Huge Explosion on Western Front.
Tunnelers Digging for Months; Explosion Heard in London.
Special to The Great War Project.
(4 June) In northern France a century ago, British soldiers are digging a tunnel.
Actually they are digging many tunnels, a whole complex of tunnels and mines.
“In an epic doggedness,” writes historian Norman Stone, “miners had tunneled below the Messines ridge, “and had twenty-one great mines to blow up under it with a million tons of explosives.”
A million tons!
Allied tunnelers have been working for more than six months, writes historian Martin Gilbert, “to dig the shafts, one of which is 2,000 feet long. “
“The deepest of the mines were placed a hundred feet below the German trenches.”
Reports Gilbert, “nineteen mines were exploded under the German front line, with a total explosive power of five hundred tons.”
“One of the explosions blew a crater 430 feet in diameter. Two mines failed to explode.”
The explosion is heard miles away in London.
The effect of the explosions at Messines “was devastating,” writes Gilbert. “Ten thousand German soldiers are thought to have been killed outright or buried alive.”
“Thousands more were stunned and dazed, and more than 7300 were taken prisoner.”
The explosion was so loud, it caused panic in German occupied Lille, fifteen miles away.
At the site of the explosion, German soldiers trapped in the crater are screaming for help “We could do nothing for them,” writes one British soldier.
“Two days later, the British launch a huge ground offensive, the second in three months “against the German trenches dug-outs, and fortifications on the Messines ridge.”
Reports historian Gilbert, “A British artillery bombardment of more than two thousand guns added to the impact.”
One of the British soldiers taking part in the offensive is Anthony Eden, years later to become British prime minister. From Eden’s company, only one soldier is killed. I knew him, Eden recalls, “with the most bitter sadness.” The soldier is able to save several of his compatriots before he himself is cut down.
“He had done what he set out to do and by his firm will he had helped to save many lives,” Eden recalls sixty years later, “The momentary flash of that scene is still fresh in my mind.”
A few days after the crater explosion, the Germans pull their troops back from two southern Belgian towns. But within a week, reports historian Martin Gilbert, “the front-line stalemate is re-established.