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Posted on Dec 23, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Messines and Memory

By Ronan Thomas

The explosions caught several German echelons forming up to advance. Entire positions disappeared as titanic columns of earth rose into the air. The blasts were heard in London. The occupants of Lille, 20 km away, thought at first it was a powerful earthquake. 10,000 German soldiers were killed or wounded outright, a further 15,000 by 14 June. British and Empire forces took all their objectives and 7,000 prisoners at the cost of 17,000 casualties of their own. Shocked German commanders expected a second hammer blow to fall against their positions at Passchendaele. But the British – under the overall command of General Sir Douglas Haig – had not planned to run two battles in parallel. The success at Messines was not followed up until five weeks later, giving the Germans at Passchendaele vital breathing space. If the subsequent battle of attrition at Passchendaele from 31st July to 10th November 1917 remains mired in controversy, Messines is remembered as an unequivocal British victory. Today, British and Commonwealth memorials recall Messines proudly, and can be found in clusters from Messines itself to the neighbouring town of Wytschaete (known to the Tommies as ‘White Sheet’). All along the southern Ypres Salient, the huge mine craters – 18 are filled with water – are quiet and moving places which provide visitors with stark evidence of the cataclysm of 7th June 1917. They are the battle’s most enduring memorial. The Caterpillar mine crater at Battle Wood holds over 60 feet of water and is the grave for at least 600 German soldiers.


The Caterpillar Crater at Battle Wood, near Zillebeke, Flanders. A second British mine killed hundreds of German defenders here, leaving a huge water-filled crater.

Amongst the memorials a glaring omission also existed for many years; the collective Irish experience. Eclipsed by a history of civil war against the British, Ireland’s neutrality in the Second World War and the Troubles of 1969-1998, the role played by many Irishmen who served in the British Army at Messines and elsewhere remained controversial for much of the twentieth century. For eight decades – after Irish Partition in 1921 – the sacrifice and actions of Irish Catholics in particular were ignored, rejected by their own communities or subsumed in British and Ulster Unionist commemorations. Over 200,000 Irishmen – from north and south – served on all fronts during the Great War, many as members of the largely Protestant 36th (Ulster) and largely Catholic 10th (Irish) and 16th (Irish) Divisions. During 1914-18, 50,000 were killed.

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