- from The War Illustrated, 23rd June, 1917
- 'the 'Earthquake' Victory of Messines Ridge'
- By Max Pemberton
Battle Pictures of the Great War
General Plumer's Great Triumph in the Ypres Salient
There were many who, lying awake. in London on the morning of Thursday, June 7th, will tell you that they heard the mighty explosion with which began one of the greatest and1 certainly the most terrible of the battles in the story of Armageddon.
Could a contrast more wonderful be imagined ?
The sleeping city, the summer's day just dawning; the lights grown pale in our street, but here and there a waggon lumbering to market millions of sleepers-who had forgotten the war.
And across yonder !
An army of many thousands but not one; of them sleeping. A flat country with low ridges of shabby hills and poor woods, and wide roads once of pave, and-brooks and canals that suggested swamps. To the north the battered town of Ypres, where there stands little but ruins ; to the south the famous "Plug Street" Wood, wherein so many have died that we may live. And behind all this line the activity of a thousand factories ; trains moving, guns massing, troops here, troops there, Staff officers at the gallop, bayonets glistening, the guns moving ceaselessly. The very air seems terrible in its stillness. There is not a man of all those regiments who does not know that this is the fateful hour.
It is an hour for which we have long waited perhaps since the autumn of 1914, when for days together the fate of our Empire hung in the balance and gallant men saved the Channel ports by what now seems a miracle of human courage and endurance.
artillery shell exploding near the British lines
Passing of Ypres
Who does not recollect the heroism of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at that fateful moment; how England did upon a day of October which never can be forgotten ; General French's superb rally of the 1st Division ; the charge of the. London Scottish ; the retaking of Gheluvelt ; the saving of Calais. Later on there was the famous defeat of the Prussian Guard on November nth, the terrific fighting for Messines and Wytschaete and the final abandonment of those villages. In the Second Battle of Ypres, which the thiiii grey line waged heroically from April to the Middle of May, we heard for the first time of gas and of the agonies of those surprised by it. But here in England we knew at that time but little of the meaning of the titanic conflict, and there were always the optimists to tell us that we could break through "at any time."
Subsequently, Ypres passed somewhat out of the picture. We knew that the British held a dangerous salient there, and that the Germans occupied the high ground, from which they could shell us at their pleasure. We heard with regret that the magnificent old mediaeval town was being destroyed stone by stone ; its Hotel de Ville becoming but a shell; its wonderful church but a ghastly ruin. Soldiers told us of the dangers of the place ; how that no man or gun could be moved upon an adjacent high-road in the daytime ; how that we must creep from house to house if we visited the town ; how some of the bravest of the people clung to their homes despite the terror.
And then, upon that, came the days when we forgot Ypres altogether, and, our interest moving southward, thought only of the Somme and Vimy and the greater ridges where the mightier battles have been waged.
The change, of attitude was natural; it was not to endure.. No victory more complete has been won for us than the one gained on he morning of June 7th. And it was a victory for which we had been preparing through the years. To the mere civilian the thing is still, incredible. He hears with but faint understanding that our engineers Had been undermining the Messines Ridge and the hills about it almost since the days of the Second Battle of Ypres.
an artist's impression of the fighting
Tunnelling patiently, a great army had been at work. No less than six hundred tons of high explosives were secreted beneath the Germans, who imagined that they held us in all security. And at ten minutes past three on the morning of that Thursday they, were fired together, with an effect beyond the power of any pen to describe.
Thus began the Battle of Messines.
There had been a stormy night of summer; fitful thunder and a sky of .lowering clouds. The moon showed faintly, as through a veil ; the air was heavy and dark. Through it all our guns boomed, and the Germans sent up their star-shells, and great flames showed upon a horizon of shadows. For all that, it was hardly an intense bombardment, and about three o'clock it ceased suddenly and a dead silence fell. Men waited, they hardly knew for what. For three years the harvest had been sown, and this was the instant of reaping. When the crash came the bravest trembled. The very ground seemed to be opening at their feet. Hills were thrown into the air; trees blown sky-high ; guns and men and concrete all buried together. A day of doom might have dawned, and the Last Judgment come upon mankind. Never were such flames seen upon any horizon. The sounds were like nothing to which human ears had yet listened. And even those who knew could leap up from the ground to cry, "An earthquake ! "
We had fired the mines at last, had blown Hill 60 into the ewigkeit had set the Battle of Messines going with a vengeance.
In that Mighty Moment - No sooner was it done than every one of our massed batteries opened tire, and the air became red with flames and: the horizon with fire. Beyond us was the great curtain before the day-dawn, scarred by a thousand jets of light a jig- saw of lightning flashes and acrid iridescence, and all that fearful writing which the finger of Destiny sets down with a pen dipped in-the well of death. As the day broke, and the zenith warmed to the sunlight, we saw below it such pillars of smoke, a loom so many coloured, a devastation so overwhelming, that the eye almost feared to look upon it. But we knew that our men were up and out by this time the splendid Irish from the North, and the South, the New Zealanders, the Australians, and the staunchest of the English. Up and over and away to the heights, the ' tanks" staggering after them the new tanks' and the old, to bid God-speed to those who carried: grenade and bayonet, and were already amid tile rubble looking, for dead Germans. For these the mines had made the paths straight; and who shall wonder that the day was won for them with hardly the. sight of a living German ?
Here and there, to be sure, the fighting was stiff enough. Machine-gun emplacements at Wytschaute, more than one cunning dug-out, wherein scattered bands had escaped the holocaust, held up brave men for the instant but never for the hour. "You cannot keep them back," says an officer in the thick of it, and that is a true saying. They absolutely hurl themselves at the enemy ; while as for Fritz, back he comes by the hundred presently Bavarians, Prussians, Wurtembergers to the same common "cage."
We had five thousand before nightfall, and fully seven thousand by Sunday, June 10th. They sang, they shouted, they did hot hide their joy. But speak to them of the inferno from which they have escaped, and then watch their faces ! They stammer when they try to tell you how the ground beneath them was cleft suddenly: by some mighty force beyond all imagination terrible. They have stories of guns actually shattered to fragments, of whole companies of men buried in a twinkling, of regiments that had disappeared as absolutely as though they had never been.
an artist's impression of the fighting
Great End Achieved
And here they are, some wounded triflingly, but mostly whole, thanking their German God that they are no longer in Germany.
Meanwhile, our own good fellows are away yonder, fighting like demons beneath the curtain of the smoke. Happily, their casualties are relatively few. We lose that most gallant fellow, Major Willie Redmond, and mourn him deeply. Some, alas die when the German great guns barter the lost land, and their mighty crumps throw dust and earth, broadcast. But, in the main, we go through Messines and Wytschaete unchecked, and by nightfall we are down the other side of the ridge and have taken the village of Oosttaverne. Our front was one of 18,000 yards, and we have penetrated, says the Staff, to a depth of five miles. The Ypres salient is no more. Never again, we hope, will the German gunners look down upon us from the Messines Ridge. The work of the splendid heroes of 1914-15 is consummated at last.
A finals word for the excellence of our airmen and the wonderful service they did us. All day, as ever in these battles, they droned above, now observing at their leisure, now turning fiercely upon the Huns who had come out to attack. General Sir Herbert Plumer himself, to whom the King has offered the nation's congratulations, bears witness to their gallantry. Between June 1st and June 6th they brought twenty-three German machines to the ground, and drove down twenty-three out of control.
We salute them gratefully as all engaged in this magnificent victory.
the Messines ridge in the distance
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