On the 7th of June, the British Second Army, which included the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, would go forward against the imposing Messines Ridge, the German salient that would have to be dealt with before any larger effort in the Ypres sector could be contemplated.
This was not to be a second Somme. Some lessons had been learned, and the commander of the Second Army, General Sir Herbert Plumer, was determined that his men would not advance into slaughter. His preparations for the Messines attack went beyond just the extraordinary story of the mines being placed underneath no man’s land and the German trench lines, designed to both destroy defences and stun the enemy into uselessness.
Based off aerial intelligence, raiding reports and other observations, Plumer had replicas of the German trench lines constructed in the areas behind the British lines, for units to study and practise attacks on. Individual unit assignments for the attack were meticulously prepared, with officers and other units mandated to understand them to the letter. A series of overlapping advances, operating on a “bite and hold” philosophy, would take place, with units seizing an objective, digging in, and allow a following unit to proceed onwards, a method that it was hoped would lead to consolidated gains and prevent any successful counter-attacks. And there would be a vicious artillery bombardment before and, firing more shells than had been fired at the Somme, over a shorter area, followed by precise creeping barrages. In combination with the exposed German defences on the ridge – the enemy suffering from the high-water table as much as the Allies – this would lead to the preliminary attacks being much more effective. 74 Mk IV tanks would be employed to assist the assault. And then there were the mines.
For the two Irish divisions, it was more than just the latest Allied assault. Though both sides had differing ideas of what kind of Ireland would result from the conflict, the war still had to be dealt with before those aspirations could be met. Having shared trench lines near each other, both divisions had ample time to fraternise, and they mostly allayed fears of any political tensions. Sporting events were held (regiments from the 36th were better at football), dinners were enjoyed, and the differences between nationalist and unionist were put aside, for the most part, in the face of present circumstances. And those identities had not gone away: one of the officers of the 16th who would be going forward with the men was a Major William Redmond, a nationalist MP for east Clare, and brother of John Redmond.
At 0310, the mines were detonated. There had been concerns that the bombs would be discovered by German countermines, or that the sodden tunnels would interfere with their firing capacity, but at the moment assigned, the earth moved all along in the line, in a series of explosions that count among the loudest non-nuclear detonations in human history, the noise from them carried as far away as Dublin (allegedly). Similarly, with 10’000 Germans killed, the Messines mines were the deadliest non-nuclear explosions in history.
The mines had the desired effect. German lines were blown sky high: one German raiding party that happened to be in no man’s land at the time of detonation were completely wiped out. Even though a few of the mines never exploded (at least one is still buried in the soil, under a local farmhouse) they did what they needed to so. The shock and awe portion of the exercise had been fulfilled. Now it was the infantry’s turn.
The 16th and 36th were among numerous divisions that went forward, stumbling through the smoke and debris that had been thrown up by the explosions. Some went straight into the craters, but the careful planning before the operation, which included such seemingly minor but vital things as new and improved compasses, kept the forward impetus going. Some units, like the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, actually went over the top a few moments too early, and were lucky to only be knocked off their feet by the blast.
The first German trench lines were taken with relative ease: some units literally advanced without any resistance. What defenders were still alive were probably still wondering what had happened when the British soldiers rushed their positions. Most surrendered without a fight. These first units held fast and allowed others to drive on. At the “Nail Switch” position assigned to the 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Irish went forward only to find their designated section of enemy trench non-existent.
Many Irish units, like the 6th Connaught Rangers, found themselves inundated with prisoners as they mopped up their sectors: the trickle rapidly became a flood as the Irish divisions converged on the central objective of the village of Wytschaete (known as Whitesheet to the British) itself. But German resistance was merely battered, not broken. The British were well aware that the German front-lines were thinly held intentionally, so that they could focus on defence in depth: the remainder of the assault would have tougher positions to deal with, as rearward German units pivoted to the front. The 15th Royal Irish Rifles were among the first Irish units to hit serious trouble, coming under heavy machine gun fire near the Steenbeke position. In the rush to take out this threat, the opposing forces got close enough for British and German officers to end up wrestling hand-to-hand.
All along the line of advance in fact, Irish units ran into machine gun nests designed to stem the tide of any attack. The 9th Royal Irish Rifles at Skip Point and the 7/8th Royal Irish Fusiliers at Wytschaete Wood both had to put newly developed infantry assault tactics to the test, firing and manoeuvring, and using hand-held bombs to their full effect. The months of raiding practise would have paid dividends here. This section of the attack took the highest number of casualties for the 16th that day, with the Fusiliers losing nearly 200 men.
In Wytschaete itself units from either Irish division met in concert, with the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers meeting with battalions of the Inniskillings. They were following on from units of the 6th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 7th Leinster Regiment, the “bite and hold” theory in practise. This combined attack of 16th and 36th, backed up by armour that had made it that far, took what was left of Wytschaete, before the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment pressed on to the L’Hospice strongpoint. This held out, surrounded, for a time, but was eventually compelled to surrender.
All along the line, the British hit their assigned objectives. In the following days, both the 16th and 36th were pulled back into reserve positions, with other units tasked with forwarding the line, which they mostly did, before the offensive was ended on the 14th. The combination of the mines, artillery strikes, coordinated infantry attacks, air oversight, armour and creeping barrage produced a tremendous Allied victory. In exchange for over 25’000 casualties, the Allies took the Messines Ridge position, flattening that salient, and inflicted 35’000 casualties on the enemy. Perhaps more importantly, they had set the stage for a larger offensive, to take place later in the year. The Messines Ridge operation paled in comparison to other offensives on the western front, in terms of men and material employed, but it is considered by many to be the most successful “local” attack of the entire conflict.
One of those 25’000 casualties was Major Willie Redmond, shot down in the initial advance, allegedly cheering the men on before he expired. Major Redmond should never have been where he was, being a staff officer for the division, but he insisted on being involved at the moment of decision. He was 56. His death was mourned by both nationalist and unionist – it was stretcher-bearers of the 36th that bore his body back behind the lines, and soldiers of both divisions formed a guard of honour at his funeral – and his voice for integration between both sides of the political/sectarian divide would be sorely missed in the years ahead. His last parliamentary speech while on leave had been to call for the immediate implementation of Home Rule; one of his last letters home praised the comradery between the 16th and 36th, and hoped that they could take the feeling home after the war. He was not the first (or last) MP to be killed in the fighting, with an Ulster Unionist, Arthur O’Neill (father of future Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill), killed in 1914: 22 MP’s would fall in all.
Of special note as well, in Redmond’s case, was that his death was part of a sea-change in Irish politics: when the by-election in Clare was held to fill his vacant sea, the winner would be a Sinn Fein candidate only recently released from prison for his role in the Easter Rising: Eamon de Valera.
With the ridge taken, the British could not consider a much larger offensive. Ypres was about to heat up yet again.
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