‘They made many fruitless attempts to embrace us – I have never seen men so demoralised’
– Lieutenant Garrard, 40th Battalion, ‘schoolmaster from Launceston Tasmania’ describing the impact on captured Germans after the detonation of the Messines mines
The Battle of Messines was designed to seize the strategic high ground of the Wyschaete-Messines ridge south of Ypres.
This German position formed a bulge or salient that projected into the Allied lines.
To meet their campaign east of Ypres, the Allies had to capture the crest which was known as the ‘black line’ and then take the ‘Oostaverne Line’ on the eastern slope.
These objectives were assigned to Australia’s 3rd Division under Major-General John Monash, together with the New Zealand Division and 25th British Division under General Sir Herbert Plumer—the commander of the Second Army, with a reputation for meticulous planning.
The attack was carefully planned with models of the terrain and intelligence gathered by aerial reconnaissance.
This part of the Messines sector had seen a grim contest between Allied and German tunnelers trying to create a labyrinth underneath each other.
During this subterranean warfare, the Allies managed to lay enormous quantities of explosives in a series of 19 mines.
The detonation nearly obliterated the entire German front line and arguably ushered in a form of industrialised destruction and killing not experienced before.
It dug out huge craters, flung German cement pillboxes aside, and left surviving German troops dazed, confused and demoralised.
Since then, the detonation has been described as the largest war-time explosion until the advent of the atomic bomb in the Second World War.
The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 described the explosions in almost ethereal terms:
‘At 3.10 a number of big guns began to fire and then the trench-walls rocked … near Wytschaete, a huge bubble was swelling mushroom-shaped, from the earth, and then burst to cast a molten, rosy glow on the under-surface of some dense cloud low above it. As its brilliance faded two more bubbles burst beside it. During twenty seconds the same thing happened again and again, from the right to the far left.’
The detonation was the centrepiece of the Allied attack, but it was supported by artillery bombardment in the previous week.
The Germans responded with their own barrages that caused more than 500 casualties in the 3rd Division.
Not all German positions had been subject to such destruction. The 33rd Battalion had to overcome determined German resistance on the southern edge of the battlegrounds.
German resistance was also renewed before the second phase of the attack, just after 5am when the Allies were reinforcing themselves.
The Allies moved on relentlessly and took the village of Messines. Despite meeting fiercer German resistance, they achieved most of their objectives.
The fighting among the pillboxes was brutal. Australia’s Official War Historian Charles Bean described it as ‘… marked by a ferocity that renders the reading of any true narrative peculiarly unpleasant … the rules of ‘civilised’ war are powerless’.
Detonating the mines at Messines provided an enormous advantage for the Allies but it still proved costly, with the Australians suffering 6,000 casualties.