The Yser 1914

The battle to save Belgium

On 9 October 1914 the Belgian fortress town of Antwerpen (Antwerp/Anvers) was finally battered into submission and capitulate. An expeditionary force consisting of the newly formed Royal Naval Division which had set out to aid the beleaguered town found itself back in England after only four days, its mission pre-emptied by the steam roller of the German siege guns.

King Albert I, King of the Belgians, was forced to retire with his small army towards the French frontier. The king steadfastly refused to leave his country and called upon his soldiers to show themselves worthy of their land.

A general line of defence was set up following the line of the river IJzer. This followed a line from Lombardsijde, through Mannekensvere, Schore, Keiem, Beerst, Vladso and Diksmuide. The French were moving Territorial Divisions up to try and hold Ieper whilst the British Expeditionary Force were also moving towards Ieper and the coast.

The Battle of the Yser - to give the river its then French name - was opened on 16 October 1914 with heavy attacks on both Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. The battle weary Belgian army who had been doggedly retreating before superior numbers for the past two months, fell back once more.

The Belgian flag at Ramskapelle cemetery

Ramskapelle Military Cemetery

Behind their advanced line lay the IJzer river and behind that the main railway line between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. This entire area is the polders - land reclaimed from the sea and criss-crossed by a network of drainage ditches and waterways.

The IJzer forms a natural barrier between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide with three bridges at Tervate, Schoorbakke and Lombardsijde.

To cover this 35 kilometre front the Belgians had four Divisions available plus a force of 6000 French Fusiliers Marins under Amiral Ronarc'h. From Diksmuide towards Ieper the line was held by a fifth Belgian Division and the French 87th Territorial Division at Steenstraat.

Opposite them the Germans were moving 4 Corps into place.

On 18 October The Germans attempted to advance on Westende to the north of Nieuwpoort only to be brought to a shuddering halt by offshore fire from the British Royal Navy ships.

Throughout the opening months of the war in Belgium a deciding factor had not just been the number of troops the Germans could apply to an offensive but also the weight of their artillery, which was heavier, more modern and very much more numerous than the Allies could muster.

Inland and away from the protective Screen of the Royal Navy's Monitors (In effect floating gun platforms) the Belgians were forced back towards the IJzer.

At Diksmuide, however, the Fusiliers Marins were not only managing to hang on but they even managed to retake Vladso - but the advance of the Feldgrau line seemed as relentless as ever. Vladso and Keiem fell once again to the Germans.

Belgian Begraafplaats Keiem Belgian Begraafplaats Keiem
German Soldatenfriedhof Vladso German Soldatenfriedhof Vladso

The Belgians gave ground reluctantly fighting for these last few kilometres of Belgian territory, but rifle ammunition no matter how well used was powerless against the 210mm howitzers that were now arriving at the front following the destruction of the Antwerpen forts.

 
Colonel Jacques

The statue to Colonel Jacques in Diksmuide

Diksmuide

By 20 October the 43rd and 44th German Reserve Divisions were pressing hard against Diksmuide held by just two Belgian Regiments and Ronarc'h's force of sailors.

The Belgian 12th Linie Regiment (Line Regiment) commanded by Colonel Jacques had all of the roads to the east to cover, whilst the Admiral was guarding the western approaches. He was making good use of the Minoterie (French for flour mill) as an observation base - the following year the Germans would be using it as an artillery base to pound the Belgian defences at the Dodengang alongside the river.

The Dodengang The Dodengang

At 09:00 hours that morning the Germans opened up with their heavy artillery in a bombardment which the British Official History describes as: extremely violent.

The reduction of Diksmuide to rubble had begun, with a strong wind doing nothing to help the fire fighters.

The Germans closed in again taking Esen to the east, but again the Belgian garrison held firm.

On the 21st King Albert moved his headquarters to De Panne on the coast but still just within his kingdom and here it would stay for the duration of the war.

That evening at the request of Lieutenant General, Baron Dossin de Saint-Georges, Hendrik Geeraert assisted the army in opening one of the sluice gates at Nieuwpoort to flood part of the polders directly in front of the town.

The Germans cross the IJzer

The following day using a makeshift bridge the Germans managed to get themselves across the IJzer near Tervate and a heroic but belated counter attack by Major Henri d'Oultremont and his 2nd Bn 1st Grenadiers was murderously beaten off.

A monument to the Major and his men was later unveiled by King Leopold III near the bridge.

The 23rd October saw the arrival of the French 42nd Division at Nieuwpoort to aid the Belgian garrison, but the situation was becoming more and more desperate.

 
From the Albert Memorial in Nieuwpoort the sea is easily seen

From the Albert Memorial in Nieuwpoort the sea is easily seen

 
The Ronarc'h Fusiliers Marins Memorial

The Memorial to Amiral Ronarc'h and his Fusiliers Marins

On 24 October General d'Urbal the French commander in the sector issued Amiral Ronarc'h orders which were quite specific.

Le passage de Dixmude devra être tenu par vous tant qu'il restera un fusilier marin vivant, quoi qu'il puisse arriver à votre droite ou à votre gauche et quoi que fassent les troupes belges qui opèrent avec vous. Si vous êtes trop pressé, vous vous enterrez dans les tranchées. Si vous êtes tournë vous ferez des tranchées du côté tourné. Le seule hypothèse qui ne puisse être envisagée, c'est la retraite.

In essence: Whilst there is a sailor left alive Diksmuide will be held. No matter what happens on your right or left, and regardless of what the Belgians do. If you are hard pressed dig in, and on all sides if necessary. Retreat cannot be countenance.

Detail from the memorial

Detail from the memorial

Ronarc'h would reply the following day that Diksmuide had been subjected by 15 separate attacks during the previous 24 hours with a constant bombardment to match. He also recognised the fact that the Belgian soldiers holding the approach roads were not only exhausted but almost out of ammunition. He did not have to point out to d'Urbal that he himself didn't actually have any artillery and was relying on the Belgians.

The British and French were by now also actively engaged in front of Ieper and the Germans were beginning to think that perhaps there was an easier way to break the Allied line - crushing the Belgians seemed to be the easier approach.

 

Inundation

Part of the polders had by now already been flooded, but the application of such a defensive strategy on a wider scale would need careful thought and control. It wasn't a simple matter of open the flood gates and let the sea do the rest. The level of water would have to be controlled and control would also have to be maintained as to where that water went.

The obvious next line of defence was the Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide railway embankment and Belgian engineers were soon at work damming the 22 culverts under the line (You can now cycle along it). Time was pressing as there would be a full moon on 29 October and this would give the high tide and with it the greatest chance of success.

 
The modern sluice gates at Nieuwpoort

The modern sluice gates at Nieuwpoort

 

Everything would hinge on the Oud-Veurnesas sluice gates at Nieuwpoort. They would have to be opened and held open until the correct level of water had been achieved. If the engineers had done their work the polders between the IJzer and the railway line would go under water - but nothing else.

An initial attempt to get the sluice gates open failed but a second attempt on the 28th succeeded.

The Belgian soldiers had already started to fall back towards their new defensive line and the village of Ramskapelle where the railway line all but meets the river.

On the night of 29 October the services of Hendrik Geeraert were once again called upon. To finish flooding the area completely the Belgians needed to get the sluice gates on the Noordvaart opened - the only problem being that these were now in the middle of no-man's land. Geeraert and a small patrol crept out into the dark and the gates were opened.

The Germans continued to attack in the area putting the initial dampness under foot down to the bad weather.

On 30 October the Germans stormed into Ramskapelle threatening the entire strategy and putting the Allied line in severe danger of being punctured and rolled up. At the very least the channel ports would be an open target.

Behind Ramskapelle there was nothing, Belgian resources had run dry and the French 42nd Division had already started to engage its troops.

With the north sea arriving like slow motion cavalry the Belgians summoned every piece of artillery they could lay their hands on and with the aid of the French charged the Germans at bayonet point. The Germans were pushed back out of the village into the deepening water. The centime finally dropped and the Germans retreated back behind the IJzer.

From here on in, the Germans would turn their attention on Ieper.

The Belgians had lost about 4,000 killed and perhaps 11,000 wounded from an initial figure of some 60,000 soldiers.

Ramskapelle Ramskapelle