Primary Documents - The Flooding of the Yser, October 1914
Reproduced below is an account of the Belgian government's decision to open the Canal locks at Nieuwpoort on 25 October 1914, thereby ending the Battle of Yser.
The following account of the battle was given by the Belgian Minister of Justice Carton De Wiart in an address in London in June 1915.
The Flooding of the Yser
by Belgian Minister of Justice Carton De Wiart
An Address Delivered in London in June 1915
Less than a year ago the region of the Yser was assuredly one of the most peaceful and one of the happiest countries under God's sun. A country of rich pastures, intersected by ditches and canals, sown with towns and villages. Here and there, hidden in the verdure, were low, white farmhouses capped by red tiles.
Rows of tall poplars, bent by the sea-winds, denote the course followed by the roads. A few thick-set towers, rustic steeples, and adorable belfries, of sculptured lace-like stone, recalled the old traditions - religious, corporative, communal, and artistic - which are still dear to the meditative and industrious Flemish race. Along the western horizon ran the pleasant girdle of the dunes, hiding the fashionable sea-fronts of La Panne, Saint-Idesbald, Coxyde.
Today you must picture to yourself a bare, sinister plain, on which falls a rain of bombs and shells and shrapnel. The soil is broken by heavy traffic, plowed up by projectiles, watered with blood. Here and there the inundations have produced great sheets of water, whence emerge the ruins of farmhouses, and on which all sorts of rubbish is floating, and often corpses. And on this soil, from October 16, 1914, without respite, without interruption, men have been fighting and destroying and slaughtering one another.
While the 7th Division of the British troops, which had just disembarked in Flanders, fell back by way of Thourout toward Ypres, and a brigade of French Marine Fusiliers, which was sent to cover the retreat from Antwerp, and behaved so admirably at Quatrecht, fell back upon Dixmude, what was left of the Belgian army reformed itself hastily on the Yser, between Nieuport and Dixmude, and once more faced the enemy.
For the Germans had been swiftly diverted in considerable numbers from the approaches of Antwerp to West Flanders, in the hope of turning the left wing of the Allies and reaching Calais.
Reaching the Yser on the 15th of October, the Belgian army was attacked on the following day. On this day, indeed, the Germans endeavoured to dislodge the French Marine Fusiliers, who had no artillery, from Dixmude; it was the Belgian artillery, so renowned for the skill of its gunlayers and the efficiency of its fire, which supported the French.
On the 17th German shells were falling on the whole line of the advanced Belgian positions between Dixmude and the sea. These attacks were the prelude to a terrible battle, which, lasting from the 18th to the 30th of October, was to make the heroic defence of the Yser by the Belgian army forever renowned in history.
On the 18th the Germans, after a desperate struggle, succeeded in carrying the advanced positions of Keyem and Mannekensvere; but a brilliant attack by the Belgian army recovered Keyem the same night.
On the 19th the intensity of the struggle was redoubled along the entire front. The Kaiser had ordered his troops to break through, cost what it might. Three times the German hordes were repulsed. Nevertheless, in their furious impetuosity the Germans succeeded in carrying the advanced position of Beerst, while that of Keyem held out.
The centre of the Belgian army was the object of violent and repeated attacks. It was then that our staff, in order to diminish the pressure on the centre, directed the French Marine Fusiliers and a Belgian division to make a sally from Dixmude, delivering a counter-attack on the Beerst-Vladsloo front.
On the evening of the 19th we held Vladsloo and the outskirts of Beerst, and were threatening the flank of the enemy army. But it was learned that important German re-enforcements were arriving from the direction of Roulers, and we withdrew. Keyem was thus reoccupied by the Germans.
The 20th was marked by a violent bombardment of our positions.
At Nieuport the Germans captured the Bamburg farm. We retook it the same evening; after a fresh assault the Germans dislodged us yet again. The same day, at Dixmude, two German attacks were repelled.
On the 21st, in the morning, a fresh attempt to carry Dixmude; and another check. The Germans commenced a formidable general offensive. In the afternoon their attacks once again spent themselves upon Schoorbakke and Dixmude; they failed before the tenacity of our troops.
From the sea the British Fleet, which had come to our rescue, enfiladed the German forces with the murderous fire of its guns. But our enemies are courageous, and they sacrificed themselves with the fury of despair. On the 22nd of October, after a terrible bombardment, they succeeded at night in setting foot upon the left bank of the Yser at Tervaete; but we drove them into the river.
So many repeated attacks, and extremely violent attacks, delivered by a numerous and a desperate enemy would have got the upper hand of an army less brave than ours. French re-enforcements had been promised us. Our men knew this, and they held out. But these re-enforcements were long in coming.
On the 23rd of October the first French re-enforcements arrived on our left, and on the 24th the six Belgian divisions were supported by one French division and a few battalions of Territorials. On the night of the 23rd a furious attack upon Dixmude was repelled by the Marine Fusiliers (whose heroism will forever remain legendary, and with justice) and a couple of Belgian regiments. This was the sixth time that the German army had attacked Dixmude within a week, and at each of these repeated assaults there were frightful hand-to-hand combats and hecatombs of dead; and each time our valiant soldiers remained masters of the field.
The area conquered by the Germans on the 23rd, lying within the bend of the Yser between Schoorbakke and Tervaete, was violently bombarded and recaptured. Here it was that a notebook was found on a German corpse in which an officer of the 22nd Reserve Corps recorded the dreadful moral and physical sufferings endured in that hell of bullets and fire and blood; companies reduced to half their strength, units mixed together, the officers nearly all killed, famine and thirst and a sense of the uselessness of all efforts against our redoubtable little army: such was the balance-sheet on the German side.
Yet the Kaiser's troops seemed to rise out of the ground. Fresh re-enforcements came to fill the frightful gaps made by our fire and our bayonet attacks. Foot by foot the Belgian army defended the soil lying between the left bank of the Yser and the railway from Nieuport to Dixmude, behind which it organized a new line of defence.
It was then that the Belgians, in this pitiless conflict, summoned to their aid a terrible and invincible assistant the inundation of low-lying lands. The canals in the valley of the Yser spilled their water into the fields. The water rose and streamed along the German trenches; while on the left bank, where the level of the soil was higher, the Belgians heroically defended their positions.
The Germans, threatened with death by drowning, rushed forward in a terrible offensive, seeking to break our lines, to conquer the dry land. In this unprecedented attempt they succeeded, on the 30th of October, in capturing one of our points of support, the village of Ramscappelle; but this essential position was immediately recaptured by two Belgian divisions and a few French battalions. This was the coup de grace.
On the 31st, decimated, dejected, defeated, the Germans abandoned their project of crossing the Yser; they retreated, abandoning guns and mortars engulfed in mire, enormous quantities of weapons, thousands of corpses, and many wounded.
In this epic struggle the Belgians, who numbered 60,000, lost a fourth part of their effectives; but they killed and wounded more Germans than there were soldiers in the Belgian army; they had covered the left wing of the Allies, and shattered the German effort which had threatened Dunkirk and Calais.
This long and heroic resistance of the Belgian army enabled the Franco-British forces to establish a solid front to the south, and thus to form a barrier upon which was shattered all the German attacks delivered during the great battle which took place in the neighbourhood of Ypres at the end of October and during the first half of September, 1914.
"It was not a fresh army which confronted the Germans on the Yser," very justly remarked Colonel Repington in the Times of December 9, 1914. "It was the remnant of an army, war-worn and weak in numbers. For two months and a half the Belgians at Liege, Namur, Louvain, Haelen, Aerschot, Aalines, Termonde, and Antwerp had confronted the Germans almost alone, and it was only the shattered, but still unconquered, remains of the field army which drew up behind the Yser after the retreat from the Scheldt. In this fine defence, which did honour to all the troops and commanders engaged in it, the Belgians performed a signal service to the Allied cause."
As a matter of fact, our enemies had other advantages over us than those conferred upon them by numerical superiority and the enthusiasm of their advance: they were connected with their base by our splendid network of railways, which they had had plenty of time to repair; their supply services could be organized at leisure in Belgium, which was still a wealthy country, and for the evacuation of their wounded they had at their disposal the excellent, capacious, and very numerous hospitals which we had installed at a short distance from one another at Bruges, Ostend, and all along the coast.
Our exhausted troops had no base at all; and not only could they not count upon any immediate re-enforcement, but their supply services had not had time, after their hasty retreat, to install or to reorganize themselves; and lastly, to fill the cup of misfortune, they could rely only upon distant hospitals, situated out of the country.
Compare the opposing forces, then, and their means of action; then add to the account, on the one side - I need not tell you which - contempt and continual disregard for all the laws and rules of humanity and honour, and, on the other side, an absolute and religious respect for the same, and you will, I firmly believe, be amazed and full of admiration for the "remnant, shattered but still unconquered," of this tiny Belgian army, which checked, on the banks of the Yser, the formidable and all-powerful German army.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Duck-Boards comprised slatted wooden planking used for flooring trenches or muddy ground.
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