Great Mounds of Earth Flung Sky High

Australian troops were in Belgium in June 1917 for a major push. Months in planning, zero hour for the Battle of Messines was scheduled for dawn on 7th June.  The Germans had held Messines ridge, a key vantage point, since 1915.  The small hill gave them an unobstructed view over Ypres and the Salient.  Soldiers defended their position on top of the ridge inside reinforced concrete pillar boxes.  From the ridge, Allied preparations for any eastward offensive were visible and within firing range.  Winning the war demanded capturing Messines ridge.  An ambitious plan was hatched in 1916 to plant explosives in a series of deep tunnels beneath the German position.  A tunnelling unit was formed and for months they had dug and tunnelled into the distinctive blue clay only found at certain depths.  To keep the plan secret, shallower decoy tunnels were dug and the blue clay was meticulously hidden.

In the days before the battle the Allies launched a relentless shelling offensive to break apart the rows of rolled barbed wire that reinforced the German front line.  The Germans retaliated just as fiercely targeting gun placements and ammunition dumps.  Unable to halt the Allies the Germans launched shells of phosgene and chloropicrin gas.  The gas was heavier than air and blanketed the plains below Messines, suffocating soldiers stranded without their gas masks.  Just before zero hour, as Australian troops moved through Ploegsteert Wood to the jumping off point for battle, they were shelled by explosives and gas.  Around ten percent were killed or disabled by the poisonous gas.

The troops who made it through waited, undetected.  An eerie silence followed.  Seven seconds before zero hour the first mine exploded, then eighteen more in nineteen seconds.  The mines blew the earth and everything on it sky high leaving expansive craters littered with broken bodies.  In those nineteen seconds ten thousand Germans were killed.  The explosions were heard in England and the Germans left alive were panic-stricken.  The next two days, as the Allies advanced and consolidated their position, were a blood bath.  The Germans were ready and not prepared to give in without a fight.  After eight days of fighting often at close quarters the Allies captured Messines, the biggest victory in the war to date.  The price of victory was enormous, the Allies losing more men than the Germans.  24,562 Allied soldiers, more than half of them Anzacs, were killed or injured along with 22,900 German soldiers.

At clearing stations and hospitals nurses were seeing wounds and injuries they had never seen before.  The relentless shelling of the attack and counter-attack also resulted in an increasing number of soldiers with shell shock.  Nurses experienced the horror and felt helpless.  Far from home, many sought the comfort of Annie Wheeler whose care and concern extended equally to the nurses.  In June 1917 following the battle of Messines Annie had a letter from a number of Sisters serving in British Hospitals in France and was struck by the toll it was taking on them.  In her letter to Mary Trotman Annie wanted to know “if anything was being done at home to provide for the future of these brave women of ours.  Many of them will return home broken in health for the hard work and the terrible anxiety that they have gone through.  You have no idea of the hardships they have to endure.”  Annie understood these women needed as much mothering as the soldiers and did all she could to assist and support them in the same way she did with the boys in her care.

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