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Taking the Ridge


Messines in 1917




10 Questions with Jeff McNeill



Book cover: Taking the Ridge by Jeff McNeill.


Q.1: What was the Battle of Messines?

The Battle of 1917 was the British attack and capture of a low-lying ridge just south-east of Ypres. Intended to stop the Germans observing British preparations for the large 3rd Ypres battle at the end of the year, its success was marred by mission creep. Notable for the 19 enormous mines exploded at the start of the battle under the German positions, the battle was significant for the use of artillery, tanks and aircraft to support the infantry as they advanced.


Q2: What made the Battle of Messines special?

Many things. It was a ‘state of the art’ battle featuring the latest technology and tactics. The 19 mines. But it was also the New Zealand Division’s biggest victory of the war with one in five of all New Zealand soldiers in the First World War involved. Midway between the bloody ‘half-victory’ of the Somme in September 1916 and the complete disaster of Passchendaele in October 1917, the Division was fighting-fit, and itching to fight. This was New Zealand’s great victory of the war, one that everyone associated with it proudly claimed a part in.


Q3: Why did you write this book?

I didn’t want to write it! My grandfather fought in the battle and I just wanted to find out what he did there. There was no book to tell me so I began researching for myself. At the 90th Anniversary of the battle commemorations at Mesen as Messines is now known I found lots of other people with relations who had fought there, but who had no idea what had happened. I want to share my discoveries so that they, too, can know what their relations had done.


Q4: The book’s subtitle is ‘Anzacs and Germans at the Battle of Messines 1917’. Is Taking the Ridge only about New Zealanders at the Battle of Messines?

No. It focuses on the New Zealand Division. But 11 other divisions fought that day, each relying on the success of the others. So I look at the other II ANZAC Corps divisions fighting with the New Zealanders – the Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions and British 25th Division – as well as IX and X Corps more generally again. I also look at the German divisions opposing II ANZAC. Context is important so I include fighting at La Basse-Ville that immediately followed and Passchendaele in October 1917 which is the playout of Messines.


Q5: You are a geographer – what do geographers bring to war history?

Historical geography concerns the spatial dimension of an historical event – who was where and why. I used histories and archival material from both sides of No Man’s Land to establish where everyone was at different times, where they went and what they did, which I then mapped. Geographers are also interested in people – who they are and where they came from. I use some simple statistical techniques to provide a very clear sense of who the men and officers on both sides were.


Q6: The maps in Taking the Ridge are amazingly detailed. Tell us more about them.

Terrain is very important in battle and I wanted to show the small differences in the landscape that were so important at Messines. I used LiDAR – think laser-Radar – data to build a computerised three-dimensional battlefield model. It is incredibly detailed, down to one square metre resolution. I then overlaid the 1917 trench maps and the men’s positions. The resulting maps clearly show why the trenches were dug where they were but also how and why the battle played out as it did.


Q7: Why is your book different from others about this battle and about the First World War?

Firstly, it is an historical geography – I explore the spatial dimension and the chronological sequence of events by taking a cross-section of the battle-field from behind the ANZAC rear area, across the frontline trenches and through to the German area. But it is the first New Zealand history to look at this war from the German side, using German as well as the New Zealand archival material. I tell who the New Zealand and German soldiers were and their experiences. It gives a very different gloss to the battle and what happened.


Q8: What impressed you the most researching the Battle of Messines?

The sheer scale. 8,000 New Zealanders attacked on a front just 1˝ kilometres wide and advancing the same distance. Many more were in support roles. And this was replicated by eight other divisions along a 15-kilometre front. 150,000 British troops. Not to mention the tens of thousands of Germans. Mind-boggling. But also that this was a very sophisticated, state of the art battle in terms of technology, tactics and organisation. This was no ‘lions led by donkeys’ bloodbath.


Q9: What was most challenging to write about?

Trying to make sense of conflicting German, New Zealand and Australian versions of what happened was challenging. I sometimes wondered if they were fighting the same battle! But the hardest part was when I read the service records of men killed on the first day for statistical analysis. You cannot help but get to know these men a little but you also know that in every case their lives ended that day. Not conducive for a good night’s sleep!


Q10: A century after its end do we still need books about the First World War?

Surprisingly perhaps, we do. We want to know about our soldier forbears. But more broadly, the soldiers’ actions at Messines have direct relevance today. My research reveals some very questionable behaviour. The men frankly tell of carrying out what can only be described as war crimes. My findings challenge the Anzac ‘colonial exceptionalism’ and accepted myths. And, I believe, help explain questionable Anzac actions in Afghanistan that Nicky Hager’s 2015 Hit and Run and the 2020 Australian Brereton Report describe.


See also


Dr Jeff McNeill holding the base of German barbed wire stake found at Messines, designed to be screwed quietly into the ground to avoid noisy hammering that could attract a machine gun attack







“Geographer’s ‘foot’ notes on WWI Battle of Messines”

The discovery of an Anzac soldier’s boots and foot bones six years ago at the WWI Battle of Messines site in Belgium inspired a Massey University academic to learn more about a slice of military history he says has been overlooked in modern times…

[click here to read]


Jeff talks about discovering a New Zealand rifleman’s foot at Messines, a story he tells in ‘The Foot’ which he wrote for the Journal of Urgent Writing Vol.1, Massey University Press, 2016.


Read ‘The foot’ here [click here]


Book cover, Journal of Urgent Writing, Massey University Press



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