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WWI Centennial: Battle of Messines

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 278th installment in the series.

June 7-14, 1917: Battle of Messines

The abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies throughout the French Army in May and June, threatening to paralyze the Allied war effort. Although the Germans never caught wind of them, the Allies were understandably worried they might try to exploit the disastrous French defeat and ensuing chaos with a sudden onslaught against the demoralized, disorganized French forces.

At the same time huge shipping losses inflicted by U-boats beginning in the spring of 1917 focused Allied attention on German submarine bases on the coast of Belgium, whose location allowed the U-boats to slip through the English Channel to prey upon the Atlantic sea lanes (as opposed to the much longer route through the North Sea and around Scotland, which burned up precious fuel, limiting their time in the hunting grounds). The Royal Navy made a number of attempts to destroy or disable these bases, including an attack by destroyers against Ostend on June 4-5, 1917, but these were ultimately unsuccessful, while other measures – including mine fields and submarine nets to block the Channel route – were still mostly ineffective at this stage of the war.

To relieve pressure on the French, deprive the Germans of their submarine bases, and maybe even achieve a strategic breakthrough, Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, planned to carry out two linked offensives in Belgium in the summer of 1917. The first attack yielded a British tactical victory at Messines; the second, the waking nightmare of Passchendaele.

Western Front June
Erik Sass

"THE NOISE WAS IMPOSSIBLE"

The first offensive concentrated on high ground south of Ypres (already the scene of two ferocious battles in 1914 and 1915) and especially the Messines Ridge near the village of the same name – strategic positions with a sweeping view of enemy lines, laying the groundwork for the second offensive east of Ypres. 

At Messines, twelve divisions of the British Second Army under Sir Herbert Plumer, numbering 216,000 men (including Canadian and ANZAC troops) would face five divisions of heavily entrenched defenders from the German Fourth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, numbering 126,000 men – not a favorable balance of forces for the attackers, by the standards of the First World War.

However the British had a few key advantages, including the new tactic of the creeping barrage, which had proven effective at the recent Battle of Arras, and another weapon of truly demonic power – a chain of 26 massive mines, painstakingly excavated beneath the German lines on Messines Ridge over many months and then packed with over 450 tons of ammonal high explosive. The detonation of these mines would produce one of the largest manmade non-nuclear explosions in history (although four of the mines failed to explode; top, one of the craters).

The British offensive was preceded by ten days of extraordinarily intense artillery bombardment, as over 2,200 guns of varying sizes dumped approximately 3.5 million shells on the German lines. Finally, around 2:40 a.m. on June 7, 1917 the guns briefly fell silent, while the first wave of British soldiers quietly crept out of the trenches and lay flat on the earth in no-man’s-land, preparing to rush the German lines as soon as the mines exploded (below, British soldiers take communion during the battle).

The sudden pause in firing alerted the Germans that the British infantry attack was imminent, and the defenders streamed back to their frontline trenches in preparation for the assault – exactly as the British has hoped they would. At 3:10 a.m. the mines were fired and the bowels of the earth opened, while simultaneously the British guns resumed firing. Lieutenant A.G. May, a British machine gun officer, recalled the moment:

When I heard the first deep rumble I turned to the men and shouted, “Come on, let’s go.” A fraction of a second later a terrific roar and the whole earth seemed to rock and sway. The concussion was terrible, several of the men and myself being blown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the earth stood still again though it may not really have been more than a few seconds. Flames rose to a great height – silhouetted against the flame I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling back to the ground. Small chunks and dirt fell all around. I saw a man flung out from behind a huge block of debris silhouetted against the sheet of flame… At the same time the mines went off the artillery let loose, the heaviest group artillery firing ever known. The noise was impossible and it is impossible for anyone who was not there to imagine what it was like.

According to later estimates around 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in the space of a few moments when the mines exploded. Another British officer, E.N. Gladden, recorded similar impressions of the horrific event:

The ground began to rock and I felt my body carried up and down as by the waves of the sea. In front the earth opened and a large black mass was carried to the sky on pillars of fire, and there seemed to remain suspended for some seconds while the awful red glare lit up the surrounding desolation. No sound came. I had been expecting a noise from the mine so tremendous as to be unbearable. For a brief space all was silent, as though we had been too close to hear and the sound had leapt over us like some immense wave… And then there was a tremendous roar and a tearing across the skies above us, as the barrage commenced with unerring accuracy. It was as though a door had been suddenly flung open. The skies behind our lines were lit by the flashes of many thousand guns, and above the booming din of the artillery came the rasping rattle of the Vickers guns pouring a continuous stream of lead over into the enemy’s lines.

As so often, some observers noted that the horror and violence of the war were accompanied by surreal, spectacular beauty (above, the “Pool of Peace,” a pond formed in one of the craters). Jack Martin, a signaler in the Royal Engineers, wrote in his diary:

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember very vividly for the rest of my life – all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, left a description of strange high-altitude atmospheric effects later associated with the explosion of nuclear weapons:

‘Look!’ And there to the north on the crown of the great black dome we know is Messines Hill, we see a movement as of an enormous black tin hat slowly rising out of the hill. Suddenly the great rising mass is shattered into a black cloud of whirling dust as a huge rosette of flame bursts from it and great flames lick, dancing and flickering. High up in the sky above the explosion we see a bank of dark clouds turn red from the reflection of the terrible burst below.

With debris still raining down, and the creeping barrage forcing any remaining defenders to take cover, the attackers began to advance across no man’s land along a stretch of front ten miles long in the slowly rising dawn, supported by tanks and a large number of reserve troops waiting to exploit the breakthrough. Unsurprisingly, following the detonation of the mines in many places the advancing troops found that there was no resistance – and in fact no sign of defenders, trenches, or fortifications of any kind, aside from small scraps of barbed wire. In other places hundreds of German soldiers, still alive but traumatized by the explosions, surrendered en masse.

After around half an hour the attackers had captured their first objective and advanced halfway to the German second line. But plenty of German defenders remained alive, putting up a fierce fight from isolated strongpoints, while others withdrew to their rear trenches on the far slope of the ridge, where they worked feverishly to establish new defensive positions. Meanwhile German artillery, some of which managed to survive the mines and bombardment, plastered the attackers with shrapnel, high explosives, and poison gas. Lynch, the Australian private, described British artillery in action around 11 am, along with the German counter-barrage:

We watch the gunlayer on the nearest gun. He sits on his job laying his gun just as fast as the men can feed and fire it. His body jerks to the kicking recall. Blood is streaming from his nose and ears but he never lets up – bleeding from concussion. The great tanks move towards the big Messines Ridge. We move off to climb that great dusty, smoking hill… Suddenly the hillside above kicks up in fifty places as the Fritz barrage of screeching, roaring, bursting shells comes down and through which we must somehow walk… We see a section of men get a shell clean amongst them and get tossed like ninepins everywhere. One lone man rises and moves on where eight moved only a minute before.

The German guns also hit British rear areas in an attempt to disrupt British artillery and block the arrival of fresh troops. William Presser, a bombardier in the Royal Artillery, recalled being gassed at Messines while trying to sleep in a dugout later in the battle:

I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn’t move anything but my head. I thought, “So this is it, then.” I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightening in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me… The next thing I knew I was being carried on a stretcher past our officers and some distance from the guns… I supposed I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lungs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth… I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.

Tragically the British also suffered a number of casualties from “friendly fire,” due to confusion about the position of troops. James Rawlinson, a Canadian engineer, recalled surviving a German bombardment only to be hit by a British shell, permanently losing his sight to a sliver of shrapnel:

The enemy guns… opened up with a terrific fire, and the scenery round about was soon in a fine mess. Shells of varying calibre came thundering in our direction, throwing up, as they burst, miniature volcanoes and filling the air with dust and mud and smoke… We were congratulating ourselves that we were to pass through this ordeal uninjured, when suddenly a 5.9-inch shell fell short. It exploded almost in our midst, and I was unlucky enough to get in the way of one of the shrapnel bullets. I felt a slight sting in my right temple as though pricked by a red-hot needle--and then the world became black.

Meanwhile the attackers pressed on over Messines Ridge, with Lynch recalling:

Dust and smoke cover everything. We can barely see the sections on either hand yet somehow they still climb on and so do we. Eyes stinging from gas, dust and smoke, our dry throats burning from the biting fumes of the shells, coated with sweat and dirt, we climb through this terrible barrage, walking on the crumbling edge of a roaring, flashing volcano. Fifty times we’re up and down as shells nearly get us. Mad with thirst we move ever on. The leading two men of our little section go down hit. We step by them and climb on as orders are that no man is to fall out to attend the wounded.

German defenders captured during the attack could count themselves lucky, as according to Lynch, the attackers often weren’t in the mood to take prisoners alive:

‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ And a small bunch of Fritz rush out of the pillbox as we near it. ‘Kamerad this amongst yourselves!’ And Whang! one of our men has thrown a bomb at them. Terrified, they fly out of the trench. Crack! Crack! Crack! blaze our rifles and not an enemy is on his feet. They’ve gone the way most machine-gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war.

Despite sustaining heavy casualties in some places, by the afternoon of June 7 the attackers had captured their final objective, the German third defensive line behind Messines Ridge. However the battle continued to rage, as the British pushed forward and the Germans staged a fighting retreat, while Rupprecht rushed reinforcements up to stem the advance (below, a captured trench). During the following week the British made their biggest gains on the southern half of the battlefield, allowing them to consolidate control of the lower reaches of the Messines Ridge to the south, while forcing the Germans back towards the village of Warneton.

Of course these gains came at a heavy price, as the German defenders dug in and more reinforcements arrived. Lynch recalled his final memory of the battle after being wounded on June 10:

I must reach our trench. I begin to crawl up the side of the shell hole I’m in. The side of the hole keeps moving upwards. Struggle as I may I can’t get out, can’t climb that moving bank. I begin to slip back, back, back into the hole and the bottom has dropped out of it. I can’t climb, can’t cling to the moving sides of this bottomless hole, and begin to drop, drop, drop into swaying utter blackness.

By June 14 the attackers had advanced up to three kilometers in many places – a major victory in the context of trench warfare. But as so often during the war, victory was as ghastly as defeat, although soldiers found themselves increasingly inured to scenes of horror. Martin, the signaler in the Royal Engineers, described advancing over the captured ground in his diary on June 8, 1917:

We had seen numerous dead bodies in all the ghastly horrors and mutilations of violent death, men with half their heads blown off and their brains falling over their faces – some with their abdomens torn open and their entrails hanging out – others stretched out with livid faces and blood-stained mouths, and unblinking eyes staring straight to heaven. Oh wives and mothers and sweethearts, what will this victory mean to you? Yet nature very readily adapts itself to its environment and can look on all these horrors without a shudder. But I should feel sick and almost terrified if I saw a man break his leg in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, as in previous victories (like the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge during the Second Battle of Arras) the generals weren’t prepared to exploit the gains won by the valor of ordinary fighting men. Indeed, the logistical difficulties involved in bringing up fresh troops and ammunition shouldn’t be underestimated. Martin’s account gives some idea of the frenetic activity required to sustain the initial advance, as he wrote on June 10:

The RE Field Companies are working hard on pit-prop roads and trench tramways. They have carried them as far as the old front line and are now working across no-man’s-land. Their hardest work is now commencing. It is an extraordinary scene of animation. Wagons and lorries full of materials are arriving in constant succession and hundreds of men are unloading and carrying and putting in place…

Although Plumer urged Haig to press their advantage by continuing the attack, the BEF commander insisted on waiting until late July, giving the Germans almost eight weeks to adjust and enhance their defensive positions on the Gheluvelt Plateau and high ground to the east of Ypres, including around Passchendaele – a small Flemish village fated to become synonymous with mindless slaughter.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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