Following Australian Footsteps on the WW1 Western Front

Messines Ridge

To the south lies the town of Messines (Mesen) where my grandfather was wounded on 10 June 1917.

Pop’s diary reads:

“June 6th Great preparations for the Big Push which starts tonight. We were all asleep and the Alarm went gas had to wake each other up to put our Gas Helmets on. No more sleep. Stragglers coming in gassed. Barrage started after three. Mine blew up signal. Take it Messines went up. Prisoners coming in wholesale. Word came back reached objective. 47 Batt. had to fall back. We started to advance on June 8 & I think we advanced 2 miles & just before dawn we charged Fritz but he had cleared. Coming up he sent a lot of Gas Shells along side of us & you can imagine us groping over & in shell holes. I had mask on & fell in shell hole, had to lie there till nearly dawn as I was lost in No Mans Land. Found my way into N.Z. trenches and got on our Batt track just as they were digging in. 9 in our Gun Crew were wounded already, had to advance another 150 yards on the right side of Messines Road. What a Hellish Fire digging in for our lives. Had to hold on for a day & night, heaviest barrage next day, advance another 150 yards. Machine, Sniper, H.E., Whizz Bang in fact every kind of fire directed against us. Fritz cleared out of his trenches we leaped them & dug in 20 yards further on. Hung on for 1 day & night & on being relieved while stealthily creeping back some of the boys would keep moving when the flare went up & Fritz set to work with all his Artillery on us when I got some of it. Got it about 7 o’clock at night & lay all night till the stretcher bearers came & got me in the morning. Taken through Messines then to Bailleul and on to Boulogne after being in Wimereux.”

I thought about this record as I stood in the Messines Ridge British Cemetery and looked out down the ridge and back toward the town. As with all the cemeteries I visited they are very tranquil and belie the horror that they store beneath the green grass. The fact that so many bodies are unidentified and thus only “Known unto God” highlights the hellishness of the battles that our forebears fought and suffered in. It is hard to comprehend the supposed ‘rationality’ behind this senseless waste of human life.

I took the opportunity to visit the Messines Historical Museum, ‘Relics of the Great War’. This small museum is located in the centre of Messines and is faithfully looked after by Albert Ghesquire. The museum is normally open on Sunday afternoon, but Albert can be contacted and he will come up and open it. I was fortunate in that I only had to wait for a few minutes before Albert turned up leading a group of local school children he was about to show through the collection. He asked me where I was from and I told him I was Australian and that my grandfather fought around Messines, to which he inquired whether he had been killed. I replied “I would not be here if he had”. I was touched that he was then able to retell our conversation to the assembled schoolchildren and teachers who all seemed to be impressed with my presence.

(Sadly Albert Ghesquire has past away. However according to a spokesperson from the Historical Commitee at Messines, their museum is open daily from Easter to 11 November – MA).

Leaving Messines behind I headed South through Ploegsteert, Armentieres, Lille, Arras and Bapaume to Les Galets where I had reserved accommodation for the next two nights. Tom Morgan’s recommendation and road directions were greatly appreciated. I would have had serious trouble finding the property without the instructions. However I am sure anybody else with vague knowledge of the region would not have any problems finding it. Les Galets was very comfortable. I enjoyed the meals and the kind hospitality extended to me by Julie Renshaw.

Other guests included Mick and Trish Brand from Hatfield in Doncaster, West Yorkshire who were on one of several return visits to the region. I was fascinated by their research into the members of their community who had lost their lives in France during World War 1. They had taken the trouble to find and record the graves and circumstances behind the deaths of those young men listed on the cenotaph in the town square of their village. By coincidence they came from Hatfield and I live in Hatfield Way.

Continue: Bullecourt to Fromelles