As a kid I was never one to believe much in ghost stories or care about scary movies and that’s still true today. Why is that I was asked and I figure the answer is that in my life I saw enough real horror stories during my police and military service. Grimm’s Fairy Tales doesn’t hold a candle to those experiences and reliving them does not hold much interest for me. But, if you were to pressure me, I guess a true horror story would be trench warfare during WWI. I grew up with veterans of that war who told me of their experiences and having studied that history I could think of no more real horror than the slaughter that took place between 1914 and 1918. As they say an entire generation was lost in that war.
So, let me share with you the start of that horror show and what cemented that god awful war and its trench warfare at ‘The little known Battle of Yser’.
Yser is a river in Belgium. It is a narrow river that runs into the North Sea close to Nieuport (now Nieuwpoort). Like most areas in this region of Belgium they have constructed high embankments over the years to keep the sea back, using a series of sluice gates that prevented the low area from flooding. Running on top of this embankment was the Dixmunde-Nieuport Railway. Between October 18th and November 30th 1914 this gap would play an important role in the battle of the Yser River.
If you recall your history, Belgium had the great misfortune to be in the direct path of Germany’s attack on France in both WWI and WWII and in 1914 the Germans launched massive attacks against Belgium. Their army put up a valiant fight but the numbers were against them as they faced a superior attacking German force. The French and British had hardly figured out what was going on and they too were caught by surprise when the German’s launched their assault which would become known as ‘the race to the sea’. As a result the Belgian army was forced to retreat after the fall of Leigh North to Antwerp. Even Antwerp would fall to the Germans on October 10th. The Belgian, French and British retreat ended at the Yser River which offered a natural defensive line. The German attacking machine was comprised of the entire German III Reserve Corp, compared to the Allied forces small six Infantry Divisions, one Calvary Division and a Naval Brigade approximately 65,000 men.
The German III Reserve Corp attacked them along the line between Dixmunde and the sea. The Germans managed to capture a number of bridgeheads but were unable to put large numbers across them over the Yser. Like all battles there were repeated German attacks on the Belgian and French lines but when the battle ended on November 10th the bridgeheads still remained in Belgian and French control.
The 24th of October attacks by the Germans, determined to cross the Yser River, failed and they launched a series of major attacks again on the 25th but had limited success and were stalled. By this time the Germans where occupying the low ground just inside the Belgian side of the Yser position. They had managed to cross the bridgehead but had not consolidated enough force to punch out of the bridgehead. They became bogged down defending that foothold against the Belgian army and stuck in the low lands, so the Belgians decided to flood the area by opening the sluice gates. The first attempt failed but on the second attempt the sea was high enough to start flooding the area east of the railway line creating a panic within the German forces.
This stalled the Germans for a while but they did eventually capture Dixmunde on November 10th. Dixmunde was held by four French battalions and one Belgian battalion. These units were eventually forced to retreat across the Yser after they destroyed the bridge preventing Germans to cross. As a result lines were drawn on the ground which would literally become the trenches of WWI, stretching across Europe where millions would perish under horrific conditions. When we look at the causalities of the Battle of Yser we can see the start of this horror show; Germans killed or wounded numbered 76,250 and Belgians 20,000.
Imagine if you’re not afraid to see “the walking dead” from all those battles this Halloween! That should put you off your candy!!!
More on this battle and more images visit Fitzwilliam Museum. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/lagrandeguerre/70.html