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Webmatters : The Belgian Front Line, Yser 1914: Introduction
Rough Map of Area

The Yser October 1914

In this area most of the names have been changed to a Dutch form since the war. The names of the battles have kept their French format but in general, for the towns, I have tended to use the modern spelling as that is what you will find on maps. Most are self evident : Diksmuide/Dixmude. Note that the CWGC cemeteries have the old spellings, or even a variation of that.

On 9th October 1914 the Belgian fortress town of Antwerp (Antwerpen/Anvers) was finally battered into submission and capitulated. A British 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 power of the German siege guns.

The German III Reserve Corps was sent off in hot pursuit of the Belgian Army which, much to the annoyance of the Germans, had managed to extricate itself from Antwerp unnoticed. As the Corps gave chase, a new Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg was created. Their orders were to crush the Belgians and open the way to Calais.

Albert, King of the Belgians, retired with his small army (about 50,000 strong) towards the French frontier but steadfastly refused to leave his country and called upon his soldiers to show themselves worthy of their land.

The French were sending Territorial Divisions up to try to hold Ieper whilst the British Expeditionary Force was also moving into Flanders; it being essential that they were close the coast and their supply routes.

Do not confuse the French Territorial Divisions (made up of older men conscripted back to the colours) and the British Territorial Army, made up of volunteers of any age.

On the 6th October the British 7th Division had landed in Belgium with the intention of taking part in the Allied relief force for Antwerp. The town having fallen the Division fell back through Gent and then Brugge until it arrived on the outskirts of Ypres on the 14th. And thus, the British Army arrived at Wipers, as it became known to its soldiers, and prepared to fight.

The Battle of the Yser — to give the river its then French name — was opened on 16th October 1914 with heavy attacks on both Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide.

Behind the Belgians’ advanced line lay the IJzer River forming a natural barrier between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. This entire area is polders — low-lying land reclaimed from the sea and criss-crossed by a network of drainage ditches and waterways. Behind that was the main railway line between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide which was hardly two metres above ground.

The old railway station at Ramskapelle

The railway station and observation tower at Ramskapelle

Although the railway line has gone, the embankment has become a very popular cycle track called the Frontzate. There are a number of bunkers and sights along its route, including the old railway station at Ramskapelle.

To cover this 35 kilometre front the Belgians had four Divisions available plus a force of 6,000 French Fusiliers Marins under Amiral Ronarc’h. From Diksmuide towards Ieper the line was held by a fifth Belgian Division and the French 87e Division d’Infanterie Territoriale at Steenstraat.

Opposite them the Germans were moving four Corps into place.

On 18th 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 ships of the British Royal Navy.

Throughout the opening months of the war in Belgium, a deciding factor (apart from the number of troops) was the weight of the Germans’ 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 (which are more or less a floating gun platforms) the Belgians retired towards the IJzer. This would be their line of defence from Lombardsijde, through Mannekensvere, Schore, Keiem, Beerst, Vladslo and Diksmuide.

At Diksmuide, the Fusiliers Marins were not only managing to hang on but for a moment managed to retake Vladslo — but the advance of the feldgrau line seemed as relentless as ever. Vladslo and Keiem fell once again to the Germans.

Nevertheless, the French Général Ferdinand Foch, who was in overall command on this front, remained optimistic enough to consider counter-offensives.

The Allies however were badly underestimating the forces ranged against them not that in all probability this would have deterred Foch, because he held to the principle of : when in doubt — attack !