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World War I: Battle of Messines

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Battle of Messines - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Messines took place from June 7 to 14, 1917, during World War I (1914-1918).

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • General Sir Herbert Plumer
  • Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley
  • Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon
  • Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Morland
  • 212,000 men (12 divisions)

    Germans

    • General Sixt von Armin
    • 126,000 men (5 divisions)

  • Battle of Messines - Overview:

    In the late spring of 1917, with the French offensive along the Aisne bogging down, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, sought a way to relieve pressure on his ally. Having conducted an offensive in the Arras sector of the lines in April and early May, Haig turned to General Sir Herbert Plumer who commanded British forces around Ypres. Since early 1916, Plumer had been developing plans for an attack on Messines Ridge southeast of the town. The capture of the ridge would remove a salient in the British lines as well as give them control of the highest ground in the area.

    Authorizing Plumer to move forward with an assault on the ridge, Haig began to view the attack as a prelude to a much larger offensive in the Ypres area. A meticulous planner, Plumer had been preparing to take ridge for over a year and his engineers had dug twenty-one mines under the German lines. Constructed 80-120 feet below the surface, the British mines were dug in the face of intense German counter-mining activities. Once completed, they were packed with 455 tonnes of ammonal explosives.

    Opposing Plumer's Second Army was General Sixt von Armin's Fourth Army which consisted of five divisions arrayed to provide an elastic defense along the length of their line. For the assault, Plumer intended to send forward the three corps of his army with Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Morland's X Corps in the north, Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon's IX Corps in the center, and Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley's II ANZAC Corps in the south. Each corps was to make the attack with three divisions, with a fourth kept in reserve.

    Plumer commenced his preliminary bombardment on May 21 with 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars pounding the German lines. The firing ended at 2:50 AM on June 7. As quiet settled over the lines, the Germans raced to their defensive position believing that an attack was forthcoming. At 3:10 AM, Plumer ordered nineteen of the mines detonated. Destroying much of the German front lines, the resulting explosions killed around 10,000 soldiers and were heard as far away as London. Moving forward behind a creeping barrage with tank support, Plumer's men assaulted all three sides of the salient.

    Making rapid gains, they collected large numbers of dazed German prisoners and achieved their first set of objectives within three hours. In the center and south, British troops captured the villages of Wytschaete and Messines. Only in the north was the advance slightly delayed due to the need to cross the Ypres-Comines canal. By 10:00 AM, the Second Army had reached its goals for the first phase of the assault. Briefly pausing, Plumer advanced forty artillery batteries and his reserve divisions. Renewing the attack at 3:00 PM, his troops secured their second phase objectives within an hour.

    Having accomplished the offensive's objectives, Plumer's men consolidated their position. The next morning, the first German counterattacks began around 11:00 AM. Though the British had little time to prepare new defensive lines, they were able to repel the German assaults with relative ease. General von Armin continued attacks until June 14, though many were badly disrupted by British artillery fire.

    Battle of Messine - Aftermath:

    A stunning success, Plumer's attack at Messines was nearly flawless in its execution and resulted in relatively few casualties by World War I standards. In the fighting, British forces incurred 23,749 casualties, while the Germans suffered around 25,000. It was one of the few times in the war when the defenders took heavier losses than the attackers. Plumer's victory at Messines succeeded in achieving its goals, but led Haig to over-inflate his expectations for the subsequent Passchendaele offensive which was launched in the area that July.

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