Battle of the Yser

 

Following the declaration of war and the subsequent invasion of Belgium by Germany on August 4 1914, the Belgian army retreated greadually to the fortress of Antwerp to prevent anihilation by the much stronger invader. However, after the siege and fall of Antwerp the remnants of the Belgian army retreated towards a new line behind the Yser river near Nieuwpoort with the aid of a small British contigent.

In the autumn of 1914 much of the Western front had frozen and only a small corridor near the coast of Flanders represented the last open part. It was therefore that the Germans decided to attack all along the line from La Bassee in Nothern France to Nieuwpoort in Flanders in order to outflank the Allies and conclude the war before 1915.

 

At Nieuwpoort the Yser river reaches the North sea, which is controlled by this complex of sluice gates. Importantly, the hard-pressed Belgians were forced to open these sluice gates on the nights of October 26 and 29 1914 in an dramatic attempt to stop the German advance and to prevent a breakthrough. The opening of the sluice gates by the Belgian army allowed the sea water in and resulted in the flooding of the lower lying areas (polders), which forced the Germans back. This resulted in stalemate, an end of mobile warfare along the Western front and as a consequence the beginning of trench warfare, which would dominate the Western front for the following three years.

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The German attack on the Yser sector started by a heavy artillery bombardment on Diksmuide at October 18 1914. During the next 12 days the Germans nearly succeeded in capturing Nieuwpoort and breaching the Belgian lines. The Diksmuide - Nieuwpoort railway line formed an integral part of the Belgian defence. After opening of the sluice gates the embankment of this railway line prevented the flooding of the Belgian-held part of this sector. Nowadays this railway embankment has been turned into a cycling path.

 

The little village of Ramskapelle along the Diksmuide-Nieuwpoort railway and very close to Nieuwpoort formed the focal point of the battle in late October 1914. In particular the railway station was heavily contested and was left in its 1918 condition. Ramskapelle was briefly taken by the Germans but a bayonet counter-attack by a Belgian and French regiment resulted in recapturing of this strategically important village and thereby preventing the Germans to take Nieuwpoort. The memorial near the old mill of Ramksapelle represents the furthest point of the German advance.

 

This Belgium cemetery is located in Ramskapelle and contains the graves of 632 soldiers who were killed during the battle of the Yser. 400 of these sodiers remain unknown.

The Yser can only be crossed at two places and one of the two bridges is located at Tervate, which was destroyed by the Belgian army on October 19 1914. However, after 4 days of intense fighting, the Germans managed to cross the Yser at this place by means of a footbridge without being fired at on October 22 1914. Faced with an imminent crisis, a Belgian battalion attempted heroically to throw the Germans back by virtue of a bayonet attack but in vain as the Belgians were mowed down by German machine gun fire. The memorial in front commemorates this Belgian attack. Following the crossing of the Yser by the Germans, the Belgian army was pushed back further towards Nieuwpoort.

 

After the Germans had crossed the Yser at Tervate they captured Stuivekenskerke, which was completely flooded after the opening of the sluice gates at Nieuwpoort by the Belgians during late October 1914. The flooded area around Stuivekenskerke contained several higher areas, which were divided in German and Belgian outposts. One of the Belgian outposts located at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Hoekje can be seen in this picture. This old chapel at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Hoekje was used by the Belgian army as an artillery observation post and was left in its 1918 condition. After the war a new chapel was built next to the ruins of the old one. In the front of the picture is another memmorial indicating the furthest point of the German advance in this area. These memorials were erected in the 1920's along the Western front. However, many of these memorials were destroyed by the Germans during the second world war.

 

This old chapel at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Hoekje was used by the Belgian army as an artillery observation post and was left in its 1918 condition. After the war a new chapel was built next to the ruins of the old one. In the front of the picture is another memmorial indicating the furthest point of the German advance in this area. These memorials were erected in the 1920's along the Western front. However, many of these memorials were destroyed by the Germans during the second world war.

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The "trench of death"  is a conserved piece of the former Belgian line along the Yser near Diksmuide. This trench line extended as far as Stuivekenskerke. Because of the relatively high ground water level no elaborate trench systems could be created by digging in the ground. Consequently, trenches in the Yser sector were construced by piles of sandbags. In order to preserve the trench of death, the sandbags were covered with concrete. The trench of death formed the tip of a small salient and as such it was constantly under fire by the Germans from three sides, explaining its grim name. The Germans were located on the opposite side of the Yser only a few meters away and often undertook raids on the Belgian positions. In order to stop these infiltrations, the Belgians built a concrete bunker "the mouse trap" with observations holes on three sides. Furthermore, Belgian pioneers destroyed a part of the opposite bank, thereby partially flooding the German trenches.

 

 Strategically, the determined Belgian resistance in combination with the flooding of the Yser area was of immense importance for the allies because it prevented a German breakthrough and ended mobile warfare. As a consequence a continues line of trenches was established running from the Swiss border towards the North sea in Flanders. In response to the failed breakthrough at the Yser sector, the Germans shifted their efforts towards Ypres. All in all, during the battle of the Yser the Belgian losses totalled 40.000 and the French 15.000. The Germans losses are more difficult to assess. However, it has been suggested that the German losses were close to 75.000.

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The village of Vladslo contains one of the most important and impressive German military cemeteries, which was started by the Germans during the battle of the Yser in October 1914. Located at the back of this cemetary are these sad statues, representing mourning parents. Both statues were designed by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz whose son, Peter Kollwitz, was killed around Diksmuide in October 1914 and is buried near these statues. This cemetery contains the graves of 25.644 soldiers, which are buried in small communal graves containing around 20 soldiers each. Many soldiers of the Imperial German navy were employed during the battle of the Yser.

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