On 7 June 1917 Allied troops were fighting their way into the village of Messines, near Ypres in Belgium, in one of the most successful offensives of the Great War.
Now, 100 years on, Staffordshire is set to commemorate the battle and the role of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which was based at the military training camps on Cannock Chase from late 1917.
The battle lasted seven days and was an important moment in the history of the NZRB. But such a spectacular victory came at a price, with some 24,500 allied casualties sustained, 5,000 of which were New Zealanders.
Staffordshire played an important role during the Great War where the two military training camps on Cannock Chase trained over half a million troops for the trenches from across the UK and abroad. Today, they survive as some of the most complete Great War archaeological sites in the country.
It was here that men from the NZRB built an intricate scaled model of part of the battlefield at Messines which was used to train troops in battle tactics and map reading. The model, made of concrete and about the size of five tennis courts, was excavated and recorded by archaeologists in 2013 and is thought to be the only one of its kind in the country.
The model showed not only Messine’s buildings and structures, hills and streams but both the German and NZRB trench lines and sniper positions. Using such a model would not have been a standard approach to training at the time, but is thought would have allowed men to physically walk the battle zone to understand the best way to attack.
Gill Heath, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet member for Communities, said: “Staffordshire played a vital role training troops during the Great War and we’re incredibly proud to have such a valuable heritage site on our doorstep.
“The discovery and recording of the Messines model is particularly special and, as a rare example of its kind, is recognised as having both national and international significance. It offers us an insight into ‘modern’ approaches to training.”
“As custodians of this important landscape and its history, it is vital that we remember the work of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade and its role in the Battle of Messines as well as the many British units which trained on the Chase.”
Soldiers would have spent time at the training camps to learn the skills required on the Western Front. Lines of practice trenches, sniper ranges, the railway, remains of the parade ground and hut bases, and a Great War Hut are all still visible.
A special memorial on Armistice Day for Freda the dog who was the Mascot of the NZRB also rests on Cannock Chase near to the site of the Messines terrain model. The Commonwealth Cemetery on Cannock Chase is also now the resting place for hundreds of troops including those from the NZRB who were based on Cannock Chase.
Sir Jerry Mateparae, New Zealand High Commissioner to the UK, said: “I applaud the County Council and the community for all the work they are doing to commemorate the Battle of Messines and the special link New Zealand has with Cannock Chase.
“It’s fantastic to see the connection between New Zealand and Staffordshire still so strong 100 years after the New Zealand Rifle Brigade trained at Cannock Chase.”
Staffordshire County Council Archaeologist Steve Dean talks about the Battle of Messines on its 100th anniversary and the county’s role during the Great War in this short video,
You can find out more about Staffordshire’s role during WWI at www.staffordshiregreatwar.com