The Battle of Messines perhaps the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front is launched by General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army with the detonation of 19 underground mines underneath the German lines. The target of the offensive is the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914. The attack is also a precursor to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, decided upon by the British Commander-in-Chief ‘Sir’ Douglas Haig following the collapse of the French Nivelle Offensive earlier in May 1917.
General Plumer began planning to take the Messines Ridge a year early in early-1916. Meticulously Plumer preferred to plan for limited successes rather than gamble all on a significant breakthrough. In preparing for the Messines battle he authorises the laying of 22 mine shafts underneath German lines all along the ridge, his plan being to detonate all 22 at zero hour at 03:10, to be followed by infantry attacks so as to secure the ridge from the presumably dazed German defenders, the infantry heavily supported by the use of artillery bombardments, tanks and the use of gas. Work on laying the mines began some 18 months before zero hour. One mine, at Petite Douve Farm, was discovered by German counter miners on 24th August 1916 and destroyed. A further two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood are not exploded as they are outside the planned attack area.
In the face of active German counter-mining, 8,000 metres of tunnel are constructed under German lines. Occasionally the tunnelers encounter German counterparts engaged in the same task and underground hand to hand fighting ensues. Heavy preliminary artillery bombardment of the German lines began on 21st May, involving 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars, ceasing at 02:50 this morning. The German troops, sensing imminent attack, rush to their defensive positions, machine guns ready, meanwhile sending up flares to detect British movement towards the ridge. Silence follows for twenty minutes until, at 03:10 when the order is given across the line to detonate the mines, which total 600 tons of explosive. Of the 21 mines laid 19 are exploded.
The evening before the attack General Plumer remarks to his staff. “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
The inevitable loss of surprise in the use of a preliminary bombardment is entirely offset by the effect of the mines, which blow the crest off the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. Audible in Dublin and by Lloyd George in his Downing Street study, the combined sound of the simultaneous mine explosions comprises the loudest man-made explosion until this point in history. The lighting up of the sky as the detonations run across the ridge is likened to a ‘pillar of fire’ and the effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders is devastating. Some 10,000 men are killed during the explosion alone. In its wake nine divisions of infantry advance under protection of a creeping artillery barrage, tanks and gas attacks from the new Livens projectors which are designed to throw gas canisters directly into the enemy trenches. All initial objectives are taken within three hours. Reserves from General Gough’s Fifth Army and the French First Army reached their own final objectives by mid-afternoon.
German troops will counter-attack tomorrow, without success, in fact losing further ground as the attacks are repelled. German counter-attacks will then continue in diminishing form until 14th June by which time the entire Messines salient will be in Allied hands. The Messines battle, which greatly boosts morale among the Allies, signifies the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties actually exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000. Of the two mines which remain undetonated on today, the details of their precise location will be mislaid by the British following the war, to the discomfort of local townspeople. One of the mines will be detonated in a thunderstorm on 17th June 1955 the only casualty being an unfortunate cow. The second mine remains undetected, although in recent years its location is believed to have been pinpointed. No-one has as yet attempted its recovery.
The Q-Ship HMS Pargust (Commander G Campbell VC) sinks the German submarine UC-29 south of Ireland.
Today’s losses include:
- A battalion commander
- Multiple families that will lose two and three sons in the Great War
- A Member of Parliament and Irish Nationist
- Multiple sons of Justices of the Peace
- The son of the Lord Mayor of London and 1st Viscount Bearsted
- Multiple sons of member of the clergy
- A man whose father was killed in action last year
- A New Zealand Rugby International
- A winning trainer of Labrador Retrievers
- Multiple men whose brother-in-law is killed
- A man whose brother was killed in the South Africa War in 1902
- The son of the 6th Bishop of Barbados
- Brothers killed on the same day in different regimetns
- A man whose father died the same as a result of an action in Valpariso, Chile
- The great grandson of the 13th the Earl of Derby
- A cousin once removed of Lord Stanley who donated the cup to the winner of the North American Hockey Championships (now the NHL)
- A man whose brother was killed as a Naval Chaplain in the explosion of HMS Goliath
- A man whose brother drowned on S S Lusitania
- The Captain of the Otahuhu Football Club
Today’s highlighted casualties include:
- Lieutenant Colonel John Hutton Bowes-Wilson (commanding 9th Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment) is killed at age 37. His older brother was killed in June two years ago.
- Major William Hoeg Kearney Redmond (Royal Irish Regiment), a Member of Parliament, Irish Nationalist and brother of John, dies of wounds at age 56 during the battle of Messines Ridge.
- Major D D H Campbell MC (Royal Field Artillery) is killed in action at age 33. He and his brother, who will be killed in September of this year, are the sixth successive generation of their family to serve in the military.
- Captain Ralph Duncan Robinson (North Lancashire Regiment) is killed at age 21. He is the son of William Charles Robinson MBE JP.
- Lieutenant ‘the Honorable’ Gerald George Samuel (Royal West Kent Regiment) is killed in action at age 31. He is the son of Marcus Samuel 1st Viscount Bearsted (Lord Mayor of London) and Lady Bearsted. He has a brother in law who was killed in 1915.
- Lieutenant Alban John Benedict Hudson MC (Worcestershire Regiment) is killed in action at age 23. He is the son of the Reverend Charles Henry Hudson. He was the Commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford.
- Second Lieutenant Eric Henderson (London Regiment) is killed at age 21. He is the son of the Reverend Joseph Graham Henderson.
- Lieutenant Randolph Edward Oswald Coates (Auckland Regiment) is killed at age 29. His brother will die at home three days after the armistice.
- Sergeant Frank Whitelaw (Australian Infantry) is killed at age 23. His brother will be killed in August 1918.
- Corporal Alan Gunn Hodgman (Australian Infantry) is killed in action at age 20. His brother was killed on the first day of landings on Gallipoli.
- Private Charles Albert Clissold (Australian Infantry) is killed in action at age 19. His father was killed in action in November 1916.
- Private Keith McLean Viles (Australian Infantry) is killed in action at age 19. His brother will be killed tomorrow.
- Private Robert James Lewis (Australian Infantry) is killed. His brother was killed in December 1915.
- Private William Cargill (Canterbury Infantry) is killed at age 32. His brother will die on service in September 1918.
- Private Victor John Hodder (Auckland Infantry) is killed. His brother died of wounds as a prisoner of war in November 1914.
- Private William Samuel Bussell (Canterbury Regiment) is killed. He is a Rugby League player for both Canterbury and his country.
- Captain Andrew Richard Buxton (Rifle Brigade) is killed at age 37. He was was a successful trainer of Labrador Retrievers, winning, with Hunsdon Zulu, in 1910, the Championship in the International Gun-dog League Retriever Trials. When the War broke out Captain Buxton enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion, and in January 1915, he was given a Commission in the Rifle Brigade and went out to France in the following July. His Battalion was in the salient of Ypres, and all through the winter he had many narrow escapes. In August, 1916, he led his Company into action at Guillemont. His health then broke down, and after a period of time in a rest camp he was attached to Brigade Headquarters. He was, however, always anxious to return to his Battalion, and this he succeeded in doing, a few days before his death.
- Captain Archibald Bowers-Taylor (Manchester Regiment) is killed at age 35. He is the son of the Reverend Bowers-Taylor.
- Captain Capel Desmond O’Brien-Butler MC (Irish Regiment) is killed at age 27. His brother was killed in October 1914, his brother-in-law in December 1914 and another brother in January 1902 during the South Africa War.
- Second Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) Donald Campbell Rutter MC (Sussex Regiment attached Royal Flying Corps) is killed at age 20. He is the son of Hugh Campbell Rutter JP.
- Lieutenant Alfred FitzHardinge Murray Berkeley (Machine Gun Corps) is killed at age 21. He is the son of Alfred Pakenham Berkeley 6th Bishop of Barbados.
- Sergeant James Irwin age 24 (Machine Gun Corps) dies of wounds at age 24 the same day his brother Sergeant David Irwin age 21 (Irish Rifles) is killed.
- Rifleman William Kennedy (Irish Rifles) is killed. He is the son of the Reverend S G Kennedy. His brother J Kennedy was also lost in the Great War.
- Lieutenant Archibald Bright (Sherwood Foresters) is killed at age 32. His brother will be killed in September 1918.
- Lieutenant Noel Gilbert Bryan King (Wiltshire Regiment) is killed in action. He is the son of the Reverend Gilbert Alfred King Rector of Easterton.
- Lieutenant Laurence Henry Garnett (Royal Field Artillery) is killed at age 25. His brother was killed in December 1915.
- Second Lieutenant Alfred Lionel Cumming (Royal Flying Corps) is killed at age 25 the same day his father dies as a result of an accident in Valparaiso, Chile, where Second Lieutenant Cumming was born.
- Second Lieutenant John William Stanley (Lancashire Fusiliers) is killed in action at age 31. He is the great grandson of the 13th Earl of Derby who is the grandfather of the Lord Stanley who donated the Stanley Cup to the top ranking amateur hockey club in 1892 making John William Stanley the cousin once removed of Lord Stanley. Second
- Lieutenant Reginald Silvester (London Regiment) is killed at age 24. His brother was killed in September 1915.
- Sergeant Raymond Bartram (Australian Infantry) is killed at age 23. He is the middle of three brothers who will lose their lives in the war this year.
- Lance Corporal Charles Henry Reeves (Cheshire Regiment) is killed at age 29. His brother will be killed in October.
- Lance Corporal Charles William Shone (Australian Infantry) is killed at age 33. His brother will be killed in October 1918.
- Lance Corporal John Scott (Border Regiment) is killed at age 32. His brother was killed last November.
- Private John Henry Shannon (Sherwood Foresters) is killed in action at age 33. His brother-in-law will be killed in action in Italy in September 1918.
- Private Frederick Arthur Parsons (Royal Fusiliers) is killed at age 35. His brother was killed in October 1916.
- Rifleman Charles F Rance (London Regiment) is killed. His brother was killed last March.
- Private Robert Archer (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 20. His brother will be killed next month.
- Private Peter Garnett Cook (Australian Infantry) is killed nine days before his brother.
- Private Elliott Glostilon Halford (Cheshire Regiment) is killed. His brother died of wounds last September.
- Private Joseph Hockenhull (Cheshire Regiment) is killed in action. His brother was killed in September 1916.
- Private William Colman (Cheshire Regiment) is killed at age 21. His brother will be killed in October.
- Private Herman Albert Nordstrom (Canterbury Regiment) is killed at age 28. His brother will be killed in October.
- Rifleman John Gordon Lewis (London Regiment) is killed in action. His brother was the Chaplain and killed on board HMS Goliath in 1915 and they are sons of the Reverend David Lewis Rector of Llanbede.
- Private Henry Charles Neems (Cheshire Regiment) is killed at age 33. His brother drowned in the torpedoing of S S Lusitania in May 1915.
- Private John Christopher Robertson (Otago Regiment) is killed in action. His brother will be killed in October 1918.
- Private Gilbert Knowles Bazett (Canterbury Regiment) is killed at age 24. His brother will be killed in October.
- Private Angelo William Thomas Gill (Auckland Regiment) is killed at age 21. He is the Captain of the Otahuhu Football Club who won several medals for shooting.
- Private Cecil Wallace Ayling (London Regiment) dies of wounds at age l9. His brother will be killed in exactly six months.
- Private Edward Perrin (East Surrey Regiment) is killed. His brother was killed in October 1914.