The Battle of Messines, 7 - 14 June 1917
Sir Douglas Haig had long cherished the idea of a major offensive in Flanders – a coastward breakout from the Ypres Salient – and at an Army Commanders’ Conference on 7 May 1917 such an operational scheme was confirmed. As an essential preliminary to secure the southern flank of the proposed main advance, an attack by Second Army to seize the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge was sanctioned for early June. This assault was to have strictly limited objectives.
Meticulous preparations and thorough training of all units characterised the build-up for this battle. The immense British bombardment began on 21 May and intensified ten days later, helping to mask the elaborate supporting arrangements for the attack.
British and Dominion assault troops occupied their assembly trenches in the moonlit early hours of Thursday 7 June. Precisely at 3.10am the Ridge was abruptly engulfed in a series of momentous explosions as nineteen huge mines were detonated under the German front. The British barrage re-commenced and, amidst falling debris, dust and smoke the attacking infantry quickly overran the devastated German forward defence-zone. Further up the crest surviving defenders rallied but could not prevent the capture of Messines and Wytschaete villages. By 9am Second Army was established on the entire length of the Ridge. Following a pause, the advance down the lower slopes continued mid-afternoon; this involved much savage fighting to suppress German ‘pillboxes’. By evening, despite difficulties in the south, the principal objectives had been secured. A German counter-attack was repulsed next day and the entire ‘Oosttaverne Line’ was in British hands by 11 June; though fighting continued the newly-occupied positions were consolidated by 14 June.
An unquestionable and dramatic success, the victory at Messines was not achieved without considerable casualties.
ON TO THIRD YPRES
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