Messines

This page deals not just with Messines, but also the neighbouring village of Wytschaete, and also areas around that were involved in the Messines offensive in 1917. Messines is located about 6 miles due south of Ypres, on the N365.

The best guide-book covering the area, and Flanders in general is Major & Mrs. Holt’s Guide to the Ypres Salient. Paul Reed’s Walking Ypres has a number of walks around the salient, and two in particular in this area – Messines Ridge and “Whitesheet”. An excellent book dealing with the Battle of Messines in depth is Ian Passingham’s Pillars of Fire.

Messines area map

Messines area map




The battle for Messines ridge commenced on June the 7th 1917 and was 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). It employed a more cautious approach using General Plumer’s “bite and hold” tactics.

Messines in ruins

Messines in ruins. Photo: NELS

Rather than attempting to making sweeping gains on a wide front with large numbers of troops, the attack on Messines ridge had limited, but realistic, objectives. It utilised a “creeping barrage”, where the guns lifted just ahead of the advancing attackers. It was also preceded by the detonation of nineteen mines along the front. All nineteen mines were blown within 19 seconds of one another.

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.

Messines

Now known as Mesen, there is a sequence of aerial photographs that show, over a few months, the total destruction of Messines village. It was ground into dust.

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. In the town square today is a Ross Bastiaan bronze plaque, similar to the one at Passchendaele.

Messines church today

Messines church today

New Zealand Division Memorial

The village of Messines was taken by troops from the New Zealand Division. They 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. The New Zealand Memorial Park is found on the south-west edge of Messines, on a road now known as Nieuw-Zealanderstraat.

If you walk up Nieuw-Zealanderstraat as it curves up the hill into Messines, you realise what a steep climb this would have been for the attackers. The entrance to the New Zealand Memorial Park is semi-circular in shape, with a low hedged area.

The memorial itself is on the left hand side as you enter the park. It 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′. Another inscription  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‘. The memorial was unveiled by King Albert I of Belgium on the 1st of August 1924.

At the other end of the park are two bunkers. From here there are excellent views down the valley over  the New Zealand positions before the battle. The views from the New Zealand (left) and German (right) positions of June 7th 1917 are shown in the photos below. They demonstrate clearly the strategic nature of the higher ground in Messines.

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

Messines Ridge Military Cemetery is located on the N314 road leading west from Messines towards Wulvergehem, on the ridge which dominates the lower lying land below. The cemetery  was created after the Armistice.

Before the battle of Messines, in early 1917 this spot was approximately where the German lines ran. Looking west from the cemetery, the spire of Wulvergehem church can be seen.

The cemetery also contains a memorial to officers and men of New Zealand who died in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918 and who have no known grave. The picture below shows the entrance to the cemetery; the New Zealand memorial is surmounted by the Cross of Sacrifice and takes the form of panels around the circular base on which the cross is set.

Messines Ridge Cemetery & NZ Memorial

Messines Ridge Cemetery & NZ Memorial

These panels are arranged by regiment, including panels for Maori, Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington Regiments. After the war, the New Zealanders decided not to have the names of their missing  commemorated on the Menin Gate. Instead, there are seven New Zealand memorials to those from New Zealand who died in the First World War but have no known grave in France and Belgium. The memorials are located in cemeteries which were appropriate to the fighting in which those listed on each died, as is the case here at Messines, and also not far away at Polygon Wood.

The memorial commemorates more than 800 New Zealand soldiers, and the Cemetery beyond has over 1500 graves, approximately two-thirds of which are unidentified.  This is because the cemetery 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.

Just past the Cemetery, on the left hand side of the road is a large bunker in a field. 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.

Bunker near Messines

Bunker near Messines

The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines

Located just south of Messines on the N365 leading to Armentieres is the Island of Ireland Peace Park. 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, approached by a pathway leading past granite slabs on the right. On these are inscribed quotations and poems from Irish soldiers, including Francis Ledwidge, 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. The monument was erected by the Journey of Reconciliation Trust, with support from the people of Messines. Inside the base of the tower are three registers listing alphabetically those commemorated.

Separate standing stones list the battalions, including those of Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught. 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.

Spanbroekmolen

Spanbroekmolen was the largest of the mines which were blown at the start of the assault on Messines Ridge. It is a mile and a quarter north-west of Messines, reached by taking the minor road off the N314 opposite Messines Ridge Cemetery. Go straight ahead at a cross roads and carry straight on ignoring a right turn immediately after the crossroads. The Spanbroekmolen site is a wooded area on the right hand side just after farm buildings.

At the entrance to the site is an information board, giving facts about the mine and the crater. Work on the mine commenced on 1st January 1916, and it was effectively completed by June the 26th. However it was not actually detonated until nearly a year later. The mine was actually 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.

The mine was 88 feet deep, and contained 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 been preserved. It was later renamed “The Pool of Peace”.

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Towards the north-east of the crater the protruding remains of a bunker can be seen. This was most likely a German bunker. Presumably, as it is located just beyond the edge of the rim of the crater this bunker only just escaped being blown sky-high 100 years ago!

Lone Tree Cemetery

Across the road from Spanbroekmolen a concrete path by a farm leads past a duck pond to the small Lone Tree Cemetery. This cemetery  contains 88 burials (six of whom are unknown). The soldiers buried here are mainly from the Royal Irish Rifles, killed on the 7th of June 1917, some by the explosion of the Spanbroekmolen mine (which was blown around 15 seconds later than planned as they advanced).

The views to the south and east from this cemetery are stunning, and reinforce the advantage the Germans had from this higher ground. Mount Kemmel can be seen, and also several churches including that of Wulvergehem to the south. Lone Tree is one of the most beautiful cemeteries, and one of my favourite spots in the Salient.

Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery

This cemetery is north-east of Spanbroekmolen. It can be reached on foot by following the path across fields from the rear of the Spanbroekmolen site. By car, return the way you came to the left turn just before the crossroads. Take this left turn and then take the next turn to the left.

There are just five rows of graves, comprising 58 burials. The cemetery was almost exclusively used for burying men 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 are of men of the 36th Ulster Division (the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers).

This small “comrades” cemetery in the middle of ploughed fields is reached by a small path leading off to the right from the road.  The surviving comrades of the fallen buried these men here in June 1917, after the fighting that raged across this now peaceful landscape. They lie here still, in peace.

As you walk back from the cemetery towards the road, a cluster of trees and bushes on the horizon about 200 metres beyond the road mark the site of  Spanbroekmolen.

Other Craters

As well as Spanbroekmolen, some of the other craters from mines blown for the Messines offensive can still be seen. Continuing further along the road from Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery a large water-filled crater is visible on the right.

This is 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. The crater was visited by King George V in July 1917, when it was far enough behind thefront lines for it to be safe for him to do so.

Peckham Farm Crater

Peckham Farm Crater

The picture above shows the crater, looking east, with the steeple of Wytschaete church visible to the left.  This view shows the ground over which the British advanced that day.

South of  Spanbroekmolen are the double craters of Kruistraat, shown in the left photo below. South of Messines are several more craters, some of which are on private land. There are three St. Yvon (or St. Yves) craters, and one (St. Yvon No. 1) is pictured below right. 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, subsequently flooded and abandoned.

Another, near the St. Yvon craters  lay there for nearly 40 years and exploded after a thunderstorm in July 1955. 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 (the Germans had already withdrawn from this location when the day of the battle arrived).

Presumably the remaining three Birdcage mines, plus the La Petit Douve Farm mine described above, still lie beneath the Flanders fields.

Wytschaete

Known to the troops during the war as “Whitesheet”, the village of Wytschaete (now Wijtschate) is about a mile north of Messines, on the main N365 road that leads back towards Ypres. 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

Wytschaete in ruins. Photo: NELS.

The London Scottish Memorial

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 their book Salient Points. 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.

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 1914. The situation during this time was 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 but a few hours later they were 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. Their 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 enough 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 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 placed at the base of the memorial by relatives of men who had died.

Wytschaete Village

Wytschaete lay more or less in the centre of the front on which the attack was made on the 7th June 1917. 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 just in certain places. 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 described earlier.

Wytschaete Military Cemetery

On the right hand side of the road leading west out from Wytschaete village square towards Kemmel is Wytschaete Military Cemetery. This is a post-war concentration cemetery, and slopes down the hillside away from the road, with the graves set at right angles to the road.

Wytschaete Military Cemetery

Wytschaete Military Cemetery

The large number of unidentified burials becomes obvious as you walk along the rows, and 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. The left set is for two men originally buried at the intriguingly named ‘Rest and be Thankful Farm’.

This and the other two cemeteries named, R.E. (Beaver) Farm and Rossignol Estaminet, 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 memorial to the 16th Irish Division at Wytschaete

The memorial to the 16th Irish Division at Wytschaete Military Cemetery

Continue along the road towards Kemmel, and  a relatively new memorial is reached, in the form of two stones, one on each side of the road. One is again commemorating the 16th Irish Division, and the other the 36th Ulster Division.

These memorials were unveiled in 2007, and inscribed on each is the date 7th June 1917, and the words “Irish comrades-in-arms”. The Divisional insignia are engraved on the top. The memorials are located roughly where the two Divisions joined in their successful attack to take Wytschaete.

Continuing further along this road leads to the Peckham Farm mine crater described above.

Summary

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 initial bombardment on the day of the attack was shorter.

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 because 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 Messines 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
The Times archives