Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 27, 2023

A Forgotten Action in the Race to the Sea: The Battle for Messines Ridge

15 October – 2 November 1914 

Indian Troops Called In to Defend Messines Ridge

Immediately south of Ypres rises a five-mile-long spur that commands the open territory to both the west and east to a considerable distance. This ridge starts just at the point where the southern part of the salient's bulge emerges. Atop it sit three villages, St. Eloi, Wytschaete, and Messines. Messines Ridge, as it came to be known, would in 1917 be the site of one of the most spectacular events in military history. In October 1914, no one knew of this future fame, but the riders of General Edmund Allenby's recently created Cavalry Corps clearly saw that its possession was the key to the southern defenses of Ypres. At this point, the Race to the Sea melded into the series of actions later known as the First Battle of Ypres. The actions around Messines would overlap and impact nearly all the action to the north during the First Ypres.

By the 18th the partly dismounted Cavalry Corps flanked by two infantry divisions were positioned on the eastern slope of the ridge. However, the two cavalry divisions each contained only half the manpower of a British infantry division, while the accompanying Royal Horse Artillery was simply no match for the approaching German forces. Further, at this point neither BEF Commander Sir John French and his staff, nor sector coordinator Ferdinand Foch. had grasped the enemy's intentions and the massing of forces just over the horizon. Their orders for the day were for their small, under-gunned forces to advance east. For three days, the advance proceeded eastward of Messines and Ploegsteert Wood, involving only light skirmishing. The Germans were building up their manpower for the push to the channel, which would be launched on 29 October.

Over the next week, the sheer mass of the advancing German Sixth Army drove the cavalrymen back to Messines Ridge, where thinned-out units combined with French reinforcements and some newly arrived Indian Army battalions made a stand. At 0530 on 29 October the Germans opened a broad offensive from north of the Menin Road to Messines. The 1st Cavalry Division repulsed German attacks against the town of Messines, but further north on the ridge things were dire, despite French reinforcements sent by Foch. The next day the II Bavarian Corps renewed the attack on Messines in the evening and broke into the town at 0430 the following morning. In the local area, about 6,000 Germans were engaging less than 900 of the dismounted cavalrymen. After extensive house-to-house fighting the British troops withdrew. Reinforcements arrived around noon and tried to regain the town, but were unsuccessful. Farther north at Wytschaete, a similar pattern developed, with outnumbered British troops losing the attritional battle as both sides experienced heavy casualties.

London Scottish Territorials, Decimated at Messines, Withdrawing

Wytschcaete fell at 0245 on 31 September and attempts by French forces to regain it failed. With both key positions on Messines Ridge in enemy hands, the decision was made to withdraw Allied forces from the high ground. To safeguard their retirement, the British shelled Messines to prevent a close pursuit. The French 32nd Division passed through the exhausted retreating British and secured a defensible position west of Messines Ridge.

Things quieted down after 2 November all along the new front around the Ypres Salient. Except for a successful breakthrough at St. Eloi that was quickly halted, for the next week German efforts concentrated on artillery work to batter the town of Ypres and the field fortifications springing up around it. On 10 November, the German Army launched what turned out to be their last offensive action in the west in 1914. It did not provide pressure around the new line west of Messines, however. This position would remain stable until 7 June 1917 when Messines Ridge would be the site of the most spectacular demonstration of mine warfare in military history.

1 comment:

  1. A map would have been nice to add to this article.