Up here, on a clear, sunny morning, you can see what the Battle of Messines was all about. This gentle ridge rises near the ancient Belgian town of Ypres. The Flanders plain stretches out below.
Whoever holds Messines Ridge controls hundreds of square miles of territory.
From here, as battlefield guide Alan Whittle explains to a party of visitors from the West Midlands, an army can see and destroy anything it chooses.
In the summer of 1917 the Germans had held Messines Ridge for three years. They had turned it into an impregnable fortress, raining hellfire and poison gas on the British troops below.
In the space of 24 hours, all that changed. The Battle of Messines was not the usual pointless, bloody charge at the barbed wire that cost so many lives here on the Western Front – the tactics mercilessly parodied in Blackadder Goes Forth. Messines was meticulously planned by General Hubert Plumer and his staff and it was that rarest of things, a great British victory.
Hundreds of miles away, in the old First World War training camp on Cannock Chase, archaeologists are today patiently uncovering a tennis-court sized model of the town of Messines. It is believed to have been built partly as a training aid and partly in tribute to the Tommies who seized the ridge.
On the actual battlefield, nearly 100 years later, visitors place little wooden crosses on the graves of some of those who died in the fighting. This three-day pilgrimage to Ypres and Messines was organised by the Queen’s Own Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanry Comrades’ Association which includes former members of 871 Signal Troop, based in Stourbridge until it was wound up in Territorial Army cutbacks a few years ago.
Retired major Malcolm Cooper, from Norton, Stourbridge, and former sergeant-major Barry Weaver, from Cradley, who both served with the signal troop lay their crosses on the graves of Tommies in Lone Tree Cemetery who died in a terrible miscalculation. These doomed soldiers left their trenches too soon and were killed in the explosion of a British mine.
It was the mines that won the battle. For months before, British sappers, like those immortalised in the Sebastian Faulks novel and television drama Birdsong, had been digging. They planted 455 tons of high explosives deep under the German trenches on Messines Ridge.
In the early hours of June 7, 1917, the mines were detonated. Nineteen enormous explosions ripped apart a 10-mile section of the ridge.
In 20 seconds an estimated 10,000 German soldiers were killed. Many, as Alan Whittle explains to his silent audience, simply vanished, vapourised in volcanoes of fire as the mines erupted. Some folk said they could hear the bangs in London.
As all hell broke loose, the officers blew their whistles and 80,000 British, Australian and New Zealander soldiers, supported by tanks and low-flying aircraft, rose from their trenches and swept up on to the ridge, capturing hundreds of Germans who were too injured or shell-shocked to fight back.
By this stage of the war, there was little chivalry left. Some Germans, determined not to surrender, emerged from their trenches and dug-outs, firing into the Tommies from behind.
Retribution was swift and sometimes savage. In his memoir, From Mons to Messines, written in 1985, Sgt Charles Arnold of the Border Regiment recalled: “We caught one fellow in the act. We simply made a target of him. We all lay around him about 50 yards away and took turns to have a shot at him. He had a good few wounds by the time we had finished. Then I sent one of our chaps to finish him.”
The British captured their objectives. German counter-attacks were driven off. Enemy gun batteries far behind the fighting were picked off one by one by British guns and warplanes.
And then, as so often in the Great War, it all went wrong. If the victorious British had pushed on against the stunned and demoralised Germans, they might have shortened the war by many months. But the generals wasted precious weeks.
By the time they launched the Third Battle of Ypres, the autumn rain was falling and the assault bogged down in the mud, blood and agony of Passchendaele.
Next year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Many more pilgrimages like this will visit France and Belgium to pay their respects in thousands of little acts of remembrance.
At New Irish Farm Cemetery near Ypres, Barry Weaver’s wife Ann stoops to plant her wooden cross on the grave of a Black Country lad.
Private Walter Boots, 30, of 15 Green Lane, Lye, was the husband of Eliza and was killed on September 11, 1917, one of almost a million British and Commonwealth soldiers who perished between 1914 and 1918.
And on Messines Ridge visitors gather, alone with their thoughts, at the Pool of Peace, a placid, lily-fringed lake the size of a football pitch. It fills the biggest mine crater from June 7, 1917 when a ridge in Flanders became a line of smoking craters.
On the eve of the Battle of Messines a senior officer told the waiting reporters: “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”