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.

SOURCES

“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

84 Comments on “Messines Ridge – And the Big Kaboom

  1. I have to say I knew there was more than one mine but not as many as 18! Hard to believe after to so much effort how futile it was

    A very interesting and informative post and I really like you closing paragraph – a very true sentiment.

    • Thank you! I was pretty stunned when I heard how much actual explosive was used. They didn’t go into that much at the crater itself, I found it in a lot of the sources I read. Incredible!

  2. Excellent points there at the end. From what I know about WWI, I feel the entire conflict was a huge was of lives and resources.

    • Uuuugh, such a destructive war, so grisly, and so scarring to people both physically and emotionally! Sometimes it all just seem so futile, doesn’t it?

    • About Eilene’s comment, “the entire conflict was a huge waste of lives and resources.” That’s exactly why we need to keep telling theses stories. WWI is the ultimate example of a war that never should have been fought. With other wars–WWII, the Civil War–it’s possible to say that the war was inevitable or necessary. But then the futility and savagery become obscured by “it had to be done.” The lessons of the Great War need to be told and retold, painful as they are.

      • Very excellent points – those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it! Learning from the mistakes would be the only glimmer of hope in something so awful as a war, yet how quickly people seem to forget! 🙁

    • That’s so cool you’ve been there too! 🙂 Did you post about it? (If so, give me a link I’d love to take a peek at it) That’s also amazing about your grandad being a part of that. I can’t imagine what that must have been like!

      • Hmmm… couldn’t seem to get anything to come up with this link?

      • Is that the Saving Private Ryan score?! Excellent choice! And oh wow those pictures – the video of the crater is amazing. It always amazes me how peaceful those places look and feel now, with birds chirping and everything.

      • I know, it’s so strange when you are there. We are off to Normandy for a week in May, it’s 10 years since we were there last, so am looking forward to it. The music is from Private Ryan 🙂 Thanks MB, glad it worked!

      • Oh man we were just in Normandy this past summer. Would love to go back again! Here’s some photos from our trip there if you’re interested: https://mb-henry.com/photography/france/ Hope it is a wonderful trip. I think I read they are doing the last reunion with veterans this year in June?

      • Yes but we avoid that as the crowds are just too much for us! Thanks for the link I’ll check it out properly tomorrow when I have some me time!

  3. Outstanding post, M.B! When I read the title and 1917, I was thinking it was about the Halifax Explosion. I never knew about this. Thanks for the excellent history lesson!

    • You are most welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. When it comes to WWI, there are so many explosions and so little time.

  4. SO well told, M.B., and horrifying. As others have mentioned, you wrote a great and eloquent ending, too. War is indeed full of futility — and hellish.

    • Couldn’t agree more. And how long the damage ripples through time, not just in the landscape but in the hearts and minds of the people!

  5. Thanks for all the fascinating information. I am familiar with the Union mine under the Confederate line at Petersburg (Battle of the Crater), but was not aware of this incident. It sounds as if the two incidents had pretty much the same outcome.

    • Another person here also mentioned the similarities to the Petersburg Crater. They are indeed striking in both tactic and outcome. I’ve been to Petersburg as well and might do a follow-up article sometime about that crater. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, thanks for stopping by!

    • Yes… it’s a heavy concept to grapple with and makes us very sad sometimes! 🙁 Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  6. As I was scrolling through blogs that I follow, I started reading this one without seeing whose blog it was. By the end of the first paragraph, I realized that it must be yours. Sure enough, it was! Love getting history lessons through your posts. They are so interesting. Have you considered putting these together into a book?

    • Glad to know I have a style that stands out 🙂 I actually am writing a series of historical fiction novels, but it might not be a bad idea to put some of these blog posts together someday as well! 🙂 Thanks as always for reading and for your kind words.

  7. Interesting history that highlights the courage, ingenuity and sacrifices from so many. I’ve studied a number of battles while in my military career but I don’t recall the insight that you shared. I agree wholeheartedly about your closing message. We have so many to thank over the years for their sacrifices in action, out of action and those supporting from the rear. I examine my contributions and they pale in view of so many, and what they did to make this world a better place, free from dictators, tyrants and oppressors. We live each day, hoping to make life better for each other – keeping the peace for those who follow. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • I am so glad that it moved you. And may I just say – thank you for your military career, although “thank you” never seems enough for how I feel about people in the service or in military careers!

      • Thanks so much! We served and serve for a greater cause than ourselves; knowing a supportive nation is behind you makes all the difference. It’s not for fame or fortune but to do what can be done the best it can be done to ensure our national security and freedom is not at risk.

      • <3 <3 <3 It's the least I can do to tell the stories and keep the memories of such service alive!! We should NEVER take it for granted!

  8. Very neat summary. Mining is an aspect of the war that many don’t know about – well done, you; and very nicely written, as usual. I’ve visited the Ypres area three times now and still can’t grasp the magnitude of it all, the concentration of effort and material in one, small, area. Glad to see you’ve discovered Lyn Macdonald too – her books are like windows into the past. The truly disgusting thing about WW1, I think, aside from the awfulness of war in the first place, is that so many men have no known grave; they just disappeared out of the lives of those that loved them. Did you know that at least two of the mines you mention did not explode when they were meant to? One went off sometime in the 1950s, I think, and the other is still there – an enormous quantity of amatol buried deep under Belgian farmland…

    • I LOVE Lyn MacDonald, I have a lot of her books including the one listed here – as well as “the Death of Innocence” and “to the Last Man.” She is an amazing writer, and an inspiration to me! It was definitely shredding to the soul to see all those graves marked “known unto God” and all the names on the Menin Gate and elsewhere. I can’t imagine how it must have been for loved ones – never knowing, never having closure. And I had heard about the one that went off in the 1950s but I guess didn’t realize it was connected to this mine! How very interesting, boy I hope no one gets hurt if there’s one still lurking out there! 🙁

      • Yeah – I don’t know whether this stuff degrades, or what! But I wouldn’t want to live over it. You probably know – but some of your readers might not – that the fields of Belgium and Northern France still churn up the detritus of WW1 and that it still kills people. A worker was killed in Ypres, just before I last visited in 2014, by an old shell that went off when he dug it up.

      • You are right, they are still pulling up that stuff all the time. I think I just read a few months ago that they had to close some place in London because they found a big WWII bomb under there! It might have even been an airport?? Then I know the fires in Germany were setting off old WWII bombs as well. The final shots never die away, do they?

  9. First of all, damned good writing. You carried my interest from the first word to the last. So well done.

    Second, fantastic topic! I never heard of this event and like others upthread mentioned, it does bring to mind the Battle of the Crater – but please tell me, did anyone on the British side research The Battle of the Crater and seek to mitigate the obvious risks? I doubt they did, so many mistakes of WWI were the result of lessons not learned.

    • Thanks much!! Very glad you enjoyed it. You would think someone would have taken a look at the Battle of the Crater and how that turned out (not good…). If they did, it sure doesn’t seem like they learned much from it, because it played out almost exactly the same way in Belgium as it did in Petersburg! So much of WWI warfare was born in those last months of the Civil War (trench warfare being a big one) that I’m surprised more people didn’t take heed.

  10. As always I learned something new from reading your story. I could picture the Kaboom. I could imagine the screams the fire, the massive destruction. Your writing is so descriptive! Thank you for teaching your ole mother yet another history lesson! Great story!

  11. I noticed (probably unintentional) echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in your post’s first sentences: “It was June 7, 1917, a little after three in the morning… 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.”

    Orwell’s novel begins with the sentence: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Orwell also conceived what he called the “Two Minutes Hate,” of which Wikipedia says: “The Two Minutes Hate, from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a daily period in which Party members of the society of Oceania must watch a film depicting the Party’s enemies (notably Emmanuel Goldstein and his followers) and express their hatred for them for exactly two minutes.”

    • Boy there are some similarities there aren’t there? Although yes, they are very unintentional. I have read 1984, but it was quite some time ago. “Morning hate” isn’t a term I came up with myself, “morning hate” and “evening hate” were slang used by the British soldiers to describe the daily bombardments from German artillery, one just before sunrise and another just before or after sunset. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and some George Orwell! 😃

  12. This is all new info to me. I was shocked to learn there were 18 mines and how powerful they were. I can’t imagine! And then to have it solve nothing… That is really grim.

    • Yeah, it was pretty grim to see it in person and how massive it really was, and then to realize how many more there were. And in the end so futile… 🙁

    • I will have to track that down too – Let me know your thoughts on it if you get to it before I do! 🙂

      • Oh, how you have brought the scene to life,M.B! You don’t just describe it, we are there with sore backs from digging underground or chilled in the muddy trenches.The conflagration reminds me also of the maritime Great Halifax Explosion of1917 (2nd hand from my husband)

      • Hey Paula! You’re the second person to mention the Halifax explosion! 🙂 I’ve also had a lot of mentions of the Petersburg Crater as well. So many explosions, you think someone would have learned from it at some point! So glad you came by to share your thoughts 🙂

  13. funny, all while i read i was thinking, all that for nothing. You took the word futile right off my mind. If only we learned from history, our world would be such a better place.

    • Nice! All three I imagine would do a pretty good documentary on the subject 🙂

  14. This is a fantastic article, thank you so much for sharing this. I learned so much from reading it and the pictures are great! This post brought back sad memories from my childhood! I was 9 years old and living in Liberia during The First Liberian Civil War and was among the lucky ones who survived. I like your analyses in the last two paragraphs.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post – but sorry for the memories it stirred up 🙁 I am so sorry that you or anyone has to go through that.

  15. I really enjoyed reading your post (if ‘enjoy’ is the right word). it brings back memories of my visits to the battlefields around Ypres, but you write about it much better than I could. Thank you

    • I’m glad it moved you! 🙂 We just visited there last summer and it was as very sobering experience, to say the least. The first world war was so devastating, as are they all, I suppose 🙁 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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