Like the British Royal Naval Division, the French Marines were reservist sailors who had been incorporated into a land based Brigade and sent to Belgium to assist in the defence of Antwerp. The only member of their Brigade who had ever fought on land was their commander, Amiral Pierre Ronarc’h who had fought during the Chinese Boxer rebellion.
Having reached Gent the Brigade turned around and retired on Diksmuide (Dixmude) where they were under instructions to form a point of resistance. Général Foch wrote to the Amiral stating that :
In the current circumstances, the tactics that you will apply will not be those of manoeuvre but simply, and to the greatest degree, to resist where you stand… You will stop the enemy…
Ronarc’h had just his two Regiments available (each of three battalions, like any other active regiment) and placed one in the trenches in front of the town and the other on the left bank of the river.
Alongside Ronarc’h were 5,000 Belgian infantry under the command of Colonel Meiser and to the north they were linked to the remainder of the Belgian Army. To the south, though, the French cavalry at Houthulst Forest could only offer limited aid.
By 20th October, the Germans’ 43 and 44 Reserve Divisions were pressing hard against Diksmuide, the only sector on the right bank of the IJzer still in ‘Belgian’ hands.
Immediately north of Diksmuide is one of the bridges across the river at Tervate and perhaps unfortunately this was also the boundary between the Belgians’ 1st and 4th Divisions. On the night of the 21st October the German 26 Infantry Regiment managed to get across the river with a make-shift bridge and assaulted the defences around the bridge.
A heroic but belated counter-attack by Commandant Henri d’Oultremont and his 2e Bataillon, 1er Grenadiers was murderously beaten off and d’Oultremont killed.
A monument to the Major and his men was later unveiled by King Leopold III near the bridge.
Ronarc’h sent two of his battalions to assist but all they could do was slow the Germans down. With the enemy across the river, Diksmuide risked being surrounded.
At 0900 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 24th October Général d’Urbal the recently appointed commander of French troops 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 countenanced.
Ronarc’h would reply the following day that Diksmuide had been subjected to fifteen separate attacks during the previous twenty-four 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 — who were badly short of shells.
Critically, despite having been reinforced with the 1er and 3e Bataillon de Tirailleurs sénégalais (African Infantry) which formed a composite regiment –- and one that had its commander killed on the first day — he remarked that he doubted that he could hold the eastern side of the town for longer than twenty-four hours.
The Germans had taken Beerst and then Esen to the east and from here they tried infiltrating the town.
On the 27th October the Belgians began flooding the polders in front of the Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide railway line (its embankment, just a metre and a half high forming a dyke) once all of its culverts had been blocked.
The Germans eventually had to give up almost all of their positions on the west bank of the IJzer, importantly retaining a position around a set of petroleum tanks to the north of what would become the Dodengang trench system.
The Belgian 12de Linie Regiment (Line Regiment) commanded by Colonel Jacques (who took command of the Brigade from the injured Colonel Meiser on the 25th) had all the roads to the east to cover, whilst Ronarc’h‘s Marines and Africans guarded the western bank. The Allies were making good use of the Minoterie (French for an industrial flour mill) as an observation base. It was situated on the right bank just down stream from the current IJzertor, and the following year the Germans would be using it as an artillery base to pound the Belgian defences at the Dodengang alongside the river.
With the Battle of the Yser coming to a close the Germans decided on a further attempt to capture Diksmuide.
During the night of the 9th/10th November they bombarded what remained of the town and that morning launched an assault from Esen which broke through between the Belgians and the Senegalese. Threatened with encirclement the Allied garrison was forced to retire across the IJzer to the left bank.
The Germans would take the town but could not go any further despite constant efforts to force a passage across the river over the following days.
On 16th November the Brigade Navale was relieved at the front. It had suffered a 75% casualty rate in its defence of Diksmuide. Casualties amongst the Belgian defenders ran to similarly high numbers, casualties that it would be hard to replace now that Belgium was almost entirely occupied.
Years later the 12de Linieregiment would be amalgamated with the 13de Linieregiment to form the : Bataillon Léger 12e de Ligne Prince Léopold – 13e de Ligne. The regiment is the most decorated of the Belgian Regiments.