The Battle of Messines Tour

The New Zealand Division

The Battle Of Messines

The main bastion in the German defences along the Messines Ridge was the fortified town of Messines. It was against these defences that the New Zealand Division was to assault. Two German defensive systems were in place in front of Messines at the foot and on the crest of the ridge before the demolished town and these were clearly visible to the British from their positions below Hill 63. Further back the ruined houses had been fortified and the cellars of the shattered remains turned into a series of inter-connected shelters.

The cellars of the Church and Abbey formed formidable defensive positions both of which lay in the path of the New Zealand Division. Concrete defensive structures dotted the hillside and the slopes were adorned with machine gun nests, observation posts, dugouts and strong points, many of which contained two or three machine guns and garrisons of between 15 and 40 men.

Messines from the New Zealand line

Looking towards Messines from the New Zealand line near Boyles Farm.

In the shattered ruins the German defenders had entrenched themselves amongst the rubble. Facing the New Zealanders the German line was manned by troops from the 40th (Saxon) Division and 3rd Bavarian Division.

In the late evening of 6th June 1917 the advance parties of the New Zealand Division's Battalions moved forward to their assembly positions. To their right and left their sister Battalions of the II ANZAC Corps did the same. A thunderstorm fell clearing the night air which became cold and fresh. The German artillery was light, though gas and lachrymatory shells fell into the area between Messines and Hill 63. The soft explosions of the gas shells caused the British and New Zealand infantrymen to put on their box respirators thereby impairing their field of vision and reducing their physical capabilities.

New Zealand Division Order of Battle

New Zealand Division Order of Battle. (Ian R Gumm, 2011)

At 01:00 hrs the assaulting Battalions of the New Zealand Division began to move forward to their jumping off points ready for Zero hour. The British Artillery continued their preliminary bombardment and patrols advanced out into No Man's Land to mark the lanes for the assault and examine the crossing points over the Steenebeek. Makeshift duckboard bridges were placed over the British frontline trenches to facilitate the passage of the attacking troops and final preparations for the assault were finalised.

As dawn began to break the preliminary bombardment ceased at 02:50 hrs and the Germans quickly got out of their underground defensive shelters to man their positions. Twenty minutes later, at 03:10 hrs, the British and ANZAC soldiers were told to lie flat on the ground as the 19 mines were detonated. The resulting explosions literally evaporating those German defenders directly above them and incapacitated those left behind. The advancing British troops would find dead Germans in their bunkers without a mark on them they had been killed by the pressure waves created by the mines crushing their internal organ.

As the mines exploded, the assaulting British and ANZAC soldiers rose up and began their advance across no-man's-land in the early morning mist toward the German frontline. As they did so the British Artillery opened up with their creeping barrage that was timed to move forward with the advancing soldiers. 700 well sighted machines guns also opened fire pouring a hail of lead into the German second line defences over the head of their advancing comrades. In front of Messines the soldiers of the New Zealand Division advanced towards the shattered ruins of the town. To their right was the 3rd Australian Division and on their left to the north of the town was the British 25th Division. The British 25th Division assaulted from the area of Ontario Farm across the northern end of Messines.

II ANZAC Corps' Plan

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

The mine in this area had been tunnelled through what seemed to be an old river bed. This proved to be far too wet and work was started afresh further back. This was only a short period before the actual attack was due to take place and the second mine only reached underneath the German frontline on the morning before the assault. Whilst it wasn't as far as had been hoped, it was decided to go with it anyway. The dampness of the sand around the mine chamber created a large crater of almost no depth when this mine was set-off. The Official History notes rather eloquently that: - " ... the wet sand flowed back almost as if the mine had been exploded in treacle."

The New Zealanders advanced across the area to the left of La Petit Douve Farm. The mine at that farm had not been detonated due to German counter-mining operations. The enemy had discovered the mine and flooded its workings to neutralise it and thus the German frontline in the New Zealand Division's area was still intact. Within ten seconds of the British Artillery and machine gun fire opening up with their protective barrage the slope in front of Messines was lit as white rockets and flares rose up from the German positions. The coloured flares calling for immediate support and the white rockets spreading their eerie light over the advancing New Zealanders.

The New Zealand Division advanced with two Brigades up each with two Battalions forward. To the left (north) were the 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment (1st Otago) and the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment (1st Canterbury) of the 2nd Brigade and to the right (south) were the 3rd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade (3rd Rifles) and 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade (1st Rifles). In the ruins of Messines the German soldiers poured out of their defensive shelters to man their defensive positions in the Oyster, Uhlan, Ulcer and Ulna Trenches and their support lines. In their excellent machine gun and fighting positions they waited for the New Zealanders to come on.

New Zealand Division's Assault

The New Zealand Division's Assault. (Ian R Gumm, 2012)

On the left, the soldiers of the 1st Otago the German frontline system and pushed forward parties towards the strong points at Moulin de l'Hospice and Birthday Farm. The Moulin de l'Hospice was quickly surrounded and the defender surrendered without much of a fight. At Birthday Farm, however, the enemy resisted fiercely and a machine gun nest caused particular trouble. Moving from shell hole to shell hole bombers from the 1st Otago began to work their way towards the enemy machine gunners, but as they advanced a shell smashed into it bringing to an end their resistance. Across their sector the 1st Otago moved over the German lines so swiftly that the enemy did not have any time to organise themselves to face the onslaught. The German soldiers were bombed in their dugouts and those that did manage to get outside were bayoneted within yards of their entrance. By 03:26 hrs, just sixteen minutes after the assault had begun, the 1st Otago had secured the enemy's frontline system. In the centre the 1st Canterbury and 3rd Rifles also took the forward enemy positions without too much trouble.

On the right the 1st Rifles advanced. At La Petit Douve Farm two platoons quickly over came the German defenders. The rest of the Battalion crashed through the German frontline system and rushed the support trenches leaving mopping up parties to deal with any enemy they had missed.

In Ulna Support Corporal H J Jeffery found himself alone in front of an enemy dugout. From the enemy position a German machine gun poured its deadly load into his advancing comrades. He rushed the post and the machine gunner seeing him coming darted back into the dugout. Corporal Jeffery threw a couple of bombs in after the machine gunner and shouted at the occupants to surrender. Eight Germans came out with their hands up. Their officer drew his pistol, but Corporal Jeffery lunged at him with his bayonet. The German officer fled as another four Germans stepped into the trench. Soon all 12 prisoners were making their way towards the British lines and Corporal Jeffery who had killed five and wounded another within the dugout rejoined his platoon.

With the forward enemy positions in their hands the men of the New Zealand Division pressed forward towards their second objectives. The men of the 1st Otago pushed forward from Oyster Trench towards Oyster Reserve. Private C A Fitzpatrick rushed a machine gun position in the right of the 1st Otago sector. He bayoneted five of the crew before the remainder surrendered. In this action the 1st Otago captured two field guns, three trench mortars, nine machine guns, six officers and 150 men.

To their right the 1st Canterbury also pushed on into the town advancing to the left of the inter Brigade axis of the farm road leading past Au Bon Fermier Cabaret. This had been turned into a strongpoint and the 1st Canterbury dealt expediently with its resistance. In that action they captured three machine guns and seventeen enemy soldiers.

As the 1st Canterbury pushed onwards another German machine gun was proving troublesome until two Lewis gunners took matters into their own hands. Lance Corporal G A Hewitt and Private R T Garlick charged through the enemy's fire to assault the enemy. The crew seeing their advance made signs to surrender, but as the two New Zealanders advanced they opened fire once again wounding both of them. Enraged by this action the two wounded Lewis gunners would not be put off and despite their wounds they worked their way forward along a sap towards the enemy position. When they were close enough the two New Zealanders rushed the enemy killing six and taking eleven more of the enemy prisoner. Not content with that they also silenced another nearby gun in an adjoining dugout.

The 3rd Rifles to the right of the 1st Canterbury also pressed forward towards the town. They too fought with great determination and captured three machine guns and took nearly 100 prisoners as they fought through the first two German trench systems. As they reached the German second line system they came under intense machine gun fire from a couple of machine guns positioned at the forward edge of the town. The 3rd Rifles advance was checked and the men pinned down by the enemy's withering machine gun fire.

Seizing the initiative, Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton shouted at his section to follow and dashed forward through the covering artillery barrage. Throwing his bombs at the crew of the first gun he jumped into the machine gun nest bayonet the survivors. Then under cover of the barrage again he dashed forward to assault the second machine gun that was nearby. Crossing the 20 yards of ground that separated the two guns he killed the three man crew and six other enemy soldiers in the vicinity allowing his comrades to continue their advance.

Corporal A V Eade was also prominent carrying one of the captured machine guns forward to engage another gun further on, but was killed while getting the gun into action.

Rifleman C J Maubon then featured in this action when a few minutes later yet another machine gun opened fire, this time from the ruins of the inner wall of the Institution Royale. Rifleman Maubon rushed forward, into the shells of our barrage, to bomb the gunner and destroyed the gun.

The 3rd Rifles in capturing Messines took nearly 100 prisoners and 3 machine guns. Their casualties were 21 killed and 75 wounded, and only nine of their officers remained to supervise consolidation of their gains.

Samuel Frickleton had been slightly wounded during the capture of Messines and was to sustain more serious wounds later. For his actions in front of Messines, Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Samuel Frickleton VC

Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, receiving the Victoria Cross from HM King George V

With the first and second German defensive lines in their possession the New Zealanders now focused their attention on clearing the rubble of the town. Five concrete pillboxes had been built by the Germans within the ruins of Messines and these commanded the streets of the town. These five pillboxes were the crux of the German defences and each was in itself a self contained strongpoint. In addition the 200 or so cellars beneath the shattered remnants of the houses had been converted into command posts, communication centres, officers and accommodation for the occupying German Battalions.

With Messines in their hands the New Zealand Division continued onwards. To the left the 2nd Canterbury passed through the 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury Battalions to take over the assault. On the right the 4th Rifles leap-frogged forwards over the 1st and 3rd Rifles in the Rifle Brigade's area of responsibility.

The 2nd Canterbury took Oxonian Trench which ran alongside the Wytschaete Road to Hun's Walk capturing 50 prisoners. They also captured the trench to the east of the town and extended their line from Hun's Walk south into Unbearable trench.

The 4th Rifles secured the southern half of Messines and pushed out into the trenches to the southeast and south of the town. Pockets of resistance still remained within the shattered ruins and these were systematically dealt with by the men from New Zealand. The German defenders may have been heavily entrenched in the ruins of Messines, but ultimately they were no match for the Kiwis who assaulted them.

Within two-and-half hours of getting out of their jumping off points the New Zealanders had captured the ruins of Messines and the German trenches on the crest of the Messines Ridge in the immediate vicinity. In the brutal fighting they had overcome what had been considered to be an almost impregnable defensive system on an upward slope, the culmination of which had been a fiercely contested house-to-house street-by-street advance through the heavily fortified ruins of the town.

By 05:00 hrs, exactly on schedule, the New Zealand Division had taken Messines and was ready to push on towards the Black Line to the east.

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Last updated: 15th December 2018