This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines. Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.
The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British. British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.
The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.
Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.
Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.
Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.
Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.
Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.
A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.
With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.
To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.
I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius. Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.