It’s 3:09 am on 7 June 1917 on the frontline at Hill 60 on Messines Ridge, Belgium. In one minute, nineteen mines, secretly laid by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, will be detonated beneath German trenches. Nearly half a million kilograms of explosives are set to erupt in what will be the world’s biggest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb. The reverberations will be heard as far away as London.
Almost exactly 100 years on, Messines Ridge on Belgium’s World War I Western Front is a quiet, green patchwork of fields, still pockmarked with shell holes, dotted with marble headstones. Soaring white memorials are scattered across this sombre Western Front landscape, red poppies punctuate the greenery. It’s hard to imagine the narrow labyrinth of claustrophobic tunnels, oozing mud and crumbling, dirt ceilings. Yet for the men of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, this underground mine maze beneath Flanders fields was their World War I battlefield.
Many people would not link June 1917’s massive mining explosion and the subsequent Battle of Messines with Sir John Monash. Monash’s role in the offensive, his first as Major General of the 3rd Australian Division, is often overshadowed by his 1918 rise to Lieutenant General, when he was given command of the newly formed Australian Corps and coordinated the successful 1918 Battle of Le Hamel in France’s Somme Valley. Yet his leadership in the Battle of Messines was a significant occasion on which Monash managed to prove himself in Army ranks.
Sir John Monash (National Anzac Centre)
During World War I, Monash’s battles weren’t limited to the frontline as he fought for recognition among the British leaders of the Australian Imperial Forces. Monash faced prejudice for entering the militia through the part-time Army Reserve, rather than progressing through military officer training at Duntroon military academy. He was also discriminated against for his Prussian migrant origins and his Jewish religion.
As the centenary approaches, the Battle of Messines, including Monash’s role in it, is being remembered through a Belgian/Australian commemorative medal. The medal’s design has stemmed from an Australian Tunnellers memorial wall relief created by Melbourne sculptor Michael Meszaros, inspired and commissioned by Queensland film producer Ross Thomas.
In 2010, Thomas was the executive producer of World War I film Beneath Hill 60, which told the little known story of the Australian miners who tunnelled at Hill 60 beneath Messines Ridge. Townsville’s Army Museum North Queensland now hosts Meszaros’ wall relief, a permanent memorial to the Australian Mining Corps of 1916-1918. It’s an appropriate place for this commemoration as the Corps comprised civilian men with a mining background, many of whom came from the mines of Northern Queensland.
Ross Thomas beside Michael Meszaros’ sculpture
For Meszaros, this wall relief is about remembering one of the war’s most unique battles, led by a figure whose religion and ethnic background saw him marginalised.
“Messines ridge was Monash’s first command and that seemed to me a pretty significant point in the career of somebody who then went on to make a big contribution to finishing off the war,” Meszaros says.
His work comes amid a push, led by former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, to elevate Monash to the rank of field marshal, as during the war he was not promoted beyond lieutenant general. Monash had influential enemies conspiring against him, including Australia’s First World War historian Charles Bean, who wrote of the military leader:
“His ambition makes him an underground engineer: he has the Jewish capacity of worming silently into favour without seeming to take any steps towards it, although many are beginning to suspect that he does take steps.”
Bean noted in his diary at the time: “We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of the ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves forward.”
Messines Ridge was a high point to the south of the strategic First World War city of Ypres, which provided the Germans with a clear view of Allied activities below. Securing this raised ground was a crucial step in allowing the Allies to launch larger campaigns in the Ypres Salient, a semi-circular bulge in the trench line that projected into German territory, exposing the Allies to ferocious fire on three sides.
Underground, the ridge was a maze of over 20 tunnels which had been begun in 1915 by British and Canadian miners. The Hill 60 mineshaft was taken over by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company in November 1916. The tunnels, some of which were 600 metres long and 30 metres below ground, were loaded with ammonal (an explosive compound of ammonium nitrate and aluminium powder) to destroy the German trenches above.
The post-explosion battlefield allowed soldiers from the II ANZAC Corps, including Monash’s 3rd Division, to rush through and take the ridge. Like for Monash himself, this was a time for the 3rd Division to prove themselves, being their first battle on the Western Front after arriving in France. By the time the battle ended on 14 June, the Allies had forced the Germans off the ridge, costing the lives of over 6,000 Australians.
“Apparently around 10,000 Germans were killed,” Meszaros says. “All the trenches snapped shut from the concussion and the soldiers who weren’t actually blown up were crushed in the trenches.”
“They reckon the army could have gone on all the way to Berlin, because there was nothing behind the ridge defences.”
The various elements of the underground explosions that caused this destruction have been carefully depicted by Meszaros in his artwork. On the relief and on the medal, a miner sits on a horizontal plank with a moveable seat, using his body weight to push a spade into the tunnel wall and lever off chunks of clay. This method of “clay kicking”, originating from Cornish mining practices, relied on another miner to collect the fallen clay, which would be transported down the line on a small railway to be used in defensive sandbags.
“They had to be really careful because the clay in a lot of those areas was blue and if the bags turned blue the enemy would see that they were digging, [the enemy] would know that there was tunnelling going on and they could then counter it,” Meszaros says.
The Germans had also built a network of tunnels, and the sawn-off rifle in the relief tells of the “savage fights in very constricted spaces” that occurred when the two sides met.
“There was this cat and mouse game going on underground between the two opposing tunnelling courses and occasionally they would meet and accidentally break through into each other’s tunnel,” Meszaros says. “Then there would be a nasty little underground skirmish. The rifle was sawn off because there was so little space to manoeuvre it.”
Michael Meszaros and Barbara Woodward, daughter of Oliver Woodward, commander of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company
Small details of the artwork tell big stories. A stethoscope-type instrument with two sensors is a geophone, which was used to estimate how far away tunnellers were from where the German enemy tunnellers were digging.
“If there was any hammering or picking, that sound travels underground very efficiently and they used the geophone to pick that up,” he says.
This year, a Belgian colleague of Meszaros from the International Art Medal Federation, Paul Huybrechts, has completed the commemorative medal that remembers 4,500 Australian soldiers who were involved in tunnelling during the war. One side contains Meszaros’ relief, while the other bears the Rising Sun emblem which was worn by Australian Imperial Force soldiers on their slouch hats during both World Wars.
“With Belgium having had such an impact in the First World War, [Huybrechts] was very keen to do some sort of medallic venture to commemorate the connection between Australia and Belgium,” says Meszaros.
Two hundred and fifty bronze medals have been struck, with the Australian War Memorial and the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance already making purchases. Meszaros hopes the medal will generate public awareness about a story that has stayed quiet for many years.
“This was an almost unknown aspect of WWI until Ross Thomas started his work on making it publicly known. I hope that purchasers of the medal may be moved by what it shows and also may be moved to learn more about the tunnellers and the large numbers of soldiers involved,” he says.
“The tunnellers are still much less known than many other aspects of the war, so we hope that this may change that.”
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