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Thread: I’m visiting D-Day Normandy beaches soon and my head will be replaying images and sounds I have seen on TV the last few days. There is no such footage for Battle of Messines 7 June 1917, for when I often visit that area, but I do have the written words of an eyewitness.
Hearsay claims the 19 mine explosions that went off at 3.10am were heard in London. Post war memoirs describe the battle. Here’s a description from an uncensored letter, written on 12th June 1917 of a participant in 16th (Irish) Div sector of Battle of Messines. (Photo IWM Q5461)
Fr Willie Doyle had already been awarded the MC for cumulative acts of bravery in both the Loos and Somme sectors. The padre was helping the doctor man the Regimental Aid Post at Vandamme farm for the Battle of Messines and ...
wrote home about his experiences a few days later. “It wanted half an hour to “zero time” ... The guns had ceased firing to give their crews a breathing space before the storm of battle broke ...
A prisoner told us that the enemy knew we were about to attack, but did not expect it for another couple of days.” [NOTE; Royal Engineers had been working since December 1915 to sink mine shafts and tunnels in conditions of great secrecy.]
“The tension of waiting was terrific and the strain almost unbearable. Even now I can scarcely think of the scene which followed without trembling with horror. Punctually to the second at 3.10am there was a deep muffled roar; the ground in front of where I stood rose up ...
as if some giant had awakened from his sleep and was bursting his way through the earth’s crust, and then I saw seven huge columns of smoke and flame shoot hundreds of feet in the air, while masses of clay and stone, tons in weight, were hurled about like pebbles.
I never before realised what an earthquake was like, for not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards so that I kept my feet with difficulty. Later on I examined one of the mine craters, an appalling sight, ...
for I knew many a brave man torn and burnt by the explosion, lay buried there ... Before the debris of the mines had begun to fall to earth the “Wild Irish” were over the top of the trenches and on the enemy ...
In a few minutes Fritz took up the challenge and soon things on our side became warm and lively. In a short time the wounded began to come in and a number of German prisoners, many of them wounded also. You may think I am pro-German ...
but I have to confess my heart goes out to those unfortunate soldiers whose sufferings have been terrific...I try to show them any little kindness I can...My men did not go over in the first wave, they were held in reserve to move up as soon as the first objective was taken,...
hold the position and resist any counter attack. Most of them were waiting behind a thick sandbag wall, not far from the advanced dressing station where I was, which enabled me to keep an eye on them. The shells were coming over thick and fast now and ...
at last what I expected and feared happened. A big “crump” hit the wall fair and square, blew three men into the field fifty yards away and buried five others who were in a small dug-out ... I climbed over the trench and ran across the open ... [to give the dead last sacraments]
The five buried men were calling for help but the others standing around seemed paralysed by fear, all save one sergeant whose language was worthy of the occasion and rose to a noble height of sublimity. He was working like a Trojan tearing the sandbags aside and welcomed my ...
help with a mingled blessing and curse. The others joined in with pick and shovel, digging and pulling till the sweat streamed from our faces and the blood from our hands, but we got three buried men out alive, the other two had been killed in the explosion.”
[Company Sergeant Major Tait was a cooper in Guinness before the war; an officer said he was “full of energy and the capacity for getting things done, he was simply invaluable to our Company in keeping (it) in first class trim”. Awarded the DCM for this action later won the MM.]
“Once again I had evidence of the immense confidence our men have in the priest. It was quite evident they were rapidly becoming demoralised, as the best of troops will who have to remain inactive under heavy shell fire ... I walked along the line of men crouching ...
behind the sand-bag wall and was amazed to see the ripple of smiles light up the terrified lads’ faces (so many were mere boys) as I went by. By the time I got back again the men were laughing and chatting as if all danger was miles away, for, quite unintentionally ...
I had given them courage by walking along without my gas mask or steel helmet, both of which I had forgotten in my hurry. When the regiment moved forward the doctor and I went with them. By this time the impregnable (!!) ridge was in our hands and the enemy ...
retreating down the far side. I spent the rest of that memorable day wondering over the battlefield looking for the wounded ... I came across one young soldier horribly mutilated ... able to speak to me. He lived long enough to receive the Last Sacraments and died in peace.
The thing I remember best of that 24 hours’ work are: the sweltering heat, a devouring thirst (which comes from the excitement of battle), physical weakness from want of food and a weariness and footsoreness ... Friday was a repetition of the previous day.
I made a glorious breakfast in a shell-hole, off a piece of chocolate, a couple of biscuits picked up on the ground (I wiped the clay off first as the Belgians may want it again) and washed the lot down with a drought of water from my bottle.
Fighting was over for the moment as we were hard at work bringing up the guns to support the infantry in their advanced positions. Nothing of very great interest happened during the next two days and I had only one fairly narrow escape from an eight inch shell ...
which exploded ... Brother Fritz certainly hammered some breath out of me ... “[Fr Doyle would not be so lucky during the next battle at which he manned an advanced dressing station, when he was killed by shell fire on 16 August 1917, Battle of Langemarck] #FWW #WW1
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