Thursday, 19 September 2013

Lions & Donkeys or Plans well made?

Lions led by Donkeys, is often the view of the Great War, men sent over the top with no hope of any gain. This view may be true of the Battle of the Somme, as the attack was brought forward and launched without support, but the Battle of Messines is one of the most successful allied attacks of the entire conflict. 

Even before the Pals Battalions were mown down in the attempt to capture the chalky downs of the Somme, plans were being made to dislodge the enemy from Messines Ridge.

The city of Ypres, famously held by the Allies, was not only a symbol of the stand against the enemy, but also a key point of the transport hub in Flanders, well connected by rail, canal and the road network, but also on a salient, a bulge in the front line, vulnerable to attack from three sides. To the north of the city the landscape is almost flat, to the south a ridge of small hills form a curve.

This topographical map from the No Man's Land website shows the city of Ypres in the low, darker, areas at the top and the front line marked in brown curving around the western edge of the high ground shown in lighter shades. This map centres on Wytschaete, the highest point of the ridge, with Messines occupying the next high point and Plugstreet Wood marked in dark green at the bottom.

In the spring of 1915 a plan was hatched to take back the ridge. Many of the Allied Divisions, including the Pals Battalions and Commonwealth Forces were already in training for the Offensive which would later become The Battle of the Somme, these units would become the British Third and Four Armies. Under the Command of General Plumer the Second Army was formed, their first objective would be Messines Ridge,   to straighten the front line, and allow the Allies to push forward from Ypres in what would be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, planned to take place just weeks after the Battle of Messines.

The Second Army was made up of a mixture of experienced and new units, with the battle hardened British 23rd Division being assigned the notorious Hill 60 close to Ypres, with the London Territorials of the 47th Division at their side. The strong point of St Eloi would be attacked by the 41st Home Counties Divison, with the 19th Western Division to their right. The key town of Wytschaete would be attacked by the 16th and 36th Irish Divisions. The town of Messines would be the responsibility of the 2nd Anzac Corps, which included the British 25th Division, the New Zealand Division and on the southern slopes towards Plugstreet Wood, the 3rd Australian Division, who would be facing the enemy for the first time.

The problem was how to dislodge the enemy from their fortifications on the hilltops.

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