From an Irish point of view, the Battle for Messines in June 1917 is important because for the first time the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) would fight alongside each other.
The two Divisions had found themselves united within IX Corps.
Messines fell into the area of the British Second Army under the command of General Sir Hubert Plumer. From the very moment that the British lost this ridge to the south of Ieper Plumer realised that at some stage it would have to be won back again.
The small village of Mesen as it is now called is in fact officially designated a City.
Photographs of the period after the war show that Mesen had been reduced to less than rubble by the bombardments. Its former abbey was so badly destroyed that it was impossible to reconstruct it.
The church of Saint Nicolas, however was rebuilt and is now a prominent local landmark. It has a full clarion of 61 bells, all raised by local subscription or donated and suitably inscribed with the names of the benefactors.
The abbey and church had been founded in 1057 by the Countess Adela and she is buried in the crypt of the church. She was the daughter of the French King Robert and the wife of Baudouin V of Flanders.
Their union would result in a daughter: Mathilde, who would become the wife of William Duke of Normandy and from 1066; Queen of England.
The village is well worth the visit with a good museum as well as the church and crypt — used by the Germans as a headquarters. There are a number of connections to New Zealand whose Division captured the village on 7th June 1917.
The Irish Peace Park is located just south of Mesen on the road to Ploegsteert. It is easily identified by its round tower. In reality the two Irish Divisions were attacking Wijtschate the next village along the road towards Ieper. In that village you will find a small memorial to the two Divisions as well as the 16th (Irish) Division’s memorial cross.
Perhaps Mesen’s most famous soldier during the period 1914 to 1916 would have been a volunteer in the German Army with artistic leanings: Adolf Hitler. He would paint scenes of the surrounding battlefields during his stay and a copy of one of his paintings hangs in the museum.
Rising to about 80 metres, the ridge is not spectacular like Mont Kemmel, but in an area where the average height of the terrain is about 45 metres, possession of the hill gave the Germans a wonderful position from which to observe everything that the British did.
No advance out of the Ypres salient would be possible whilst the Germans held such a commanding position.
However, rather than just being behind the crest, as would normally have been the case, the German front line was in front of it, so the British could at least monitor German movements as well.
Plans for the assault were begun in 1915 and it was considered that a possible date would be the summer of 1916 immediately after the advance on the Somme. Needless to say the Somme was not the swift breakthrough that had been envisaged and its protraction ensured that Plumer’s plans had to be put on hold. In keeping with his faith that sooner or later the assault would have to be made Plumer continued to hone his preparations.
Plumer’s original plan had been to simply push the Germans off the ridge but General Haig in overall command of the British Forces was looking for something more aggressive in the build up to what was going to be the big summer offensive in the Ieper area. This would culminate in attacks on the Belgian coastal ports of Oostend and Zeebrugge which were being used as U-Boat bases by the Germans.
The Messines operation was therefore extended to include not just the summit of the ridge but also the German defensive lines on the other side of it as well.
One thing about Plumer was that he was always a man who took painstaking care with his plans and thus, of his soldiers.
To the rear of the British lines near the Scherpenberg an enormous scale model of the terrain over which the men would have to fight was constructed. Groups of all ranks from the units involved were give the chance to view the model and to gain an understanding the ground they would be attacking and an adequate knowledge of what was required of them.
Despite what some may think, the British Generals did learn from time to time and one of the lessons that they had learnt from the Somme was about artillery concentrations.
Over 2,000 guns with a third of them heavy or medium batteries, would be brought together. A medium or heavy gun was allocated to every 40 metres of front. 144,000 tons of shells were allotted to the attack. In the preliminary bombardment 3,500,000 rounds would be fired.
The nature of the land had forced both sides to build upwards as opposed to dig into the water sodden ground. All along the horizon concrete German blockhauses could be seen. They were reinforced with steel cabling and could withstand most field artillery shells save a direct hit from one of the heavier howitzers.
New methods of dealing with these had been introduced with the intent that apart from the barrage infantry would infiltrate rapidly around the pillboxes (so named because to the British that is what they looked like) and thus take them from behind.
The new Mk IV Tanks which had arrived in France in April would be used in the assault, with 20 attached to II ANZAC, 16 to IX Corps, 12 to X Corps and 24 in reserve to be used in the afternoon push down the far side of the ridge.
Not greatly different to those used in September 1916, the Mk IV could travel a little further, was more comfortable and was now equipped with Lewis Guns rather than Vickers or Hotchkiss. The armour had been upgraded to withstand current German armour piercing rounds.
They still had a crew of an officer and seven and could travel at the remarkable speed of 3 kph. The Males were equipped with two 6 pounder guns and 4 Lewis Guns, whilst Females were equipped with 6 Lewis Guns.
To cover the noise of their approach, the Royal Flying Corps would fly sorties low over the German lines at 0200 hours.
Zero Hour had been carefully calculated to allow the soldiers just enough light to be able to see where they were going, whilst at the same time making them difficult to be seen.
Above all this, or perhaps under all this would be the better phrase: were the mines.
A Lesson learned from the great mines exploded on 1st July was that waiting minutes before trying to take the crater was too long. Experience now showed that all the debris thrown up by a mine was back down again within 20 seconds (next time you watch one of the old films just count them!)
This time the assault would go straight in, giving the traumatised Germans no chance to recover their senses and secure the craters as they had done in 1916.