On this day, June 7, 1917, the Battle of Messines began. It was opened by the placement of 26 mines with 454 tons of ammonal explosive by the British under the German positions. The mines created 19 craters and devastated the German trenches. The Battle of Messines was an “introduction” to the Third Battle of Ypres which began on July 11, 1917.
The WWI was a large race of arms. The states involved in the war focussed their efforts on front lines or positions that didn’t have a solid organization. Therefore, to get out of those situations, technology development seemed the most viable solution of all. The war was also underground, with the British involving for the first time the miners for tunneling under “nobody’s territory” and placement of explosives under the enemy’s trenches.
Mining and contamination have become routine operations, resulting in brutal scenes of underground battles. However, the effects of the explosion from Messines Ridge couldn’t determine a decisive breakthrough in German positions.
The plan and the strange silence
The plan had been set up by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who relied heavily on the efforts of the engineers. He wanted the destruction of a well-defended German point, the so called “Hill 60”, by digging an extremely long tunnel along the hill and placing mines with ammonal explosives. The blast of the explosion was large enough to allow the British infantry to advance.
Since 1915, the Germans faced the British in a desperate attempt to prevent them from finishing those tunnels. Therefore, on those hills were claustrophobic fights in the underground when the British wanted to set the bombs and randomly met with the Germans. As a result, the Germans defused several bombs and destroyed several tunnels, but they underestimated the British. In 1916, Canadian, Australian and Neo-Zealandian engineers have been brought to speed up the work.
By June 1917, the eight-mile tunnel network was completed and about 26 mines were positioned under the German trenches. However, of this, only 19 were detonated, but it was enough to produce a significant damage. The interesting fact is that in June 1, an artillery barrage bombed the German positions for a week without mercy. By June 7, it ceased and instead of the sounds from the projectiles, a strange silence was installed.
Redesigning the map
Without knowing what will happen, the German soldiers resumed their positions in the trenches awaiting the British to attack. Suddenly, an apocalyptic explosion was heard. The mines were detonated simultaneously. The area broke out and “launched” tons of soil into the air. Over 10,000 German soldiers died from the explosion or were buried alive.
It was one of the biggest human losses in history from a controlled explosion. The large number of deaths was caused also by the shift of the German troops in that morning. The largest crater was 80 m in diameter and 12 m deep, confirming what General Plumer said: “maybe we will not change history tomorrow, but we will definitely change geography”. The same morning, the British infantrymen continued with an assault on the broken hill, occasionally hearing the screams of the buried soldiers.
The Allied troops managed to advance six kilometres and the German counterattacks have been rejected and the battle ended favourably for the British, achieving all their goals. The Battle of Messines was also marked by the fact that such a deep advance in the enemy territory was achieved and that the defenders had more losses than the attackers.
Although, the underground mining of the fortification was a great success, it was the first time than an operation of such dimensions was put into practice. The mining was almost completely set aside by the end of the war when the use of tanks and planes created greater mobility for the armies.