Messines Ridge – And the Big Kaboom
It was June 7, 1917, a little after three in the morning. Over a small swath of Belgium known as Messines Ridge, the first rays of dawn glittered on the horizon. Mud-splattered German soldiers slumbered in their trenches, while their British counterparts huddled across the way. A few flares fizzled over the soggy fields riddled with shell holes and puddles. Sporadic artillery guns woke up and belched the first cannons of “morning hate.” A day that started out like any other…
…Until the clock struck 3:10am exactly. Then, the Battle of Messines Ridge opened with a bang. A really, really big bang. One that took almost two years to put into place, that involved nineteen separate mines, thousands of personnel, and about 990,000 pounds of explosives. A bang that killed 10,000 unsuspecting German soldiers in one fell swoop, injured countless others, caused eternal hearing problems, and left a permanent scar in the plains of Belgium that remains visible today.
Messines Ridge and the Ypres Salient of WWI was notorious. A muddy piece of earth that changed hands too many times to count. Soldiers in opposing trenches had been bogged down in the mud since the first big slug-out in 1914. In addition to the stalemate of battle and frequent dousing with poison gas, the poor bloody infantries also had the elements to contend with. The summer rains turned the ground into soup and flooded out trenches. Mud became an inescapable part of life. It coated their clothes, weighed down their boots, soiled their rifles, and even tainted their rations.
There was no end in sight to the suffering either. Time after time, British attacks against the German-held positions on Messines Ridge and Hill 60 got smashed in humiliating defeats, as well as tragic body counts. Morale had sunk to the cellar. The British grew desperate to break out of the stalemate.
General Plumer pitched the mine in 1915, as a desperate gamble to force the Germans out of his way once and for all. Despite the gooey, unstable surface of the Flanders front, and the close proximity of the Germans, he wanted to put massive mines, under total secrecy, over a hundred feet below the German line. If they wouldn’t yield to his artillery and soldiers, he would just swallow them up in a crater the likes of which the world hadn’t seen.
Laughable maybe, but after careful examination by chief Engineers of the British Expeditionary Force, they concluded that it just might be possible. Because they found a thicker, tougher layer of blue clay about 120 feet down. Deep enough that no stray shells or bullets could accidentally detonate the mine (in theory…) It would also conceal any miners at work, since German listening apparatus couldn’t reach that far.
Digging began early in 1916, with the Durham Light Infantry and the Royal Engineers leading the charge (in work and explosives). Taking the nickname “clay kickers,” they dug out multiple mineshafts with minimal protection, and only some support boards kept the whole thing from caving in. In a scary, subterranean world, thousands of soldiers picked away at the clay while the war thumped on above them. They suffered long hours and completely exhausting work, in damp moldy air and muddy pits. One wrong swing with a pick-axe could bring the Ypres salient crashing down on their shoulders. They could also be discovered at any moment by German raiding parties. In addition to that, the job was prime for mishaps and accidents.
By 1917, over twenty mine shafts had been carved out below Hill 60, the prime target of the attack. Large, open chambers had also been readied for the mountain of ammonal explosives. Engineers hauled them into the chambers in canvas bags weighing about fifty pounds each. I wouldn’t call ammonal a stable explosive either, which meant each bag became a lethal risk in itself. One slip, one stray bullet, one wrong move and the soldier carrying it would form his own crater.
They also worried that all their effort would be for naught anyway. Because once each chamber got stocked with ammonal, it sat unused in the damp and dank, and ammonal didn’t explode when wet. Damp explosives became such a big worry that engineers had to test the mines every day with electronic charges to make sure they remained viable.
And Germans discovering their work proved the biggest vulture on everyone’s shoulder. In fact, the enemy had become deeply suspicious that something foul was afoot across the way. Over a dozen signs labeled “Deep Wells” had sprung up over Flanders. When German miners studied soil samples, they found elements of blue clay, which they knew resided deep down and therefore suggested mining activity. Listening posts picked up strange sounds beneath them. Not strange enough to raise the alarm, but enough to raise the nerves.
The Germans had also started on their own mines, and it would spell epic disaster if the two groups bumped into each other. They came pretty close, too. In fact, they came within a hair’s breadth of each other – eighteen inches, to be exact. In a panic, all of the British tunnels were evacuated and the British Expeditionary prepared for the worst.
They got one hell of a break though. Tired of constant flood-outs, British air raids, and the other stresses of mining, the Germans abandoned their efforts just over a foot before they stumbled on the enemy. They never got the exact story about what happened underneath them, either. Some captured soldiers mentioned an offensive that would open on June 7, but none gave away the secret of the mine. The Germans shed their fears and went about their business.
Then the big day came. At 3:10am, British miners synchronized their watches, lit the fuse, and set off the biggest explosion in history up to that point. It had triple the firepower of the previous record holder in New York. It pounded so loud and forceful that windows in London rattled and shook. People much closer to the earth-shattering explosion, if they lived through it, were swept away both physically and emotionally.
Lieutenant Bryan Frayling of the 171st Tunneling Company described how it unfolded – “When zero hour came, the first thing we knew was a terrific tremor of the ground, it was quite fantastic… After the tremor we saw the flames… A sheet of flame that got tongued on the end. It went higher than St. Paul’s I think – I estimated about 800 feet. It was a white incandescent light, we knew that the temperature was about 3,000 degrees centigrade. The Germans there went up as gas.”
2nd Lieutenant J.W. Naylor of the Royal Field Artillery was also a witness to the kaboom – “The earth seemed to tear apart, and there was this enormous explosion right in front of us… the whole ground went up and came back down again. It was like a huge mushroom.”
Second Lieutenant Meinke stood on the German side that morning, and he somehow survived the blast. “The earth roared, trembled, and rocked – this was followed by an utterly amazing crash and there, before us in a huge arc… was raised a curtain of fire about one hundred meters high… It was like a thunderstorm magnified one thousand times!”
Although the Messines mines did their job and obliterated the German position, and many men with it, no victory by either side was forth coming. The Ypres Salient would be haggled over for the rest of the war. Thousands more would die, and the subsequent third battle for Ypres went down as one of the worst of the entire conflict.
Over one hundred years later, the ground still hasn’t healed from such a cataclysmic rupture. The craters remain, as do traces of the winding trenches. My husband and I traveled to Hill 60 when we toured Europe, and we stood at the lip of just one of the nineteen craters that went up that morning – the Caterpillar Mine Crater. Just that one crater stretches over eighty yards and goes down about fifty feet. Knowing there were eighteen more, and about a half-dozen more that weren’t even used, really put some things into perspective.
What did I take away from it, you might ask? Well, I had read a lot about the Messines mines for my own research, and as always, there’s something about seeing it in person that you can’t get from the pictures. I also learned a lot about the clay kickers, engineers, and other soldiers involved in putting together this massive mine system. Yet, I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I normally do when visiting a place like this. Instead, I just felt… well… futile.
As massive as the explosion was, the scope of people and equipment involved, many of whom risked and gave their lives, it didn’t solve anything. The war drug on, and ultimately, that war only led to a second world war. The scars still remain in more places than the physical landscape. It got me thinking about the concept of futility. All these things we do to each other, scarring our bodies, our souls, and our planet, and what is it really worth in the end?
Perhaps the answers are buried somewhere in those graveyards scattered all over Europe. Or maybe at the bottom of craters like this one. Then again, maybe we’ll never know. All we can do is try to remember the sacrifices of people through time, people who wanted a better world and were willing to fight and die for that. Perhaps we should just stand at the edge of a giant crater, try to take it in, and remember that nothing is really stable in life, not even the ground beneath our feet. So, we shouldn’t take anything for granted, least of all our history.
“In Flanders Fields” – L. Wolff
“Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917” – L. MacDonald
“Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground” – N. Steel & P. Hart
“The Great War” – P. Hart
Hill 60 – Caterpillar Mine Crater – Belgium
Photos by M.B. Henry (except the cover photo – my husband gets mad props for that one!) For more pictures from Belgium – Click Here