Battle of Messines: Ulstermen and Irishmen combined in ‘perfect offensive’

Wytschaete-Messines Ridge where the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions fought side by side
Wytschaete-Messines Ridge where the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions fought side by side

Historian Gordon Lucy recounts a First World War battle which has been described as ‘the most perfect and successful example of the limited offensive’ where commander of the British Second Army Sir Herbert Plumer led his men to a highly regarded tactical victory at Messines on June 7 1917

This month marks the centenary of the Battle of Messines in which the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions fought side by side.

CF Falls – in his History of the Ulster Division – has justly described Sir Herbert Plumer’s great victory at Messines on June 7 1917 as ‘the first completely successful single operation on the British front’ and ‘the most perfect and successful example of the limited offensive’.

Plumer, who contributed the introduction to Falls’ account of the Ulster Division, was the commander of the British Second Army and was one of the finest generals serving in France and Belgium during the Great War.

Unlike many of his senior military colleagues on the western front who were cavalrymen, Plumer was an infantryman. Plumer did not share Douglas Haig’s constant hankering after a ‘breakthrough’ and he was extremely sceptical about cavalry’s ability to exploit one.

As an infantry man, Plumer understood much better than many of his colleagues what could reasonably be expected of his troops. He was a meticulous planner and was not afraid of telling Douglas Haig that his plans were too ambitious. More often than not, he would be proved right.

Plumer was extremely popular with his men, gaining both respect and affection. His troops fondly called him ‘Old Plum’ or ‘Daddy Plumer’. They recognised that he was not profligate with their lives.

Plumer had a receding chin, a white moustache and a little pot-belly. He might have served as the model for David Low’s Colonel Blimp but in Plumer’s case appearances were deceptive.

Behind Plumer’s unpromising exterior lurked a formidable military intelligence. Field Marshal Montgomery, who served as Plumer’s GSO2, essentially learned his trade from Plumer.

The purpose of the Battle of Messines (Mesen in Flemish) was to seize the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, the crescent-shaped high ground south east of Ypres which the Germans had captured in 1915.

Plumer had begun planning the capture of the Wytschaete-Messines ridge as early as February 1916. Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, wished to fight a battle to break out of the Ypres Salient in the summer of 1916 rather than fight on the Somme but he was overruled by Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, to whom he was expected to defer.

Haig returned to the idea of breaking out the Ypres Salient. He intended the capture of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge to be the prelude and essential precondition to a much larger battle, which would be officially called the Third Battle of Ypres but better known to subsequent generations as Passchendaele.

In July 1916 British tunnelling companies began digging tunnels (or galleries) from 200 to 2,000 feet in length under no man’s land in order to lay 21 mines, consisting of almost 455 tonnes of ammonal.

A heavy and extended bombardment of the German positions began on May 21 and by the time the main attack was launched on June 7 some 3.5 million shells had been fired.

Just before dawn the British artillery bombardment slackened. The Germans took this to be the signal for an imminent assault and resumed their positions in anticipation. The element of surprise was to be provided by the detonation of the mines which was timed for 3.10am.

A British eye-witness, observing the beginning of the assault on the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge from Mount Kemmel, recalled: “Suddenly ... great leaping streams of orange flame shot upwards, each a huge volcano, along the front of the attack, followed by terrific explosions and dense masses of smoke and dust which stood like pillars towering into the sky, all illuminated by the fires below.”

The explosion was heard by David Lloyd George, the prime minister, who was in his study in 10 Downing Street in London, 130 miles away.

The real attack then followed. Nine divisions of British infantry – including the 3rd Australian, the New Zealand and the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions – rose from their trenches under cover of the renewed barrage of every available gun.

They advanced through the clouds of smoke and dust and found such defenders as survived unable to offer resistance. Within minutes the whole of the German front line was in British hands. Three hours later, the whole of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge was taken. The 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions, acting in concert, captured the virtually obliterated village of Wytschaete.

Ian Passingham, the author of Pillars of Fire: The Battle of Messines Ridge, June 1917, has observed:

“The Irish advance was to prove a revelation and a unique event. This was the first time that the Ulstermen and Southern Irishmen had fought alongside each other, even though both divisions had distinguished themselves the previous year on the Somme, at Thiepval and Ginchy respectively. This was just over a year after the Easter Rising, but it showed that Irishmen could settle their differences and combine their remarkable fighting talents, and under a British commander against a common enemy.”

No official figures were ever released regarding German casualties but 7,354 Germans were taken prisoner. There were 10,000 reported missing, some of whom would have been vaporised, and over 6,000 known dead. British casualties numbered 16,000 of which approximately 30% were killed: grim perhaps but modest by First World War standards.

Two of the original 21 mines failed to detonate and on July 17 1955, lightning set off one of the two remaining mines, the only casualty being an unfortunate cow. The 21st mine is believed to have been found in recent years, but no attempt has been made to remove it.

The Island of Ireland Peace Tower, constructed of stone from the former workhouse in Mullingar, is located approximately three miles from the point where the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions fought side by side.

l New memorials are being placed in Flanders to mark the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish divisions’ role in the capture of Messines Ridge – and their heavy defeat two months later during an offensive at nearby Langemark in the Battle of Passchendaele.

A steel silhouette erected close to Messines last week depicts the attempted battlefield rescue of fatally wounded 56-year-old Irish nationalist Home Rule MP Willie Redmond by a young unionist private, John Meeke.

It will be viewed by the Duke of Cambridge and other dignitaries at Wytschaete Cemetery on Wednesday.