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 that were riddled with shell holes and puddles. Sporadic artillery guns woke up and belched the first cannons of “morning hate.” It looked like this day would be just 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. A bang 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 is still visible today.
Messines Ridge and the Ypres Salient of WWI was notorious. It was 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 filled with men on the brink. 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 were smashed in humiliating defeats, as well as tragic body counts. Morale had sunk to the cellar. The British grew desperate to break out.
The mine was pitched by General Plumer in 1915, as a desperate gamble to get 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. There was a thicker, tougher layer of blue clay about 120 feet down. It was deep enough that no explosives would be detonated on accident by stray shells and bullets (in theory…) and 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 on the nickname “clay kickers,” they dug out multiple mineshafts with minimal protection, and only some support boards kept them from caving in. In a scary, subterranean world, thousands of soldiers picked away at the clay while the war thumped on above them. Their hours were long, and the work was exhausting. The air was damp and muddy, and 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 deep below Hill 60, which was the prime target of the attack. Large, open chambers had also been readied for the mountain of ammonal explosives. They were hauled into the chambers in canvas bags that weighed about fifty pounds each. Every bag was an explosive device on its own, and a lethal danger to the soldier who carried it. One slip, one stray bullet, one wrong move and he would form his own crater. They also had the worry that all their effort would be for naught. Because once each chamber was completed and stocked with ammonal, it sat unused in the damp and dank, and ammonal didn’t explode when wet. It was such a big worry that engineers had to test the mines every day with electronic charges to make sure they were still viable.
Of course, the biggest vulture on everyone’s shoulder was that the Germans would discover their activity. 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. Soil samples studied by Germans showed elements of blue clay, which they knew was very deep and therefore suggested mining activity. Strange sounds were heard by listening posts, perhaps not enough to raise the alarm, but enough to raise the nerves.
The Germans had also started on their own mines. 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 was going on 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, the fuse was lit with synchronized watches to 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 was 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.”
In the areas where the explosions were the most intense, there wasn’t even any remains. Second Lieutenant Meinke was 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 was one of the worst of the entire conflict.
Over one hundred years later, the ground has still not 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 is about fifty feet deep. Knowing there were eighteen more, and about a half-dozen more that weren’t even used, really put some things into perspective. I was so “blown away” that even my vast imagination couldn’t comprehend what it must have been like.
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 system. Yet, I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I normally do when visiting a place like this. Instead, I just felt that it was… 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. Perhaps it’s at the bottom of craters like this one. Or, perhaps 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