In preparation for the allied summer offensive in Flanders, the Messines salient had to be eliminated. For years, tunnellers had dug mines beneath German trenches in the area and packed them with explosives. Before dawn on 7 June 1917, 19 mines were blown, obliterating the German positions. The explosions, heard across the English Channel, were the largest planned detonations until the advent of the atomic bomb. It is thought that 10,000 Germans were killed in the initial blasts.
British, New Zealand and Australian troops advanced to take the devastated ridge. Regarded a triumph, Messines also marked the first major battle for the 3rd Australian Division under Major General John Monash. Two of his men, Private John Carroll and Captain Robert Grieve, won the Victoria Cross during the fighting. Despite the success, the battle cost 6,000 Australian casualties.
Captain Robert Grieve
Robert Grieve from Brighton, Victoria, joined the AIF in 1915. On the Western Front he rose through the ranks of the 37th Battalion and was eventually promoted to captain. Messines was Grieve’s first major battle. He witnessed the great power of the mine explosions, then went forward with his men in the action that led to the award of his Victoria Cross. Grieve’s own account of the action modestly played down his role. However, his recommendation for the Victoria Cross provides a true measure of the leadership, courage, and daring displayed at Messines.
"The company was held up by the fire from machine guns in a concrete building. These were put out of action by the aid of Mills Grenades and the company were able to get forward onto the objective allotted to us."
"Suddenly Bedlam was let loose. It would be impossible in words to describe the inferno. The earth seemed to vomit fire and was shaken as though by an earthquake – the air screamed shells and snapped bullets and above all was the roar of the guns, the crackle of the machine guns and the hum of aeroplane propellers."
"The largest mine on the front was close to us – containing 20 tons of gun cotton … Our first warning that she was fired was by sounds like distant rumblings of thunder – then gradually getting closer – then directly to our front the earth was seen to be rising like a huge mushroom – suddenly to be flung into space with an awe-inspiring roar and the earth trembled – to me it appeared as if with mingled fear and relief – fear of the dread power she had stored in her bowels – relief because it had vented its fury and although she was sadly torn, its menace was gone. The mine made a crater 300 feet wide by 90 feet deep."