Sunday, 9 November 2014

Messines Ridge Battlefield Walk

I am currently working near Ypres, in Belgium, for two weeks, which is why this blog has been a bit quiet of late. However, this Saturday, taking advantage of the fact I am so close to the First World War battlefields and the unseasonably good weather I decided to take a walk around the area of Messines Ridge and see some of the battlefields of 1917. My guide in this endeavour was the excellent Walking the Salient by Paul Reed. I first picked it up twleve years ago and it has been an excellent companion for the walks I did then. This is the first time I have been back in Belgium for about four years, so I wanted to see some parts of the front lines that I had not had chance to explore properly before. This coupled with a fascination of the tunneller's war and the scarred ground they left behind with their mines made the walk an easy choice. The book says seven hours, but I completed it in around five and didn't find it too demanding.

Driving down to the walk starting point at Wulverghem, I stopped off at the American Memorial near Kemmel. This is the first time I have seen an American monument on the Western Front.


Then in the churchyard at Wulverghem there was a small collection of CWGC graves, mostly from 1915 when the churchyard was used as a burial ground.


Following the instructions in the book, I dropped down onto the Douve Valley, stopping at La Plus Douve Farm to look towards the German lines from what was a British command post in 1915.


In the nearby cemetery, Ration Farm Annex (La Plus Douve) cemetery, there is a Private Stone who is recorded as drowning in 1918. The last man to be buried in the cemetery.


Up the path is La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery, which is also the final resting place of R. Lancelot Cuthbert, a Englishman who emigrated to New York, lived there until war broke out and came back to the UK to enlist.


Just along the track from the farms and cemeteries, you can get a good sense of the imposing Messines Ridge in the background of this picture. The German lines dominated the Douve Valley and the British positions and its capture was vital in terms of ensuring success for future operations.


This view across the valley demonstrates the ground over which the British fought in 1917, the viewpoint is from just behind the British line, looking out towards Messines church on the crest. This entire area was fortified by the Germans and was a formidable obstacle.


One of those strongholds was at La Petite Douve farm, seen here in the centre of the picture. It was a fortified ruin in 1917, British tunnellers dug a gallery below and laid explosives. However, it was discovered by German counter-mining, so the British cut their losses, abandoned the mine and flooded the tunnels by diverting the Douve River.


Around the corner the road I followed ran straight over the top of the British front line in 1917. In the picture below it is marked roughly where the clump of trees are on the right running parallel across the road following the scrub that marks a small stream. The German line runs across the top of the slope of the ridge, just below the where white NZ Division memorial is. This was the area of operations for part of the New Zealand Division. Using artillery as a screen, they assaulted the German line and captured it, including two concrete block houses.


The German point of view demonstrates aptly that the New Zealanders faced a tough climb, but by 1917, artillery co-operation and low level infantry tactics had improved to such a level that they were able to take the ridge with relatively few casualties.


In one of the adjoining fields there looked to be the remains of another German blockhouse.


Another, more intact example can be found in the garden of the New Zealand Memorial Park:


Evidence of the shell cratered landscape is also noticeable in the fields surrounding the NZ memorial park.


The NZ Memorial garden is a lovely little patch of tranquillity.


And has two German blockhouses to explore:


The second one is less covered and the design of it is very obvious.


Including the fully intact rear stairs.


And can be entered, although it was too muddy and I'm too fat I would have never got out again...


Standing on top, you can see that the Germans took their defence seriously, the two strongpoints command a massive field of view.


In Mesen itself is the impressive church, in 1914 the crypt was the base for a German field hospital, in which, Adolf Hitler was treated for wounds.


A German field gun barrel outside the Mesen Town Hall.


And on the edge of town is the large British Messines Ridge Cemetery.


Private G.L. Chevalier is named on the New Zealand memorial to the missing in the same cemetery. He was, at 56, one of the oldest serving soldiers in the NZ Division. His body was never identified.


The walk continued away from Mesen, down a track called Kruisstraat, halfway down which one can see the modern farm that sits on the site of Ontario Farm, another German strongpoint. A mine was blown below this farm, but it didn't crater, it just left a pulpy mass.


Further along Kruisstraat are two more craters, as I walked towards them I noticed this stokes mortar round sitting by the side of the field. It was waiting to be picked up by the Belgian demolition teams, DOVO.


Three craters at Kruikstraat were blown by 250 Tunnelling company, using 30,000lbs of ammonal in each. Two remain today, the third one was filled in a few decades ago. The trees on the ridge in the background mark the position of another mine, the one at Spanbroekmolen.


Spanbroekmolen, or the Pool of Peace, is a very short walk up the hill from the two craters at Kruisstraat, at the rear of the crater are the remains of a German bunker.


And the pool itself.


On the journey back to the car, I noticed this reused silent picket, now standing in as part of a farmers fence.


And finally, a bad composite picture of the area of operations for the New Zealand division.


2 comments:

  1. Fascinating: many thanks for sharing. I know it is a cliché to say so, but it is hard to imagine the fearsome battles that raged across this gentle landscape 100 years ago. I hope to get over to Flanders and France in the coming years to explore some of the battlefields. My maternal grandfather's uncle was a Major killed at Festubert in 1915 so I will certainly be touring that area.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Gaz, yes, it a very peaceful part of the world. Both here and in France. It certainly worthwhile visiting, but make sure you do your homework on the battles otherwise you may just end up looking at countless memorials and cemeteries, which can be often misleading about the actions fought there.

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