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The Legacy of Messines


‘Gentleman, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.’ So said General Plumer the day before 600 tons of explosives were detonated under the German position on Messines Ridge. The explosion was heard by Lloyd George in Downing Street, and as far away as Dublin. Until 1918, Messines was the only clear cut Allied victory on the Western Front, coming at a time when Britain and her allies needed it most: boosting Allied morale and shattering that of the Germans. Precisely orchestrated, Messines was the first true all-arms modern battle which brought together artillery, engineers, infantry, tanks, aircraft and administrative units from a commonwealth of nations to defeat the common enemy.

The Battle of Messines remains an example of what was possible against a well-organised, resolute enemy in the First World War. Contrary to the popular myth of disaster in the wake of poor planning by incompetent generals and their staff, this operation proved the very real value of strong leadership, assiduous planning and preparation and the confidence with which each soldier went forward knowing his task and his part in the ‘big picture’.

Once the mines were sprung, victory was assured by accurate, concentrated use of artillery, air superiority, good communications, outstanding logistic support and the timely concentrated use of the infantry to take and then hold the ground wrested from that enemy. 

Its unique quality is that it was planned at the outset as an operation of classic siege warfare and thus its key elements were those of the artillery and engineers to break the back of the Messines–Wytschaete defence. The triumph of arms became the triumph over the will of the enemy. Messines proved the point that ‘It is not big armies that win battles, it is the good ones’.

On the other hand, it was one of the low points of German morale between 1914 and 1918. If Gen Plumer and his staff were a model of planning, cooperation and firm control, then Gen von Laffert and his staff represented none of these qualities. The troops of Gruppe Wytschaete had good reason to feel abandoned to their fates by inept leadership, but there was much more behind their humiliation on 7 June and beyond. The British mines were an integral factor, but it was the combination of their effects with those of the enormous power, flexibility and accuracy of the artillery which really shattered the former German defensive ‘ring of unbreakable steel’ around the Messines Ridge.

Messines had first a psychological achievement, one of morale. It lifted that of the Allies and destroyed, albeit temporarily, that of the German army. It was undoubtedly a tactical success in a relatively local operation with limited objectives, but one that could and should have been exploited immediately.

The planning and conduct of the battle of Messines was a model for modern warfare and the principal root from which the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] grew in 1918. Its legacy lay in the maturing of the BEF into one of the best led and resourced all-arms formations that had taken the field and won against the main enemy in the main theatre of war. Perhaps the most appropriate post-script should come from Basil Liddell Hart:

‘On the 7th June 1917, took place a battle which on the morrow was hailed as a brilliant military achievement, and which today, unlike so many historically tarnished ‘masterpieces’ of 1914–1918 stands out in even higher relief. For we appreciate now that the capture of Messines Ridge by General Plumer’s Second Army was almost the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. It was also one of the few attacks until late 1918 in which the methods employed by the command completely fitted the facts of the situation.’

Extracted from Pillars of Fire by Ian Passingham

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