Digging Up The Crater

I’ve been watching parts of “Digging Up The Trenches” on the Military Channel tonight. One segment deals with the Battle of Messines (7 June, 1917) in Flanders which has some very obvious parallels to the Battle of the Crater fought near Petersburg almost exactly 53 years before.

The objective in the Flanders battle was Messines Ridge, a salient of high ground that projected into the British lines near Ypres and dominated their lines. Like the Pennsylvania miners at Petersburg, the British and Canadian forces constructed some massive mines:

Over a period beginning more than a year before the attack, Canadian, Australian, and British engineers had tunneled under the German trenches and laid 21 mines totaling 455 tonnes of ammonal. To solve the problem of wet soil, the tunnels were made in the layer of “blue clay“, 80 to 120 feet (25 to 30 m) below the surface. The galleries dug in order to lay these mines totalled over 8,000 yards (7,300 m) in length, and had been constructed in the face of tenacious German counter-mining efforts. On several occasions, German tunnelers were within metres of large British mine “chambers”. One mine was found by the Germans, and the chamber was wrecked by a countermine. It is likely that this is one of the two unexploded mines

The largest of the 21 Messines mines was at Spanbroekmolen; the “Lone Tree Crater” formed by the blast was approximately 250 feet (80 m) in diameter, and 40 feet (12 m) deep. The mine consisted of 41 tons of ammonal explosive, located in a chamber dug 88 feet (27 m) below ground.

Unlike the Crater, the British attack had limited objectives—the seizure of the high ground in the salient—and was carefully integrated with a massive artillery barrage and an infantry assault. The assault was completely successful, with some 10,000 Germans being simply vaporized or buried. Counterattacks were disorganized and unsuccessful.

The Crater, OTOH, has become a symbol of incompetence and needless waste of life. General George Meade changed the assault plan the day before the attack, pulling out the specially-trained division of U.S.C.T. troops scheduled to lead. To make matters worse, the man who did lead the attack, James Ledlie, was probably the worst general in the Army of the Potomac. The attack stalled and the Federals were eventually driven back by a ferocious series of Confederate counterattacks, losing over 5,000 men. Then too, the ultimate Union objective—the capture of Petersburg—was an ambitious one and l think unlikely to have been attained given the forces involved.

Still, overall this is an interesting comparison and yet another example of how Petersburg presaged the trench warfare of WWI, and certainly not something that I’d characterize as “Napoleonic.”


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