Battle of Messines (June 1917)

By the middle of May 1917 preparations for the great attack on the Messines Ridge were everywhere in progress.  Additional roads were being constructed, light railways were being built to bring up stores and ammunition, and assembly trenches were being constructed.  At such tasks the platoons of the 3rd and the 10th Worcestershire laboured constantly during the closing weeks of May 1917.  All those preparations were matters of great difficulty, since from their commanding position on the Ridge the enemy’s observers were able to watch closely every movement to their front.

One preparation, however, eluded the enemy’s observation. Under the feet of the German defenders on the Ridge a series of great mines had been laid. The mines were carefully concealed, and so secretly had they been prepared that our own troops were unaware of their existence.

On May 20th the 10th Worcestershire again moved forward to the line and took over their former trenches facing Wytschaete. The British artillery had steadily increased its activity, and our heavy shells were bursting continuously all along the ridge. Constant patrols were ordered to ascertain the state of the enemy under the continual bombardment, and on the night of May 25th/26th the 10th Worcestershire carried out a very successful little raid.

Opposite to the Battalion’s lines, the German trench ran out in a small salient known as the “Nag’s Nose.” Two parties, each of eleven picked soldiers led by a subaltern (the two subalterns were 2/Lt. H. J. Luckman, and 2/Lt. J. Froggatt), rushed a crater, which formed part of the enemy’s line. The crater was found to be held by a small party of the enemy (the 33rd Fusilier Regiment), eight in number. Six of them were killed with bayonet or butt; two surrendered and were dragged back. The raiders suffered no loss (2/Lieut. Luckman was awarded the M.C. On the following day Lt. B. J. Ellis was wounded).

After that little success the Battalion moved back to camp in Locre.

Battle of Messines
(Red Line show 3rd Worcesters original objective and Green Line shows their final position on 9th June)
Position of the Mines are marked in Yellow

A week later the 3rd Battalion scored a similar success. From the camp near Dranoutre “B” Company of the Battalion, under Lieut. A. J. B. Hudson, marched forward to the trenches after dark and carried out a raid on the enemy’s lines just south of Kruisstraat Cabaret. The point chosen was that at which a big communication trench, called “Nutmeg Avenue” joined the front line. The raid had been most carefully planned, and the battalion then holding the line (8th Loyal North Lancashire) was to make a simultaneous raid a little further to the left.

At 10.45 p.m. on the 2nd of June the attacking party left our trenches and lay down in the open. Five minutes later the British guns opened an intense fire, and the raiders dashed forward. There was but little opposition. The raiders easily cleared the front trench, made their way down “Nutmeg Avenue,” and bombed up and down “Nutmeg Support.”

A German machine-gun came into action and opened fire, 2nd Lieutenant C. Greenhill attacked it single-handed from the flank with bombs, drove away the crew and captured the weapon. Sergeant S. Thompson bombed his way alone into a dugout, killing or capturing all its inmates (2/Lieut. Greenhill was awarded the M.C. and Sergt. Thompson was awarded the D.C.M.). After a hectic nineteen minutes the raiders withdrew, ran the gauntlet of the enemy’s barrage on our front line, and regained safety, bringing with them twelve prisoners (Casualties, 3 killed, 10 wounded. Lieut. Hudson was awarded the M.C.).
On June 3rd the 3rd Worcestershire moved south to camp at Ravelsberg once more. There the Battalion remained for the next three days while final preparations were made for the battle.

Four miles to the northward similar preparations were being made by the 10th Worcestershire at “Epsom Camp” near Westoutre, where they had moved to from Locre on May 29th.

The Battalion was not to be in the front line of the attack but was to form part of the Divisional Reserve.

On June 6th both Battalions moved forward to take up their positions for the morrow’s battle.

The 3rd Battalion marched forward after dark from Ravelsberg Camp through Neuve Eglise to the front line at the point they had raided opposite” Nutmeg Avenue.”

The 10th Battalion, after a preliminary move early in the day to a camp near La Clytte, marched about midnight to their allotted position of assembly between Vierstraat and the front line.

By 9.30 p.m. on June 6th the 3rd Worcestershire had reached the assembly trenches, after running the gauntlet of some intermittent shell-fire. The companies settled down behind cover in four lines of assembly trenches; newly dug behind the front line.

Lieut.-Colonel P. R. Whalley
(commanding 3rd Battalion)

The hours of waiting in the darkness seemed endless. Some slept, others busied themselves with cooking; for each man before leaving had been issued with a patent cooker, to enable them to find occupation during those trying hours of suspense.

Gradually the hands on the officers’ watches crept on towards 3 o’clock, and all made ready for the battle. The British artillery had fired continuously throughout that night in order to cover the noise of the marching troops, but the bombardment gradually increased in intensity as the hour for attack approached.

Suddenly all other sounds were drowned by the most appalling explosion ever known on a battle-field. Under the enemy’s trenches nineteen great mines exploded like so many volcanoes.

To the right of the 3rd Worcestershire the German salient at Ontario Farm was shattered by a huge mine: immediately to the left, the defences of Kruisstraat Farm were blown up; and further to the left, on the crest line, the Spanbroek Mill, which had defied the attack of the Battalion two years before, went up in a sheet of flame.

That awful and unexpected explosion paralysed the troops in the British front line. 

It will be remembered that the mines had been constructed so secretly that no warning had been given to the troops.  The mine under Spanbroek Mill contained nearly 100,000 lbs. of explosive.  Those at Kruisstraat and Ontario Farm were not much smaller.  The approximate positions of the principal mines are shown on plan above.

The whole ground heaved and shook, and even the war-hardened veterans of the 3rd Worcestershire were for a moment unnerved.  But only for a moment. Dashing to the front, the officers led their men forward over the front line and out into the open.  There the platoons shook out into line, “C” and” B” Companies leading, and went forward beneath a tornado of shells.

Deafened and blinded by the storm around them, the leading lines reached the shattered mounds which represented the German front-line trench.  Very few of the enemy remained in the front line, and those survivors, utterly bewildered and unnerved, at once surrendered.  The attacking wave flooded forward over the support and reserve lines. In seven minutes from the start the enemy’s front system of defences had fallen, almost without a blow.

In accordance with their orders, the two leading companies halted and commenced to dig in, while “D” and” A” Companies went through them to take their second objective—” Bell Farm.” The advance was rendered difficult by dust from the shells, which made direction hard to keep; but in little more than ten minutes the attackers, stumbling and plunging over the broken ground, had reached the ruins of the farm buildings.  Fire from German machine-guns checked the advance. Corporal G. F. Currell handled a Lewis-gun section with cool courage, leading his men to a position from which a devastating fire could be brought to bear.  The machine-guns were rushed and captured after a hand-to-hand fight, in which the corporal took a conspicuous part.

Further along the line the officer and all the N.C.O’s. of one platoon were shot down by a German machine-gun.  Private C. Jasper took command, reorganised the attack, and succeeded in rushing two German posts, capturing some 40 prisoners (Corporal Currell and Pte. Jasper were awarded the D.C.M.).

Beneath the ruined farms there were deep dugouts, so strong that they had survived the bombardment.  Their occupants were summoned to surrender, but would not do so until bombs had been thrown down: then the survivors came up—sixty of them headed by a major.

The 10th Cheshire advanced through the 3rd Worcestershire to take the German second system, and after them came the 1st Wiltshire.  To support that further attack “B” Company of the Worcestershire was brought up from the rear and was sent forward, together with “A” Company, to assist the Cheshire.  Shell-bursts, dust, the darkness and the unrecognisable state of the shattered ground, resulted in the attacking troops losing their bearings.  Troops of all regiments were wandering in every direction.  The Worcestershire platoons became separated.  Some followed the troops in front into L’Enfer Wood, while one other platoon found its way to the right and assisted in the capture of a strong point just west of Middle Farm.

3rd Battalion Worcestershire after gaining their objective on Messines Ridge

Orders came for the two remaining companies, “C” and “D” to advance and help the Wiltshire.  The two companies pushed forward up the slope and joined the Wiltshire on the crest line of the ridge, near “Four Huns Farm.”  The attack on the final objective, “October Support,” was delayed for some time by our own barrage, which was still bursting along that trench.  The two companies formed up and lay down as near to the bursting shells as was possible. Captain A. F. Birch-Jones, although already wounded, remained in command of his company and acted with great bravery, reorganizing his men and making all ready for the final assault (Captain Birch-Jones was awarded the M.C.).  As the troops lay in waiting the first light paled the sky to the East. In the growing light of dawn the guns lifted their fire and the attacking platoons rushed what was left of the trench.

Then the Battalion was reorganised.  In one company all the officers and all but one of the sergeants had fallen. The surviving sergeant, Sergeant J. W. Forrest, took command and did gallant work throughout the day (Sergt. Forrest was awarded the D.C.M.).

3rd. Battalion H.Q. established at Hell Farm

As soon as reorganisation had been carried out, the work of entrenchment was started, and soon the victorious troops were labouring cheerfully amid an angry fire from the enemy’s guns below them on the plain—the plain which could be seen spreading out to the east away to Menin and the low lands beyond.

The battlefield at dawn was an extraordinary spectacle. The surface of the ridge was torn and smashed in every direction by countless shell-holes.  Such German trenches as remained were broken down in many places.  Across that wilderness, disordered troops of many regiments were stumbling in every direction.  “It was like a colossal ant-heap,” said a subaltern.

Those blundering stragglers were collected, sorted out and organised. Conspicuous good work was done by Captain I. N. Mason who, although wounded, remained at duty, rallying and collecting men of many units who strayed on to the ground held by his company (Capt. Mason was awarded the.M.C.).

Battalion Headquarters was shifted forward up the slope and finally was established in the ruins of” Hell Farm.” Presently the 75th Brigade, the reserve of the Division, came up the slope and over the crest line and went forward to capture fresh ground beyond.  The platoons of the 3rd Worcestershire on the forward slope were withdrawn, and joined the remainder of the Battalion in digging a new reserve trench line on the reverse western slope of the Ridge.  There the Battalion worked for the rest of the day. When darkness fell the days losses were counted. 

The 3rd Worcestershire had gone into action with eighteen officers and 618 other ranks. Ten officers and 230 other ranks had been hit.
Killed—3 officers (Capt. S. P. J. MacDonald M.C., Lient. A. J. B. Hudson M.C., 2/Lt. H. L. Brampton) and 24 men. 
Wounded—7 officers (Capt. A. Birch-Jones, Capt. I. N. Mason, Lieut. E. L. Lazarus, 2/Lt. A. V. Rowlands, 2/Lt. R. G. R. McKenzie, 2/Lt. S. T. Dixon, 2/Lt. C. E. S. Brummel) and 204 other ranks. 2 missing.

While the 75th Brigade were passing through the ranks of the 3rd Worcestershire, the 57th Brigade further north were similarly advancing through the ranks of the two leading Brigades of the 19th Division. Those leading Brigades had captured their objectives as successfully as had the troops further south, and by 8 o’clock they had reached their objective, the far side of Onraet Wood.

Captured German trenches on the Messines Riddge

The 57th Brigade started to advance from their position in reserve just before 6 o’clock. By that hour the sun had risen, disclosing the ghastly state of the battlefield.  The 10th Worcestershire pushed forward past an enormous crater, where had been the “Nag’s Nose,” and up the slope of the Ridge through the tangled tree-stumps of the Grand Bois. The Battalion came up with the leading troops about 8 o’clock. In front of them British shells were bursting along Oosttaverne Trench, which was to be their objective.

Shortly before 9 o’clock that barrage lifted, and the battalions of the 57th Brigade went forward. There was little opposition: the trench was seized and consolidation was at once commenced. At the same time each battalion of the 57th Brigade sent forward one company through Oosttaverne Wood. There was sharp fighting around some dugouts, which were found in the wood, but they were soon dealt with and their surviving occupants were captured. The whole wood and also” Oil Trench” beyond it were then occupied.

Lieut. P. W. Hargreaves, M.C. (Adjutant) at Messines

The 57th Brigade remained digging busily until early in the afternoon (Orders received by Brigade 1.35 p.m. reached Battalions about 3 p.m.): then fresh orders were received. The 57th Brigade was to push on and capture Oosttaverne Village and Odonto Trench beyond: a task hitherto intended for other troops.

Plans and arrangements were made. At 3.10 p.m. the British guns lifted their fire from those objectives, and the 57th Brigade advanced. The 10th Worcestershire were in Brigade reserve, and followed the other Battalions as they pushed forward through the ruined village and over the defences.  Once again very little resistance was met and the objectives were easily captured. Defensive works were at once put in hand and on those works the 10th Worcestershire laboured until darkness fell.
Then losses were counted. Those of the 10th Worcestershire were not very heavy—some 70 in all, including two officers (7 killed; 2 officers (Capt. G. W. Butler and 2/Lt. T. H. Klee) and 54 men wounded; 8 missing.).

Night closed in, the firing slackened and the weary troops slept in their trenches on the ground they had won. With the following dawn many minor enterprises were attempted by the troops in the front line; but they did not affect either of the Worcestershire battalions.  No further advance of any importance was attempted, nor did the enemy make any serious attempt at counter-attack; but all day the enemy’s guns kept up a general bombardment against the captured ridge.

After dark on June 8th the 7th Brigade were ordered forward to relieve the 75th Brigade in the front line. The 3rd Worcestershire, in Brigade reserve, advanced over the crest line, took over the “October” group of trenches from the 8th South Lancashire, and established Battalion Headquarters near Middle Farm.  Further to the front the other battalions of the 7th Brigade held a line of outposts at the foot of the slope.

The 3rd Worcestershire stayed in that position for three days.  The Ridge was shelled spasmodically during June 8th and 9th, and on the evening of June 10th: but few casualties resulted. 

8th June    — 2 killed, 6 wounded. 
9th June    — 4 wounded.
10th June  — Lieut. L. Piper (then acting-Adjutant) and 2 men killed, 2 wounded.

After dark on June 11th the 7th Brigade was relieved by troops of the 31st Division, and the 3rd Worcestershire marched back to bivouac behind Wulverghem.

3rd Battalion resting near Wulverghem (12th June 1917)

Next night the 10th Worcestershire likewise marched back.  On the evening of June 9th the 57th Brigade had been brought back from Oosttaverne into reserve trenches at Onraet Wood.  On the evening of June 12th those trenches were taken over by the 7th East Lancashire, and the 10th Worcestershire marched back to camp near La Clytte.

Three days later, the 57th Brigade moved forward again and relieved the 56th Brigade in the captured position at Oosttaverne.  The 10th Worcestershire were in the front line and suffered many casualties from shell-fire (Casualties June 16th—18th. 5 killed, 22 wounded). On the evening of June 19th the Battalion was relieved and marched back, first to La Clytte, and then to camp near Westoutre.  There the 10th Worcestershire settled down to rest and train throughout the next fortnight.

The 3rd Worcestershire remained in the Messines area for some few days longer.  On June 13th the 7th Brigade moved back to a position in Divisional reserve just north of Neuve Eglise.  Next day the Brigade moved forward to the battlefield, and went into a support position on the reverse slope of the ridge, near Messines itself.  There the Battalion remained until June 22nd, mostly occupied in collecting “salvage” among the debris of the battlefield. Shellfire caused a few casualties;
15th June — 6 wounded, 16th—1 wounded.
17th June — 4 killed, 6 wounded, 18th—4 wounded.
19th June — 2/Lieut. F. M. H. Jones died of wounds, 4 wounded.
22nd June —2 wounded.

On the night of June 21st/22nd Australian troops came up to relieve the 7th Brigade, and the 3rd Worcestershire marched back to Ravelsberg.  Thence the 7th Brigade marched back through Bailleul, Outtersteene and Vieux Berquin, to Swartenbrouck for rest and training.

Soon afterwards the 10th Battalion came again into action.

After the battle the British line beyond Wytschaete ran along the foot of the high ground, through a stretch of “close” agricultural country dotted with small farms.

Wytschaete village after the battle

The front line at that point curved back in a deep re-entrant, and it was clearly advisable to straighten it out before the great offensive should begin. So for the first fortnight of July the 19th Division, together with the 37th Division on the right flank, was engaged in continuous minor operations with that object.

The enemy positions in the re-entrant consisted mainly of the farm buildings, most of which had been put in a state of defence; but besides those buildings a number of concealed machine-gun posts made any advance difficult.

The 57th Brigade moved up to the line on the night of July 2nd/3rd, and relieved a Brigade of the 37th Division. The 10th Worcestershire, on the right of the Brigade front, found themselves back on the line they had held at the close of the battle, immediately east of Oosttaverne. Orders were that operations to advance the line were to be commenced at once: as a preliminary each battalion would push forward advanced posts.

The line held by the Brigade ran across the low shoulder which stretches eastwards from the Ridge and separates the little streams Rosebeke and Wambeke. On the left were the 10th Royal Warwickshire: on the right were the 37th Division.

During the next two days and nights, small parties worked their way forward up hedges and ditches under intermittent fire, and by dawn of July 4th a line of posts had been established some 200 yards to the front, without serious fighting or heavy loss. Next day “Ridge Farm” and “Trench Farm” were occupied.

Operations beyond Oosttaverne

On July 4th that process of working forward was resumed.  One small patrol, consisting of a corporal and two men, succeeded during the afternoon in reaching the road beyond “Trench Farm,” and had actually crossed the road when a sudden burst of fire from a hidden machine-gun killed the corporal and wounded one of the others.  The survivor, Private T. Stevenson commenced to make his way back under a heavy fire by rushing from shell-hole to shell-hole.  Jumping headlong into one of these, he fell into a German post, was knocked over and captured.  He was hauled back to a hidden machine-gun position and left there, half unconscious. There were six of the enemy in the dugout; presently two of them went out.  Stevenson, waiting his opportunity, sprang suddenly on the remainder with his bare fists. He knocked out two, dashed out of the dugout and succeeded in escaping. After again running the gauntlet of the enemy’s bullets he regained our lines.

Further to the left a very gallant deed was performed by 2nd Lieutenant R. Lucovitch.  In full view of the enemy the subaltern crawled forward from shell-hole to shell-hole for 700 yards and discovered that the ruins of “Cutting Farm” were unoccupied. After dark he led his platoon forward, seized the building and entrenched the position under a heavy fire.

2/Lieut. Lucovitch was wounded but refused to leave his men and remained in command of the post for two days.  In the subsequent attack on “Tool Farm” he was severely wounded but refused to have his wounds dressed until all his wounded men had been attended to. 2/Lieut. Lucovitch was a Polish gentleman, serving voluntarily with the British Army, and his gallantry aroused general admiration. He was awarded the M.C.

Those minor successes, combined with reports from the advanced posts that the enemy’s defences did not seem to be strong, led to orders that a more definite advance was to be made on the night of July 6th/7th. The right flank company of the Battalion was to attack “Druid Farm,” and the left flank company was to attack “Tool Farm.”

The attack started just after 11 p.m., and the right flank company pushed forward down the slope to “Druid Farm.”  They were greeted by a heavy fire, in spite of which the platoons succeeded in working round both flanks of the Farm. Then, however, they came under such a heavy fire of bombs that progress was impossible and, after a stiff fight, the attackers fell back across the road.

The left flank company pushed forward from “Trench Farm” and reached the line of the road. There machine-guns from “Tool Farm” held up the attack.  The company dug in along the road and remained there till dawn. By that time the right flank company had suffered so many casualties that it had been considered necessary to withdraw to “Plum Farm.”  As the light grew, the enemy established a machine-gun at the road-junction north of Druid Farm. That machine-gun enfiladed the trenches along the road, and the left flank company also was compelled to retire.

The failure of that attack was due to the fact that the patrols during the previous days had underestimated the strength of the enemy’s defences.  The hostile positions had proved too formidable to be reduced save by a properly staged attack supported by artillery.

So a great weight of artillery was brought to bear, and fresh troops were ordered up. The 8th Gloucestershire took over the line on the evening of July 8th and the 10th Worcestershire went back to support trenches behind Oosttaverne Wood. There the Battalion lay during the night of July 9th/10th while their successors attacked behind a heavy barrage.  After a stiff fight the Gloucestershire took both “Druid” and “Tool” Farms. The former was found to be a maze of tunnels, and was only cleared after a long bombing struggle.

Then the 57th Brigade was relieved, and for ten days (July 11th—21st.) the 10th Worcestershire lay at “Irish House” south of Vierstraat, resting and cleaning up.  In those operations the Battalion had suffered some 50 casualties including four officers;

Killed — 18 N.C.Os. and men.
Wounded — 4 officers (Capt. G. Gass, 2/Lieut. C. V. Haig-Bovey, 2/Lieut. C. T. Dellow, 2/Lieut. H. J. Luckman) and 30 other ranks.
On July 13th a working party was shelled, 4 being killed and 2/Lieut. Lucovitch and 11 men wounded.

On July 22nd the Battalion again moved forward. The front of the Division had been altered slightly, and the line now taken over by the 10th Worcestershire ran through Green Wood. Two companies held posts in the wood: further back the other two companies were entrenched in Rose Wood and in Godezune Farm. The companies reached their positions amid heavy firing caused by an unsuccessful attack further to the right against Junction Buildings; and then held the line during three uncomfortable days.

The date fixed for the great offensive was close at hand and the British artillery was steadily bombarding the enemy’s trenches. In retaliation the German guns were pounding the British positions.  A great weight of artillery had been collected around the Salient, and there was little possibility of rest for the harassed soldiers in the front line. The great shells came smashing down at all hours of the day and night, and there were many casualties.

Relief was expected after the third day, but orders came that, owing to the postponement of the offensive, another three days must be endured.  So the Battalion held on, while the shell-fire grew heavier, making the strain on all ranks very severe.

At last the Battalion was relieved (Night 29th/30th July) and moved back to huts near Kemmel having lost nearly fifty killed or wounded from shell-fire alone.

11 killed, 35 wounded — the latter including 2/Lieut. F. Cox (on June 24th 1917)

The capture of the Messines Ridge cleared the way for the projected offensive at Ypres, and the final preparations for the new attack were taken in hand.

Northward into the Salient poured the main strength of the British Armies in France; great guns, stores of all kinds, and over a hundred marching battalions—Guards, Highlanders, Welshmen, and the best of the stubborn old regiments of the English Line; one after another all the Battalions of the Regiment came in succession up into the Salient.