Messines and Memory
MESSINES, FLANDERS—Europe’s identity is enshrined in Flanders. The continent’s modern history was shaped here by the searing collective experience of our ancestors during the Great War. Millions paid the ultimate price, both in Flanders and elsewhere on the Western Front, for the failure of pre-1914 European diplomacy. Sadly, even for those who survived it, this ‘war to end all wars’ became a mocking misnomer. The nations of Europe managed a mere twenty years of uneasy truce before grim-visaged war exploded once more in 1939.
The low-lying Flanders countryside is quiet today. But during 1914-1918 an estimated one million men were killed, wounded, remain unknown or are still missing in what became known as the Ypres Salient. British soldier-poet Edmund Blunden MC, who served in the Salient, described this grim battleground as follows: ‘A whole sweet countryside amuck with murder; each moment puffed into a year with death’. In 2007, European dignitaries and the descendants of participants gathered in Belgium, near the Flemish town of Ypres, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele of 31st July to 10th November 1917. In a series of major ceremonies, they honoured the memory of all soldiers from the combatant nations who served during this most terrible of attritional battles. The largest commemorations were held by groups representing British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers who fought at Passchendaele.
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Shattered redoubt at Hill 60, near Zillebeke, Flanders. The first British ammonal mine was detonated here in the early hours of 7th June 1917, devastating the German line.
Yet Passchendaele was not the only story in Flanders in 1917. Its immediate predecessor, the Battle of Messines, 7th – 14th June 1917, was that rare achievement on the Western Front, a complete tactical success. As at Passchendaele, German forces entrenched in the southern Ypres Salient held formidable defensive positions astride natural ridges captured in 1914. In response, for two years, the British had burrowed a vast honeycomb of tunnels into the blue Flanders clay. At the end of these they placed 24 massive ammonal-based mines, the largest totaling almost 50 tonnes of high explosive. By mid 1917, five of these wire-detonated mines had been abandoned due to German countermining operations. But the others were to be used to devastating effect. Messines was directed by General Herbert Plumer –commander of the British Second Army- who reputedly told his staff before the attack; ‘Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow but we shall certainly change the geography’. In the early hours of 7th June the attack on the Messines Ridge was preceded by the detonation of 19 mines under the German line, stretching in a wide arc from ravaged Hill 60 near Zillebeke in the north to Ploegsteert Wood at the Salient’s southernmost tip.
Ploegsteert Wood, near Messines, Flanders. The southernmost tip of the Ypres Salient where the last British mines were detonated. Winston Churchill served here during 1915-1916. Nearby, the famous – but short-lived- Christmas Truce between German and British soldiers took place in December 1914.
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