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Tne Battle of Messines

The Official History Account

The forecast on the 4th June predicted a continuation of the fine weather for some days, though a morning haze might make visibility poor. Corps were notified accordingly that Zero Day would be on the 7th. At midday on the 6th, zero hour was fixed for 3.10 a.m., watches being carefully synchronized for the simultaneous explosion of the mines. It was expected that at that hour a man could be seen at a hundred yards, and that the mist would be beginning to lift.

About midnight on the 6th/7th, after a violent thunderstorm earlier in the evening, the moon, now past its full, shone in a clear sky. At 2 a.m. aeroplanes cruised low over the German position to drown the noise of the tanks moving up to their starting points near the front. By 3 a.m. the assault divisions, with the exception of some of the II Anzac Corps on the right, had gathered unnoticed in their assembly trenches, and bayonets were fixed silently.

The British artillery fire had been normal during the night, but half an hour before dawn a calm set in, so marked that from the front line nightingales could be heard singing in distant woods which still gave cover. " Suddenly, at 3.10 a.m.", to quote a British eye-witness, " great leaping streams of orange flame shot upwards, each a huge volcano in itself, along the front of attack, followed by terrific explosions and dense masses of smoke and dust, which stood like great pillars towering into the sky, all illuminated by the fires below ". The nineteen mines exploded without a single failure, and the shock for many miles back was like that of an earthquake. In Lille, 15 miles.away, terrified Germans rushed panic-stricken about the streets; and the shock was felt distinctly in London and in various parts of England. The fact that, unintentionally, the explosions were not all simultaneous-the last being 19 seconds after the first-had a cumulative effect on the German garrison, and their panic was further increased by the hitherto unappreciated ventriloquial character of great explosions. The demoralizing effect did, in fact, far exceed expectations, especially as widespread suspicion existed that many of the earlier-laid mines might not explode after so long a delay.
Immediately after the explosion, the whole of the artillery strength of the Second Army was let loose at its maximum rate of fire. The three belts of the barrage crashed down on the first 700 yards of the German position, and the counter-battery groups deluged all known German battery positions with gas shell. The flashes of the guns in the darkness were so close together and continuous that the whole western horizon seemed to be ablaze; and with this immense artillery support the infantry of 9 divisions, with 3 in close reserve, advanced to the assault.
The 25th Division (Major-General E. G. T. Bainbridge) soon came up level with the New Zealanders. Its assembly trenches lay 600 yards back on the higher ground; but the explosion of the mine at Ontario Farm assisted considerably the first onslaught of both brigades, the 74th (Br.-General H. K. Bethell) and 7th (Br.-General C. C. Onslow). The bed of the Steenbeek, too, presented no obstacle after the dry weather.
At 12.15 p.m. the 25th Division, north of Messines, sent back infonnation from its advanced patrols along the second objective (observation line) that the Gennan infantry, previously reported assembling about Garde Dieu, were advancing up the Blauwepoortbeek (a tributary of the Wambeek); a later report, at 12.45 p.m., added that the head of the movement had arrived close behind the Oosttaverne Line. At 1.4 p.m. other messages stated that German batteries were in action at Delporte and Deconinck Farms, and that about eight hundred German troops were moving at the double north of Gapaard. These messages were passed on at once from Second Army Report Centre at Locre Chateau to the S.0.S. and counter-batteries concerned, which were able to keep the Gerinanmovement under shell-fire throughout.

At 1.45 p.m. these Germans were seen to cross the Oosttaverne Line in a number of waves on a frontage of about a thousand yards from astride the Gapaard-Messines highway to the Blauwepoortbeek, preceded by an artillery barrage along the first objective from east of Messines to about Lumm Fann. The New Zealand advanced posts along the observation line, unaffected by the barrage, saw ten lines of Germans approaching them across the open fields, giving excellent targets to their machine guns; whilst farther north, about six hundred of the enemy advancing in four waves met the frontal and enfilade fire of twelve machine guns of the 25th Division sited in advanced positions during the morning by the divisional machine-gun officer: six at Despagne Farm and six in a ruined building six hundred yards north of it. Shortly afterwards, at 2.10 p.m., the British artillery barrage became intense in front of the Oosttaverne Line; it had been ordered on a report from balloon observers at 1.45 p.m. that the counter-attack was imminent, which was confirmed by Second Army observers on Kemmel who had seen through glasses the bursts of the German barrage. The combined artillery , machine-gun and rifle fire checked the counter-attack before it reached the advanced posts on the observation line, and German survivors fell back to any available cover or shell-holes. The 25th Division diary states that in its sector the attack was beaten by 2.8 p.m., before even the intense phase of the British barrage opened.