Myths of Messines

For the centenary of the Battle of Messines of 7-14 June 1917 I have written four blogs examining often-repeated misconceptions about the battle.

Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines minesCrop

The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street:’ How far away were the mines heard and felt?


Hausler miner 9June1917

Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


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Killed by their own mine? Were the soldiers in Spanbroekmolen Cemetery killed by the falling debris of the mine?


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The Lost Mines: how many unexploded mines remain beneath the Messines ridge battlefield?


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Myths of Messines: Killed by their own mine?

There is an often-repeated claim that many of the British soldiers buried in a cemetery on the Messines Ridge battlefield were killed by the falling debris of their own mine, 150 yards away at Spanbroekmolen.  What is the truth behind this claim?

Lone Tree Cem CWGC

Lone Tree Cemetery, Belgium, where many of the British soldiers are said to have been killed by the British mine at nearby Spanbroekmolen. (© Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

The signal for the advance at the Battle of Messines was the detonation of nineteen mines, to be fired at Zero Hour at 3.10am on 7th June 1917. The decision to fire them exactly at Zero, rather than to allow time for the debris to fall, resulted from a disastrous error made at the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, when one of the mines was fired ten minutes in advance and served to warn the German defenders in the entire sector of the imminent attack.

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The three Kruisstraat mine craters with the Spanbroekmolen crater to the north.

To fire the mines exactly at Zero was a risk. Although efforts were made to synchronise exactly the detonation of the Messines mines, in the event there was a delay of up to 30 seconds between the explosions. The first wave of attackers advancing to the Spanbroekmolen mine was comprised of men from the 14th Royal Irish Rifles but there are no eyewitness accounts from this unit to confirm that they suffered any loss from the mine. The after-action report by the battalion commander records confusion caused by the slight variation in the times of detonation. When a mine detonated, the men got up to attack from where they were lying ready in no man’s land but, as they advanced, another exploded in front of them, throwing them off their feet and causing them to lose direction in the dust and darkness.[1]

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Part of the report by Lt.-Col. G. R. H. Cheape, Commanding 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, 12/6/1917. (TNA WO95/2511)

The detonation of the Spanbroekmolen mine was also witnessed by an officer of the Tunnelling Companies, Major Ralph Stokes, who was at the tunnel entrance about 570 yards away. He recorded that the  Peckham mine, 500 yards to the northeast, detonated 20 seconds before Spanbroekmolen.[2]  It seems therefore that the Peckham mine detonation caused the 14th Royal Irish to stand up and begin to advance only to be caught by the shock wave of the Spanbroekmolen. The absence of a reference to casualties from the Spanbroekmolen mine in the CO’s report does not mean that none occurred among the 14th Royal Irish.

36 Div Deployment

The attack by the 36th (Ulster) Division at Messines on 7th June 1917. The first and second waves are shown alongside one another whereas the 14th Royal Irish Rifles led the 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers attacking at Spanbroekmolen and the 8th Royal Irish Rifles led the 15th attacking Kruisstraat, where three mines were blown. (Detail from a map in the Harington Papers, King’s Regiment Collection, National Museums Liverpool)

However, the origin of the story of the Spanbroekmolen casualties may be traced to a widely-read book published in 1978, in which an account the attack on mines at Kruisstraat, 650 yards to the southeast, was confused with that on the Spanbroekmolen mine. In They Called It Passchendaele the author Lyn MacDonald quoted from an account by Lieutenant T. Witherow, 8th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, describing how his battalion also advanced prematurely (perhaps again owing to the Peckham mine firing before the others) and the death of a Lance-Corporal by falling mine debris:

We’d made it through the machine-gun fire and had almost got to the German positions, when a terrible thing happened that nearly put an end to my fighting days. All of a sudden the earth seemed to open and belch forth a great mass of flame. There was a deafening noise and the whole thing went up in the air, a huge mass of earth and stone. We were all thrown violently to the ground and debris began to rain down on us. Luckily only soft earth fell on me, but the Lance-Corporal, one of my best Section Commanders, was killed by a brick. It struck him square on the head as he lay at my side. A few more seconds and we would have gone up with the mine.[3]

Witherow’s 8th Royal Irish at Kruisstraat was separated by another battalion from the 14th Royal Irish Rifles attacking at Spanbroekmolen. Stokes recorded that a group of three mines at Kruisstraat went off two seconds after the Spanbroekmolen mine (i.e. 22 seconds after the Peckham mine). [4]  References in the text of They Called It Passchendaele indicate that Lyn MacDonald appeared unaware that Witherow’s battalion was far closer to the mines at Kruisstraat than to that at Spanbroekmolen.[5] A footnote in the book to Witherow’s account compounds the error:

Many of the Irishmen, both Southerners and Northerners, who were killed by the fall-out from the Spanbroekmolen mine lie where they fell in tiny Lone Tree cemetery, just down the hill from the Spanbroekmolen mine crater.[6]

Men of the 8th Royal Irish were indeed buried in Lone Tree Cemetery, even though they were killed some distance to the south, and it is quite possible that Witherow’s Lance-Corporal was buried there. No men from Northern Ireland, that is from the 36th (Ulster) Division, were killed by the Spanbroekmolen mine, the closest attackers being a third of a mile to the north.  Unless further eyewitness accounts come to light, there is no evidence that more than one British soldier was killed by the debris falling at Kruisstraat, and none that any were killed at Spanbroekmolen.

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The Spanbroekmolen crater, known today as the Lone Tree crater or Pool of Peace. (Wikimedia Commons)


See below for references & credits.


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Myths of Messines: Four Misconceptions about the 1917 Battle Re-examined


References:

[1] War Diary, 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, TNA WO95/2511.

[2] Maj. R. S. G. Stokes RE Visits Diary, 7-8/8/1917, TNA WO158/137.

[3] Lyn MacDonald, They Called It Passchendaele, (London 1978), pp. 46-7; the informant may be identified as Thomas Hastings Witherow (1890-1989). MacDonald does not give details of the source for the account but it may be a typescript memoir of which a copy is held in the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/30002/witherow_t_h.

[4] Maj. R. S. G. Stokes RE op. cit.

[5] MacDonald, op. cit., pp. 39-40, 46-7.

[6] MacDonald, op. cit., p. 47.

Credit: Lone Tree Cemetery from Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


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


Hausler miner 9June1917Myths of Messines: Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


H15258

Myths of Messines: The Lost Mines of Messines


Myths of Messines: The ‘Lost Mines’

How was it that in 1955 a massive mine charge blew up in a Belgian field? When nineteen mines were detonated along a six mile front at the opening of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917, six more huge explosive charges totalling over 80 tons were left to lie dormant and forgotten deep beneath the battlefield. For decades, until the records in the British archives were examined, the number of ‘lost’ mines and their location remained unknown.[1]

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Troops on the rim of one of the Messines mine craters, probably Peckham, shortly after the battle. (Imperial War Museum Q 2325)

Abandoned: the Birdcage Mines

The charge that went off was in fact one of four, planted close together on the far southern flank of the attack front. Laid with great effort by miners of 171st Tunnelling Company, they were at the end of two 700 feet long tunnels beneath a German salient known as the Birdcage which jutted towards the British lines. The charges of 20,000, 26,000, 32,000 and 34,000lbs, laid at between 65 and 80 feet depth, were designed to utterly destroy the Birdcage. Laid in the spring of 1916, they were intended for an the attack on the Messines Ridge originally projected to take place in June.  But this attack, already scaled back after the German assault at Verdun, was postponed when the decision was taken in July to continue the Somme attack. The Battle of Messines was not to take place for another year.

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The cluster of four Birdcage mines on a British plan. The German trenches are red, British galleries green, British front line black, over a modern aerial photograph. To the north are the Factory Farm and Trench 122 mines which were fired in the battle. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

When the new attack was ordered for June 1917, the four mines were not required but were kept in readiness. The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company had taken over the mines from 171st, and Lieutenant B C Hall was immediately ordered to inspect the Birdcage galleries to ascertain whether the mines could be blown in case of counterattack.  Exhausted after the successful detonation of two mines nearby, he found the shaft damaged but was able to climb to the bottom. He found the detonator leads to be intact but, looking down the gallery, he could see that the timber props had all splintered in the middle, giving it the appearance of an hourglass or letter ‘X’. He was just able to squeeze through by crawling along the lower portion of the X, recalling that:

The going was very slow, extremely hard work and it was stiflingly hot.

He reached a point 400 feet beneath no man’s land, where the tunnel branched, but could go no further and with difficulty managed to turn around.[2] Two weeks later, the War Diary of the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company reported that the tunnels were being kept dry by pumping and baling but that the charges were not likely to be used.[3]

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Tunnellers excavate a dugout in the Ypres Salient. The mine galleries were much smaller than this. (Australian War Memorial E01513)

How Lost were the ‘Lost’ Mines?

Two other mines were laid for the Battle of Messines but were ‘lost’ when it proved impossible to maintain access to them, owing to German activity and the extremely difficult geological conditions.  The secret of the Messines mines was that they were laid in clay, known as ‘blue clay’, or a mixture of sand and clay, known as Paniselien or ‘bastard’ clay, which were impermeable to water. The thick bands of clay around 70 to 150 feet below ground are the cause of the high water table and waterlogged sands in Flanders. If a shaft could be sunk through the wet sand into the clay, then dry tunnels could be dug, but sinking a shaft required both great experience and special steel caissons or tubbing to keep out the tremendous pressures. Once a horizontal gallery was begun in the dry clay, there was still a danger of the clay membrane above breaking and the whole gallery flooding with a sudden inrush of sand and water.

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The central of the nineteen Messines mines in the geological section shows how they were laid in the Paniselien or ‘bastard’ clay, close to the running sand and above the deeper blue clay.

Lost through enemy action: the La Petite Douve mine

The shaft for a gallery aimed at a German position in the ruins of La Petite Douve Farm was started by the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company in March 1916. It was taken over by 171st Tunnelling Company who with much difficulty managed to sink it to 80 feet depth and drove a gallery 865 feet beneath the ruins. In mid-July they charged it with 50,000 pounds of explosives, then ran a branch tunnel to the left to prepare a second charge chamber. The Germans were suspicious and sank two shafts to search for the British tunnels but lined them with timber not steel, through which the water constantly forced its way in. On 24 August the British heard the Germans working so close to their branch gallery that they seemed about to break in. To have fired a charge to destroy the German working would probably also have detonated their main charge, and so 171st laid a small charge sufficiently large to rupture the clay membrane which would flood the workings with water and sand but leave their main charge intact. They could hear the Germans clearly, laughing and talking, and on 26th detected them breaking into the chamber where they had laid the smaller charge. The British immediately detonated it, killing nine Germans underground and sending a large cloud of grey smoke up the shaft in the German positions. The main British charge was undamaged and 171st laid a 1,000 pound charge in the branch gallery ready to blow again. However, the Inspector of Mines at GHQ was concerned that this would escalate underground warfare in the sector and lead to the loss of the main charge.  The Germans did retaliate with a heavy charge two days later which smashed 400 feet of the main British gallery and killed four men engaged in repairs. It also cut off access to the 50,000 pound charge but, as it was clear to the British that further activity was pointless, 171st was forced to abandon the gallery and the mine became ‘lost’.

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La Petit Douve mine on a British plan, top left. The German trenches and the farm ruins are red and the British galleries in dashed green, over a modern aerial photograph which shows the location of the rebuilt farm slightly to the north. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

Lost to quick sand: the Peckham branch mine

The liquid wet sand was also particularly troublesome at a drive towards a position at Peckham  Farm to the south. When the clay was exposed to the air it swelled with such force that it splintered the usual supports, necessitating the use of 7″ x 7″ timbers. After driving a gallery, started in December 1915, 1,145 feet beneath the farm the British laid a charge of 87,000 pounds, then attempted to drive branch galleries to a second objective but twice had to abandoned them, the Tunnellers escaping with their lives from the rapid inrush of water and sand. The third attempt appeared more successful until the ground again gave way. Eventually however, a 20,000 pound charge was laid by creating several small chambers. When the electric pumps broke down, access to the large and small charges was lost and the gallery had to be re-dug for 1,000 feet, with steel joists now replacing the wooden timbers, until eventually in March 1917 connection was again gained with the larger charge. The smaller charge however was judged to be too difficult to regain and was abandoned.

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The Peckham mine crater and the ‘lost’ mine to the northeast. The German trenches and farm ruins are red and the British galleries in green, over a modern aerial photograph which shows the location of he rebuilt farm on top of the unexploded mine. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

How Dangerous are the ‘Lost’ Mines?

The Messines charges were carefully waterproofed by packing the explosives in tins covered in tarred canvas. The detonators were sealed in bottles and the leads protected by rubberised canvas hoses inside coiled steel. It was perhaps this armoured hose running up to the surface that carried the electrical current to the detonators of one of the Birdcages charges 65 feet below ground, from a lightning strike nearly forty years after it was laid.  It caused the detonation of the easternmost of the four mines but thankfully the only casualties were cows, an electricity pylon and some roadway. The other three Birdcage mines still lie nearby beneath the former battlefield. After the war La Petite Douve Farm was rebuilt about 100 yards to the north of the location of the old farm, still uncomfortably close to the abandoned 50,000 pound mine. The farm close to Peckham mine was rebuilt 100 yards to the northeast, exactly over the location of the ‘lost’ 20,000 pound mine.

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The location of this warning sign is not known but it may have been placed over the Birdcage mines after the Battle of Messines. (Australian War Memorial H15258)

See below for the notes to this article.


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British and German mine systems at La Boisselle. (c) GoogleEarth and Simon Jones

The Story of the Lochnagar Mine


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Notes

[1] Sources used for this article may be found in my book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 (Barnsley 2010).

[2] B. C. Hall, Round the World in Ninety Years, (Lincoln, 1981), p. 66.

[3] War Diary 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, 22/6/1917, Library and Archives Canada [accessed 30 April 2017].

Detail from geological section of Second Army Offensive Mines 7/6/1917 from The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-19. Work in the field under the Engineer-in-Chief, B.E.F., Geological Work on the Western Front, (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1922)


Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines minesCrop

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


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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]

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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]

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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]

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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.


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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?


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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