Lancashire and Cheshire, Western Front Association

Chairman’s Notes

Good evening, as I announced last month, Ralph Lomas is at present unable to compile and produce a hard copy of ‘Up the Line’. For several years he has been diverting valuable commercial time from his printing business. As I indicated at last month’s meeting, Ralph would be willing to provide a copy of UTL if someone is willing to take on the task of using a Microsoft programme. This would enable him to quickly run off copies of the finished article.

If anyone would be willing to do this please let me know. As you will be aware in the past I have used it to produce historical contemporary articles of interest to me. It would enable the editor to cover his or her own field of interest.

It is my intention to transfer my monthly notes etc. to our excellent web site, which Trevor Adams has done so much to get it into being.

I am pleased to welcome Bill Fulton to the Branch. Bill was one of the first speakers I heard when I became a member of the WFA. His subject, Albert Ball, was one of the first heroes of the conflict and I look forward to Bill’s presentation on him.

I am still awaiting confirmation that the national WFA website is up and running. I will then put details of the 2018 speakers on it.   

Terry Jackson, Chairman

Last Month’s Talk

The Branch was treated to a interesting presentation of various aspects of the German army’s uniforms and equipment from a unique collection of photographs in the speaker’s collection. Geoff Caulton has amassed a portfolio of German uniforms in the Great War.

Although Prussia dominated the numbers in the army, other states such as Bavaria initially had their own uniforms, but as the war went on standardisation increased. The uniform included initially the picklehaube helmet made of hardened leather. A cover would have the regimental number sewn into the front.

As with the French and British, the Germans saw the need for a ballistic helmet. The Stalhelm followed the casque Adrian and the Brodie helmet into service.

This was a presentation that could only be appreciated by seeing the many photographs that Geoff produced. Ed

100 Years Ago

It has been argued that the Battle of Messines was the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front.  Carried out by General Herbert Plumer's Second Army, it was launched on 7 June 1917 with the detonation of 19 underground mines underneath the German mines.

The target of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914.  The attack was 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 had begun plans to take the Messines Ridge a year early in early-1916.  Meticulous in manner, Plumer preferred to plan for limited successes rather than gamble all on a significant breakthrough.

In preparing for the Messines battle he had authorised 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 on 7 June 1917, 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 24 August 1916 and destroyed.  A further two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood were not exploded as they were outside the planned attack area.

In the face of active German counter-mining, 8,000 metres of tunnel were constructed under German lines.  Occasionally the tunnellers would encounter German counterparts engaged in the same task: underground hand to hand fighting would ensure.

Heavy preliminary artillery bombardment of the German lines was begun on 21 May, involving 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars, ceasing at 02:50 on the morning of 7 June.  The German troops, sensing imminent attack, rushed to their defensive positions machine guns ready, meanwhile sending up flares to detect British movement towards the ridge.

Silence prevailed for the following twenty minutes until, at 03:10; the order was given across the line to detonate the mines, which totalled 600 tons of explosive.  Of the 21 mines laid 19 were exploded.

The invariable loss of surprise in the use of a preliminary bombardment was entirely offset by the effect of the mines, which blew 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 comprised the loudest man-made explosion until that point.  The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a 'pillar of fire'.

The effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders was devastating.  Some 10,000 men were killed during the explosion alone.  In its wake nine divisions of infantry advanced under protection of a creeping artillery barrage, tanks and gas attacks from the new Livens projectors which were designed to throw gas canisters directly into the enemy trenches.

All initial objectives were taken within three hours.  Reserves from General Gough’s Fifth Army and the French First Army under Anthoine reached their own final objectives by mid-afternoon.

German troops counter-attacked on 8 June, without success, in fact losing further ground as the attacks were repelled.  German counter-attacks continued in diminishing form until 14 June: by this stage the entire Messines salient was in Allied hands.

The Messines battle, which greatly boosted morale among the Allies, signified the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties actually exceeded attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000.

Of the two mines which remained undetonated on 7 June, the details of their precise location were mislaid by the British following the war, to the discomfort of local townspeople.  One of the mines was detonated in a thunderstorm on 17 June 1955: the only casualty was a dead 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.

Ed