Battle of Messines Tour

The 3rd Australian Division

The Battle Of Messines

To the right of La Petite Douve Farm, south of Messines, Major General John Monash's 3rd Australian Division assaulted against the German defences along the River Douve Valley to the north of Ploegsteert Wood.

3rd Australian Division Order of Battle

The 3rd Australian Division Order of Battle. (Ian R Gumm, 2010)

After leaving their concentration areas and camps to the south of Ploegsteert the Battalions of the 3rd Australian Division made their way towards their jumping-off positions via four marked routes through Ploegsteert Wood, or 'Plug Street' as the men of the AIF called it.

In the dark, and in the shelling and appalling conditions, some of the units lost their way and confusion reigned for some time. The thousands of men of the 3rd Australian Division marched through Ploegsteert Wood dressed in full battle dress laden down with rifles, ammunition, packs and all the other sundry equipment of war. Along the marked lanes they walked accompanied by the hundreds of pack animals laden with all manner of supplies. Through the wood the entire mass of men and beasts all plodding forward in the darkness towards their allotted start lines.

3rd Australian Division routes through Ploegsteert Wood

The Routes Taken by the 3rd Australian Division through Ploegsteert Wood. (Ian R Gumm, 2012)

As they moved forward, the German Artillery began shelling the wood with a mixture of HE, incendiary, gas and lachrymatory shells. The Australians put on their small box respirator gas masks, which they had to wear for hours as they laboured towards the line. While these masks gave virtually complete protection from gas, wearing them with a heavy pack, extra ammunition and a rifle caused laboured breathing and physical distress. Everywhere there were collapsed transport animals by the side of the tracks gasping piteously for air. A number of men were killed others were wounded or gassed. The sides of the Bunhill Row and Mud Lane were strewn with men who could move no further.

Australians wearing Small Box Respirator

Two Australian soldiers wearing the Small Box Respirator. (from AWM E00840)

Charles Bean wrote in The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: "The … battalions … were meeting with steady gas-shelling, and on their entering Ploegsteert Wood, in whose stagnant air the gas lay densely, the difficulties increased. Long stoppages occurred, intervals of tense anxiety for all ranks. The Germans were shelling the wood more heavily, using high-explosive and incendiary shells as well. One of these exploded a dump near the track of the northernmost column … checking the march for a moment … A high-explosive shell burst in the leading platoon of the 39th [Battalion] as it reached 'Ploegsteert Corner'. Here and there officers and men were hit direct by gas-shell. Wherever the slowly-moving columns were locally dislocated by such incidents, and excitement or haste occurred, men tended to be gassed by the steady shower of shell, and fell out by the way, retching and collapsed."

Hunter's Avenue in Ploegsteert Wood

Hunter's Avenue in Ploegsteert Wood, c 1918. (AWM E04542)

Despite the horrendous conditions, the Australian Battalions somehow made it through 'Plug Street' to arrive at the jumping-off positions to the north just as the attack was about to start. Behind them, in the wood, they left more than 500 men that had been 'put out of action' in this night march.

When the 19 mines went up at 03:10 hrs the leading elements of the 3rd Australian Division were just entering their assembly areas. The 9th and 10th Australian Brigades were to be the assaulting Brigades with the 11th Australian Brigade being held back as the Divisional reserve. Due to the lateness of their arrival some of the men were taken by surprise by the explosions believing that the Germans having guessed what was going on had set off a mine of their own, but this was not the case. The three vast craters that were created in the 3rd Australian Division's sector were the ones at Trench 127 and 122 in the vicinity of St Yves (St Yvon).

II ANZAC Corps' Plan

II ANZAC Corps' Plan for the Assault. (Ian R Gumm, 2012)

The leading Battalions were left to right: 38th Battalion, 39th Battalion, 34th Battalion and 33rd Battalion. The 40th Battalion was the reserve for 10th Brigade and the 35th Battalion the reserve for the 9th Brigade. The 37th Battalion was being held back in the Subsidiary Line to take over the advance for the second phase.

With the dust created by the British Artillery barrage and mines hanging in the air like a hazy fog, the Australian soldiers advanced. The reduced visibility made it difficult to maintain direction and keep the spacing between waves. The advancing Battalions soon became a single amalgamated mass flowing forward across the open fields that stand between La Petit Douve Farm and Ploegsteert Wood to the south of Messines.

In the main the enemy's resistance was already broken. The German garrisons had already been strained by seven continuous days of bombardment and they were rendered virtually incapable of any coherent opposition to the advancing Aussies, by the sheer shock and awe created by the detonation of the mines. They were either total shattered by the enormity of the explosions or buried beneath the huge ant-heaps and saucers of the craters.

The leading Battalions of the 3rd Australian Division stumbled in the German trenches to find what survivors were there cowering in the remains of their concrete bunkers that had been partially unearthed by the preliminary bombardment. A few were in shell holes and many more lay behind their own frontline where they had tried to escape from the effects of the shelling. The majority fled leaving behind an assortment of battlefield debris such as rifles, ammunition, half eaten rations in their haste to get away.

There were, however, some small pockets of resistance. A few of these were encountered by Private John Carroll of the 33rd Battalion. Rushing the enemy's trench during the initial part of the advance towards the first objective John Carroll bayoneted four of the enemy. He then rescued a comrade who was in difficulties and later charged a machine-gun position, killing three of its crew and capturing the gun.

On clearing the German frontlines the left assaulting Battalions of each Brigade halted to let the supporting Battalion move through their lines to take over the advance, the relieved Battalion becoming the supporting one. The 33rd Battalion was heavily shelled in its new position and Private John Carroll was in the thick of the action again exposing himself to danger in order to dig out two of his comrades who had been buried by a shell explosion. For his actions on 7th June 1917 Private John Carroll was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

At the River Douve they dropped in place the wooden bridges that they had carried with them to assist them in crossing. This precaution however proved to be needless as the river was easily fordable.

River Douve Duckboard Bridge

A wooden plank bridge placed across the Douve River by the 40th Australian Infantry Battalion immediately after the attack opened at Messines, in Belgium, on 7 June 1917. (AWM E01286)

The tail of the Assaulting Australian Brigades had cleared the British frontline when the enemy's artillery began to fire upon them. The German Artillery fire was relatively ineffective, the field artillery having almost ceased firing altogether and the medium and heavier guns concentrating on the British frontline. Unfortunately for the 37th Australian Battalion, the British frontline was where they were to wait before moving forward for their assault as part of the follow-up phase of the battle and they took a number of casualties.

The assaulting Battalions continued to move forward behind the creeping barrage merely following the flashes of the exploding shells to keep a general direction to their advance. The dust haze continued to shield them from view and made it difficult for them to realise that there could be any danger from an enemy lurking within the dust cloud. It seemed that the only casualties they were taking were being caused by the men pressing on too quickly and being caught by their own shells. They were however so well drilled in what they were doing and knew what it was that they were required to do that they made their way to their prescribed objectives. Without checking their advance from the time they crossed their start line the men of the 3rd Australian Division reached their initial object close to the German Second Line around 04:30 hrs. Here they hurriedly dug-in to wait for the New Zealand Division on their left to work their way through Messines.

Just after 05:00 hrs the New Zealanders could be seen in the vicinity of Messines and the crest. The 10th Australian Brigade recommenced its advance up the southern shoulder of the ridge with the 38th and 40th Battalions to the north of the River Douve, the 39th to its south and the 37th being held back for the planned follow-up attack of the second phase. The 9th Australian Brigade pushed forward to their south along the top of the low rise with the 34th to the right of the Brigade boundary, the 35th behind them, the 33rd to the right again and the 36th being the Brigade reserve. Everything was on schedule and the Aussies continued forward behind their protective creeping barrage.

Close to the Brigade boundary was a low pile of bricks splashed with white mortar that were the ruins of Grey Farm. This was known to contain a number of German dugouts and shelters and was a strong point in their second line. It lay immediately behind the second line and was screened by a low hedge.

Grey Farm looking north

The area known as Grey Farm, looking north, with Bethlehem Farm and Messines in the background . (AWM E01362)

The 39th were to its right and the 34th to its left. By this time the 39th was down to about 120 men and under the command of Captain Alexander Thomas Paterson, the Company Commander of B Company. As the creeping barrage lifted past Grey Farm they moved forward. The 39th Battalion attacked the northern side of the farm and were fired upon by a machine gun positioned on the roof of a concrete shelter. This forced the men to the ground, but Captain Paterson recognising the danger soon got rifle fire onto the machine gun's position suppressing its fire. During the silence he rushed forward with the men closest to him and seized the post which contained two machine guns. For his actions on 7th June 1917 Captain Alexander Thomas Paterson was awarded the Military Cross.

On their right the 34th reached the low hedge to be met by a hail of machine gun fire from the concealed German positions beyond. They pushed through the hedge and located one of the guns. Creeping forward along a ditch Private Gray killed one of the gunners, a second surrendered and the remainder lay dead about the machine gun position. Three other machine gun positions were identified and these too were put out of action their crews either being killed, surrendering or bolting.

With Grey Farm in their possession the men of the 39th and 34th pushed forward a further 100 yards beyond to reach their objective. 500 yards beyond the first phase objective was the Oosttaverne Line. This was not to be attacked south of the River Douve so the 39th Battalion and 9th Australian Brigade dug-in to prepare themselves for the inevitable German counter-attack that they knew would come.

To the north of the River Douve the 38th and 40th Battalions recommenced their advance behind the creeping barrage. During the hour wait the 38th had reorganised and lined up facing the German second line in Ungodly Trench. As they advanced they met opposition from soldiers of the 9th Bavarian Infantry Regiment who had pushed forward trying to tie-in the boundary between the 3rd and 4th Bavarian Divisions. This was the first attempt by the Germans to counter-attack and they were located in and around the ruins of Bethlehem Farm. This lay 300 yards beyond Ungodly Trench and was surrounded by several tree-lined hedgerows. The few Germans in the trench withdrew to shelter in shell holes beyond the hedge and as the Australians moved forward they opened fire.

An unseen German machine gun joined in halting the right of the Australian line. Behind the tree line was a concrete bunker and the faint trace of smoke could be seen coming from the base towards the rear, the machine gun had been located. Captain Francis Edward Fairweather, commanding A Company 38th Battalion AIF, saw the smoke and taking a Sergeant and two signallers he crept forward moving from shell hole to shell hole working his way towards the gun. Scrambling through the hedge they worked their way around the back of the bunker to see half-a-dozen German soldiers running away. There on a concrete emplacement sat the steaming machine gun with a belt of rounds hanging from its side. Grabbing the machine gun, Captain Fairweather and his small group fired after the fleeing Germans. From the bunker came shouts of 'Kamerad! Kamerad!' as the German Officer and soldiers still inside surrendered. The Germans holding up the right of his advance had lost heavily to Captain Fairweather's Company and those who did not throw up their hands in surrender bolted. Rushing forward the men of the 38th Battalion crossed the road and burst through a hedge. There in front of them was a German field gun, which they quickly captured killing two of the crew in the process. Just beyond Bethlehem Farm they captured a second gun whose crew had been trying to drag it away. The sights of this gun were missing, but they were subsequently found inside the greatcoat of a dead German nearby. For his actions on 7th June 1917 Captain Francis Edward Fairweather was awarded the Military Cross.

The 10th Australian Brigade had reached their objective and began to dig-in along the Black Line that was the defensive line that they were to hold along the ridge. To their left the New Zealanders had also reached their objective and by 05:30 hrs these two Divisions had completed their main task of General Plumer's plan.

As far as the II ANZAC Corps was concerned the main objective of the assault had been gained, the crest of the Messines Ridge was in their hands. All along their new frontline the soldiers of the II ANZACs began to dig-in in readiness for the German counter-attack that would surely come.

By 07:00 hrs signs of an impending German counter-attack were detected in front of the 9th Australian Brigade's positions. German troops were seen moving northwards along the German Third Line, Uncertain Trench, in the vicinity of Potterie Farm. At around 08:30 hrs these Germans we observed creeping forward into the slight dip in the ground about 400 yards in front of the 34th Battalion's position. The 33rd Battalion on the extreme right of the Australian line saw Germans moving up into an area about 300 yards to their southeast. At Grey Farm Captain Stewart got a section of the 9th Australian Brigades Stokes mortars under the command of Lieutenant H W Chapman from the 36th Battalion to fire upon the Germans. This they did with great effect dropping their mortar bombs into the dip. Shortly thereafter the Germans were seen making a hasty retreat to the comparative safety of their Third Line, with the soldiers of the 34th Battalion firing after them.

Germans had also been seen massing on the road near Warneton about a mile and a quarter east of the Australians. Forward observation officers called in artillery and machine gun fire directing them onto this potentially dangerous threat and all-signs of counter-attack from that area quickly ceased. These Germans were later identified as being half of the Support Battalion of the 9th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, plus a large portion of the reserve Battalion that had been located near Warneton. The German regimental historian wrote that their attempts to counter-attack were broken up by strong enemy fire.

By 06:30 hrs the II ANZAC Corps' hold on the Black Line was firm with their main trench interlocked and secondary and communication trenches also prepared. Artillery Batteries, specifically assigned to the task were brought forward to provide in-direct support and strengthen the defensive capabilities of the ANZAC troops.

The second phase, planned for sometime in the afternoon, for which the 37th Battalion and 4th Australian Division had been held back, was to capture the Oostaverne Line in their area and the German Artillery Batteries that were supposedly to the west of it.

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Last updated: 15th December 2018