A century since New Zealand's second-bloodiest battle in history

One hundred years ago today, thousands of New Zealand soldiers were engaged in a fierce struggle to wrestle the strategically important Messines Ridge in Belgium out of German hands, during WWI.

Why was it important?

The Battle of Messines in 1917 is the second-bloodiest military engagement in New Zealand's history - and was considered a stunning success, at that stage the greatest victory of the entire war for the British Army.

But life was cheap on Messines Ridge, with 700 Kiwis killed there during the main attack between June 7 - 9.

In total, there were 4978 New Zealand casualties (killed and wounded) in the Messines area in just two weeks from June 1. Of those Kiwis, 842 have no known grave - they were simply 'blown to pieces'.

So how does Messines stack up to the horrific cost of the other major battles New Zealand forces endured in WWI?

Major New Zealand battles in WWI by total casualties (killed and wounded)

  • 8100 Flers-Courcelette/Morval (1916 Somme Offensive, September 15 - October 4)
  • 4978 Messines (1917 Battle of Messines, June 1 - 14)
  • 3380 Chunuk Bair/August Offensive (1915 Gallipoli Campaign, August 6 - 10)
  • 3100 Bapaume (1918 Second Battle of the Somme, August 25 - September 12)
  • 2700 Passchendaele (1917 Ypres Offensive, October 12)
  • 2400 Amiens (1918 German Spring Offensive, March 24 - April 4)
  • 1700 Broodseinde (1917 Ypres Offensive, October 4)

Only the Somme Offensive in 1916 had a higher cost for New Zealand than Messines.

Why was it fought?

Messines Ridge was an important piece of high ground, looking down upon the British positions, which the Germans held.

The man in absolute command of the British forces, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, wanted the ridge captured so that he could begin his main summer offensive of 1917 to the north of Messines - a major assault to the east of the small Belgium city of Ypres which he hoped would prove decisive and essentially win the war.

Unfortunately for Haig, his Ypres offensive was a complete disaster, costing around 260,000 British casualties, including almost 5000 New Zealanders, in October 1917.

Why were the New Zealanders involved?

The New Zealand Division was a sizeable army of 18,000 soldiers. In 1916, it had proven to be one of the best performing British Divisions during the Battle of the Somme, capturing more German territory than any of the other 64 British, Canadian, Australian or Indian Divisions that fought in the five-month offensive.

Field Marshall Haig had high praise for the New Zealanders and would essentially use the Kiwis as the spearhead of his army, along with the five Australian Divisions, until the war's end in November 1918.

Messines would mark the first time the New Zealand Division would take the lead in a major British attack during the war.

Messines Village and the ground the New Zealanders had to advance across.
Messines Village and the ground the New Zealanders had to advance across. Photo credit: NZWW100

What were the Kiwis up against at Messines?

Messines is a tiny village in the south of Belgium near the border with France. A century ago, it was a heavily fortified and vital position held by the Germans.

The New Zealanders were tasked with capturing the village along with dozens of German trenches and strongpoints along Messines Ridge. To the north, British and Irish troops would advance in unison with the Kiwis and storm the rest of the ridge.

The New Zealanders faced well-entrenched German positions including dozens of concrete pillboxes and blockhouses, two of which still stand next to the New Zealand Memorial at Messines.

Once the Kiwis had taken the village, Australian troops would push through their positions to make further gains into German territory. This would be the first time Australian and New Zealand troops had fought together since Gallipoli.

A New Zealand dressing station (medical aid post) in the old German positions on Messines Ridge.
A New Zealand dressing station (medical aid post) in the old German positions on Messines Ridge. Photo credit: NZWW100

What happened during the battle?

When the main attack began on June 7, the New Zealanders followed a timed 'creeping barrage' of high explosive artillery shells which destroyed most of the German positions in front of it.

A few German soldiers did survive though, killing or wounding hundreds of Kiwis as they advanced up the ridge. Sam Frickleton, a coal miner from Blackball on the South Island's West Coast, singlehandedly destroyed two German machine gun posts and was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The New Zealanders swept up the ridge and eventually captured the village of Messines itself, digging new positions in front of it. The Australians then pushed forward from the Kiwis' new trenches, but were forced back by heavy German artillery fire.

If the battle was a success, why were so many New Zealanders killed?

During the next two days, the Germans continuously shelled the Anzac positions, causing around 3000 New Zealand casualties. Kiwi officers complained there were too many soldiers packed into the forward trenches, but the British commanders thought otherwise, thinking the Germans might try to counterattack and retake them.

In hindsight, the New Zealand trenches at Messines could have been held by half the number of troops, and they would have had half the casualties.

Kiwi survivors from Messines pose for an official photo with a captured German machine gun.
Kiwi survivors from Messines pose for an official photo with a captured German machine gun. Photo credit: NZWW100

The legacy of Messines

Messines has sadly become a footnote in New Zealand military history, overshadowed by Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele and the WWII battles of Crete, El Alamein and Monte Cassino.

No history books have been specifically written about New Zealand's role in the battle, but in 2014 a statue of a Kiwi soldier wearing the classic 'Lemon Squeezer' hat was unveiled in Messines' rebuilt town square.

Messines is arguably more important to New Zealand than Gallipoli, because it was a massive, set-piece battle where New Zealanders took centre stage and were relied upon by the British to 'get the job done'.

The Kiwis certainly did get the job done, but they paid a very heavy price.