The Mines At Messines: The Biggest Explosions of the Pre-Nuclear Era

Mankind never seems to tire of finding new and inventive ways of killing one another during wartime.

Not long ago, soldiers were restricted by the technology of weapons. They simply lined up and ran at the enemy with bayonets until the last side standing declared victory in a particular battle.

But when World War I descended, those limited weapons and tactics gave way to modern military innovations. Defense contractors came up with inventions like tanks, which meant armies could attack with greater speed and efficacy.

Soon, mining technology was adapted so that the skills of those workers could be applied to battlefields, which led to the battle at Messines (“Mesen” in English) in Belgium in 1917.

Map of the mines laid before the Battle of Messines, 1917
Map of the mines laid before the Battle of Messines, 1917

By that summer, the German army was completely ensconced in Messines and had control of a large expanse of flat terrain that swept out from the high ridge of Ypres.

The British forces fought with the Germans for about two years but to no avail. The British simply could not take decisive control of the region, or so it seemed.

A Howitzer firing during the battle
A Howitzer firing during the battle

Little did the Germans know that for those two years, men from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada had been digging tunnels underground, as deep as 20 meters in some places, right to the Messines Ridge.

The Germans were also building tunnels, and the opposing forces came within mere meters from one another at times.

For 24 months, the British units had been packing those tunnels with more than 450 tons of gun cotton – Ammonal and Nitrocellulose – and planned to set it off in one monumental blast.

Australian military truck traveling to Hill 63 during an attack on the ANZAC batteries in Messines.
Australian military truck traveling to Hill 63 during an attack on the ANZAC batteries in Messines.

Although these kinds of explosives had been used previously during the war, never before had this amount been readied for use in one place or one blast. If the plan worked, it would result in something never seen or heard in the history of mankind and warfare.

Soldiers studying the large contour map specially built between Petit Pont and Nieppe, which was constructed to give the troops a knowledge of the Messines battlefield in preparation for the battle which commenced the following morning.
Soldiers studying the large contour map specially built between Petit Pont and Nieppe, which was constructed to give the troops a knowledge of the Messines battlefield in preparation for the battle which commenced the following morning.

The British forces and tanks moved as stealthily as possible into position, preparing for the explosion and its aftermath as best they could.

The men knew chaos would reign supreme if the blasts went off as planned. According to the online website, Encyclopedia Britannica, “the sound was so loud, the blast from the explosions could be heard in London, some 130 miles distant.”

Aerial photograph of Messines, June 2, 1917.
Aerial photograph of Messines, June 2, 1917.

On June 7, the order was given, and the explosions were triggered. The mines, all stuffed with Ammonal and Nitrocellulose, started to detonate. In total, 19 explosions went off and they lit up the sky.

The entire ridge caught on fire, and 10,000 German soldiers died almost instantly. Those who didn’t were so stunned by these events that many of them didn’t fight at all but just surrendered.

View East towards Messines across No Mans Land
View East towards Messines across No Mans Land

However, as the British forces advanced they did encounter small bands of men who wanted to continue the battle, and so the fight wore on over the course of an entire day.

Ultimately, the Germans had no hope of retaining what they had lost, and the British claimed a decisive victory in the Battle of Messines Ridge.

Ruins of a building, Messines, during World War I.
Ruins of a building, Messines, during World War I.

Not every mine exploded that day. Some have remained buried but potentially active for all this time. Once, in 1955, when lightning struck, an explosion was triggered. A farm animal was killed, but fortunately, no people were injured.

German prisoners, Messines Ridge.
German prisoners, Messines Ridge.

But a legacy remains in the scarred soil, in the massive craters which were caused by the explosions and are still visible. They are a reminder that, over the course of two years during the Great War, thousands of men died during a conflict many believed would be the world’s last.

The “War to End All Wars” as it was dubbed at the time proved to be anything but, as about two decades later, another worldwide war was underway.

A church bell in a German trench at Grande Bois, near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.
A church bell in a German trench at Grande Bois, near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.

 

A derailed light railway trolley used for conveying wounded is being replaced. Behind it is a ration trolley. Near Kemmel, June 10, 1917.
A derailed light railway trolley used for conveying wounded is being replaced. Behind it is a ration trolley. Near Kemmel, June 10, 1917.

 

A smashed up German trench on Messines Ridge, June 7, 1917
A smashed up German trench on Messines Ridge, June 7, 1917

 

A Staff Colonel of the 36th (Ulster) Division talking to an Artillery Major near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.
A Staff Colonel of the 36th (Ulster) Division talking to an Artillery Major near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.

 

A wounded man on a stretcher is put back on to the trolley to be taken to the rear. By the side of the trolley walks a military chaplain. Near Kemmel, June 10, 1917.
A wounded man on a stretcher is put back on to the trolley to be taken to the rear. By the side of the trolley walks a military chaplain. Near Kemmel, June 10, 1917.

 

Artillery officers mess, in front of Kemmel, June 10, 1917.
Artillery officers mess, in front of Kemmel, June 10, 1917.

 

British Infantry in a support trench on a ground won in the battle, near Wytschaete, June 12, 1917.
British Infantry in a support trench on a ground won in the battle, near Wytschaete, June 12, 1917.

 

Captured German field gun 7.7 cm FK 96 n.A. near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.
Captured German field gun 7.7 cm FK 96 n.A. near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.

 

Captured German field gun 7.7 cm FK 96 n.A. near Wytschaete.
Captured German field gun 7.7 cm FK 96 n.A. near Wytschaete.

 

Inniskilling Fusiliers and other troops of the 16th Division with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Bailleul, June 11, 1917.
Inniskilling Fusiliers and other troops of the 16th Division with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Bailleul, June 11, 1917.

 

Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division at rest with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.
Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division at rest with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.

 

Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers with their trophies after the capture of Wytschaete, 36th (Ulster) Division. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.
Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers with their trophies after the capture of Wytschaete, 36th (Ulster) Division. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.

 

Near Wytschaete, June 8, 1917.
Near Wytschaete, June 8, 1917.

 

Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 109th Brigade, 36th Division with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.
Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 109th Brigade, 36th Division with souvenirs of the capture of Wytschaete. Near Dranouter, June 11, 1917.

 

Pack mules going up over captured German ground. Near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.
Pack mules going up over captured German ground. Near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.

 

Royal Engineers sappers digging a communication trench to Messines Ridge, June 7, 1917.
Royal Engineers sappers digging a communication trench to Messines Ridge, June 7, 1917.

 

Ruins of Martens farm, near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.
Ruins of Martens farm, near Wytschaete, June 10, 1917.

 

Sandbag shelters in an old support line in front of Kemmel, June 10, 1917.
Sandbag shelters in an old support line in front of Kemmel, June 10, 1917.

 

Sappers digging a communication trench towards the Messines Ridge. Shells bursting in the distance. June 7, 1917.
Sappers digging a communication trench towards the Messines Ridge. Shells bursting in the distance. June 7, 1917.

 

Soldiers riding pack mules carrying machine gun ammunition boxes, June 10, 1917.
Soldiers riding pack mules carrying machine gun ammunition boxes, June 10, 1917.

 

Shells bursting in a valley near Messines, June 7, 1917.
Shells bursting in a valley near Messines, June 7, 1917.

Read another story from us: Battlefield Gallipoli – From Troy to the Anzacs

.The village of Wytschaete captured on June 7, 1917, by the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Division. June 8, 1917.
.The village of Wytschaete captured on June 7, 1917, by the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Division. June 8, 1917.

 

Wounded soldiers on stretchers under an awning near Messines, June 7, 1917
Wounded soldiers on stretchers under an awning near Messines, June 7, 1917