Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Battle for the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge

The battle for the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge has come -- and gone. And although in war there is but little time for retrospect, except for those who must glean, amidst the doings of the battlefield, fresh weapons for the further fighting, there is no Irishman who has been privileged to bear arms in Belgium for Ireland and the Empire who will not carry away some ineffaceable impressions of great happenings -- of a noble enterprise soberly undertaken and gloriously achieved -- of great death-dealing forces arrayed against each other on a scale unparalleled -- of scenes where beauty and destructive power awakened breathless awe -- of human suffering and patriotic devotion at such white-hot intensity that from it has issued, as some new amalgam might issue molten from a flaming crucible, a unifying bond of common brotherhood, to bind in lasting sympathy all those that have passed through the furnace side by side.

One scene which will not easily be forgotten by those who were present will illustrate this solvent effect on party differences which the spirit of brotherhood-in-arms has produced. On the way back from the battle a large number of officers, mostly Irish, met at dinner at a hospice where a Belgian religious sisterhood had been wont for long to divert portion of their energies from their normal charitable and devotional activities to providing for the wants of the army which had come to free their country. Around the table were met not only officers who had fought in the battle or organised the subsidiary services so indispensable for success in battle, physical and spiritual wants of the troops -- but also those who had ministered to the doctors and padres, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland or England -- all wearing the uniform of their respective ranks and all of them men recently exposed to the risk of death. The toast of "The Reverend Mother" was proposed in terms of grateful eulogy by the senior officer present -- and the walls rang to the good old refrain, "For she's a jolly good fellow." with a volume of whole-hearted appreciation to which all -- reverend, learned and gallant comrades -- contributed equally. Adsit omen!

It would be difficult to fix exactly the date at which it became known that the Wytschaete Ridge would be object and scene of a great battle, just as it would be difficult to fix the precise day and hour at which the battle began. But for those who could read the signs speculation had long since given place to certain conviction. Whilst yet we lived amidst iron frosts and snow flurries, which, happily, were more prevalent than muddy morasses and rainstorms, the country-side began to be spotted with ammunition dumps, roads were repaired, lanes converted into roads, new roads made and railways came nosing forward curving round the hollows that eased the gradients and gave cover from enemy observation. Further forward trench tramway lines connected up and with the various trench systems, and everywhere water mains and water tanks, buried cables and air lines, were placed in suitable spots and in a quantity significant to the understanding eye. Old trenches were repaired, communication trenches were constructed, deep-mined dug-outs excavated, and subways pierced where trenches might be too conspicuous or too vulnerable. The days passed, when in the spasmodic interchanges of shelling or of trench raids were claimed a disputable preponderance of the one or a questionable predominance at the other. The time came when it was we who made the raids and the enemy scarcely ventured to make the attempt, and failed when he did -- the time came when our artillery fire was continuous and it was only the enemy that was spasmodic in retaliation. These were the days when those who had prophesied with confidence that the enemy would make one last offensive in his death struggle, and sally forth from the Wytschaete Ridge in a final effort to reach Calais and the Channel coast, now began to opine with equal confidence that he was gradually withdrawing with a view to a general retreat. And still our artillery fire grew more copious, till the sound of it was like the sound of some great devil's cauldron of porridge on the boil -- sometimes boiling up in furious intensity -- sometimes simmering down in subdued cadences, but always maintaining its steady bubbling -- a bubbling which told us that the Hun was being deliberately denied that occasional respite which comes as such a blessed relief to the nerve-wracked victim of protracted shell-fire.

Meantime, the tide of activity on the lines of communication was running in ever increasing volume -- and the troops in the front line were being withdrawn by divisions or brigades or battalions in rotation, and were being schooled -- like racehorses before a big steeplechase -- over country so laid out as to distances and obstacles and the like, as to be models of those sections of the enemy from which it would be their allotted task to attack. Meantime, too, our aeroplanes had been re-establishing their supremacy -- though the enemy was never altogether banished from active and melodious, even in the fighting area -- the nightingale by night, larks and blackbirds and a whole choir of warblers by day, and among the songless ones, hawks and magpies galore. And there, stamped and seared across the gallant radiance of the June landscape lay the trench lines of the opposing armies, divided by that little, wandering strip of green and tangled herbage called "No Man's Land," trench tangled, twisted and contorted like some geometrical puzzle thrown into confused disarray, trench lines that gape up at heaven in their bald and obscene nudity like a poisoned and neglected wound on the bosom of beauty. And amidst the trench lines here and there are crumbling heaps that once were human habitations, and whole woods in which no leaf shall ever grow -- mere cemeteries of hideous and mutilated stumps and the fallen trunks of trees, shattered and shredded, blasted and riven by the thunderbolts of war.

And still, day by day, the devil's cauldron was boiling incessantly with a deeper note and a growing volume in its roar -- and expectation sharpened up to nervous tension, and men, with all their preparations made for personal effort and for good or ill-fortune in the fray, were asking each other: "When is it to be?" and got no certain answer, for even yet zero day and zero hour were closely guarded secrets. Bombardments of the enemy positions multiplied: systematic wire-cutting in the Hun front and support lines by field-guns and medium trench mortars, the searching out of strong points and machine-gun emplacements, dug-outs and O.P.'s by heavy trench mortars; the pounding of the enemy batteries by heavy guns; artillery practices of barrages that creep and of barrages that jump, of barrages that spread smoke and the confusion of darkness in the enemy's lines, and of barrages that spill over him the poison gas which he himself taught us to use. One June morning saw the tortured remnants of Wytschaete laid flat by the concentrated fire of the "heavies," and surely, destruction mote complete, more beautiful, and more terrible has never visited a human town since the day when the Lord rained fire from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah. In the clear air of a sunlit forenoon we saw the vast explosions -- earth and dust and debris splashed into the air hundreds of feet, patterned against the blue sky in aborted symmetrical shapes, like ferns or crystals, and slowly sinking amidst the newer splashes, while the breeze wafted away the finer dust. And the colours added to the wonders of the scene. There were splashes of jet black and of white, as lustrous as virgin snow; splashes of rose and yellow and pale mauve and splashes of every shade of red and purple. When it was finished, Wytschaete existed no more.

At last, after nearly a week so spent, the dispositions of the infantry, long since planned and organised in minutest detail, were carried into effect, and zero day and zero hour named -- the 7th day of June, a Thursday, and 3-10 a.m. About the actual units engaged it is forbidden to be more precise, but it suffices that Ireland was there -- Leinster and Connaught, Ulster and Munster -- side by side, united by the same pride of race and the same passionate determination to justify it.

As the night slowly ebbed away, mild and gentle, the Devil's Cauldron, as was not unusual, had simmered down into comparative quiescence. No lights nor sounds had betrayed the presence of the assaulting troops to the enemy artillery. Everything was ready, and men breathed deep breaths as they waited as runners wait for the starter's pistol. And then -- a stupifying outburst, in which one's very senses seemed to be submerged by the sudden clamour of a myriad sounds, a myriad flames, a myriad shocks, all blended together:
"The mossy earth, the sphered skies were riven,"
and in that moment our Irish troops leaped forth to the attack.

In that moment some nineteen mines, charged with close on a million pounds of high explosives, had been fired beneath the Hun lines, upon our nine mile front -- on the immediate Wytschaete front there were four. The shuddering earth literally palpitated at the gigantic up-rending of its crust -- in one mine alone which the writer examined, there were forty tons of high explosive, and it bore evidence of the violence it had suffered in a crater measuring ninety yards across and a full seventy feet in depth? In that same moment the "Devil's Cauldron, that had been cooking so long, finally boiled over in fierce and concentrated intensity, thus far unparalleled in war -- to be followed, after but a momentary pause, deep answering to deep, by the enemy's barrage, descending in full blast upon our front and support lines.

The village of Wytschaete after its occupation

Before our assaulting troops there moved the curtain fire of our barrage -- hundreds of yards in depth -- to which every piece, from the field-gun to the great howitzer, contributed its maximum effort a curtain such as no battlefield has ever seen before, and which was the finished product of some beautifully intricate schemes of artillery organisation. And whilst the attack was surging up the slope with irresistible gallantry, the men in the support line -- whose allotted task was to go forward later to win a yet more distant goal -- stood in the waxing twilight, under the Hun barrage, gas helmet on head, for the poisonous fumes from the exploded mines were drifting over them -- and watched and waited and chafed at the delay. At last the programme time arrived, and they too pressed forward in their turn, about the time of sunrise. Already little patties, bringing wounded and prisoners, were dribbling in with the tidings that all was going well, and as they breasted the slope they found that their gallant comrades had captured the hospice and the crest of the ridge, with all the precision of a parade movement. Already the Hun was shelling the captured position; a brief pause to take breath, a few minutes to take up their battle positions, and then away they went for the second ridge crest and its reverse slopes, from which the whole land past Oosstaverne to Comines lies open to the view. More difficulty here -- the attack has to pass over ground hitherto unseen, across the sloped glacis of the northern defences of Wytschaete, through a tangled skein of trenches, and amidst the ruins of many houses -- the while other Irishmen are working their way into Wytschaete itself, and past its southern defences. Nay, more, over these tilted slopes and ruins and shell-contorted defences, the attack had to advance on a narrowing front and then widen out again, to thrust forward its left flank and then to pivot round until the right came abreast. Not easy thus to manoeuvre when fiery courage is maddened to intoxication in the passion of a resisted charge. Not easy, but yet achieved to the exact minute laid down in the programme, with both flanks extended with scrupulous accuracy to -- aye, and with a precautionary overlap -- their prescribed limits. Not easy, when blood is flowing and leaders drop -- but previous study of maps and aerial photographs has robbed the unknown of much of its mystery, and all have been tutored in its results, and passion itself has learned, even in its very ecstacy, to shape its blow with mechanical precision. Like a homing pigeon to its loft, the attacking Irish sped to their objectives, with their "moppers up" toiling behind, dealing with the big "dug-outs" and the swelling tide of prisoners, within four minutes of the arrival at the goal, with exact punctuality, the carrying party delivered its load of ammunition and tools! Consolidation began, reorganisation of platoons and companies, a counting of casualties, the pushing forward of outposts and patrols, the construction of strong points, Wytschaete and the ridge were ours -- every measure must now be taken to ensure that Wytschaete and the ridge shall remain ours. Victory achieved, its fruits must be securely garnered.

The panorama of sunlit landscape stretching westward, shows how dreadfully our positions for the last two years and more have been overlooked by the Huns, and bears instant testimony to the great strategic value of our victory. The slope itself -- once a scene of gentle sylvan beauty, with the copious foliage of its woodlands and the rich verdure of its swelling slopes -- is now, as an outcast leper, fetid and obscene. There is no green thing growing on its whole expanse; its trees are but torn and jagged stumps; its surface, seamed with burst-in trenches, is pock-marked and pitted as from the ravages of a million loathsome pustules; its atmosphere is noisome with the thousand filthy odours of a long-contested battlefield. It is a midden upheaved; a catacomb disrupted, protruding its corruption and decay; a charnel house. And even as it blazons forth its filthy secrets to an outraged sky, we know -- we who have eyes to read the signs -- that it is hugging in its unclean breast a plenteous store of recent victims, dead, wounded and living, whose strong-built shelters have been shattered or submerged by the countless burstings of mighty shells. Surely, it is "the abomination of desolation," spoken of by Jeremy the prophet.

And here we see the crowds of prisoners trooping over the crest and down the slope, the runners dashing in with hastily pencilled reports from the victorious front line, the fitful sprinkling of enemy shells, the working and carrying parties moving up, pack mules with ammunition and water, threading their way through obstacles innumerable across the old front lines -- and then a swelling stream of the wounded, painfully pushing its way over rough ground, comrades and Hun prisoners alike helping, to the forward dressing station. It is a sad pilgrimage from the advanced aid post, close behind the new-won front, where wounds are roughly staunched amidst the enemy's fire, which to-day has taken heavy toll of the ministering non-combatants. And here, in a commodious shell-hole, the doctors and the padres work at highest pressure to bring physical and spiritual solace to the wounded and dying -- Irish and Hun -- first come first served -- all have an equal claim: --
"Tros Tyrius que fuit, nullo in discrimine habetur."
As the rough dressings are stripped off of its western front because the military engineers who designed them never thought that its western ramparts could be carried -- nor for a long time could the prisoners from other parts of the front be persuaded of the fact that Wytschaete had indeed fallen. All hail to the Green and to the Orange!

And so the long twilight and the short, slow night passed away amidst the ceaseless comings and goings of the battlefield -- whilst the men, soused by the evening thunder showers, shivered and dozed and waited for the promised reliefs -- whilst the enemy artillery, robbed of all observation, aimlessly pitched its big shells over the ridge like the blinded Cyclops, threshing furiously through the unresisting air.

At last came the morning, and with it the reliefs. And as we started down the slopes in the growing light, the story spread how, on the adjoining front, Major Willie Redmond charging with his comrades, had been wounded by a shell and carried into an Ulster ambulance station, where, amidst the kindly ministrations of his brother Irishmen, he had yielded up his chivalrous soul -- a very willing sacrifice on the altar of Ireland and of liberty.

This article and photos were taken from  a publication entitled "The Undivided Irish Divisions and How They Fought in France and in Flanders." Date of publication currently unknown.

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