This is the Foreword to Ian Passingham's Pillars of Fire. The Battle of Messines Ridge June 1917 by Peter Simkins
For the British Dominion divisions serving on the Western Front under Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, 1917 was a year of transition and mixed fortunes. In the collective folk-memory of Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand the story of the fighting in France and Belgium that year is still largely dominated by images of the lunar landscape of the Ypres Salient and of the mud of Passchendaele in which hope itself seemed to have dropped. Sound that can also be little doubt takes forces compelled by the French army mutinies to Bear the main burden of Allied offensive operations on the Western Front. We're showing distinct signs of strain at the end of 1917 the war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote that for the first time the British army lost its Spirit of optimism, and there was a sense of deadly depression. Among the many officers and men with whom I came in touch.
Such gloomy observations notwithstanding, the fact remains that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not crack under the terrible pressure and was the only army on the Western Front capable of undertaking sustained offensive operations until the closing weeks of the year. The Etaples mutiny in September, which occurred at an infantry base camp and was prompted by a harsh training regime, did not represent a major collapse of morale in front-line units. Indeed, for those willing or able to take the long view, there had been some heartening achievements during 1917. These included the brilliant assault on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps and an advance of three and a half miles by the British XVII Corps near Arras on 9th April; the storming of Messines Ridge in June; the methodical and powerful blows struck by Plummer’s Second Army at Ypres between 20 September and 4 October; and the penetration of the Hindenburg Line, facilitated by the massed deployment of tanks, at Cambrai break on 20 November.
There is now growing agreement among historians that these successes are evidence of a discernible ‘learning curve’ in the BEF during 1917 - a process of improvement which, however bloody, ultimately placed it at the technological and tactical cutting edge of the Allied armies on the Western Front by the final months of the war. Artillery provides the key to its successes. Creeping barrages - protective screens of shells moving in front of the advancing infantry - became a standard feature of attacks. Greater accuracy was ensured by better ammunition, by taking more account of meteorological conditions, and by making allowances for the individual characteristics, such as barrel-wear, of each gun. German gun positions were more efficiently pinpointed by sound-ranging, flash spotting and aerial photography. All these techniques made it possible to eliminate the need for lengthy preliminary bombardment and so restore surprise to the battlefield.
With the reorganisation of the platoon, the infantry now attacked in more flexible formations, which encouraged initiative and manoeuvre, and they carried extra firepower in the form of rifle grenades and Lewis guns. Trench mortars and heavy machine-guns, often firing barrages, offered additional close support. Tanks, prone to breakdowns and vulnerable to German artillery, helped the Infantry to assault enemy trenches, overcome machine-gun nests and sometimes to advance beyond the range of their own artillery, while aircraft were also beginning to be used increasingly in a ground attack role.
Given that many historians would judge the outstanding assault on Messines Ridge in June 1917 to be one of the most important indicators of the BEF’s ‘learning curve’ it is perhaps all the more remarkable that so few detailed analyses of he battle has been published, particularly in recent years. Of course, one would not deny that the Messines attack is inextricably linked with the Third Battle of Ypres, to which it was the essential prelude and with which it is frequently bracketed by historians. Nevertheless, Messines has long merited a separate study and this lively, fascinating and timely account by Ian Passingham - himself a former infantry officer - with therefore do much to fill an obvious gap in the historiography of the First World War. Not the least of the author's own achievement’s in this - his first book - is that he has paid your attention to what was happening on the German side of no-man's-land, an aspect of First World War battles all too often ignored, avoided, or at best sketchily covered by British writers in the past. For these and other reasons, Ian Passingham’s contribution to the existing corpus of works on the Western Front in the First World War is most welcome.
Peter Simkins, August 1998.
For a review > 'Pillars of Fire'