The Mines of Messines Ridge
October 28, 2018 12:24 PM   Subscribe

About 8 kilometers south of Ypres, in the middle of a farm, is a small green pond known as the “Pool of Peace”, but its creation was a rather violent event. It was 1916 and the First World War was in its second year. The Germans had occupied the Belgian coast and was using the coastal ports as bases from which they attacked merchant ships and troop transports in the North Sea and English Channel. Capturing these ports became a major objective for the British army. But before that could happen, the British had to drive the Germans out of a tactically important high ground called the Messines–Wytschaete Ridge, located south of Ypress, in Belgium.

CW: photos of dead soldiers
posted by MovableBookLady (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Goddam that's sad. War is hell.
posted by SPrintF at 12:51 PM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


posted by doornoise at 2:19 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am always stunned by the amount of explosives used in these operations. Tens of thousands of pounds of the stuff. Staggering.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:14 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite] indeed.
posted by hoskala at 3:45 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

The eponymous crater created by a Union mine at the outset of the Battle of the Crater, in Petersburg, is also still visible. It used "only" 8,000 pounds of black powder, a far cry from the 60k lb of ammonal in the Lochnagar Mine at the outset of the Somme, or the almost 100k lb mines at Messines, but still was enough to permanently reshape the landscape.

The resulting battles after large mines were detonated beneath entrenched positions seem to share certain similarities. As a tactic, it seems repeatedly to have failed to be as effective as the attackers hoped; the Messines mines are probably the only ones that can be considered particularly effective (at least the Germans thought so). But in most other cases they produced bloodbaths; the resulting craters can easily become killing fields for advancing infantry, as was the case in Petersburg, and I believe also was the case after Lochnagar during the initial offensive push on the Somme, although it obviously didn't stop the British from trying again the next summer at Messines. (Perversely, the mine thought to be most effective on July 1, 1916 was the one detonated late, practically under the advancing infantry, and which caused heavy casualties to both sides.)

IMO, it's an example of how "shock and awe" seems always to be overestimated by the attacking force; there's frequently an element of disappointment and surprise, if you read reports written afterwards, that the defenders who aren't actually killed by massive applications of ordnance don't just abandon their positions and give up the fight, but instead tend to continue to man their guns as best they are able, often to great effect. I'm not sure if this tendency to underestimate each other's tenacity counts as misplaced optimism, but it happens over and over in various forms, with no signs of anyone really learning.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:55 PM on October 28, 2018 [10 favorites]

I thought of the Battle of the Crater, as well. The Pool of Peace also reminded me of the Bloody Pond at Shiloh; I've been there, and it's really just a nice little pond in a meadow, until you read about what it was like during the battle--it earned the name.

I'm not sure if this tendency to underestimate each other's tenacity counts as misplaced optimism, but it happens over and over in various forms, with no signs of anyone really learning.

Hence the chorus of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:40 PM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was in Vietnam a week or so ago at the Mỹ Sơn temple ruins, and it was so depressing* to see the bomb craters scattered throughout the site. Fortunately it seemed like a lot of the ruins themselves survived.

* - Not as depressing as the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, though. That was brutal.
posted by Grither at 7:06 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Earlier this year I spent a few days in a tiny village named Vauquois, which is located at the base of a hill named the Butte de Vauquois. Prior to 1914, the village was located on top of the hill but the Butte was the site of continual combat for most of the war and in the course of the fighting, 16 or 17 large mine explosions completely blasted the top of the hill away. More than 500 (mostly smaller) mines were set off on the Butte in the course of the war and no one really knows how many died there because so many people would have been buried or just completely blown to bits.

posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 1:29 PM on October 29, 2018

I keep returning to WWI. It is reliably stranger and more horrible the more I study it.
posted by doctornemo at 4:31 PM on October 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

The linked article cites the British journalist Philip Gibbs.
During the war his articles were censored so often and he ran into so much official trouble that he stashed writings for later publication. That book, Now it Can Be Told (The Realities of War was the British title) appeared in 1920 and is horrific, brutal, nightmarish.

In it, on Messines:
The battle of Wytschaete and Messines was a model in organization and method, and worked in its frightful destructiveness like the clockwork of a death machine.
I saw the seventeen mines go up, and earth and flame gush out of them as though the fires of hell had risen. A terrible sight, as the work of men against their fellow—creatures... It was the signal for seven hundred and fifty of our heavy guns and two thousand of our field—guns to open fire, and behind a moving wall of bursting shells English, Irish, and New Zealand soldiers moved forward in dense waves. It was almost a “walk-over.” Only here and there groups of Germans served their machine-guns to the death. Most of the living were stupefied amid their dead in the upheaved trenches, slashed woods, and deepest dugouts. I walked to the edge of the mine-craters and stared into their great gulfs, wondering how many German bodies had been engulfed there.

On an earlier date at Messines, a normal struggle:
the Royal Fusiliers and the Northumberland Fusiliers—the old Fighting Fifth [attacked] a German stronghold built of earth and sand-bags nine feet high, above a nest of trenches in the fork of two roads from St.-Eloi to Messines. They mined beneath this place and it blew up with a roaring blast which flung up tons of soil in a black mass. Then the Fusiliers dashed forward, flinging bombs through barbed wire and over sand-bags which had escaped the radius of the mine-burst—in one jumbled mass of human bodies in a hurry to get on, to kill, and to come back. One German machine-gun got to work on them. It was knocked out by a bomb flung by an officer who saved his company. The machine—gunners were bayoneted. Elsewhere there was chaos out of which living men came, shaking and moaning.
posted by doctornemo at 4:44 PM on October 29, 2018

On the preparation, more Gibbs:
I had seen the working of the tunnelers up by Hill 70 and elsewhere. I had gone into the darkness of the tunnels, crouching low, striking my steel hat with sharp, spine-jarring knocks against the low beams overhead, coming into galleries where one could stand upright and walk at ease in electric light, hearing the vibrant hum of great engines, the murmur of men's voices in dark crypts, seeing numbers of men sleeping on bunks in the gloom of caverns close beneath the German lines, and listening through a queer little instrument called a microphone, by which I heard the scuffle of German feet in German galleries a thousand yards away, the dropping of a pick or shovel, the knocking out of German pipes against charcoal stoves. It was by that listening instrument, more perfect than the enemy's, that we had beaten him, and by the grim determination of those underground men of ours, whose skin was the color of the chalk in which they worked, who coughed in the dampness of the caves, and who packed high explosives at the shaft-heads—hundreds of tons of it—for the moment when a button should be touched far away, and an electric current would pass down a wire, and the enemy and his works would be blown into dust.

"a queer little instrument called a microphone"
posted by doctornemo at 4:44 PM on October 29, 2018

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