The Battle of Messines – Explosion Beneath Hill 60 I THE GREAT WAR Week 150


In this war, men have attacked the enemy from
the front, from behind, from the air, and from the sea, and this week they attack them
from beneath the earth. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the big news was mutiny in the French
army that only grew in size as the days passed. Italy continued its offensive against the
Austrians, and the British High Command prepared for a huge summer offensive that would see
its first act unfold when General Sir Herbert Plumer detonated his 19 mine tunnels, packed
with explosives, under German positions at Messines Ridge. That detonation came this week. It came after a week long artillery barrage
with the heaviest concentration of artillery seen on any front so far, so the heaviest
in history. Plumer had one big gun for every 7 meters
of front. At 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917, the mines were
detonated, almost simultaneously. The entire ridge went straight up into the
air. You could feel tremors from the blast in London,
and apparently British Prime Minister David Lloyd George heard a faint boom while working
through the night at 10 Downing Street (World Undone). The concussion at the scene was tremendous
and one soldier recounted, “… the whole earth seemed to rock and sway… several of
the men and myself being thrown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the
earth stood still again… Flames rose to a great height- silhouetted
against the flames I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling
back to the ground…. It was awful, a sort of inferno.” A man from a tank crew said, “You’d never
seen anything like the size of it, you’d never believe that explosives could do it. I saw about 150 Germans lying dead there…
the mine had killed them all… The mine had won the battle before it started.” 10,000 German soldiers are believed to have
been killed or buried alive right off the bat (Gilbert), thousands more were totally
stunned, and 7,354 prisoners were taken. The British infantry took possession of a
chain of craters over 20m deep where much of Messines Ridge had been. This was a spectacular success, achieving
its objective with virtually no cost in men, but it was actually only a limited success. The British had penetrated the German positions
no more than 2 or 3 km and they did not try to push deeper. British Commander Sir Douglas Haig wanted
this operation only as a contribution to his main offensive planned for a month from now,
and he ordered it stopped once the “ridge” was taken. This wasn’t actually foolish – he didn’t
want his men to outpace the artillery and he certainly wanted to dig in before the Germans
could counterattack, but some scholars, G.J. Meyer for example in “A World Undone”,
claim that for a few hours there was a real chance to cut deeply into or maybe even through
the German defenses. “The Great War Generals on the Western Front”
echoes this, but lays the blame on General Hugh Gough for not moving his Fifth Army to
attack the Ghevault Plateau when they had the momentum on their side. I can’t say one way or another – go read
up on it and tell me what you think in the comments. Anyhow, the British may have had momentum
on their side, but for the Italians, that moment had passed. The 10th Battle of the Isonzo River was now
over three weeks old, and the Italian attack had run out of steam and shells just when
it seemed like the enemy might collapse. This week, though, the battle flared to life
anew on the 4th with a huge Austro-Hungarian counterattack north of Hermada, taking back
lost territory and inflicting heavy casualties. The next day the battle came to an end. It had followed a familiar pattern; masses
of Italian infantry attacking and taking huge casualties for the occasional small gain,
followed by Austro-Hungarian counterattacks that were mostly successful, but there were
differences now. The Austrians were outnumbered in men, sure,
but they had doubled their artillery and the bulk of it was on the Carso Plateau, so General
Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna’s guns fired nearly two millions shells during the battle,
a big increase from the earlier ones, though this put serious pressure on Austro-Hungarian
industrial production, which was barely keeping up anyhow. Another big difference was in morale. It had reached an all-time low on both sides,
and you saw many cases of infantry refusing to launch another attack. Troops were also surrendering a lot more easily. In fact, 27,000 Italians were taken prisoner. The battle was an Italian victory, technically,
since they had advanced, but it was the deadliest of the ten battles of the Isonzo. The official casualty list was 159,000 for
the Italians and 80,000 for the Austrians. There’s no way that sort of fighting can
continue, something would have to give. And crumbling morale in another army had led
to open mutiny. The French army. And this week in France there was chaos in
the war zone, as the mutineers would not go back into the lines. They certainly weren’t going to go over
the top either. On June 4th, French Minister of War Paul Painlevé
estimated there were only two reliable divisions between the front line and Paris, a distance
of just over 100km. Tens of thousands of soldiers had joined the
mutiny, and in spite of the variety of their mutinous behavior, the average complaints
concerned lack of leave and low pay. The military authorities under French Commander
Philippe Petain now began to crack down and arrest the mutineers. But morale was actually on the rise in one
rather surprising place- Romania. Romania, you may remember, was invaded by
all four Central Powers simultaneously last fall, the capital fell, the oil fields fell,
and that campaign ended at the beginning of this year with the Romanian state reduced
to about one third its former size. Gathered there was what was left of the army,
with about 20,000 new recruits, refugees from Wallachia and Transylvania, enemy prisoners,
and the Russian army that helped the Romanians defend the territory they had left. That was about 1.5 million people in addition
to the local population. The food situation was not as desperate as
you might guess, though, since food reserves had been sent there in late 1916, along with
200,000 cattle and 500,000 sheep. Every bit of available land was farmed and
the army worked the land and cut trees for firewood. There had been a really bad period in early
1917 when a typhus epidemic had broken out, causing an estimated 300,000 deaths (PDF),
but things had calmed down. The Romanian army had been reorganized and
trained and there were 400,000 men in fighting units, equipped with French weapons sent through
Russia, and it had some big differences from the army of a year earlier. Last year each regiment had from zero to 6
machine guns, now each one had 24. They had no light machine guns and only 24
grenadiers back then. Now, each regiment had 96 light machine guns
and everyone was trained with grenades. It was Constantin Prezan, the Chief of Staff,
who presided over the reorganization, but a French military mission under Henri Berthelot
made up of 289 officers, 37 pilots, and over 1,000 soldiers opened military schools to
give the Romanian troops the French knowledge of three years of modern war. Romania also found soldiers from another source. Around 400,000 ethnic Romanians living in
the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been conscripted into the Imperial Army. By now, around 120,000 of them were prisoners
in Russian POW camps. A few months ago, for those that wanted it,
Russia agreed to organize them into units to fight for Romania and set up a camp for
Romanian POWs near Kiev. This week on June 8th, the first two battalions
of those soldiers arrived and were sworn in to the Romanian army. Romania, it seems, was not finished yet. And far across the sea, the United States
was also raising an army. On June 5th registration began for the draft
of all men between 21 and 30. The New York Times, in a little piece of anti-Semitism
(Gilbert), declared that this was “…a long and sorely needed means of disciplining
a certain insolent foreign element.” They were referring to America’s Jewish
community, who were in reality not only NOT more pacifistic than other Americans, but
within two months Jews made up 6% of the American armed forces, even though they only made up
2% of the general population. Also in American news, General John J. Pershing
arrived in Britain as the week came to an end. And it was a busy week of war, with an Italian
army offensive coming to an end, the Romanian army refitting itself from an enemy army,
the US beginning to build its own army, mutiny continuing to plague the French army, and
the British blowing up the German army. What Plumer had done there was one of the
most successful attacks of the war, make no mistake. The planning was both colossal and meticulous,
and the execution near flawless, but imagine being a soldier there that day. The gigantic boom assaulting your ears, seeing
an area the size of a village blast into the air, seeing a huge column of flame ignite
the sky, seeing thousands of the men die in an instant. Just try to imagine being there that day. You’d been fighting in the trenches in muddy
miserable Flanders for years, unquestionably living in hell, and then today – hell got
even worse. If you want to learn more about mining and
tunnel warfare during World War 1, check out our special episode right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Laurie
Jones – thanks for your support on Patreon! It makes this show possible and we couldn’t
do it without it. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.

100 thoughts on “The Battle of Messines – Explosion Beneath Hill 60 I THE GREAT WAR Week 150

  1. Let's talk a bit about mentioning individual nationalities (for lack of a better word) during our show. We ruffled some feathers yesterday when we didn't specifically mention that Australians and Canadians were digging the tunnels. Or that the Irish where also fighting at Messines.

    Generally, when we are using the term "British troops" this includes everyone fighting within the British Army at that point. It's a free world and you can accuse us that we don't want to give credit to everyone involved. But the matter of fact is that we don't have the time in our episode to mention the precise order of battle for every event that is happening.

    And generally the whole thing is quite tricky. Let's take Vimy Ridge for example: Did you know that a British division attacked there together with the Canadians? We actually didn't research if these were Scottish, Welsh, English or Irish either. And the artillery support was definitely mostly British as well. Still, realising the almost feverish expectations of some of our Canadian fans for this event, we went with calling out the individual Canadian accomplishment. But that was more an exception than the rule.

    The same thing of course applies to the Austro-Hungarian Army or the Russian Army or the Ottoman Army. It could even technically apply to the German Army (which consisted of the Prussian, Saxon, Wurtembergian and Bavarian Army).
    Long story short: It's a complicated topic that we cannot always lay out in ten minutes a week, but naturally we encourage everyone to read up on the battles and events and in most secondary sources these aspects should be laid out clearer. But be aware of sources that just want cramp an event to fit a national narrative.

  2. Ten thousand men. Ten THOUSAND. In seconds. For perspective, that's like the size of the Uruk-hai army at Helm's Deep but spread out across a much more vast area.

  3. I saw a documentary a few years ago about that underground explosion. It showed one of the trenches full of dead Germans who were still standing up, squished by the two sides of the trench that had squeezed in on them from the blast.

  4. finally caught up after a few months of watching, found this channel from a comment indy left on feature history's 7 years war video and I'm glad i did this channel really sparked by love for ww1 history

  5. Seems like the British high command seriously underestimated how devastatingly effective the attack would be. Why didn't they have reserves ready to pour through the gap?

  6. I just got a World of Tanks ad, where they where shooting the "skip ad" button. "COMMANDER! We need to Destroy that button before they push it!" I'm just gonna play it because of this amazing ad.

  7. it never cease to amaze me that the men kept fighting year after year truly blessed that I was born in 1998 not 1898 it's so crazy to think about sometimes how trivial our problems are compared to there's

  8. Its only the 150th week in war, I am already depressed. Wonder what those soldier were going through. Those who could still pick the gun and fight are the real super heroes.

  9. Im Osten nichts neues?

    I feel like the eastern front gets severely underrepresented, considering how little actually moved in the west.

  10. The video purporting to show the two mines detonating does not seem to be nearly impressive enough to be the actual explosions to me.

  11. The explosion that took out Messines Ridge forces one to contemplate the growing magnitude of man made technology culminating(perhaps) with nuclear weapons about 22 years later. I do have to wonder what the long term environmental effect on the area has been. In your special from the Romagne 14-18 Museum, Jean-Paul de Vries stated that one should not drink the water in that region because of the heavy metal in the ground poisoning the ground water. I would have to imagine that an explosion like this underground would have to have nearly permanent negative effects on the water and ecological well-being of the area.

  12. at the start of the war which country was economically military politically the most powerful. i think it might be Britain whats yours. great work by the way keep it up
    REPLY

  13. The Union did the same thing to the Confederacy during a siege of a city in the Civil War, but it was only one tunnel and it backfired terribly on them when they rushed troops into the crater and got stuck. Maybe that's why the British didn't fallow up by having troops advance{?}. It's shown in a movie called Cold Mountain {I think it's called}.

  14. my american school barely touched on The Great War, almost like it is a footnote even though it massively shaped the world we live in today (a hundred years later). i have learned more from this channel than i ever have in school. greetings from Norway.

  15. Recently viewed the excellent Australian film; < Beneath Hill 60 > which tells the human story of the sappers who dug the tunnels/packed the explosives. Highly recommended!

  16. I do think Haig was an idiot, or maybe that's to harsh, he just wasn't the man for the job. Haig could see the horizon, but he couldn't see over it. They needed someone who could see over the horizon, adapt, create new tactics, or, since it was a war of attrition, the best thing to do would have been carry out only small attacks, for months, years even, save your men, and the enemy keep wasting their men, and resources on major offensive until their capacity to wage war had been utterly broken, and then carry out huge offensives that would be more likely to.succeed. I guess the biggest problem was the way people thought about war, it would have been unsportsmanlike conduct. However, one can only scarely imagine how many lives would have been saved if someone had been able to see over the horizon, or break the norms. I don't know, that's what I've always though. Thanks for covering this story though! I've really been looking forward to you guys getting to it. This channel is so awesome! Thanks, Indy, and the guys!

  17. I can understand the arguments that the British should have prepared an attack to follow the detonation of the Ridge but there is just as much a chance that such an attack could have faltered due to the British Troupes being equally shocked by the devastation. The Battle of the Crater (also a mine attack) during the US Civil war was followed up by an infantry attack but ended up failing because the solders became confused in the aftermath. Simply put we can only guess what might have happened had the British pressed an attack.

  18. watch "beneath hill 60" its about a group of civilian miners that were their and were posted there,its non fiction but very good in my opinion

  19. ive finally done it. after begining to binge this series when i was put under hospital quarantine for a completely drug resistant intestine bacteria in september, i have caught up with the show. ita going to be weird watching it in real time. At least im out of my hospital room now. If any of the great war crew see this, thanks for giving me something to do while i was down for the count.

  20. "…SUDDENLY HELL GOT EVEN WORSE. If you'd like to learn more about uniforms…"

    Love the show, but that cracked me up.

  21. +IndyNeidell, you forgot the famous quote "We might not change history, but we shall certainly change the geography."

    TURN IN YOUR VEST, SIR.

  22. How many tunnels with explosives where digged beneath hill 60 front section.
    I have read that all mines didn't went off. One mine detonated by a lightning years later.

  23. Is there any way to help with the research for these episodes? Great job guys and I would like to help if possible…..

  24. I have read that one of the mines that did not go off has been 'lost' and its location is not known, another lost mine was set off by lightning in the 1950s and killed a cow. So tread carefully around there, or beat a hasty retreat!

  25. From a logical / military point of view an attack followed by the explosion could have great advantages for the Englishmen, now from a logistic point of view it would be more difficult to make this attack
    And finally the soldiers who were in this area should have been (in the absence of a better word) frightened, so it could not happen attack
    But this explosion could be better exploited in the military sense

  26. “I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow,” Major-General Charles Harington, chief of staff of the British Second Army, said the day before, “but we shall certainly alter geography.”

  27. Does anyone know how many hundreds or thousands of tons of explosives this involved? It had to have been a lot.

  28. At 1:03 if this was film footage of the actual detonation. ..shouldn't the camera be vibrating and the POV shaking from the shock wave (through air or the ground)?

  29. 2:50 Not to be a Haig/Gough apologist but if they weren't pre-prepared to exploit a gap then they couldn't exploit the gap, simple.

  30. IIRC the detonation on Messines Ridge was the largest explosion in history to that point. It was only knocked off the top by testss leading up to the first atomic bomb test.

    One story I read is about how a group of German soldiers were standing in the trench at the time of detonation and was far enough away that the medium explosive used just pushed the walls of the trench together crushing the German soldiers. God damn awful.

  31. for your statement at 3:13 I think hindsight is 20/20. It's easy to look back and say "O yea, well he was dumb for not pushing through cause the Germans were in disarray." I think had it been me I would have stopped too simply because of the past battles and engagements where the allies would gain ground and then lose it to a counter attack. It was wise to hold up because if the Germans weren't confused then a counter attack would have dislodged the advancing British and would have made that year or two worth of tunnling and what not mean absolutly nothing.

  32. explosion beneath Hill 60: 0/10, not nearly enough Calvary Charges to Berlin. Douglas Haig should be ashamed.

  33. My Great Uncle fought at Hill 60. The Germans first used Chlorine gas there and they fought off the German attack whilst succumbed. We will remember them.

  34. Just discovered this really wonderful series. Thanks so much for the effort put into this very valuable work. I see some WWI binge-watching in my near future!

  35. Someone explain to me what Italy was fighting to achieve by all these battles on the Isonzo? This senseless waste has lost its significance to me…

  36. for the outro part i would also like to add being a soldier that gets literally annihilated. probably many of them didn't even get a grave…

  37. Mining was an excellent way to break defensive positions. Not ethical but…successful. But also time consuming.

    Myers is perhaps right. But after months of slagging Haig for going to far, Indy now seems to imply he didn't go far enough (and I love Indy, he's great and is doing a real service but, not his primary field of study). One of the strategic chances since 1916 (after Indy saying there were none aside from amphibious aspect) is a bite and hold strategy for all new attacks. Haig had understood the danger of outstripping artillery (slow to move up) and making it hard to consolidate to absorb and repulse the great German counter-attack operations. The Germans cut back use their 1914-1916 counter attack approach in 1917 because bite-and-hold didn't allow for success anymore. An important change.

    The decision to stop short of maximum advance may have taken Haig too long to learn. But he did and it left some gains on the table in some settings, but was smart given all we saw in 1914-1916. Indy has sometimes attacked him for not doing more…but often attacked him for optimistic planning and hopes. He isn't anymore…and won't be the rest of the war. He learned, perhaps too slowly, but we have the advantage of hindsight and a bigger picture orientation. Not fair in judging his leadership in the moment.

  38. So dumb question.. and i apologize if you already covered this after the war how did thay go about cleaning up and filling up all the trenches

  39. Australian Miners made that underground explosive TNT explosion happen, if it was not for them, it would not have happened, due to the massive amount of water under the ground if the australians did not do their expertise along ie: water pumps to pump out the water so that the TNT would stay dry as possible then it would totally be a fail full stop, so thank all the men who worked on that explosives side and the mining side as well ? After all it was south Aust, Western aust and Victorian Miners who had worked on underground mines since they first found GOLd in Ballarat and the golden triangle in Victoria australia. 🙂

  40. I'm living just at 10kms of Messines. The Belgium landscape is weird… farms, little cemeteries everywhere even in gardens of farms.

  41. If you are interested, here's the cause of WW1 on Youtube.

    The WWI Conspiracy – Part One: To Start A War

    by corbettreport

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