The Battle of Messines Tour

The 4th Australian Division

The Battle Of Messines

Following behind the assault of the New Zealand Division and 3rd Australian Division for the second phase of the attack during the Battle of Messines at the southern end of the battlefield was the 37th Battalion AIF and Major General William Holmes' 4th Australian Division. Their role was to to capture the Oostaverne Line in their area and the German Artillery Batteries that were supposedly to the west of it.

4th Australian Division Order of Battle

The 4th Australian Division Order of Battle. (Ian R Gumm, 2010)

This second phase of the assault in the vicinity of Messines was considered to be a secondary task that was subordinate to the main objective of capturing the Black Line. With the Black Line firmly in the hands of the II ANZAC Corps the 4th Australian Division began to move up and by 11:00 hrs was in the area of the original British frontline. They continued to move forward and the two attacking Battalions approached the rear of the Messines Ridge. Here they lined up as if on parade on their battalion flags with the tanks that were to support them marshalling in the meadows. Still no time for the afternoon attack had been confirmed from Second Army Headquarters so they continued to work on the original preliminary time of 13:10 hrs. The Intelligence Officers and scouts of the attacking Battalion had already gone forward to mark out the jumping off positions. Captain Robert Grieve from the 37th Battalion was up on the ridge and latter commented that it was "more like a picnic than a battle."

Just after 11.30 hrs the four Battalions of the 4th Australian Division came directly up the slope and into Messines to the west of where the Island of Ireland Peace Tower stands today. The 45th Battalion (New South Wales) and the 47th Battalion (Queensland, Tasmania) crested the ridge almost exactly where the tower stands and here they came under enemy artillery and small arms fire. The 37th Battalion, to their right, had already moved down the River Douve valley when the Battalions of the 4th Australian Division crested the ridge. They tied-in with the 47th Battalion, who were the right-hand Battalion of the 4th Australian Division's 12th Australian Brigade.

Side-by-side these two Battalions went forward, but as they did so the nature of the German Artillery fire altered. A German aircraft had broken through the British air cordon and flown over the southern shoulder of Messines Ridge. The observe had recorded the position of the new trenches of the Black Line and shortly after 11:30 hrs the hitherto scattered German heavy artillery shelling became co-ordinated and a barrage landed on the Black Line that was particularly intense in the area of Bethlehem Farm. This was directly in the path of the 37th and 47th Battalions, but their officers continued to lead them forward towards their start line through the falling shells. They sustained some casualties, but these were surprisingly light.

As they advanced through the barrage word was received that the afternoon attack had been postponed by two hours and was now scheduled to start at 15:10 hrs. For two hours, therefore, the officers and men assigned to the afternoon attack had to wait at their start line positions in full sight of the enemy. They were ordered to lie down maintaining their attack order, but the Germans sprayed them with distant machine gun and rifle fire as well as continued to shell them. As the Australians took shelter in shell holes waiting for the afternoon attack Captain Francis Davy one of the Company Commanders of the 47th Battalion was hit and killed. Lieutenant Clifford Mendoza saw what happened: "It was just at midday and during a temporary halt at a rallying line. Capt Davy went along giving instructions to platoon commanders. He had just returned to position when a shell got him and killed him straight away. He was buried in the field behind the line south east of Messines." Captain Davy's grave, which cannot have been far from where the Island of Ireland Peace Park now stands, was not located after the war and his remains were never recovered, and his name is recorded among the missing of the 47th Battalion on the Menin Gate in Ieper.

Whilst the Australians waited the Germans counter-attacked from positions behind the Oosttaverne Line, but the New Zealanders and Australians of the 3rd Australian Division in their forward positions were by now ready for them. As the counter-attack came forward the ANZACs opened up with heavy machine gun and rifle fire and although some Germans in the valley crossed the Oosttaverne Line they were not able to approach close to the ANZAC trenches. By 14:30 hrs the counter-attack was spent and the Germans fell back to their trenches of the Oosttaverne Line.

Around 14:45 hrs, slightly later than planned, the British Artillery started shelling forward of the ANZAC position in readiness for the afternoon assault. The order to 'fix bayonets' was passed along the line of the waiting 4th Australian Division and 37th Battalion soldiers as the tanks assigned to the attack came rolling over the crest of the ridge.

At 15:10 hrs, twelve hours after the initial assault had begun, the barrage lifted 100 yards and the Australians recommenced their advance behind it. It was scheduled to lift 100 yards every 3 minutes and the attack had to keep up with it in order to benefit from its protection. Keeping pace with the tanks the Australians moved across the forward trenches of the II ANZAC Corps and into no-man's-land where they were greeted by intense German rifle and machine gun fire. The Oosttaverne Line that had been relatively lightly held during the morning was now well reinforced and strongly held.

The 47th and 37th Battalions advanced south of Hun's Walk whilst the 45th Battalion was to the north of it. A force of Germans about 100 strong moved forward from the Oosttaverne Line to occupy Oxygen Trench to the north of Hun's Walk. One of the tanks advanced against this force with the Australians close behind. This shelled the trench and when the Australians assaulted they took the trench with comparative easy taking 120 prisoners before continuing on towards the Oosttaverne Line.

As they approached the Oosttaverne Line they were engaged from hedges, trenches and concrete blockhouses. For the Australians the Messines battlefield was their first taste of the German blockhouse or pillbox. These reinforced concrete structures, which could really only be destroyed by a direct hit with a heavy shell, allowed the German soldiers to take shelter during bombardments and then to emerge with their machine guns as the enemy advanced towards their line. Some had small slits in the concrete from which a machine gun could be operated, but others were totally sealed off except for a door at the back. It was essential to capture such positions as otherwise strong enemy detachments would be left in the rear of a swift advance. Four of these structures formed part of the defences of the Oosttaverne Line in the area being assaulted by the Australians. Two were to the north of Hun's Walk, one beside the road and another one to the south.

Charles Bean describes how the resistance offered by the garrisons of these fortifications particularly maddened men already stressed by battle: "Where such tension exists in battle the rules of 'civilised' war are powerless. Most men are temporarily half mad, their pulses pounding at their ears, their mouths dry … When they have been wracked with machine gun fire, the routing out of enemy groups from behind several feet of concrete is almost inevitably the signal for a butchery at least of the first few who emerge, and sometimes even the helplessly wounded may not be spared … ruthlessness is a quality essential to hand to hand fighting, and soldiers were deliberately trained to it."

The pillbox to the south of Hun's Walk gave the Victorians of the 37th Battalion a great deal of trouble. This was located at the side of the road that ran parallel to Hun's Walk about a mile due east of Messines Church. The Company commanded by Captain Robert Cuthbert Grieve was being held up by this pillbox as they attempted to file through a gap in the German wire. Within minutes half of the company, including all its officers except Grieve, were mown down. Robert Grieve knew that they would all be annihilated unless the German machine gun was dealt with. Signalling to his men to shelter in shell holes, he tried to silence the machine gun, which he could clearly see firing from a slit in the pillbox, with a mortar and fire from a Vickers heavy machine gun that had been brought up behind his Company. A German artillery shell burst amongst them killing or wounding the crew of the mortar. Lieutenant Alexander Fraser of the 10th Machine Gun Company quickly repaired the Vickers and continued to try to silence the German position, but both he and the gun were soon hit.

Realising that he was not going to be able to silence the pillbox from his present position Captain Grieve decided to take matters into his own hands. Grabbing a bag of hand-grenades he worked his way towards the pillbox moving from shell hole to shell hole by throwing a grenade before dashing to the next under the cover of the explosion. The grenade bursts momentarily caused the German machine gunners to stop firing allowing him to make his mad dash.

In this Robert Grieve worked his way into the German trench to the left of the pillbox, which was empty as the enemy soldiers were still sheltering from the British bombardment within. Getting close to the pillbox he threw another grenade at the slit from which the Germans were firing. The explosion made them stop firing and before they could resume Grieve had rolled two more grenades through the opening. After the explosions, he rushed to the door at the back which he kicked open to find the crew lying dead or wounded around their gun.

With the machine gun silenced, Robert Grieve's Company moved forward to occupy the trench. Still standing on the parapet of the trench signalling to more of his men to come forward Robert Grieve was shot by a sniper and badly wounded. Of the 100 or so men he had when they crossed the start line only 40 were left. His prompt action had undoubtedly saved the day for his men and enabled the line to advance, and for his outstanding bravery Captain Robert Cuthbert Grieve was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

To the right of Captain Grieve's Company was the Company now commanded by Lieutenant Stubbs. As the barrage lifted they rushed the trench and took around 80 prisoners. Whilst ensuring that these prisoners were secured within shell holes for their own safety Lieutenant Stubbs was himself wounded.

The actions of these two officers had ensured that the 37th Battalion captured their initial objective.

In their efforts to secure the Oosttaverene trench the 47th Battalion suffered greatly. The right-hand Company that was linking in with the 37th lost all of its officers. Its men were absorbed into the second Company and the surviving officers from that Company tried as best they could to direct and control this adhoc force. The fight in the vicinity of Hun's Walk, however, deteriorated into a kind of melee with maddened Australians closing on the defending Germans from the front whilst the dust of the creeping barrage was churned up behind them. The resolve of the German defenders started to crumbled and cries of 'Mercy!' and 'Kamerad!' began to ring out. Some of the Germans bolted, which was too much for many of the Australians who charged after them. The officers tried to restrain them, but this was not always possible. The 47th Battalion had also achieved its initial objective.

The tanks had greatly assisted the infantry throughout the battle, but at 16:00 hrs they began turn back towards the British lines. The final objective for both Battalions was the support trenches behind those that they had already seized. Rushing the enemy from hedge to hedge the 37th and 47th Battalions pushed forward and a mixed force from both Battalions occupied the part of the support line that straddled Hun's Walk.

To the north the support line was less well defined and the Company of the 47th Battalion commanded by Captain Williams took up positions in the shell holes along what was believed to be the line of the support trench.

To the south the 47th Battalion pushed forward with the support of one of the tanks which had stayed a little longer than the rest. This tank was commanded by Lieutenant F Vans Agnew, but as it went forward to assist the camouflage packs on its roof caught fire and much to the amusement of the infantry Lieutenant Agnew had to climb on top to put the fire out.

There was little resistance to the south of Hun's Walk with the exception of the parallel road. Along this road the Australians had to fight for every bush and continued to press forwards until they found themselves in front of a farm building from which two German machine guns were firing. The house was taken and the two machine guns captured, this became known as 'Hun House.'

The Australians of the 37th and 47th Battalions had captured their final objectives, and in the case of Hun House were about 300 yards forward of the intended line. Further to the north of the II ANZAC Corps' area the struggle continued, but as they say is another story.

Amongst the soldiers of the 37th Battalion who assaulted on 7th June 1917 was Private William George Dunlop. He was killed during the assault and fell in battle between Bethlehem Farm and Septieme Barn. It is possible that Private Dunlop may have been one of the casualties in Captain Grieve's Company at the pillbox, or perhaps later as they secured the first objective. Whatever is the case it is likely that we will never know and like Captain Francis Davy of the 47th Battalion he is remembered with honour on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.

Crown Prince Rupprecht, the German Army Group commander, wrote afterwards in his diary: "All around Messines the ground was said to be covered with the bodies of the Bavarians. Our poor, brave 3rd Division!"

The Bavarian Official History concentrates more or less exclusively on matters which affected its army. In referring to the Messines sector and the responsibility of 3rd Bavarian Infantry Division, it talks of: "Ten huge mines west of Wytschaete and Messines' and others north of St Eloi and south of the Douve, ' in the sector of 4th Bavarian Infantry Division'. It goes on to state that the forward 'Combat Battalions of 3rd Bav Div (1st Bn Bav IR 23, 3rd Bn Bav IR 17 and 3rd Bn Bav IR 18) fell victim to the mines and the drum fire and disappeared off the face of the earth. The three reserve battalions (3rd Bn Bav IR 23, 1st Bn Bav IR 17 and 2nd Bn Bav IR 18) were utterly prevented from coming to the aid of those forward by the overwhelming barrage fire and suffered very heavy casualties'. In the 4th Bav Div area, 'The forward positions of Bav IR 9 on the right flank just by the Douve were torn apart by the explosions and overrun ..."

General von Kuhl stated: "The German army had suffered a heavy blow. The losses in dead and wounded were unusually high; the British claim to have captured 7,500 men."

Major Oschatz, 3rd Bn IR 133 wrote: "The British operating at depths of up to 60 metres had mined right beneath our lines as far as the Second Position, the so-called Sehnenstellung. In a series of massive explosions the entire defensive position was blown into the air and, with it, thousands of soldiers of its garrison."

It will never be possible to state exactly how many men were blown up and how many died as a result of the torrent of artillery fire and the violence of the infantry attack, but it seems clear that a toll of many thousands being blown up is entirely feasible.

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Last updated: 15th December 2018