The Battle of Messines from 7-14 June 1917 was one of the most successful Allied battles of the war on the Western Front. Troops from across the British Empire took part and the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Division fought alongside one another for the first time.

Background

In November 1914, the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, south of Ypres, fell into German hands. The occupation of the high ground allowed Germans to observe the Allied and their rear areas in the Ypres Salient. The ridge was gradually transformed into a German stronghold with multiple defensive positions. Early in 1916 the British began to tunnel beneath the German positions. In June 1917, British Empire forces attacked the ridge with the aim of capturing the high ground.

The Battle

At 3.10am on 7 June 1917, after a week-long artillery bombardment, Allied forces detonated explosives in 19 mines under the German positions. Shocked German troops suffered many casualties and soon faced an infantry attack protected by a ‘creeping’ barrage.

Most of the initial objectives were taken in the early hours of the day. The New Zealand Division captured the village of Messines, while the 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division took the village of Wytschaete. German counter-attacks the following day failed to win back ground, but resistance continued until 14 June when Allied forces had control of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge.

Aftermath

Messines was one of the most successful operations of the war on the Western Front, demonstrating that success could be achieved with meticulous planning and training, combined with overwhelming firepower and limited objectives. Success at Messines was vital for the later Allied offensive at Ypres, but also created an unfounded sense of optimism. The six-week delay before the start of the Third Battle of Ypres allowed the Germans to reorganise and the Allies were unable to replicate their quick victory.

British Empire forces suffered around 25,000 casualties. German losses were more than 26,000. Although the attacking forces were composed of men from different parts of the British Empire, the succeeding generations have associated the Battle of Messines particularly with the Irish and New Zealand participation.

A view along a German trench on the ridge at Messines, 11 June 1917, following its capture
A view along a German trench on the ridge at Messines, 11 June 1917, following its capture © IWM (Q 2311)

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Ypres Menin Gate Memorial bears the names of some 54,400 servicemen of the British Empire who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. More than 3,570 of those commemorated here died in June 1917.

Messines Ridge British Cemetery contains the graves and memorials to more than 1,530 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom nearly 960 remain unidentified. At the entrance to the cemetery stands the Messines Ridge New Zealand Memorial which bears the names of nearly 830 servicemen of New Zealand who died near Messines and have no known grave.

Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Road Military Cemetery contains the graves and memorials to more than 1,010 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 350 remain unidentified.