[John A. Lee recalls the Battle of Messines].
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A talk by John A. Lee about his recollections of the Battle of Messines in June 1917.
"Dispassionate historians tell us that Messines marked the pinnacle of planned offensive. Passionate soldiers wonder if all the tortured earth were worth a pint of the gallant blood that there was spilled. Preparing for Messines we saw airplanes become so efficient that observation balloons were driven out of the sky.
We saw the town of Messines reduced to rubble as we looked over the parapet in Ploeg Street Wood. We saw artillery assembled until if the guns had been dressed from left to right, they would have been wheel to wheel. We saw models of the hills and slopes of Messines. We knew immense mines had been driven beneath the German lines and with all the mighty assembly of iron and steel and high explosive, we knew in our hearts that the courage and endurance of frail men would be the final arbiter.
As we advanced behind the mightiest barrage ever to be assembled in war, that we knew, we had arranged for mates to write to relatives, if we never returned to our lines. We moved to the launching trenches on a night when cloud, or fog hung low, to crouch against parapets and wait for zero. We were tired after our marching, heavy with equipment, tired at a night's lost sleep. Some of us would never sleep again. Guns fired odd shots but louder than all was the beating of apprehensive hearts. A haphazard German shell, out of the foggy night, and a tank crew grilled to death on the parapet a few yards away. Not a good start.
Messages started to flow from mouth to mouth along the trench, "Two hours to go". The message revived us in spite of the weight of equipment. How few heartbeats to knock the bottom out of two hours. The message came again along the trench, "One hour to go". The time and the heart starts to race - "Half an hour to go" and then the messages came faster and faster: "Twenty minutes to go". Beating hearts, quivering eyelids, a twitch or two of the lip and the message says, "Five minutes to go". The air overhead starts to crackle as the high machine gun barrage passes above. "One minute to go", and the crushing weight of each man's equipment has grown strangely light. He has stopped twitching - the weight seems to vary with the frenzy or apprehension of the moment. There are moments when a man can carry vast weights.
"One minute to go" yes , and a few pulse beats and the only way is forward and then came the cry, "Up and over" and on that second, the mightiest barrage of all time was belched from guns behind us and the immense mines in front of Messines exploded and shook the earth beneath our feet, and we were on our way, out of the trench and advancing.
We were the second line which would leapfrog the first, when the first had attained its objective. We stumbled, we tripped, we fell, we got up and went on, eyes to the front. If counter-barrage was hammering any of our mates to earth, that we did not notice. Dawn was surely coming and we were looking through the dawn for men in the field-grey German uniform.
We leapfrogged the first line and the barrage lifted and we walked behind the greatest curtain of Hell in all history. The earth in front of us was being battered as if by rain, literally squirming. We saw a too-eager mate press ahead into our own barrage and disintegrate. A pause or two, a jump or two and the sun was shining.
After zero, who had a sense of time that day? If some had a sense of the approach of eternity. An observation plane above Messines, came low into the track of barrage and a wing was shot off. The plane tipped and the observer took a head-long plunge to earth. His death was noticed - the falling of mates alongside scarcely yet noticed. There wasn't time to notice, no time to look back.
Men in field-grey suddenly were running down the hill to our rear, hands held aloft, "Kamerad, Kamerad" they were calling.
The Germans had every abandoned sap or trench that we occupied measured to the last inch. Their guns played on each portion as we occupied it. When we came to the end of movement, they dropped a terrific bombardment on what I will call the high tide of advance. The area had been shelled so mightily that for miles to right or left or front or rear, there was no blade of grass, yet there were men. Men die, but other men arrive. It takes time to grow grass.
Now we have to possess, to dig and the tortured earth crumbles as rapidly as we shovel. Protection is very hard to get.
As the British was the greatest prepared barrage and bombardment in the history of war, so is now the German counter bombardment - prepared offensive, prepared resistance. The earth has been ransacked of materials to produce the greatest destructive fury of history until that moment.
Now as we crouch and twitch we become conscious of our dead, of our wounded who might survive, of our wounded who must die. This is the moment when there is no time for tears, the occupied country must be held or all the sacrifice has been wasted. As we advanced there was no twitching. As we sit in shell holes waiting for our shell, we start to twitch again. There were so many dead or smashed men around me that as I trembled, I wonder when my turn was coming, so weary that I was falling asleep between the explosion of shells. In one shell hole I sit with seven or eight men, a coal box shrapnel explodes above and all are dead or wounded but myself.
That hot, dreary, fearful day moves slowly and at nightfall a bombardment and counter bombardment shakes earth and air, reddens the twilight. Is the offensive successful? How do we know, we are only soldiers? We dig, we posses our piece of captured earth. We shall not know until we are relieved in five or six days and can read the news in the newspapers. Modern mechanical war is so impersonal. The shell that kills selects so haphazardly.
"Stand to"- at night we wait for counter-attack. Will the Germans come and try and drive us away from Messines? "Stand to" - at daybreak next morning, we again get ready to repel counter attack. But Messines is ours and the war isn't won - it's still a long way to Tipperary.
I have driven my bayonet into the earth to hang up excess bandoliers and when the relief comes in a few days, half my bayonet is rust red. Our captain on relief for Messines, comes to inspect the remains of his company and sees the red rust. "Blood, Lee?" he queries. Impressions of Messines could fill a book.
The most planned offensive, in a sense, was the most planned Hell. War is never lovely but in Hell my New Zealand mates were gallant and kind to one another. They were bound in a mateship I value to this day. A pity so many gallant lads from a young developing country had to lose their lives. War is hell and yet I do not believe, fifty years after, that the world would have been better if the Germanic powers had been allowed to gain a victory.
"Blow golden trumpets mournfully, for all the scattered dreams that the lie under an alien sky."
I am proud to have been of that generation of New Zealanders and to have had for mates, the men who advanced, the men who lived or died on that day at Messines."
Transcript by Sound Archives/Ngā Taonga Kōrero
Reference number 246836
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Nonfiction radio programs
Lee, John A. (John Alexander), 1891-1982, Speaker/Kaikōrero
New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (estab. 1962, closed 1975)
Date Jan 1968