“Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” — General Plumer

The week-long Battle of Messines was one of the Salient’s unqualified successes for British and Imperial forces. The battle stamped a distinct identity on the CWGC cemeteries it left behind.

In preparation for an offensive around Ypres (now Ieper) in the summer of 1917, forces from across the then-British Empire needed to secure the crucial high ground to the south on which stood the villages of Wytschaete (known to the troops as White Sheet) and Messines (Mesen).

Mines packed with tons of explosives had been laid in tunnels under enemy lines, and infantry forces were supported by the largest concentration of artillery thus far in the war.

At 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 huge mines were detonated underneath the German positions on Messines Ridge.

The sound, the largest man-made explosion in history at that point, allegedly woke Prime Minister Lloyd George in London and was heard as far away as Dublin. The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a 'pillar of fire'.

The effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders was devastating.  An estimated 10,000 men were killed during the explosion or in the following, overwhelming, artillery bombardment. In its wake nine divisions of infantry advanced under protection of a creeping artillery barrage, tanks and gas.

By evening the ridge and all principal objectives had been secured – albeit at a high cost – and by 14 June the entire Messines Salient was in Allied hands.

In the days that followed some of the dead were recovered and buried in a number of small cemeteries on the ground taken.

CWGC Messines Ridge British Cemetery and Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial, Messines

Before the First World War Messines (Mesen) was home to the ‘Institution Royale’: an orphanage and school. After the buildings were destroyed by shelling in 1914 the German Army fortified the ruins, taking advantage of the many deep cellars. Here on the edge of town stood the Institution's windmill, which was used by the Germans as an observation and machine-gun post. On 7 June 1917 the New Zealand Division attacked Messines and the position was captured.

Containing more than 1,500 Commonwealth burials this cemetery was begun after the Armistice, when remains were brought here from across the battlefields around Messines.

Within the cemetery stands the Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial, which commemorates more than 800 soldiers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918 and who have no known grave.

The memorial was built where the Institution's windmill once stood. Unveiled in 1924, it is one of seven CWGC memorials on the Western Front listing the names of New Zealand soldiers with no known grave. Nearly 600 of those named here died during the Battle of Messines.

Both the cemetery and memorial were designed by Charles Holden, who had served with the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries during the war. He later designed many London Underground stations and the University of London's Senate House.

Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert

'Charing Cross' was the name given by the troops to a point at the end of a trench called the Strand, which led into Ploegsteert Wood. In October 1914, two burials were made at this place, close to an Advanced Dressing Station. The cemetery was not used again until April 1917 and was greatly enlarged after the Armistice

There are now more than 1,100 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the cemetery – including eight Second World War burials that date from May 1940 and the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary force to Dunkirk ahead of the German advance.

Wytschate Military Cemetery, Wijtschate

Wytschaete (now Wijtschate) was taken by the Germans early in November 1914. It was recovered by Commonwealth forces (who called the area White Sheet) during the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917, but fell into German hands once more on 16 April 1918. The village was recovered for the last time on 28 September. The cemetery was made after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the surrounding area. There are now more than 1,000 burials in the cemetery.

Lone Tree Cemetery

Lone Tree Cemetery is close to the Lone Tree Crater, one of the 19 that were made immediately before the infantry attack at the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. Nearly all the graves in the cemetery are those of soldiers who fell on the first day of the battle. The cemetery contains 88 First World War burials and was designed by one of Sir Edwin Lutyens' IWGC Assistant Architects, J.R. Truelove.

Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery

The cemetery is named after a windmill that stood nearby. It contains the graves of men killed in action on the first (or, in three cases the second) day of the Battle of Messines. The cemetery was destroyed in subsequent operations but was rediscovered after the Armistice. There are 58 casualties of the First World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery, which was designed by J.R. Truelove.

Derry House Cemetery No 2

Derry House Cemetery (there is now only one) was named after a farm, which had been nicknamed 'Derry House' by soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles. It was begun among the ruins of the farm in June 1917 by a field ambulance unit of the 11th Division (32nd Brigade) and was used as a front line cemetery until December 1917, and again in October 1918 by the 2nd London Scottish. The cemetery contains 166 First World War burials and the remains of a concrete command post built by engineers of the 37th Division in July 1917. The cemetery was designed by Arts and Crafts architect W.H. Cowlishaw.

Railway Dugouts Burial Ground (Transport Farm)

The cemetery takes its name from a small farmstead located near a railway, which the troops called Transport Farm. The site of the cemetery was screened by slightly rising ground to the east, and burials began there in April 1915 – continuing up until the Armistice when this already significant cemetery was enlarged further. Some of those who died in the northern part of the Messines battlefield were buried here. The burials were made in small groups, without any definite arrangement. The cemetery now contains almost 2,500 burials and commemorations.

Among their number are graves to a significant number of tunnellers. In Plot 4 Row C are the graves of Australian Tunnelling Corps casualties who were killed on 25 April 1917 when a detonator exploded in the Australian underground headquarters, killing ten men.

The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Grave of Major Willie Redmond, Locre Hospice Cemetery

This isolated grave actually stands some 100 metres along a grass track on the northern side of the cemetery.

The Celtic cross commemorates Major William Hoey Kearney (Willie) Redmond – a prominent Irish nationalist and MP who, despite being in his 50s, enlisted in 1914.

He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Messines and was buried in the convent garden of the Locre hospice – where his widow erected this memorial to mark his grave. After the war the Commission wanted to move the grave into the nearby permanent cemetery but his widow refused. Until the late 1950s the grave was maintained by a Sister from the (new) Locre hospice. In the 1990s the land was purchased by the Belgian State and is now maintained by the CWGC.

For more information on Major Willie Redmond's grave see Frank McNally's story in The Irish Times.

The Battle of Messines was a truly Allied effort – with units from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland serving with distinction in the lead up to and over the course of the action.

But the battle has always had a special significance for the people of the Island of Ireland. Two Irish Divisions fought side by side at Messines. The 16th (Irish) Division – composed, for the most part, of Catholic officers and men from across the Island of Ireland – and the 36th (Ulster) Division that was mostly made up of men from Protestant communities in the north.

Despite political and religious differences, the two groups lived and fought alongside one another. The spirit of camaraderie prompted Irish nationalist, MP and soldier with the 16th Division, Major Willie Redmond, to write: ‘My men are splendid and are pulling famously with the Ulster men. Would to God we could bring this spirit back with us to Ireland. I shall never regret I have been out here.’

The collective objective for the two divisions was to capture the village of Wijtschate and push the Germans beyond and off the ridge. They succeeded.

Today, the graves of those who died can be found in many CWGC cemeteries throughout the area. Their sacrifice and spirit is remembered as an important symbol of reconciliation on the Island of Ireland.

Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines

The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines is dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland, of all political and religious beliefs, who died, were wounded or went missing in the First World War.

The design is that of a traditional Irish round tower dating back to the 8th century. It is 33.5 metres (110 feet) high. As part of the design the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – Armistice Day.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park was officially opened on 11 November 1998 by the President of Ireland Mary McAleese in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert II of Belgium.

Commonwealth troops move thru ruins of Wytschaete day after capture 8 June 1917

The Battle of Messines (7--14 June 1917) was one in which detailed preparation, limited objectives, overwhelming firepower and skillful use of new tactics achieved stunning success.

Although the use of tunnelling was not unique to this battle, or life at the front, the extent to which it was employed by both sides before the action was on an unprecedented scale.

Tunnelling in the Messines area began in 1915 as a possible means of breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. Tunnels were dug under the opposing trenches or fortifications, were packed with explosives and then detonated.

Each side tried to locate and destroy tunnels before they could be used – setting off a deadly game of cat and mouse up to 100 feet below the surface.

The tunnels at Messines were dug by the members of specialist British, Canadian and Australian Tunnelling Companies – the majority of whom had been miners or engineers in civilian life.

Some 20,000 tunnellers dug 24 tunnels. The longest were more than 2,000 feet long and 125 feet deep. They were packed with almost 600 tons of explosives.

Of the 24 mines dug, only 19 were detonated on 7 June 1917.

One mine, at Petite Douve Farm, was discovered by German counter-miners on 24 August 1916 and destroyed.  A further two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood were not used and over time their exact location was lost.

In 1955 one of the unused mines was detonated by a lightning strike. The other, remains hidden to this day.

The Battle of Messines was the last occasion when tunnelling was used on such a large scale.