Big Bertha

Big Bertha
Circa 1940, on the streets of Rochester New York, Bertha does her work.
"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

Paul Valery

"You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time."

The Wisdom of the Ages

"When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed',"

Mikhail Kalashnikov
"Here lies the bravest soldier I've seen since my mirror got grease on it."

Zapp Brannigan

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I've been a while putting this together. It started as "the story of the chunk of abandoned machinery", then it was "the one unaccounted-for mine of the twenty-two (!) mines fired simultaneously (insofar as possible), to kick off the assault on the Messines Ridge at zero hour, 03:10, 7 June, 1917".
Then I came to the conclusion that this story is a big chunk so I'm just going to concentrate on one little bit.
Of course, when we say "mines" we're not talking about those wicked little pieces of evil that are killing and maiming farmers and livestock as we speak.
No, these are the real deal. Yet another resurrection of some bygone, war making concept. Back in the day - before gun-powder - when the stone curtain wall of a castle presented a serious obstacle, the siege weapon of least glamour but most efficacy was "mining". That is: Digging tunnels under the bad-guy's walls until they fall in. Until they were "undermined" if you catch my drift.
Above: On the left: A snippet of a map from "War Underground : The Tunnelers of the Great War" by Alexander Barrie showing an assortment of mines, nine in my excerpt, of the twenty-two planned for the morning. The full map can be seen here.
On the right please find; the latest (yesterday)from our old pals at Google maps (used without permission)of the spot in Belgium with which we're concerned.
That is specifically: the area about half-a-mile to the west of Wytschaete (Wijschate to the modern folk. "White Sheet" to the Tommies).
Anyway, I was at some small pains to orient these two graphics so one can see the location of these, presently remarkably deep, circular ponds and how they correspond to the plan laid out to the left.
The largest of the bunch, although you can't tell from the satellite photo is the one at lower left called, "Spanbroekmolen". Its diameter measured, I assume in 1917, 250' while its rim was 90' wide.It's easy to spot as it's the only one surrounded by brush. It's called "The Pool of Peace" and is maintained by Toc H.
StanleyIn any case, I grow weary and, as I said, it's a long story so I'll bow out but leaving you with one less loose end.
The "Abandoned Machinery" I spoke of at the the beginning was a custom-built tunneling machine made by the Stanley Heading Machine Co. This was an expensive item and different from the others offered by the firm in that it was designed for the notorious "blue-clay" of the Ypres Salient. It was also to be powered electrically as opposed to the Stanley machine pictured.
Long story short, the beast died but, as I said, I grow weary. I'll fill in the blanks on the "Missing Stanley Heading Machine" later.
Hint: It's somewhere on the Brit side of the two Petit Bois mines.
That would be a hell of a thing. Drag all 7 1/2 tons of this ugly, blue-clay-smeared bit of "Great War memorabilia" into the "Antiques Roadshow". I can guarantee, you'd have the only one in the world and wouldn't it look nice in the living room?


Chas S. Clifton said...

So what you are saying is that the deep pools are the craters left by the explosives detonated before the assault?

Oliver Hart-Parr said...

Yes. They're mine craters.

jeg43 said...

Fascinating. I wish the Google map could be overexposed a bit so that the craters would show more distinctly. Have all of the huge mines been exploded? Are the locations of any unexploded ones known?

MoE said...

Jeg - No, and not really. There is at least one of the large mines, which IIRC is 'Birdcage,' that they did not detonate in 1917. At this point, I don't remember if it failed to go off, or they decided not to touch it off as the line of attack had shifted, but in 1919 the army went back in and 'rendered it inert,' and filled in the tunnel. They then promptly lost where it specifically was. So, the mine is a bit to the south of Ultimo and Factory Farm craters, but exactly where, no one is really sure.

The Brits took some precaution about making their handicraft 'safer,' but as was mentioned earlier, a lightning strike set one of the buggers off some years back. I would have to investigate that a bit more; most of these mines were 40-50' underground, a lightning strike is pretty powerful, but 50' of earth is a pretty good insulator; I imagine that there were some extenuating circumstances there.

But, the 'Iron Harvest' is a real, lethal problem in Flanders and NE France. Some chap at UU (not the Unseen University, though that would be funnier) or Utah State did a thesis about it around about 2001; some 30 Flemish and French farmers are killed on average every year by unexploded ordnance from WWI. I think that it was 2003 that some chap woke up to hear his dog barking, went downstairs to find that 1/2 his condo had fallen into an old underground tunnel/bunker. Suburban sprawl is taking over old battlefields, and these things happen on a fairly regular basis.


Pte Harry Lamin said...

"I was there!" And, I'm visiting at the end of the month to have a look on the ground the area around Messines where I wrote the blog letters for

One of these battlefield tour companies has invited me along in return for a talk on Harry.

Anything you want looked at or photographed?

The tow mines taht weren't exploded were outside the main part of that day's attack. They'd been assembling the mines for over a year so it would have been amazing if they were all in the right place. 19 out of 21 ain't bad!

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