Hill 60 and the Battle of Messines 1917
Friday 9 June, 2017
“…from the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage.”
These words greet visitors to the memorial inside the gate at the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, Belgium. The Battle of Messines has been argued as the most successful local operation of World War I under the leadership of General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. The target of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914.
The Germans used this ridge as a salient into the British lines, building their defence along its 10 mile length. Winning this ground would enable the Allies to launch a larger campaign planned for east of Ypres. General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army was chosen for the task, with three corps allotted to secure the objective.
View of the shell strafed surface of Hill 60, in Belgium. Hill 60 achieved notoriety as a scene of some of the most intense mine fighting on the Western Front, and in certain phases of this kind of warfare Australian Tunnelling Companies played a conspicuous part. (AWM EO2045)
The opening Battle of Messines, involving soldiers from the 3rd Australian Division, was the scene of heavy fighting and at that time saw the largest explosion in history. It has further historical significance for the Australian Imperial Force as it was the first time that the 3rd Australian Division saw service on the Western Front.
Australian involvement was under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley’s II ANZAC. The objective was to capture the village of Messines and advance to the flat ground beyond.
General Plumer had begun plans to take the Messines Ridge a year earlier in 1916. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company had been at work, on the northern extremity of the line since November 1916 digging two large mineshafts under Hill 60.
In preparing for the Messines battle, Plumer authorised the laying of 22 mine shafts underneath German lines all along the ridge with a plan to detonate all 22 at 3.10am on 7 June 1917.
The mining was completed in the face of the Germans own counter-mining. During the construction of the 8,000 metres of tunnel, members of the tunnelling company would encounter Germans engaged in their own tunnelling task: underground hand to hand fighting would ensue.
As ordered, at 3.10 am on 7 June 1917 – they were blown simultaneously as the opening move in the Messines attack. Of the 21 mines laid, 19 were exploded, totalling 600 tons of explosives.
General Plumer was heard saying to his staff the evening before the attack, “…Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
The crater created after the explosion at Hill 60, was 60 feet deep and a staggering 260 feet wide; the effect on the German front line was overwhelming. The explosion was followed by a creeping artillery barrage, with the Australians, New Zealanders and British troops advancing on a shattered enemy.
Charles Bean wrote;
“Everywhere, after firing a few scattered shots the Germans surrendered as the troops approached. Men went along the trenches bombing the shelters, whose occupants then came out, some of them cringing like beaten animals.”
The Messines battle, which greatly boosted morale among the Allies, signified the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties actually exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000.
Two mines remained undetonated on 7 June, with the details of their exact location lost after the war, much to the discomfort of local townspeople. On 17 June, 1955 during a thunderstorm one of the mines was detonated, killing a cow.
The second mine remains undetected, although in recent years its location is believed to have been pinpointed.
To date, no-one has attempted to recover the mine.