Three Army Corps would be used in the attack across a front of about 16 kilometres. On the right (the southern end of the front) II Anzac would take the village of Messines.
In the centre of the line and including the Irishmen was IX Corps who would be attacking Wytschaete (Wijtschate – Whitesheet to the British). The left flank to the north was held by X Corps and their task was to take St Eloi (Sint Elooi) and Mont Sorrel.
The total depth of the advance at the centre would be about 3 kilometres and would pinch out the Messines salient.
It was known that since the Somme, German defensive systems had changed. No longer was it necessary to hold each metre of ground to the end. Now they were much more flexible with a lightly held front line to give warning, concrete machine gun bunkers to offer resistance and regiments in reserve waiting to be moved as necessary to counter the threat.
Some artillery preparations began on 20th April but on a very limited basis. As heavier guns became available after the closure of the Battle of Arras in May they were moved north. During the preliminary bombardments which were to commence on 21st May the crews would be rotated, allowing for a third of them to be resting and their guns to be cooling.
Practice runs were conducted for the creeping barrage in order to entice German counter battery fire and large raids were carried out on the German lines to test their strengths. What was stressed was that once the ridge and its villages had been taken, the attacking troops would consolidate their position. This would be an operation in the style of: Bite and Hold.
At 0100 hours on 7th June 1917 the British and Anzacs moved up into their jumping off positions. Two hours later everybody was warned to lie flat on the ground.
Then at 0310 hours about 450,000 kilos of explosives were detonated amongst 19 huge mines under the German front line. The effect was a man made earthquake which sent German soldiers in Lille 20 kilometres away into a panic, and was easily heard in the south east of England.
The word awful could truly have been used in both its original and current meanings.
German soldiers caught by the largest of the mines were simply blown into dust. Advancing British troops found blockhauses containing dead Germans without a mark on them; crushed internally by the blast.
Within moments of the mines going off, the full ferocity of the British artillery barrage was let loose and 700 machine guns poured rounds into the German lines above the heads of the advancing troops.
On the southern end of the attack, 3rd Australian Division under Major General John Monash had a hard time coming up through Ploegsteert Wood whilst undergoing a heavy gas barrage and losing about 500 casualties.
They arrived at the front line just as the mines at Trenches 122 and 127 detonated and found themselves having to go straight into the attack. Opposition was minimal as those Germans encountered, were by and large shocked and bewildered beyond the capacity to resist.
On their left the New Zealand Division made rapid progress up towards Messines village.
The New Zealanders should have had a mine at Petite Douve Ferme on their front, but this was the one mine that had been discovered by the Germans and collapsed with a camouflet with the loss of four men on 27th August 1916. The charge had to be left where it was — and it would appear to be there yet!
The front line trench system was known as Uhlan Trench and in it were a number of concrete blockhauses. Two of these can be seen today within the confines of the New Zealand Memorial in the village.
The village of Messines had been completely demolished by the shelling but the Germans had made every use of the cellars and the ruins of both the church and the abbey. These all provided excellent machine gun positions, but ultimately no match for the men from down under and the tanks supporting them.
Dawn had only just risen and after 150 minutes of fighting Messines and the trenches on the eastern crest of the hill were in Allied hands.
One tragedy for the 1st New Zealand Brigade was the loss of their commanding officer Brigadier General Brown who was killed by shellfire near to where the monument stands. He is buried in the Communal Cemetery Extension at Bailleul.
To the left of the New Zealanders, the British 25th Division had a German stronghold in the form of Ontario Farm in front of them. This, therefore, was the site of the mine on their front and over two and a half tons of explosives reduced the German position by means of the most unusual of explosions.
The mine had been tunnelled through what seemed to be an old river bed. This proved to be far too wet and work was started afresh further back. This was only a short period before the actual attack was due to take place. The second attempt only reached under the German front line the morning before the assault and whilst it wasn’t as far as had been hoped, it was decided to go with it anyway.
With the dampness of the sand around the mine the explosion created a large crater but of almost no depth. The Official History notes rather eloquently:
…the wet sand flowed back almost as if the mine had been exploded in treacle.
On the right of the village of Wijtschate the 36th (Ulster) Division faced one of the most heavily defended sectors of the German line and it was for this reason that they were given the greatest concentration of the mines along their front.
These were the Kruisstraat group, Peckham mine and the massive mine at Spanbroekmolen. This last was named after a mill that had been on the site and the engineers (who had only completed it the day before) had doubts that it would go off.
It did, causing the largest crater of the day. Today it is known as the Pool of Peace and can be visited quite easily. Unfortunately as there had been worries that it might not go off the Ulstermen went over the top on the dot when nothing happened. They were already out of their trenches when the mine exploded a few seconds later causing a number of casualties.
With the aid of two tanks the Ulstermen captured an entire German Battalion Headquarters, before eventually coming up alongside their compatriots.
16th (Irish) Division found that their attack against Wijtschate was made relatively simple by the mine at Maedelstede Farm and the twin mines at Petit Bois, which broke any resistance. The village like Mesen had been heavily fortified by the Germans, but a heavy bombardment on 3rd June had battered the defences.
With a tank leading the way the Irishmen overran the northern side and by 0800 hours had attained their objectives.
A sad loss to the Division was the death of Major Willie Redmond who was injured near Maedelstede Farm whilst advancing with the 6th Royal Irish. He continued on but was injured again in the leg and could no longer stand.
The Irish Nationalist MP was whisked off the battlefield by the stretcher bearers of the Unionist 36th Division. The Ulsterman who tended him, by chance also being called Redmond. If he had been younger Redmond’s injuries would not have been too serious but at 56 years of age the shock was too great for him and he died from his wounds before he could be sent back.
He was buried by members of both Irish communities in the grounds of the Loker Hospice garden where he had died. His grave is now situated just outside the CWGC Locre Hospice Cemetery at Loker.
The left flank of the IX Corps’ assault had been entrusted to the 19th Division and they found no resistance from the Germans at all. The Hollandscheschuur group of mines had obliterated the German trenches.
Those Germans that could find their legs ran away, the rest surrendered. The Grand Bois in front of the Division had been heavily bombarded previously with gas and incendiary drums and again little in the way of a defence was put up by the survivors.
On the left of the battleground X Corps had the important task of guarding the left flank as well as taking the high ground either side of the Comines Canal. This would give the British excellent observation over the Gheluvelt plain and beyond; all the more important because a move out onto the plain was considered to be the next move after Messines Ridge had fallen.
On the right, 41st Division were attacking over the old battlefield of St Eloi which was well accustomed to mine warfare (which had commenced in the area in 1915). In the centre the 47th Division were attacking Battle Wood and an area known as Spoilbank. The final sector of the assault and far left was undertaken by 23rd Division who had the task of taking Hill 60 and Mont Sorrel.
At St Eloi the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company had not only dug the deepest of all the mines but had also charged it with the greatest amount of explosives. 38 metres below the surface they placed 43,402 kilos of ammonal explosives. Despite the huge size of the resulting crater the Engineers were disappointed in the results which were blamed on the heaviness of the clay in the area which had not allowed the blast to full develop.
Ammonal is an explosive made up of ammonium nitrate, trinitrotoluene (TNT), and aluminium powder. Whilst it simply burns in the open, the mixture explodes if confined. One of its drawbacks is that ammonium nitrate soaks up water and much of the miners’ task was to ensure that the charges remained dry – not easy in this area.
Their regrets were not taken into consideration by the German soldiers who had been manning the area. Nor were the assaulting members of the 41st in any mood to quibble over a few metres of crater. The results were impressive, having removed the entire German front line and the stronghold defending it.
On their left, the 47th Division were in fact the last unit fighting on the ridge itself and advanced without the support of any mines along their front. Those either side of them, however, greatly assisted in demoralising the defenders. The 300 metres of no-man’s land was crossed within fifteen minutes and was greeted by surrendering Germans.
The left flank and most northerly unit was the 23rd Division and in front of them was the hotly contested area of Hill 60. This is an artificially created hill formed by the spoil from the railway cutting which runs adjacent to it. On the opposite side of the track another mound of spoil was known as the Caterpillar. Both mounds were mined and the explosions once again crushed trenches and reduced concrete to rubble.
The attacking units were now to have a period of consolidation before finishing off the eastern side of the ridge. It was now that most of the casualties would occur.