The Largest Man-Made Explosion Before The Atomic Bomb
2017 is a very special year to commemorate World War I history in the United States and abroad. Just this past April, America reflected on the 100th Anniversary of its entry into "The war to end all wars.” When the U.S. committed its forces to the battlefield in 1917, the conflict had been raging across Europe since 1914. While America’s involvement unquestionably helped lead the Allies to victory in 1918, it’s important that we also remember the stories and sacrifices of our allies.
Two months after the United States announced it was entering World War I on behalf of the Allies, British troops, among many others, were bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front. Trench warfare along this 400-mile stretch of land weaving through France and Belgium made full frontal assaults on an opposing sides position a suicidal action. Learning this lesson often came at the price of many lives. After just one day of fighting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, British troops suffered more than 57,000 casualties. Military planners were constantly trying to come up with ways to break the deadlock. On June 7, 1917, British forces found an explosive way to destroy a section of German trenches at the Battle of Messines.
Allied troops leaving their trenches to attack German lines along the Western Front. (Photo: Caters News Agency)
Before the Battle of Messines began, British Major General Charles Harrington stood before a group of reporters on the Western Front. These reporters knew that a major offensive was rumored and were eager for more details. Harrington uttered these words, which would come to define the battle ahead, “Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow.” He added, “But we shall certainly alter the geography.”
For two years, British engineers had been tirelessly burrowing under German lines near the Belgian village of Messines. In a piece for National Geographic, Neil Shea writes, “Their network of tunnels was intricate and deep, with some passages descending more than 100 feet to chambers packed with thousands of pounds of explosives.”
British Engineers burrowing under German lines. (Photo: The Print Collector)
At 3:10 a.m. on June 7, 1917, British engineers detonated 19 mines that they had buried deep below the German positions along a ridge outside Messines. According to Shea, “The mines totaling nearly 1 million pounds of explosives, are believed to have created one of the largest human-caused explosions before the nuclear era.” As the mines were fired off, British troops standing in their trenches were knocked off their feet. The blast was felt in France, where the shockwave was mistaken for an earthquake. It has even been written that the detonations were so loud that the British Prime Minister in London heard it.
A photograph of the crater left by one of the biggest blasts during the Battle of Messines. (Photo: independent.co.uk)
The detonations completely caught the Germans by surprise. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 German soldiers were killed during the explosions. Some of them were sleeping underground at the time and were buried alive as a result. Nigel Steel is a senior historian at Imperial War Museums in London. He noted that the detonations; “Had a devastating effect on the Germans." He explains further, "With so many mines going off, one after the other, none of them knew how many more there were to come and whether they too were about to be killed by a cataclysmic explosion.” Like British Major General Charles Harrington had said, “We shall certainly alter the geography.” His words were true. The blast changed the face of the landscape.
German bodies lay strewn around a destroyed entrenched position. (Photo: ww1westernfront.gov.au)
The mine detonations had done exactly what British commanders had hoped. Enemy fortifications were in a state of disarray and its defenders were either dead or in a state of shock. The opening phase of the Battle of Messines was a complete success. The battle lasted a week and by its end, Allied forces had taken territory previously held by their enemy. Most importantly, they did it with flexible and fast tactics that helped reduce the number of friendly casualties.
100 years have now passed since this explosion that shook the earth in a way that it never had before. The land around this area still bears the scars of battle to this day. The explosion at Messines was the largest man-made explosion before the use of nuclear weapons in the Second World War. We must never forget that the road to victory in any conflict is often filled with difficult decisions to use the ultimate means of destruction.
A photo of what the crater from the Battle of Messines looks like today. In this particular image, a wooden cross with a poppy has been left at what some now call the "Pool of Peace" in Heuvelland, Belgium. (Photo: dailymail.co.uk)