Monday, October 25, 2010

The Battle of the Yser

In many ways World War I was the “finest hour” of the Kingdom of Belgium. That is not to detract from the heroes of World War II, but the “Great War” was different because the enemy never totally conquered Belgium, the heroic resistance of the soldiers completely botched the German plan that called for speed and precision. The Belgian defense robbed them of this. The Germans were of course angry and wanted to destroy what was left of the Belgian army and to conquer every last foot of Belgian soil (they intended to annex the country to the German Empire) and the battle that deprived them of this prize was the epic battle of the Yser. The Germans intention with this battle was to conquer the very last patch of free Belgian soil not under their control and to completely destroy the last remnants of the Belgian army under the great King Albert I. It was a desperate situation. The King had only 4 divisions of regular soldiers and 2 divisions of reservists with only 1 French division to assist them. The Germans were attacking with twice that number. This was part of what history has called the “Race to the Sea”. If the Germans won that race and destroy the Belgian army they could possibly outflank the Allied line and roll up the entire western front which would certainly win the war for Germany.
The battered, beaten and bloodied army of Belgium, what was left of the small force to begin with, was all that stood in the path of this German offensive. For the last two months they had been pounded by the Germans and forced back again and again across the whole country. But, every man from the King to the lowest soldier knew that at the battle of the Yser there was nowhere else to fall back to. Belgium would be totally abandoned if they retreated. They had to stand and fight and resolved that the Germans had pushed them this far but would push them no further! In command of the German 4th Army was Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg, one of the best generals in the German Imperial forces. On the Belgian side, of course, King Albert I was in command, never having been in a war or commanded troops in battle before in his life. However, he had the morale advantage of fighting on his own ground, for his country and his people, doing his duty to God.
The attacks began on October 16 when French marines and Belgian troops successfully defended Diksmuide. However, the next day the Germans sent in massive reinforcements. British ships shelled from the coast as the Germans built up and on October 18 they renewed their offensive, pushing back the French and Belgians from the front lines. The resistance was strong and it took the Germans four days, fighting every step of the way, to reach the Yser and it was not until the 21st that the Germans got across the river. By October 23 the last bridge was blown and yet the Belgian defenders of Diksmuide still held out in spite of repeated German attacks and heavy bombardment from the massive enemy guns. Still, the situation was extremely desperate for the Belgian army and even as they were fighting the French army command was preparing to abandon them, forcing them to choose between drowning and forsaking the last of free Belgian soil. King Albert would not allow that to happen. Instead, he would flood the countryside in his own area to stop the German advance while still keeping his army independent and together.
On October 25 the order was given and Karel Cogge and Hendrik Geeraerts took charge of the operation, opening the sluices at Nieuport at high tide on the nights of October 26 and 29. On the 29th the Germans finally captured Diksmuide but the water was already rising and soon everything north of that point would be flooded to the sea. The next day the Germans attacked again in great numbers, rushing to succeed before the ground was lost. But the Belgians fought with immense heroism and when the Germans broke through the first line of defense and then the second the Belgian troops made a daring counter-attack that hurled back the German forces. October 31 the German army command conceded defeat and called off their operation.
That is how the Belgian army stopped the Germans in the “Race to the Sea” and stabilized the northern end of the western front in Flanders. It was a sad day certainly, to see the countryside flooded, for the waters to come back over land that had taken so long to drain and cultivate and make productive. The losses also were terrible, some 40,000 Belgians died during those days of hard fighting. However, they had prevailed, the army had survived and the Germans were robbed of the last piece of Belgian soil. At least one corner of the country was unoccupied and it would remain that way, the Germans would never conquer all of Belgium. For the rest of the war most of the Belgian army remained deployed in this area, separated from the Germans by a big ‘No Man’s Land’ of water that quickly became polluted and stinking. But that water was the protection of the last part of free Belgium until finally came time for King Albert I to take command of the northern Allied armies for the grand counter-offensive that would see the country liberated and Belgian troops marching back into Brussels.


  1. Albert was a brave soldier, yet there was so much more to him; the intellectual, the athlete, the social and political reformer, the tender family man and the devout son of the Church. This is what I love about him, his multi-faceted and regal humanity.

  2. There was much more but I think it then even more impressive that he was such a good soldier-king when that was not something he planned on being but was forced on him and he had to take charge. When the country is invaded and national survival is being decided something like that will dominate the history of the reign.

  3. Yes, I think he said something like: "We were forced into heroism."