The Battle of Messines A letter from Captain Horace Lance Flint, Medical Officer for 7th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, written to his wife from a captured German dressing station describing the opening stages of the Battle of Messines Ridge, which began on 7th June 1917 with the explosion of 19 mines and a huge, accurate artillery bombardment.
“I want to give you some idea of the first big “push” that I have taken any active part in. I see that it is described as “Haig’s Earthquake or Hurricane Attack”.
“My division was in the front line of the attack, and we marched into the trenches on the evening of June 6th. Major _____, the second in command, spoke a few words to each company before it moved off, and wished them the best of luck, then the chaplain said a prayer, after which all the men joined in the Lord’s Prayer. It was very impressive, and one could not help wondering how many of those brave fellows would ever come back and imagining what most of them must be thinking of. Probably it was of home and of those they loved, for there was a certain quiet solemnity about our departure. I marched at the end of the battalion. It was quite dark when we entered the trenches, and each company took up its allotted position. We had taken about 1½ hours in reaching the trenches, and had lost only two men killed and one wounded, these casualties being due to the explosion of one of our own bombs as it was carried up.
“I went to the headquarters’ dug-out of my battalion. We sat on the floor of the dug-out, but none of us could sleep. This was in the new reserve trenches. At about 3 a.m. the dug-out and the whole earth was violently shaken. The mine in Hill 60 had exploded. Two mines in our own front went off, and our artillery opened fire. The bombardment was 20 per cent heavier than on any previous occasion. A modern battle is the most appalling thing you can attempt to imagine and it is quite impossible to describe the awful shrieking of shell and rattle of machine guns. It was one continuous roar, and the whole air must have been filled with a shield of iron.
“Dawn was just breaking as I look out, and I could see only about 50 yards ahead because of the smoke and dust. Our artillery was magnificent, and had the whole situation well in hand from beginning to end. After the first short bombardment they lifted the barrage slowly forward, and our men keen and impatient, went over the top, some going even too quickly and being hit by our own shells. Our casualties, fortunately, were few at this time, and those we had were chiefly caused by the men’s excessive eagerness, and a few were due to some of our shells bursting prematurely.
“Our artillery was so splendid that very few of the German guns were able to shoot, because some of our own guns were specially took off for counter battery work, i.e., to fire on the position of the German guns. I had to wait until the men had advanced about 600 yards, before I went over with the medical officer of the battalion working in conjunction with ours to establish a medical aid post, our orderlies and some of the stretcher-bearers going with us to carry our equipment. We advanced under a deafening noise of guns and alarming shriek of shells, but these were soon forgotten in the excitement and amazement of our surroundings. The ground was one mass of shell holes, you could not put your foot down except on the rim of one hole or another; it was like walking on an empty honeycomb. I never imagined that such a picture of destruction and desolation could exist, the German trenches having totally disappeared.
“The Huns retreated as fast as possible, and put up no fight at all, and very soon prisoners began to come in. It was quite impossible for any human being to face such artillery fire, and their only course was to run away. I saw a few of our tanks ahead, but I heard afterwards from a man who had been in one of them that they had no chance of doing anything because the enemy retreated faster than they could attack.
“My object was to find shelter for an aid post, but this was very difficult, and it was a long time before I hit upon a dug-out. Then I found one with concrete walls 3 ft. 6in. thick, which had been used as a power-house for generating electricity for lighting the other dug-outs, most of which had disappeared, and it contained an engine and a considerable sized dynamo and switch board. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get the wounded down into the dug-out, so we dressed them all out in the open, and then stretcher-bearers carried them back.
“In view of what really occurred during this attack on what is supposed to be the strongest German position in the West, it is most amusing but utterly ludicrous to read the accounts in the German papers. They say that the British attack was repulsed with heavy loss, and that we were unable to advance any further. As a matter of fact, everything went like clockwork, and the programme was completely fulfilled. On our little bit of front we could have advanced much further than was allowed by our orders – we could, in fact, have gone right through, but it would have made a big salient, and caused disaster later on. Few people at home realise that in modern warfare everything is worked out to the smallest detail beforehand. An advance is planned to time, and there is an exact time at which each company or battalion has to take up a particular position. Should it reach such a position too soon, then it must wait and advance no further beyond that spot until the pre-arranged time for the next bit of advance. Warfare with our present masses of artillery is a very exact science, and so before any advance all enemy positions must be photographed, and their exact locality marked on maps. People should realise that after we have gained the objects of an attack our artillery must move forward and get the range of all further enemy positions, and these positions must first be ascertained by captured enemy trench maps, or by photographs taken by our aeroplanes. This is of course a long business in itself, and it is for this reason that progress on the Western front is slow, and that the war may last a long time should the Hun choose to fight it out to a finish. It is, however, only a matter of time and perseverance, with our masses of artillery. For given time and the necessary preparation of plans beforehand, nothing can stand and face our artillery. It is magnificent. It is amazing that the guns could advance so quickly over the shell-riddled ground, and that by the evening it was so well up that we forestalled an expected counter-attack from the Bosche, and he received instead from us an artillery barrage nearly as intense as the one in the beginning of the day.
“About mid-day, I had to move forward to keep in touch with our wounded, and I found, after a night's search, another aid post. This was in a wood about 2½ miles in advance of our old front line. It was the former German dressing station, and consisted of a very fine 2 ft. concrete-walled dug-out, and here we captured a quantity of medical stores, two German doctors, and 30 Red Cross orderlies. It is from that dug-out that I have written all this, while the Huns are shelling us heavily. Nothing, fortunately, can penetrate the walls of this dug-out, the only danger being that a chance shell may come in at the door, which, of course, faces the German guns, as it was built as a protection against British fire. The Hun makes much more substantial du-outs than we. One of those in the wood here is almost a concrete palace and is fitted with electric light, water laid on, passage looking on the various rooms and comfortable furniture in the rooms.
“We have now been at this business for eight days and have not had our boots off nor our clothes and we dare not even discard the anti-gas box respirators, which hand on our chests from the neck. The atmosphere is decidedly foggy considering the small space, and the incessant smoking, and sleep is practically impossible, as there are four me, i.e., my servant, two orderlies and myself, and there is no room for anyone to stretch his legs. We are, however, very lucky not to be obliged not to spend our time in a shell hole. The men in our division are very tired, and I hope they will soon be relieved. It is rather hard luck on them to have been kept here so long. It was owing to our having done so well and suffered so few casualties that we were not relieved. The division which was to replace us on the second day after our objective was gained has been sent elsewhere instead. The men are under a great strain. The first period of waiting before going into the trenches for an attack is trying to the nerves, and the period of waiting to go into the trenches before going over the top is worst still, and then, even after the attack has been made and the object gained, there is the greatest strain of all in holding the line against counter-attacks. Now that we have gained the ridge, we are holding out against very heavy shell fire from the Germans, and must always be prepared for counter-attacks. The Tommy is a great hero, few people at home realising in the least what he has to put up with through these advances and after them, when he is in the front line. The last two weeks seem like years.
“I was up all last night dressing cases, some of them being very agonising to see. The sight of it all make one sick of the brutality of man to his fellow man; almost sick of life itself, and leaves a feeling of utter misery and loneliness. If only it were possible to live and let live and enjoy life in peace and love for our fellows. I do not know how our men have endured what they have gone through since June 7th, and especially the shelling yesterday. My experience of it has been when I have been out to attend to wounded in the open, that it must be awful to be in the open for long. Fortunately our total casualties have been comparatively small, but we have had as many in holding the ridge against counter-attacks as we had in the whole of the advance.
“I cannot see any end to the war at present, but I suppose there is a limit to the Hun’s endurance, and he must be getting very tired of the war, to judge by what he had to endure here. I expect the poor blighter will be glad to chuck it when this sort of thing happens all along the line.
“No one can appreciate what the British army has accomplished in three years of war, until he sees the things we are now looking at – absolute and complete destruction, and desolation; the whole ground is a mass of shell holes – and yet already roads are beginning to appear, tramways and water pipes are being laid down, artillery pushed up, and hundreds of miles carrying up ammunition and rations. More than ever do I fail to see what the German has to gain by prolonging the war. I am certain he will never beat our armies. One has only to look at the ground here on what was the German side ten days ago and see the devastating effect of our guns, and compare the number of shell holes on his side to those of ours, to be convinced of the terrible things he has to endure, and that we cannot fail to beat him in the end.”