Remembering Messines

The expected German counter-attacks were defeated, and by 9 June it was clear that Plumer’s troops had won a brilliant victory. Historian Damien Fenton

Success but at a cost

By Roger Childs

As a kid living in Karori I had friends who lived in Messines Road.

I thought that the street was named after some local worthy who had been an early settler. Only later did I find out that it remembered a famous battle.

Here in Kapiti we have Menin Road which also has a World War One connection with Belgium.

Last Wednesday was the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Messines which took place on the Western Front in Belgium.

Getting the tactics right

Breaking through on the Western Front for the allies in World War One was not easy. The Somme battles of 1916 showed that the German forces were formidable foes with deep trenches, strategically placed machine gun posts and heavy artillery, and cleverly distributed barbed wire.

In early 1917 the newly promoted Field Marshal Douglas Haig wanted to remove the German salient on the Messines Ridge between Ypres in Belgium and Armientères in France. General Sir Herbert Plumer was in charge of the offensive planned for June and it would involve British, Australian and New Zealand troops.

The lessons from 1916 had been learnt and the preparations for the battle included a massive tunnelling operation. 21 shafts were dug under German lines and at the end of each there was a huge accumulation of explosives.

Meanwhile all the troops who would advance after the big explosion, had been training intensively in the weeks leading up to the offensive.

New Zealand Division part of a great success

Early on the morning of 7 June 1917 the mines went off and thousands of German troops were killed instantly. The allied troops followed up immediately and the Kiwis quickly achieved their objectives which included the town of Messines.

The established what was known as the Black Line east of the village, and remained on the Ridge until they were relieved on the night of 8-9 June.

Unfortunately, they were the victims of their own success as the things became congested on Messines Ridge and some New Zealanders lost their lives before the line was thinned out. In the Battle of Messines 3700 Kiwis were killed.

However, the New Zealand Division, one of nine involved in the offensive, had been a part of a very successful attack and morale amongst the Allies rose dramatically.

Were the Germans on the verge of defeat and was this the turning point in the war?

Sadly, no. In October the over-confident Haig ordered another offensive which is known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Unfortunately, the victory at Messines had not been followed up and the Germans quickly regrouped and re-established new lines.

The Allies would learn how well they had prepared in the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele.