The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—The Place of the Battle of Messines in the General Scheme of Operations
Part 2.—The Place of the Battle of Messines in the General Scheme of Operations.
Situation after the Somme Battle—General plan of action for 1917—Modifications—Vimy Ridge and the Hindenburg Line— Ypres Salient—Messines—Wytschaete Ridge to be captured as a preliminary operation to the commencement of the summer offensive in Flanders—Second Army detailed for the task.
In our brief general account of the Battle of the Somme we saw that the operations, extending from July 1st, 1916, to about the middle of November, resulted in the capture of the dominating ridge extending from Peronne to the Ancre. In the enemy's line there now existed a sharp salient from the Ancre to the Scarpe in the neighbourhood of Arras.
Immediately following the close of the battle in November, a conference of representatives of all the Allied Powers was held at the French General Headquarters, at which the plan of campaign to be pursued by the Allied Armies during the following year was unanimously agreed upon. This provided for a series of offensives on all fronts, and so arranged as to secure the pinning down of the enemy's reserves evenly along his whole line.
Sir Douglas Haig's plan of action in connection with this scheme was to attack simultaneously both sides of the Ancre- Scarpe salient, with the Fifth Army operating on the Ancre front, and the Third attacking from Arras. To secure the left flank in these operations it was decided that the First Army should co-operate by taking the Vimy Ridge running north from Arras towards Lens. Possession of this high ground would give observation over the plains extending eastward from the foot of the ridge to Douai and beyond, and the fight for it was expected to result in a severe blow for the enemy, compelling him to use up his reserves.
Following these operations, which were to be carried out in the spring, a second blow was to be delivered, this time in Flanders, where, owing to the great proportion of low-lying country, the drier weather of summer was necessary to ensure the maximum degree of success.
In the early weeks of 1917 certain modifications were made in the original scheme. The new plans provided that the operations of the British Armies were to be more or less page 191subsidiary to those of the French, but the alteration made little difference to us, except that the greater importance now attributed to the advance of the British right restricted the amount of attention to be given to preparations needed for the Flanders attack.
Later it was found that Italy could not be ready to co-operate in the general offensive by the time fixed in the modified plans, and on March 12th the revolution in Russia began. The latter event not only removed all hopes of support by action on the Eastern front, but enabled the enemy to transfer to the west as many as forty new Divisions.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks it was decided to proceed with the spring offensive. The enemy, by his voluntary retirement on the Arras—Soissons front to the Hindenburg Line, had removed the salient that was to be the first objective of our Fifth Army, the role of which now was to follow him up and hold his reserves to his new positions.
On the morning of April 9th the First and Third Armies attacked on a front of nearly fifteen miles, including Vimy Ridge and some five miles of the Hindenburg Line. The immediate success was followed up, and at the end of six days' fighting the British line had been pushed forward four miles. Ten days after the opening of the battle on April 9th the number of German infantry engaged against the British front had been nearly doubled, a highly important result in view of the approaching French offensive. Operations were continued on 23rd April, and by the middle of May Bullecourt was taken, rendering secure our footing in the Hindenburg Line.
Thus the first half of Sir Douglas Haig's plan had been successfully carried out, and now attention could be devoted to pushing on preparations for the summer campaign in Flanders. In this connection it was first necessary to render the position at Ypres more secure.
The Ypres Salient was very pronounced. It had been greatly reduced in extent in the Second Battle of Ypres of April-May, 1915, when the Germans with the aid of poisonous gas had strained the British line. Near Hollebeke we had been driven from Hill 60; we had had to abandon the woods, so celebrated in battle, on both sides of the Ypres-Menin Road; and had been compelled to evacuate Broodseinde and Zonne-page 192beke. In the First Battle of Ypres the enemy had captured the woods north and west of Wytschaete, and also the end of the range from Wytschaete to Messines.
The Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, a group of hills lying about midway between Armentieres and Ypres, commanded the latter town, the whole of the British positions in the Ypres Salient, the valley of the Lys, and the British lines to the south. The capture of this dominating ground was a necessary preliminary to the projected offensive farther north. The natural advantages of the position were exceptional, and during more than two years of occupation the enemy had devoted the greatest skill and industry to developing them to the utmost. The German front line skirted the western foot of the ridge in a deep curve from the Lys opposite Frelinghien to the Menin Road. The second line system formed an inner curve following the crest of the ridge. Across the salient were two chord lines, one, the Oosttaverne Line, running north and south just east of Oosttaverne, the second, the Warneton Line, roughly parallel to and about a mile to the eastward of the first. The villages of Messines and Wytschaete had been organized as main centres of resistance, and numerous woods, farms and hamlets transformed into strong-points and fortresses.
Operations against the ridge were entrusted to the Second Army, under General Plumer, who for two years had successfully held the Ypres Salient against all enemy attacks. The Second Army, which side-stepped to the south to cover all objectives, consisted of the following Corps in order from the right: the 2nd Australian and New Zealand Corps, the IXth and the Xth. The first of these (the IInd Anzac) under General Godley, comprised the 3rd Australian, the 4th Australian, the New Zealand, and the 25th and 57th Divisions.page break page break page 193