Today is the anniversary of one of the most apocalyptic Allied attacks on the German lines during WWI – the Battle of Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium. The 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division took part. Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist fought side by side.
It is one of the few successful stand-alone battles of the Great War and it was a vital preparation for the major advance planned to commence on 31/07/1917.
The 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division were both part of IX Corps in General Plumer’s Second Army – the 16th Division held the centre, with the 36th Division on its right flank and the 19th (Western) Division on its left flank. The 25th Division held the ground on the Ulster Division’s right flank.
The following statistics are based on CWGC records, supplemented with information from other databases, e.g. Soldier Died in the Great War and Register of Soldiers’ Effects.
383 men from Irish infantry regiments died during the period of the battle and are buried or memorialised in Belgium (others died in the weeks that followed and some men wounded during the battle died of wounds in France) and 37% were born outside Ireland.
This figure of 383 fatalities is broken down as follows:
144 fatalities with 16th (Irish) Division – 39% born outside Ireland
186 fatalities with 36th (Ulster) Division – 45% born outside Ulster
53 fatalities with 24th and 25th divisions – 30% born outside Ireland
On the 7th June 1917, the 16th (Irish) Division suffered 141 fatalities (five being buried in France).
On the 7th June 1917, the 36th (Ulster) Division suffered 194 fatalities (18 being buried in France)
On the 7th June 1917, Irish infantry regiments suffered 344 fatalities (22 being buried in France)
16th Division – 132 fatalities
36th Division – 191 fatalities
24th and 25th divisions – 21 fatalities
Synchronised detonation of 19 unprecedentedly huge mines
The synchronised detonation of 19 unprecedentedly huge mines buried by the Allies deep under enemy trenches brought instant death to many thousands of German soldiers, and the ensuing week-long battle bestowed a relentlessly burgeoning tally of causalities on both sides.
The battle has immense historic and symbolic significance for the UK and Ireland as it was the first time that the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions fought alongside each other during WWI.
On the centennary of the battle in The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines there was a special memorial event where vast mine-craters still punctuate the landscape, one of them the serene, water-filled Spanbroekmolen crater known as The Pool of Peace or the Lone Tree Crater, the site of the largest of the mines detonated at the start of the battle.
Spanbroekmolen Crater is the site of the largest Messines mine explosion. Now filled with water, it is preserved as a memorial called the ‘Pool of Peace’. The site has been owned by Toc H in Poperinge since the 1920s
The centenary commemorations were jointly led by the Governments of Ireland and the UK, in partnership with the Mayor of Messines.
The Peace Park proceedings took place in the shadow of a traditional Irish Round Tower and a large standing-stone gilded with a peace pledge appealing for the people of Ireland to build a peaceful and tolerant society and to remember “the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.”
The Allies started tunnelling towards the German lines at Messines Ridge early in 1916.
In the face of German counter-mining, thousands of feet of deep tunnels were constructed.
Sometimes the British tunnellers encountered their German counterparts resulting in fierce, underground, hand-to-hand fighting. Above ground, for weeks before 7 June 1917, thousands of heavy Allied guns and howitzers bombarded the German trenches with countless pounds of explosives. On the morning of the fateful first day at 3.10 am 19 underground Allied mines were detonated in an unprecedented collective blast that peaked on far-away seismographs and was heard in London and Dublin.
German prisoners taken during the Battle of Messines, 8 June 1917
Estimates of the number of Germans killed during and after the eruption have been as high as 25,000, with up to 10,000 dying instantly. Hundreds of the Allied soldiers waiting to go over the top were severely shocked, deafened and concussed. Private Jack Christie from the Shankill area of Belfast, who had been a member of the UVF, was a stretcher bearer with the Ulster Division.
Referring to his comrades in the 16th Division Private Christie said later “we should not allow politics to blind us to the truth about things – bravery and loyalty is not all on one side. We had the greatest respect for the 16th.”
Another stretcher-bearer from the Ulster Division demonstrated that political allegiance had no place on the battlefield. Private John Meeke of the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was awarded the Military Medal for rescuing Major Willie Redmond of the 16th Division. Redmond was the Nationalist MP for East Clare, a member of the Irish Volunteers and the brother of John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Private Meeke, who enlisted in March 1916, was searching the battlefield for wounded comrades when he happened to see Major Redmond fall. Despite heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, Meeke made his way to Redmond’s position to render assistance, taking shelter in shell holes and any other meagre cover he could find in the desolate, pock-marked landscape. He arrived at the Major without injury and found him seriously wounded in the left knee and right arm at the elbow and weak from loss of blood. Meeke dressed one of the wounds and was working on another when shrapnel struck him on the left side, inflicting serious wounds. He was hit a second time but this did not deter him from his work, which he completed despite his injury.
Meeke disobeyed a direct order from Major Redmond to abandon him and struggled across the battlefield with his charge until he met up with Lieutenant Charles Paul and a party from the 11th Royal Irish Rifles who were escorting German prisoners to the rear. Together they got Major Redmond to the casualty clearing station located in the Catholic Hospice at Locre. Major Redmond died later that afternoon.
Many hundreds of soldiers from Ireland perished side by side at Messines Ridge, protestant and catholic, unionist and nationalist, and they’re commemorated on standing stones in the Island of Ireland Peace Park along with the WWI total of 32,186 killed, wounded or missing from the 36th (Ulster) Division; 9,363 from the 10th and 28,398 from the 16th Irish Divisions respectively.
Messines British Cemetery, with the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, surmounted by the Cross of Sacrifice
Island of Ireland Peace Park
Mesen (Messines) is a small town with a touch of Irish charm. On the hills surrounding Mesen, soldiers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, protestants and catholic alike, died during the First World War. The Peace Park was created by young people from both sides of the border.
The Peace Park houses a round tower. This monument to honour all the fallen from the entire island of Ireland transcends religious and political differences. The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation for the past, the present and the future. Commemoration ceremonies are held on 7 June and 11 November.
The Tower houses bronze cubicles containing record books listing the known dead, which are publicly accessible copies of the originals belonging to the National War Memorial, Islandbridge, Dublin.
The project was initiated by a member of the Irish Parliament (Dail Eireann), Paddy Harte TD, who, together with a community activist, Glen Barr from Northern Ireland, established ‘A Journey of Reconciliation Trust’. The Trust was a broad-based, cross-border, organisation with offices in Dublin. The Trust was made up of representatives of the main churches in Ireland and professional political and representatives and community leaders from both parts of Ireland under the leadership of Paddy Harte and Glenn Barr.
The Irish government became involved in part funding the project together wit the Northern Ireland Office. Statutory and private bodies rolled in behind the project and within two years of the initiation of the JRT the Island of Ireland Peace Park and Celtic Round tower was complete.
It was formally opened by the Irish President Mary McAleese who in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium led the wreath laying ceremony in the afternoon of 11th of November 1998. It was the first time an Irish State officially acknowledged the soldiers from Ireland who died in WW1. This was also a seminal moment in Irish history when an Irish Head of State and a British Monarch met publicly in a joint ceremony.
The Park is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on behalf of the Office of Public Works in Ireland. Prior to the Island of Ireland Peace Park, no Irish government dignitary had ever attended any WW1 Remembrance Service either in Ireland or at the Menin Gate. At an official ceremony on 11th November 1998 the Irish President apologised on behalf of the Republic of Ireland to the families of the fallen for what she called the ‘national amnesia’ in remembering the soldiers of WW1 from the Island of Ireland.