Myths of Messines: ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’

When nineteen underground mines were detonated at the opening of the Battle of Messines south of Ypres in Belgium, at 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, the sound is frequently said to have been heard in 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.[1]  There is evidence that the earth tremor caused by the explosion of around one million pounds of explosives was felt at a great distance.  Charles Barrois, a geologist in Lille, 12 miles away, later told his Australian counterpart, Sir Edgworth David, that the effect was such that people rushed from their houses thinking that there was an earthquake.[2] Tremors were detected by seismographs near Utrecht, at 130 miles distance, and on the Isle of Wight, 180 miles away.[3]

02-caterpillar-crater-hill-60

The Caterpillar Crater, the result of 70,000 pounds of explosives laid 100 feet beneath the German lines. It is one of the 19 Messines mines detonated at 3.10am on 7th June 1917.

The claim that the mines were heard in Downing Street appears to have originated as a report in The Times the following day which stated that Lloyd George heard them at his home at Walton Heath in Surrey. This was 140 miles from the mines and, by coincidence, the same distance as Downing Street. The Prime Minister was said to have given orders to be called at 3 a.m. and with others had ‘heard clearly the tremendous shock’.  The report further stated that at the same time ‘persons in the neighbourhood of the premier’s official residence in London also heard what they judged to be heavy guns across the Channel’.[4]

Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines mines

The Times, 8 June 1917.

The science journal Nature repeated the claim that the Prime Minister had heard the explosions but, a fortnight later, printed a correction after receiving information from two Royal Engineer officers who had witnessed the detonations. One, a mile away from the mines, described the noise as ‘not so very great’, while the other, eight miles away, ‘saw the flash, waited for the noise, and heard only a slight “phit.”‘[5]

Other observers left accounts which enable a clearer idea to be gained of what might have been heard in England, if it was not the sound of the mines. Another Royal Engineer officer, a Tunneller Brian Frayling, observing from Kemmel Hill two miles away, described the tremor as ‘a violent shaking of the ground’ with a distinct interval before columns of flame rose.[6]  The Tunnelling officer Hugh Kerr ‘saw the whole area leap into the air – a never to be forgotten sight.’ But he expressed the view that to have heard the mines in London was ‘bunkum or wishful thinking!’ and ‘due to lively imagination’. It was the guns, he said, which had made the sound: ‘What about the barrage! That was a noise!’[7]

Eyewitnesses describe a sequence of three events: a powerful earth tremor from the mines, flames streaking into the air, and then the artillery opening fire.  For the first time in an attack, the detonation of the mines was used by the gunners as the signal for the opening of the British barrage and, within a few seconds, more than 2,000 guns opened fire. Only in describing the guns do the eyewitnesses describe a noise.  An artillery officer, Ralph Hamilton, watching the detonation of the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines, experienced the tremor, the flames and then the guns:

First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. [8]

DSCF6990 noiseCrop

The Daily Telegraph, 5 June 1917.

There is much evidence that gun fire from the Western Front was audible in England during the First World War, including in the days before the Messines attack was launched. The Daily Telegraph reported that one of their staff had heard it clearly, in a southeast London suburb at 2am of 4 June, resembling ‘the distant thudding of a steam-launch’s engines on the river upon a calm day’, punctuated by heavier sounds thought to be large howitzers which caused a ‘slight rattling of ill-fitting villa windows’.  In other parts of London, ‘from Hounslow to Highgate’, gunfire was plainly heard.[9]

If Lloyd George heard something at Walton Heath therefore, it seems more likely that it was the synchronised firing of more than 2,000 guns.

See below for references.


1st Shots Memorial Mons 1914 Simon Jones

My ‘First & Last Shots’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 20-23 August 2019


Isaac Rosenberg

My ‘War Poets’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 26-29 July 2019


 

Hausler miner 9June1917

Myths of Messines: Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


H15258

Myths of Messines: The ‘Lost Mines’


Lone Tree Cem CWGC

Myths of Messines: Killed by their own mine?


Underground Warfare

Buy a signed copy of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 at a reduced price


Notes to ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’:

[1] The internet, passim.

[2] Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No.  1, 1926, pp. 11-12.

[3] Koninklijk Nederlandsch Meteorologisch Instituut, Seismische Registrierungen in De Bilt, Vol. 5, 1917 (Utrecht, 1920), p. 41; Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312.

[4] The Times, 8/6/1917.

[5] Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312; Nature, No. 2487, Vol. 99, 28/6/1917, p. 350.

[6] Brian Frayling, ‘Back to Front’ by B.E.F. TS memoir Brian Frayling, Royal Engineers Museum and Archives.

[7] H. R. Kerr, letter to Alexander Barrie 8/3/1962, Barrie Papers, RE Museum & Archives.

[8] Ralph G. Hamilton, The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven (London 1924), p. 304; see also the account ‘Messines’ by ‘Tunneller’, Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No. 5, 1930, p. 23.

[9] The Daily Telegraph, 5/6/1917.


Q3999 cropThe Story of the Lochnagar Mine


Advertisements

Col di Lana

Col di Lana and Monte Sief saw some of the most dramatic mine warfare of the fighting on the Dolomite front during the First World War. The Austro-Hungarians held the twin summits but the Italians sapped up the southeastern slope and used a mine to capture the Col di Lana summit on 17 April 1916. Underground fighting for the ridge connecting Col di Lana and Monte Sief culminated in a 45 tonne Austrian mine which cut a notch visible for miles.

Col di Lana from Passo Sief

Col di Lana and Monte Sief from the Passo Sief. The Col di Lana summit on the left was taken by the Italians on 17 April 1916. The summit on the right, Monte Sief, remained in Austrian hands. The notch in Monte Sief was caused by an Austrian mine of 45 tonnes.

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief.

Austrian positions, Passo Sief

Austrian positions, Passo Sief.

Setsas from Monte Sief, cross with shell

Setsas from Monte Sief, shell fragment.

Austrian positions Monte Sief view to Setas

Austrian positions Monte Sief, view to Setas.

Setsas from Monte Sief

Setsas from Austrian positions on Monte Sief.


Monte Sief shell fragment

Shell fragment found in the Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Monte Sief Austrian positions along the ridge

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Monte Sief, Austrian positions

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief2

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief view to Col di Lana

Austrian positions, Monte Sief, view towards Col di Lana.

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

view from Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern

Austrian tunnelled observation posts, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern and OP

Austrian tunnelled gallery, with later graffiti.

Austrian tunnelled gallery

Austrian tunnelled gallery.

Austrian tunnelled OP Monte Sief

Austrian tunnelled observation post, Monte Sief.

View into mine crater of 2 October 1917

View into the mine crater of 21 October 1917, caused by the detonation of 45 tonnes of explosives, looking towards Col di Lana.

Descent into crater of 2 October 1917

Descending into the crater of 21 October 1917.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916

The summit of Col di Lana, captured by the Italians on 17 April 1916.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916a

The crater formed by the Italian 5,000 kg mine of 17 April 1916.

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana.

Marmot at the Sief Refugio

Marmot at the Sief Refugio.


Isaac Rosenberg

My ‘War Poets’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 26-29 July 2019


George_Edmund_Butler_-The_scaling_of_the_walls_of_Le_Quesnoy

My ‘First & Last Shots’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 20-23 August 2019


Monte Zovetto OP 2The Italian Front in the First World War at Asiago: Monte Zovetto and Magnaboschi


Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

The men who laid the Lochnagar Mine


EB-Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library-CropBWenh

Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


 

Contact me

Facebook

LinkedIn

Virtual Tour of Trenches and Tunnels excavated at La Boisselle

Pan360

Click on the above image to access high-quality interactive panoramas created by PAN360 show the archaeological excavation of the battlefield at La Boisselle on the Somme in 2012.  Then click on the circles on the map.  The trenches and tunnels date from 1914-1916 when there was fierce fighting over the sector which was called by the British the ‘Glory Hole’. A three-year excavation phase has ended and reports are being completed for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Picardie. More information about the project is on the La Boisselle Study Group website.


Underground Warfare

For a limited period I am offering my book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 for £10 UK (including 2nd Class postage) or £14 Europe or £16 Rest of the World (including international standard postage). Contact me for payment details (PayPal preferred).


joe-cox-and-tom-hodgettsres

The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


derbyshire-courier-october-11-1919

Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies


Contact me

Facebook

LinkedIn