In 1917, the world was engulfed in war. For the first time, the economics of industry had been applied to warfare on a huge scale. The result was an unprecedented loss of life across every theatre of conflict. Massed production and massed conscription brought more individual combatants into action than had ever been seen before. The devastating power of mechanised weaponry had changed the nature of war forever.
A line of bayonet-armed infantry marching forward in good order could no longer expect to storm a heavily defended position. Trenches thick with barbed wire and machine gun nests could not be assaulted in the old way, so blankets of shell-fire began to be used as a prelude to an infantry advance.
This was not always effective, and as the war dragged on new ways had to be found to counter the stalemate which trench warfare presented. Ultimately this led to the invention and application of tanks, and the beginning of the development toward the highly mechanised elite armies of today.
Not all the tactics used against trench defences were new. Sappers had been known in warfare since time immemorial. Undermining the walls of cities and castles, and using fire and explosives to do so, had often been practised before. Now the trenches were the siege defences, and the mining technology was scaled up to meet the new demands.
At Messines in Belgium the summer of 1917, the British Second Army opened a long-planned attack. Stretching the length of a high ridge, south of Ypres, the German army held a heavily fortified line of defences against the British. The ridge dominated the landscape, and from it, the Germans controlled a wide sweep of flat country all around. For two years the lines of the entrenched armies had changed very little, and the stalemate continued.
The attack was unleashed just before dawn on the 6th of June, and the opening action represented the culmination of years of work. Since 1915 teams of miners from Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand had been tunnelling the area between the opposing lines. Twenty metres below ground level, the teams had excavated tunnels toward the Messines Ridge, then had created galleries off the main tunnels to the right and left.
The Germans were also mining, and though the excavations and counter-excavations came close to one and other – sometimes within a few metres of each other – by the time the offensive was launched the German commanders had no idea that the mining operations had been so successful. The entire ridge, all along the line of the German fortifications, was riddled with tunnels packed with unbelievable amounts of explosive. In total, 454 tonnes of Ammonal and Nitrocellulose gun cotton were packed into the underground chambers.
These explosives had been used to great effect in previous engagements of the first world war, but the sheer quantity used at Messines was unheard of. Ammonal is a cheaper alternative to pure TNT, and gun cotton, or Nitrocellulose, had seen various industrial and military applications since the 1850’s.
Under cover of darkness the British tanks crept into position, the tell-tale noise of their engines disguised by the noise of the planes which strafed the German lines. Gaps had been cut in the British barbed wire, and the attacking troops poured through, massed in the no man’s land facing the ridge.
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