Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Antwerp Falls — On to the Yser for the Belgian Army

Belgian Troops Retreating West of Antwerp

On the morning of 8 October 1914, King Albert issued his evacuation order for Antwerp in response to increasing German pressure. The withdrawal was made in some confusion over the next 48 hours, with the majority of the Royal Marine Brigade withdrawn. The additional British Army force, which meanwhile had landed at Zeebrugge, was placed under the command of Sir John French of the BEF and ordered to cover the Belgian Army retreat and then move from around Gent toward Ypres. The remains of the Belgian field army, dispirited and in some disorder, joined civilian refugees clogging the roads to the coast or made their way into the Netherlands. After more than two months of continuous action against overwhelming odds they were exhausted and needed rebuilding, but they still existed.

One proposal for the Belgian Army was withdrawal west of Calais into France to regroup. Albert saw two great dangers in this. He knew that any attempt to take his army under French command would be resisted by his Dutch-speaking soldiers (who made up most of the lower ranks), and he also saw that if he abandoned Belgian soil he could be usurped as king. It was finally agreed that the Belgian Army would concentrate in the Nieuport-Dixmude area, just inside Belgium, with the French Marines of Admiral Ronarc'h on their right in Dixmude. By 14 October the Belgian Army started to prepare positions along the Yser, and it would be this small strip of Belgium that would be defended by Belgian soldiers, commanded by their own king, until the end of the war.

The Strategically Important Locks at the Nieuport "Goose Foot"

As the Belgian engineers began constructing defenses along the Yser they became aware of French intentions to flood the low ground near Dunkirk, a move which would risk the Belgian forces being trapped by water behind them and by advancing Germans to their front. The obvious solution was to inundate the low-lying farmland running from Dixmude, some nine miles inland, to Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, thus producing a major obstacle to stop the German advance. This low-lying ground was below high tide level and even the canalized rivers flowed between embankments, their water levels higher than the surrounding land.

On the evening of Sunday 25 October, Belgian Army engineers started preparing the area to be flooded. Exhausted soldiers, working with whatever materials were at hand, made the railway embankment watertight. In the small hours of the 28th, the final part of the plan was executed when the Spanish Lock at Nieuport, now under German observation during daylight, was secured in the open position to allow the rising tide to move inland.

The Germans launched eight infantry regiments on a six-mile front on 30 October in an attempt to force the railway embankment before the rising water defeated them. In the little village of Pervyse, Belgian soldiers of the 13th and 10th Infantry Regiments together with a battalion of French Chasseurs repelled the attackers and took 200 prisoners. The Germans succeeded in taking Ramscappelle but, realizing the water behind them was still rising (ankle-deep in the morning, the water was knee-high by midday), started to filter back across the rising flood. The inundation continued to rise while the last few isolated farms still held by the now-marooned enemy were taken.

Kings George V and Albert I Meet After the Retreat to
the Yser Line

On the morning of the 31st, a Franco-Belgian attack was launched against the Germans in Ramscapelle, but General von Beseler, commanding the German Third Reserve Army Corps, had already ordered a withdrawal across the Yser. This defeat for the Germans, engineered in no small part by two civilians who were familiar with the lock system, was one of the decisive setbacks of the Great War. It was never reversed: the Channel ports supplying the British Army never fell, and an immovable anchor was set on the northern end of the emerging Western Front. Farther south on this same day, the fighting west of Ypres was giving the German Army one last opportunity for a breakthrough that could flank and roll up the entire Allied position.  Our account of what happened around Ypres can be found HERE.