The assault on Passchendaele was part of a vast Allied offensive launched in mid-1917. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig hoped to keep the pressure on the Germans after the great struggle on the Somme the previous year. Haig’s plan involved seizing the Pilkem Ridge and the Geluveld–Passchendaele plateau to open the way for a drive on the town of Roulers. Once this important transport hub was in Allied hands, the British would drive north to the coast to neutralise the German U-boat facilities there.
Before the Passchendaele offensive could be launched, one important preliminary step was required – the removal of the Germans from the Messines ridge to the south. Unless this was done, the enemy would be able to observe preparations for the major offensive. Haig planned a bite-and-hold operation – an attack with strictly limited objectives. The New Zealand Division was among those selected for the assault on the ridge and the village of Messines.
The carefully prepared attack was a striking success. It began at 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917 with the explosion of huge mines that had been placed under the German lines by hard-working tunnellers. Almost immediately, New Zealand troops of 2nd and 3rd (Rifle) brigades left their trenches and advanced towards the ridge in front of them, on which lay the ruins of Messines village. Australian and British troops on either side of them did the same. Following hard behind a meticulously planned sequence of standing and creeping barrages, these troops crossed no man’s land in minutes.
Everything went to schedule, and by 7 a.m. the New Zealanders had cleared Messines of the enemy. Taking over the advance, 1st Brigade pushed beyond the village. A German counter-attack in the early afternoon was repulsed. Australian troops then moved through to secure the final objective line 1.5 kilometres beyond the crest.
The capture of Messines was achieved with relatively few casualties. German artillery fire had been disrupted in the early stages and had had little impact on the advancing troops. As the day wore on, though, German guns began to bombard the newly captured areas with increasing ferocity, and many New Zealand and Allied troops were killed. By the time the New Zealand Division was relieved on 9 June, it had 3700 casualties, including 700 dead.