The Battle of Messines 7/6/17

3rd Worcestershire Regiment

On the 6th June both the 3rd and the 10th Worcestershire Regiment moved forward to take up their positions for the battle the following day. The 3rd Battalion moved forward after dark from Ravelsberg Camp through Neuve Eglise to the front line opposite the German trench “Nutmeg Avenue.”

By 9.30 pm on the 6th the 3rd Battalion had reached the assembly trenches, after running the gauntlet of some intermittent shell fire. The companies settled down behine cover in four lines of assembly trenches newly dug behind the front line.

The hours of waiting in the darkness seemed endless. Some slept, others busied themselves with cooking; for each man before leaving had been issued with a patent cooker, to enable them to find occupation during those trying hours of suspense.

Gradually the hands on the officer’s watches crept on towards 3 o’clock, and all made ready for the battle. The British artillery had fired continuously throughout the night in order to cover the noise of the marching troops, but the bombardment gradually increased in intensity as the hour for attack approached.

Suddenly all other sounds were drowned by the most appalling explosion ever known on a battle-field. Under the enemy’s trenches nineteen great mines exploded like so many volcanoes.

To the right of the 3rd Worcesters the German salient at Ontario Farm was shattered by a huge mine: immediately to the left, the defences of Kruisstraat Farm were blown up; and further to the left, on the crest line, the Spanbroek Mill, which had defied the attack of the Battalion two years before, went up in a sheet of flame.

That awful and unexpected explosion paralysed the troops in the British front line. The whole ground heaved and shook, and even the war-hardened veterans of the 3rd Worcesters were for a moment unnerved. But only for a moment. Dashing to the front, the officers led their men forward over the front line and out into the open. There the platoons shook out the line, ‘C’ and ‘B’ Companies leading, and went forward beneath a tornado of shells.

Deafenend and blinded by the storm around them, the leading lines reached the shattered mounds which represented the German front-line trench. Very few of the enemy remained in the front line, and those survivors, utterly bewildered and unnerved, at once surrendered. The attacking woave flooded over the support and reserve lines. In seven minutes from the start the enemy’s front system of defences had fallen, almost without a blow.

In accordance with their orders, the two leading companies halter and commenced to dig in, while ‘D’ and ‘A’ Companies went through them to take their second objective – “Bell Farm.” The advance was rendered difficult by the dust from the shells, which made direction hard to keep; but in little more than ten minutes the attackers, stumbling and plunging over the broken ground, had reached the ruins of the farm buildings. Fire from German machine-guns checked the advance. Corporal G F Currell handled a Lewis-gun section with cool courage, leading his men to a position from which a devastating fire could be brought to bear. The machine-guns were rushed and captured after hand-to-hand fight, in which the corporal took a conspicuous part.

Further along the line the officer and all the NCOs of one platoon were shot down by a German machine-gun. Private C Jasper took command, reorganised the attack, and succeeded in rushing two German posts, capturing some 40 prisoners.

Beneath the ruined farms there were deep dugouts, so strong that they had survived the bombardment. Their occupants were summoned to surrender, but would not do so until bombs had been thrown down: then the survivors came up – sixty of them headed by a major.

The 10th Cheshires advanced through the 3rd Worcesters to take the German second system, and after them came the 1st Wiltshires. To support that further attack ‘B’ Company of the Worcesters was brought up from the rear and was sent forward, together with ‘A’ Company, to assist the Cheshires. Shell-bursts, dust, the darkness and the unrecognisable state of the shattered ground, resulted in the attacking troops losing their bearings. Troops of all regiments were wandering in every direction. The Worcestershire platoons became separated. Some followed the troops in front of L’Enfer Wood, while one other platoon found its way to the right and assisted in the capture of the strong point just west of Middle Farm.

Orders came for the two remaining companies, ‘C’ and ‘D’ to advance and help the Wilshires. The two companies pushed forward up the slope and joined the Wiltshires on the crest line of the ridge, near Four Huns Farm. The attack on the final objective, “October Support”, was delayed for some time by our own barrage, which was still bursting along that trench. The two companies formed up and lay down as near to the bursting shells as was possible. Captain A F Birch-Jones, although already wounded, remained in command of his company and acted with great bravery, reorganising his men and making all ready fir the final assault. As the troops lay waiting the first ligh paled the sky to the East. In the growing light of the dawn the guns lifted their fire and the attacking platoons rushed what was left of the trench.

The Battalion was reorganised. In one company all the officers and all but one of the sergeants had fallen. The surviving sergeant, Sergeant J W Forrest, took command and did gallant work all day.

As soon as reorganisation had been carried out, the work of entrenchment was started, and soon the victorious troops were labouring cheerfully amid an angry fire from the enemy’s guns below them on the plain – the plain which could be seen spreading out to the east away to Menin and the low lands beyond.

The battlefield at dawn was an extraordinary spectacle. The surface of the ridge was torn and smashed in every direction by countless shell holes. Such German trenches as remained were broken down in many places. Across the wilderness, disordered troops of many regiments were stumbling in every direction. “It was like a colossal ant heap,” said one subaltern.

Those blundering stragglers were collected, sorted out and organised. Conspicuous good work was done by Captain I N Mason who, although wounded, remained at duty, rallying and collecting men of many units who strayed on to the ground held by his Company; he was awarded the Military Cross.

Battalion Headquarters was shifted forward up the slope and finally established in the ruins of “Hell Farm.” Presently the 75th Brigade, the reserve of the Division, came up the slope and over the crest line and went forward to capture fresh ground beyond. The platoons of the 3rd Worcesters on the forward slope were withdrawn, and joined the remainder of the Battalion in digging a new reserve trench on the reverse western slope of the Ridge. There the Battalion worked for the rest of the day. When darkness fell the days losses were counted. The 3rd Worcesters had gone into action with eighteen officers and 618 other ranks. Ten officers and 230 other ranks had been hit. Killed – 3 officers (Captain S P J MacDonald MC, Lieut A J B Hudson MC, 2/Lieut H L Brampton) and 24 men. Wounded – 7 officers and 204 other ranks. 2 missing.

Stacke, Capt H. FitzM The Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War Kidderminster 1921