On the 15th October 1914 the coastal port of Oostende was captured by the Germans and three days later, Nieuwpoort was in range of the German artillery. The Belgian army was outnumbered and wearied from two months of constant fighting in retreat. The Race to the Sea had finally reached the west coast of Belgium and the Germans were hell-bent on breaking through.
There seemed to be little that the Belgian Army could do to prevent a disaster. French troops (Their 42e Division d’Infanterie) were already assisting and more were on their way but there was no certainty that the line would hold until their arrival.
As the enemy approached, British and Belgian officers suggested to the local lock-keepers that flooding prescribed areas would assist the defence of the line, however, the French Général, Ferdinand Foch who was in overall command of the sector was an adherent of all out attack and rather like Sir John French Commanding the BEF believed that the Germans were at the end of their military and logistical capacity.
Flooding the region might assist defending the area but would inevitably hinder the Allies’ counter-offensives. The reality, however, would prove to be that as the battles of Ypres and the Yser wore on the Allied attacks were constantly rebuffed.
The Allies seemed to constantly underestimate the Germans’ ability to mobilise their reserves, resulting in set-backs, whilst the Germans showed remarkable reluctance to follow-through localised successes for fear of encountering over-estimated Allied reserves.
The latest French counter-attacks by their 42e Division d’Infanterie under Général Grossetti failed to halt the Germans and the need for a defensive plan became ever more important. Unfortunately, the Belgian military had taken control of the sluice gates and the ignored civilian lock-keepers had said fair enough and joined the stream of refugees heading south.
On 21st October (Belgian) Lieutenant General Émile Dossin put forward the idea that the front could be reduced by inundating certain areas by controlling the sluice gates at the Ganzepoot in Nieuwpoort. At this junction five water systems enter the IJzer river before it flows out into the North Sea.
The word Ganzepoot means goose’s foot as it describes more than adequately the form of the sluice complex. Nearby you can find the King Albert Memorial and the Westfront Visitors’ Centre.
Dossin Commanded the Belgian 2nd Division and was later made Baron de Saint Georges for his services in the defence of that village and Nieuwpoort. He is buried in what is now Sint Joris — a few kilometres away.
Although the lock-keepers had all left, Hendrik Geeraert, an out of work skipper, was working for the local Nieuwpoort council and had a working knowledge of the gates. At Dossin’s request Geeraert opened the lock on the Kreek Nieuwendamme. This was good enough to put several hectares of pastures under water, protecting the gates themselves, but not enough to pose a serious barrier to the Germans.
In the following days the Germans forced the IJzer at Tervate despite the resistance of the Belgian Grenadiers (They have a memorial there).
At this stage a Belgian Staff Officer, Kapitein-Commandant Prudent Nuyten consulted with Karel Cogge, the Superintendent of drainage for Veurne-Ambacht (Noordwatering) on the possibility of completely inundating a large area in front of the Belgian positions.
An issue that was to raise its head during the war was the matter of language in the Belgian Army. The Staff tended to speak French, whilst many of its soldiers spoke Dutch/Flemish. Fortunately Nuyten spoke Flemish and was able to communicate with Cogge.
With Cogge enthusiastically supporting his idea Nuyten presented his thoughts to the King at Veurne on 25th October. The King was not overly enamoured with the idea of flooding what little land he had left but he was also aware that if push came to shove the French were already considering flooding the area around Dunkerque which would have forced the Belgian army to fall back across the frontier. Faced with a Hobson’s choice, the King gave the order to open the sluice gates.
In the end the French abandoned their idea as it no-longer remained relevant. Ironically, in the 17th Century when this was the Spanish Netherlands, flooding had been a tried and tested method of keeping the French out. Likewise, following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Nieuwpoort featured in the Wellington Barrier when British Royal Engineers helped the Dutch fortify the town and design the lock system. Belgium, of course, did not come into existence until 1830 following a revolt against the Dutch. The Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality being at the very heart of the Great War.
For any major inundation to work, it was essential to ensure that all the culverts running under the Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide railway line were blocked beforehand, if not the water would simply seep through into the Belgian positions. Cogge set out on his bike (and the old railway line is now a popular cycle path !) to check what needed to be done.
Three wide and twenty narrow culverts were identified and soldiers were drafted in to get them sealed, at the same time digging an emergency damn in front of their own lines — just in case. French troops who were holding Stuivekenskerke were warned that they needed to fall back behind the railway.
Flooding such a large area required a lot of skill and timing. It would not be enough to open the sluices and let the water in. At low tide the water would just run back out again. What was need was to open the gates at high tide and then close them again — trapping the water behind them. With the full moon due within a few nights the moment was propitious as it meant that the incoming tides would be at their highest.
Cogge stated that ideally the sluice gates at the Nordvaart needed to be opened at high tide but the military considered this to be too dangerous as the area was by now in No Man’s Land and under German shelling. An alternative was to open the gates of the Kattesas (Sometimes called the Spanish Lock), closer to the sea and out of sight of the Germans. This would require a number of other gates to be controlled and the longer route the water had to take meant that the flooding would take longer to achieve.
On the night of the 26th/27th October Cogge and Reservekapitein Robert Thys of the Belgian Génie (Engineers) attempted to open the Kattesas but failed because the weight of water forced the gates shut. The following night Cogge returned, with chains to hold the gates open, and this time the accompanying soldiers succeeded. The water level rose but too slowly to really hinder the Germans who were now at Ramskapelle — right in front of the railway line. It was now or never.
On 28th October the military gave permission for an operation to open the Noordvaart. Cogge’s duties prevented him from attending in person and the job fell to Hendrik Geeraert who knew the mechanism of the gates.
The following night, on the 29th October, Captain Umé, Corporal Balon and Privates Cop and Van Belle went out with Geeraert and opened the Noordvaart at high tide for the first time. Their work had to be carried out under the noses of the Germans who do not appear to have suspected anything.
Geeraert returned again over the next three nights creating a thirty centimetre deep, fifteen kilometre wide flood zone that remained in place throughout the war, held back from the Allied positions by the railway embankment. Général Foch would state afterwards that France had been saved by a barrier a metre and a half high (he appears to have given scant regard as to Belgium !).
In the following weeks a number of other areas around Diksmuide were flooded from Nieuwpoort,
A Company of Sapeurs-Pontonniers (Lock Engineers) was created the following year and Robert Thys remained in Nieuwpoort for the remainder of the war, controlling the water level. In the summer it needed to be topped up and during the winter the Belgian artillery shelled the frozen surface to break it up.
The Germans did not remain passive throughout this time and the Ganzepoot was constantly shelled. The damage was so bad that in January 1916 the Veurnevaart emptied and a makeshift damn had to be constructed. Nature also played her part and the engineers were also occupied in creating a replacement drainage system on the Belgian side.
Although the French ports had been saved, they were still within range of the massive canons brought up by the German Heavy artillery. A 380mm gun Lange Max was still firing on Dunkerque in October 1918. Perhaps the damage created was not enormous but like the Paris Gun in 1918 the effect on morale was more important.
The Battle of the Yser came to a close with the Germans unable to break through at the coast. The knock-on effect was that they were now able to transfer their surplus Divisions to the east of Ieper where the British and French were fighting a desperate battle to hold the town.