of the Messines offensive was around nine miles, stretching from near Hill 60 in the north in a crescent shape reflecting the German held salient or bulge here, to St. Yves just above Ploegsteert Wood in the south.
Known to the troops as "Whitesheet", and now marked on maps as Wijtschate, this small village is about a mile north of Messines, on the main N365 road that leads from Ypres to Armentieres. As you approach from the north, you can see the church of Wytschaete dominating on the high ground. This ridge was obviously of great benefit to the Germans, in that they overlooked the British positions on the lower ground, and hence the operation to take this ground.
Wytschaete in ruins. Photo: NELS.
Wytschaete lay more or less in the centre of the front on which the attack was made. The first day advance made gains on a wide front of around one to two miles - which may not sound a lot, but when compared to the first day of the Somme was an impressive achievement. Also, advances were made along the whole of the attack front - rather than only in certain sectors. The village of Wytschaete was taken, and the British advanced around a mile beyond it on June the 7th. In the village square is an information board with a suggested walk to see some of the craters.
On the road leading west out of the village towards Kemmel is Wytschaete Military Cemetery. This is a post-war concentration cemetery, and it slopes down the hillside away from the road, with the graves set at right angles to the road. The large number of unknown burials is apparent as you walk along the rows (over two thirds of the 1002 buried or commemorated here are unidentified). There are three sets of special memorial stones set behind the Stone of Remembrance to the right of the cemetery, commemorating soldiers originally buried in other cemeteries but whose graves were destroyed. For each of the three cemeteries, an additional standard 'headstone' gives details; there are no Duhallow blocks here. The left set is for two men originally buried at the intriguingly named 'Rest and be Thankful Farm'. This, as well as the other two cemeteries named, R.E. (Beaver) Farm and Rossignol Estaminet, are shown on a map of war cemeteries published by The White Cross sometime in the 1920s; all were located near Kemmel, about two miles west of here. The graves of other men buried in these three cemeteries (as well as others) were concentrated here.
Located to the left hand side of the cemetery (outside its walls) is a memorial to the 16th Irish Division, which is similar to their memorial at Guillemont on the Somme. The inscription reads "In commemoration of victory at Wytschaete June 7th 1917. In memory of those who fell therein, and of all Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War RIP". The picture below shows this memorial, looking west towards Mount Kemmel. The Irish Division requested that they erect a memorial here in 1923, and so this memorial, like the other to the Division at Guillemont, is some 70 years old.
If you continue along this road, away from Wytschaete, there is a new memorial in the form of two stones, one set on each side of the road, one again to the 16th Irish Division, and one to the 36th Ulster Division.
The new memorials were unveiled in 2007, and inscribed on each is the date 7th June 1917, and also the words "Irish comrades-in-arms". The Divisional insignia are engraved on the tops of each. The memorial is located roughly where the two Divisions joined in their successful attack to take Wytschaete.
Continuing along the road again away from the village, at the next left turn is one of the mine craters blown on the 7th of June. This is the Peckham Farm Crater, and whilst it was the fourth largest mine (in terms of the amount of explosives used), it may be the largest remaining crater. This crater was visited by King George V in July 1917, by which time is was deemed far enough behind the slowly advancing lines for it to be safe for him to do so. There seems to be a derelict caravan in the crater at the front (just visible on the photograph), and abandoned vehicles are also now sadly in the Kruistraat craters. The picture below shows the crater, looking east, and the steeple of Wytschaete church is visible behind to the left. From the road here, you can also see Messines church on the high ground towards the right hand horizon; again demonstrating the imposing aspect of the German lines whilst they were on this ridge. This view shows the ground over which the British advanced that day.
Peckham Farm crater is located where two roads meet, and a little further on the road leading south is Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery. This is actually a little distance away from the road, reached by a grass track.
This was almost exclusively used for burying some of those who fell on the first day of the Battle of Messines, June the 7th, 1917 (three graves are from June the 8th). All except one grave are those of men of the 36th Ulster Division (the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers), and this cemetery was actually lost in later fighting, and only rediscovered after the Armistice. This small cemetery has no register on the site, and consists of just five rows of graves, comprising 58 burials. Of these, 52 are identified, and there are also special memorials at the front of the cemetery for six soldiers known to be buried in the cemetery. All six are from the Royal Irish Rifles, as are many of the other graves here.
This small "comrades" cemetery, located in the middle of ploughed fields reminded me of Luke Copse cemetery on the Somme. The comrades of the fallen buried these men here in June 1917, after the fighting that raged across this now peaceful landscape, and they lie there still, in peace. This lonely aspect and the small size of the cemetery somehow brings the massive conflict down to a human level.
As you walk back from the cemetery towards the road, a cluster of trees and bushes can be seen on the horizon about 200 metres beyond the road. A track leads west to this, which encircles another mine-crater, Spanbroekmolen.
Spanbroekmolen can also be reached by car, by driving from here north to the Wytschaete-Kemmel road, turning left here (by Peckham Farm crater) and then left again after about a third of a mile. Spanbroekmolen is then a further half a mile down this road.
Spanbroekmolen was the largest of the mines which were blown at the start of the assault on Messines Ridge. At the entrance to the site is an information board, giving facts about the mine and the crater. Work on it commenced on January the 1st, 1916, and the mine was effectively completed by the 26th of June, 1916. The long-term view meant that it was not actually detonated until nearly a year later. Before it was blown, the mine was 88 feet deep, containing 91,000 lbs of ammonal. Once it was blown, the crater was 250 feet wide (with a 90 feet wide rim), and 40 feet deep. The crater was purchased in 1929 by Toc H and has thus been preserved. It was renamed "The Pool of Peace".
Towards the north-east of the crater the protruding remains of a bunker can be seen. From the aspect of the entrances, which are visible, plus the location, this would probably have been a German bunker. Presumably, as this is located just beyond the edge of the rim of the crater, this bunker only just escaped being blown sky-high nearly 90 years ago!
Across the road from Spanbroekmolen a concrete path by a farm leads past a duck pond to the small Lone Tree Cemetery. The cemetery is shaped like a cut off Y, with two arms and contains 88 burials (six of whom are unknown), and these are graves mainly of the Royal Irish Rifles, again killed on the 7th of June, some actually by the explosion of the Spanbroekmolen mine (which was blown around 15 seconds later than planned) as they advanced. Three graves stand by themselves, one of an unknown soldier and two of Royal Field Artillery soldiers killed later on the third of July 1917. A single grave at the edge of the cemetery is also RFA, killed on the 11th of July 1917. Perhaps these later burials reflected that at that time, Spanbroekmolen was behind the British lines and hence was used by artillery rather than infantry.
The views to the south and east from this cemetery are stunning, and bring home the massive advantage of the Germans whilst they held this high ground. Again, Mount Kemmel can be seen, and also several churches including that of Wulvergehem to the south. Lone Tree is one of my favourite spots in the Salient.
Not all of the craters from the mines blown at the start of the battle of Messines remain. Indeed, the mine at Ontario Farm did not produce a crater at the time, just a pulpy soggy patch of ground. However, not far away from Spanbroekmolen are the double craters of Kruistraat, (complete with a rather unattractive rusted minibus at the far edge), seen below left, and south of Messines are several more, some of which are a little more difficult to reach as they are on private land. There are three St. Yvon (or St. Yves) craters, and one of these, St. Yvon No. 1, is pictured below right. The remaining water filled crater here is much smaller than, for example, Peckham Farm crater. These mines were originally known as Trench 127 and Trench 122 mines (there were two mine at each location).
For a number of reasons, not all of the mines which had been originally planned for the Messines assault exploded that day in 1917. One, somewhere in the vicinity of La Petit Douve Farm south-east of Messines, was discovered by the Germans in August 1916, and subsequently flooded and abandoned. Another, near the St. Yvon craters (which are south-east of Messines) subsequently exploded after a thunderstorm in July 1955, nearly 40 years later. This crater was subsequently filled in. This mine was one of a group of four mines, known as the "Birdcage" mines, and located just to the north of Ploegsteert Wood. These were not blown in 1917 for tactical reasons (and the Germans had already withdrawn from this location when the day of the battle arrived). Presumably the remaining three, plus the La Petit Douve Farm mine described above, still lie beneath the Flanders fields. Indeed, Spanbroekmolen, the largest mine, was also lost to the Germans for a time, when the tunneling work there was discovered in February 1917. It was however recovered in time for it to be blown as planned at 3.10 a.m. on June the 7th 1917. All nineteen mines were blown within 19 seconds of one another.
One of the more northerly mines blown was that at St. Eloi. This was, in terms of the total amounts of explosives, the largest of the mines, containing 95,600 lbs of ammonal.
By the side of the N365 road between Wytschaete and Messines is a memorial to the London Scottish. This is in the form of a large St. Andrew's cross set between mature conifers. On the base of the memorial is the inscription 'Near this spot on Halloween 1914 the London Scottish came into action, being the first Territorial battalion to engage the enemy'. The story behind this is told by Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith in Salient Points.
The 1st London Scottish were brought to the Salient from St. Omer in 34 London buses, arriving in Ypres at 3 a.m. on the 30th of October. The situation during this time was fluid and confused, and they were twice sent out as reinforcements before orders changed and they were recalled. They finally went into the line at dawn on the 31st of October. A few hours later they were on the move again, sent as reinforcements to the 4th Cavalry Brigade on the Wytschaete-Messines ridge. At 10 a.m. they moved up to the crest of the ridge on which stood a windmill. The memorial now stands more or less on that spot.
The London Scottish suffered from artillery and rifle fire whilst they dug in. They held the position during the day until at 9 p.m. the Germans attacked. The London Scottish drove them back, despite problems with their rifles which meant they effectively had to use them as single-loaders rather than with magazines. The enemy attacked again and again during the night, eventually getting close enought that there was hand to hand fighting near the road. After this, due to their losses and the situation the London Scottish were ordered to withdraw. They had held on for hours, holding up the German advance in their first taste of action. They had suffered nearly 400 casualties, and it was not surprising that after the war their memorial should be sited here.
The memorial was unveiled in May 1923, in a ceremony attended by Earl Haig and the Belgian King, as well as survivors from the battalion itself. Wreaths were then placed at the base of the memorial by relatives of men who had died. Above the inscription relating to the action here on Halloween 1914 is another which shows the memorial remembers all men of the London Scottish who fell in the Great War. On the column itself are the battalion's battle honours - starting with Ypres 1914.
Messines in ruins. Photo: NELS
Now marked on maps and signed as Mesen, there is a well-known sequence of aerial photographs that show, over a few months, the total destruction of this village. It was ground into dust. In the town square today is another Ross Bastiaan bronze plaque, similar to the one at Passchendaele. The village was rebuilt after the war, and the church (which originally dated from the 11th Century) was rebuilt in the original style. Apparently, Adolf Hitler, then a corporal, was treated here in the crypt after being wounded early in the war.
The village of Messines was taken by troops from the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand troops had to advance up a steep hill to reach Messines, from their front lines in the vicinity of the farm buildings in the valley below. Walking up the road that curves up the hill, you realise what a steep climb this would have been for the attackers. Near the top of the hill is the New Zealand Memorial Park.
The entrance to the New Zealand Memorial Park is semi-circular in shape, with a low hedged area. The memorial itself is a tall obelisk, similar to other New Zealand memorials on the Western Front. The wording on the front is 'In honour of the men of the New Zealand Division. The Battle of Messines 7th to 14th of June 1917'. The memorial was unveiled by the Belgian King (Albert I) on the 1st of August 1924. Another inscription on the memorial reads 'The New Zealand Division on the 7th of June captured this ridge and advanced 2000 yards through Messines to their objective on the Eastern side'.
Between the two bunkers at the other end of the park are excellent views down the valley over what were the New Zealand positions before the battle. The site of La Petit Douve Farm, where one unexploded mine still lies under the ground, is a little to the south of the position from which the left-hand photo was taken.
Just over the hedge outside the memorial park (reached by leaving the park, walking downhill a short way then left along the track) is an information board describing the New Zealand actions that day in June 1917. It records that the Division suffered around 3,700 casualties, taking 438 prisoners and that Messines is since 1975 associated with the New Zealand town of Featherston, where soldiers trained for the Great War.
Messines Ridge Military Cemetery is located on the road leading west from Messines towards Wulvergehem, on the ridge which dominates the lower lying land below. Before the battle of Messines, in early 1917 this spot was approximately where the German lines (Oyster trench as marked on British trench-maps) ran, and the cemetery does not in fact date from the War itself, but was created after the Armistice. The cemetery also contains a memorial to the officers and men of New Zealand who fell in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918. Looking west from the cemetery, the spire of Wulvergehem church can be seen. The picture below shows the entrance to the cemetery; the New Zealand memorial is surmounted by the Cross of Sacrifice and is in the form of panels around the circular base on which the cross is set. These panels are arranged by regiment, including panels for Maori, Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington Regiments. This is one of several such memorials to those from New Zealand with no known grave; after the war, the New Zealanders decided not to have the names of their soldiers whose bodies had never been recovered or identified commemorated on the Menin Gate. Instead, there are seven New Zealand memorials to the missing in France and Belgium, and these have been placed in cemeteries which were appropriate to the fighting in which those listed on each died (such as here at Messines).
The memorial commemorates more than 800 New Zealand soldiers, and the Cemetery beyond has over 1500 graves, approximately two thirds of which are unidentified, reflecting this cemeteries nature - it was created by recovery of many bodies from the Messines battlefields after the war. There are also special memorials to soldiers buried elsewhere but whose graves were later destroyed by shell-fire. On the left hand side of the Cemetery stands a large impressive pavilion like building, and looking from this the domination of the position is clear. Looking south, the spires of Armentieres are visible. In fact, Messines is nearer to Armentieres than to Ypres.
Just west of the Cemetery, on the road leading to Wulvergehem is a large bunker in a field to the left of the road. The apertures on the side facing the German lines would appear to be for defence, so this could well be a British bunker dating from after Messines was taken.
A relatively recent addition to the memorials in the Salient is the Island of Ireland Peace Park, located just south of Messines on the N365 leading to Armentieres. This was officially opened on Armistice Day 1998, by King Albert II of Belgium, Irish President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II. The central feature is a tower, which is approached by a pathway leading past granite slabs on the right, on which are inscribed quotations and poems from Irish soldiers, including Francis Ledwidge, who is also mentioned on the Boesinghe page. Around the tower are standing stones with the numbers wounded, killed or missing from the 37th Ulster, 16th Irish and 10th Irish Divisions. The figures make sobering reading: 32,186 killed, wounded or missing from the 36th (Ulster) Division; 9,363 from the 10th and 28,398 from the 16th Irish Divisions respectively. At the entrance are inscriptions dedicating the tower in Gaelic and English to all soldiers from Ireland who fought and died in the First World War.
This monument was erected by the Journey of Reconciliation Trust, with support from the people of Messines, and inside the base of the tower are three registers listing alphabetically those commemorated. Separate standing stoned list the battalions, including those of Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught. Behind the tower, a gate leads across a wooden plank bridge over a small pond, but all this leads to is the village football pitch! To the south of the Peace Tower stand two bronze plaques, which describe the battle of Messines, and the Ypres salient in 1917. At the south-east corner of the site, on the largest standing stone, is a peace pledge, which reads: "As Protestants and Catholics we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. We appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Remember the solidarity and trust between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches". On the reverse of this stone are the names of towns in Ireland from which soldiers came to fight.
This is a monument which has as much to say about the present as it does about the past. There were some initial problems with the opening of the site, as I believe that the paving stones had to be relaid, but the tower is an impressive site as you drive from the south towards Messines.
The Michelin Guide to Ypres shows a picture looking north towards Messines from near the site of the Chateau de la Hutte. The ridge is just visible in the background. Today, this is the road from Ypres through Messines to Armentieres; not especially busy, but in the modern picture the ridge in the background can be seen too.
The view from the La Hutte crossroads north towards Messines. Photo: Michelin Guide to Ypres.
The Battle of Messines was perhaps the first clearcut British victory in the Great War. Gough in his own Memoirs of the War The Fifth Army called it "Plumer's very succesful attack", and lamented that "it was perhaps unfortunate that the Second Army's attack on Messines was not delayed and made simultaneously with ours on 31st July". Messines had limited, realistic objectives, and these were met. The use of mines, and a shorter intense bombardment achieved an element of surprise that was almost unique. Whilst there was a massive artillery effort in the month leading up to the battle, the very intense intial bombardment on the day of the attack was shorter - and it was also "rehearsed" twice on days before the actual attack, keeping the enemy guessing as to when the real attack would come, and forcing them to reveal their own artillery positions, which could then be marked and picked off by counter-battery fire. They could be marked beacuse the Allies also enjoyed air supremacy in this sector leading up to the battle. In total there were 2,266 guns along the front which were engaged in the barrage. In contrast to the Somme, the German wire was cut before the troops had to advance.
The battle did continue after that first succesful day, and some further gains were made by the time the battle ended on the 14th of June. However, these were small in comparison, and delays before attempting to build on the advantages at Messines may be seen as a failure of the High Command. It should be said, though, that such an analysis is easy in hindsight.
Messines was the prequel to the main Third Battle of Ypres, and after the promising start gained by Plumer (who surely deserves more recognition for his achievements) that battle became another long and weary slog, with small gains made at times in awful conditions, and it ground to a halt as winter closed in. The contrasts between Messsines and the optimism of summer, and the final assault on Passchendaele in the grim rain and mud in November, could not be more stark.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Alexander Gross: The White Cross Touring Atlas of the Western Battlefields
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Paul Reed: Walking the Salient
Tony Spagnoly & Ted Smith: Salient Points One
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