Messines Ridge was located on the southern section of the Ypres Salient.
Ypres found itself at the heart of the conflict as it was located right in the path of the sweep the Germans planned across Belgium!
It was therefore a major strategic spot for the Germans.
Controlling Ypres would indeed have allowed them direct access to the Channel ports where they would have refrained the British troops from disembarking.
However, on October 1914 the Belgian Army managed to block off the German troops.
They indeed broke the dykes on the river Yser on the northern side of Ypres and therefore cut off access to the western flank of the country.
Ypres didn’t fall to the Germans, but was a stone’s throw from the front line.
The area around Ypres became known as the Ypres Salient.
The Germans lines encompassed the Ypres Salient on three sides; the Allied troops were obviously more vulnerable to their attacks.
The Gheluvelt Plateau stretched along the southern edge of the Ypres Salient.
It formed a massive natural barrier that prevented the Allies to attack from the east and stopped them also from advancing out of the Salient.
This obviously explains the astronomical loss in human lives that occurred in this sector.
Messines – Wytschaete Ridge
Messines Ridge stretched towards the village of Wytschaete, which is located about 1,5 km farther north, along the N365 road to Ypres.
The German 26th Division took Messines village (Mesen in Flemish) on October 31 – November 1, 1914.
The French attempted to re-capture it on November 6-7, 1914, however, Messines Ridge remained under German control.
Their lines followed the ridge, a natural stronghold, from where they could easily control the Allied positions farther down in the valley.
Wytschaete, which the British troops nicknamed Whitesheet, was the focal point of the Allies’ offensive.
Capturing Messines Ridge was essential, as control of the Gheluvelt plateau would shorten the front!
It would also stop the Germans from invading the British positions farther north and give the Allies clear view over the southern slope of the Menin Ridge.
The attack on Messines Ridge was planned since January 1916.
However, it was delayed to June 1917 because of the Germans offensives at Verdun and the Somme.
Battle of Messines
The overall front of the Battle of Messines stretched on about 14,5 km.
It went from Hill 60 to St-Yves near Ploegsteert, in a crescent shape that followed the German occupation of the Ypres Salient.
The British 2nd Army, under the command General Herbert Plumer, started the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.
The offensive was considered a triumph of modern strategy and tactics!
Until then, soldiers were indeed sent to the assault of a broad front and under direct German artillery fire!
This always ended in tragic slaughter and failure!
Modern assault tactics consisted of taking advantage of the enemy’s flaws.
In that case, the British took advantage of the fact that the German reserve had been sent to Arras and therefore launched a fast and targeted assault.
The offensive started with the detonation of 19 mines that destroyed the German lines.
Followed a short and intensive bombardment, then a swift assault from the British Infantry assisted by the cavalry, tanks and aircraft.
On June 7, the British troops managed therefore to push 1,5 km beyond Wytschaete and over 3 km through the German lines!
The success of the Battle of Messines allowed the Allies to push even farther into German lines in the following weeks.
This allowed them to launch a new offensive known as Third Battle of Ypres or Battle of Passchendaele.
The purpose of this new offensives, which took place between July and November 1917, was to take control of the ridge and village of Passchendaele – Passendale in the northeast of Ypres.
Messines Ridge Cemetery
Messines Ridge Cemetery is located along the road that leads to the town of Wulvergehem.
It contains the graves of 1500 men who fell in Messines in 1917-18.
Sadly, a staggering two-thirds are unidentified!
It was open on the site of the German positions, marked as Oyster Trench on the British trench maps.
The troops from New Zealand Division captured the village of Messines.
Tragically, 800 men died while they advanced up the hill from their position in the valley.
The New Zealand Memorial dominates the cemetery’s entrance.
It pays tribute to the 827 officers and men from the New Zealand Forces who fell on Messines Ridge between 1917 and 1918 and have no known grave.
After the war, New Zealand choose to erect 7 independent Memorials to their Missing (unidentified Dead or whose bodies were never recovered) in the cemeteries that were open on the battlefield where they died.
The New Zealand Memorial has indeed been placed in the central alcove of the Memorial Wall to the Missing.
New Zealand Memorial Park
The New Zealand Memorial Park was erected on Messines hillside, between the cemetery and the Island of Ireland Memorial Park.
King Albert I of Belgium unveiled it on August 1, 1924.
An obelisk, engraved with the following dedication, marks its centre:
“In honour of the men of the New Zealand Division.”
“The Battle of Messines 7th to 14th June 1917”
“The New Zealand Division on the 7th of June captured this ridge and advanced 2000 yards through Messines to their objective on the Eastern side”.
Two bunkers have been kept in their war state on the edge of the memorial park.
Charles Holden designed the Messines Ridge Cemetery New Zealand Memorial, which is topped with a Cross of Sacrifice.
The monument’s base consists of four panels dedicated to a regiment: Maori, Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington.
The nearby CWGC Whytschaete Cemetery contains a Memorial monument that pays tribute to the 16th Irish Division.
Craters and bunkers
The farmland surrounding Messines Ridge still shows the scars of the war.
Try to imagine a moonscape with shells craters and mud, a scene of apocalypse where nothing stood up anymore.
The villages of Messines and Whytschaete were completely flattened and reduced to heaps of stones, and German and British trenches ran along their respective lines…
Many bunkers and craters were intentionally kept in their war state, in order to pay tribute to the men who died there.
They are also a testimonial for the younger generations.
Some of the mines used on June 7 didn’t explode.
This was the case for the mine at La Petite Douve Farm, some 500m southeast of Messines.
The crater was subsequently flooded and abandoned!
The farm can be seen from the Island of Ireland Peace Memorial Park.
Several other craters can be seen in the surrounding farmland.
This include the largest of them all, Spanbroekmolen Crater – Pool of Peace, but also Peckham Farm crater along the road linking Wytschaete to Kemmel, Kruisstraat craters on the road to Wulvergehem and St Yvon no1 and no2 craters south of Messines…
You’ll also come across a ruined bunker located in a field along the road to Wulvergehem and near Messines Ridge Cemetery.
It was most likely an Allied bunker because the apertures face the German front lines.
Messines Ridge – Island of Ireland Peace Memorial Park
The Island of Ireland Peace Memorial Park is located on the southern end of the Messines Ridge, on the road to Armentières.
King Albert II of Belgium unveiled it on November 11, 1988 in the presence of Queen Elisabeth and Mary McAlees, the President of Ireland.
A tall round memorial tower marks the centre of the park.
The Journey of Reconciliation Trust with the support of the inhabitants of Messines funded its construction.
Several granite slabs, engraved with quotations and poems from Irish soldiers, border the path that leads to it.
Standing stones engraved with the number of wounded, killed or missing from the 37th Ulster, 16th Irish and 10th Irish Divisions surround the tower.
Other standing stones commemorate the Battalions of Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught.
Inscriptions in Gaelic and English were engraved by the entrance.
They are dedicated to all the servicemen from Ireland who fought and died during WWI.
Two bronze slabs were placed at the southern end of the memorial park.
They are engraved with the description of the Battles of Messines and Ypres Salient in 1917.
A larger standing stone stands at the southeast corner.
It is engraved with a Peace Pledge inscription:
“As Protestants and Catholics we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness.
Remember the solidarity and trust between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.”
The other side of the stone is engraved with the names of the Irish towns where the soldiers came from.
Belgium – Flanders
Island of Ireland Peace Memorial Park: Lat 50.759602 – Long 2.895337
New Zealand Memorial and Cemetery: Lat 50.765180 – Long 2.890767