The Big Bang (In Flanders)

I just read about an amazing World War I battle.  This has to be added to Chapter 14 of my European history, but I’m still debating with myself how to fit it into the text.  Here is how it will read:

Before Passchendaele, the British won a minor victory in the battle of Messines.  Messines was a ridge the Germans controlled near Ypres.  The British commander in charge of taking the ridge back, General Herbert Plumer, was a real pyromaniac, who was determined to start the battle with a bang (literally).  So determined, that he spent eighteen months preparing the explosives.  Miners dug secret tunnels from the British trenches to Messines, and planted twenty-two colossal landmines in the ridge, under the Germans.  Each mine got at least 25 tons of TNT; 600 tons of explosives were used altogether.  One mine was discovered and exploded by German counter-miners in August 1916.  They did not find the rest, though, and when Plumer was ready to go, he said, "Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography."

At 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917, Plumer gave the order and nineteen mines were detonated.  These were the greatest controlled explosions anyone had attempted, up to this point.  Prime Minister David Lloyd George claimed he could hear the explosions from London, and an insomniac student in Dublin claimed he heard them, too.  Each mine blasted a crater more than a hundred feet wide on the surface, and the British infantry marched forward to take what was left of the ridge.  We’re not sure how many Germans were killed, but they lost at least 10,000 troops; this was one of the few battles during the war where the defender suffered heavier casualties than the attacker.

Did you notice that I said twenty-two mines were planted, the Germans blew up one, and the British set off nineteen?  The last two mines were not used, because there weren’t any Germans within range of them when the battle began.  After the battle the British promised themselves they would remove the unexploded mines, but never got around to doing it, because of other battles.  Soon they lost track of where they had put the mines, so everyone forgot about them, until a lightning bolt from a thunderstorm set off one of the mines on June 17, 1955; fortunately the only one killed in that explosion was a cow.  No one knows for sure where the remaining mine is, or if the TNT can go off after this much time in the ground.  Remember that if you’re planning to go to western Flanders, and have a nice trip.

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 11:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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