World War 1 History: 1914 Battle of Yser, the Armies Run out of Room
The Race to the Sea
Trying to Outflank Each Other
At the beginning of World War One, from August into October of 1914, the Allied and German armies had waged a war of maneuver as they attacked and counterattacked each other in France and Belgium. Exhausted troops dug defensive positions to hold the ground they had won, while more and more divisions were sent into battle, lengthening the lines north and south as each side sought to envelop and outflank the other.
The English Channel
As the battle lines approached the English Channel to the north, it was clear to the Germans that they had to smash through the Allies near the coast before the French and Belgians could reinforce and dig in. This would be their last best chance of rolling back the Allied left wing, driving south and taking Paris, which would effectively knock France and Britain out of the war. Then the Germans could concentrate on destroying the invading Russian armies on their Eastern Front. At the very least, they had to take the channel cities of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne to deny the Allies three very important ports. Also, from Calais, the Germans hoped to obstruct shipping through the English Channel with long-range artillery.
Germany's New Army
When Antwerp, Belgium fell to the Germans on October 9, driving out the Belgian Army, the Germans formed a new Fourth Army, made up of three divisions freed up from Antwerp and four new army corps just formed in Germany, a total of 12 divisions. The Fourth Army then proceeded southwest toward the channel ports. Standing in their way were the six divisions of the Belgian Army and a French division, who had taken up positions along the Yser (pronounced ee'-zair) River. The Allies, exhausted and low on ammunition, stretched from the small port of Nieuwpoort (pronounced new'-port) inland a dozen miles to the town of Diksmuide (pronounced diks-moy'-duh) along the Yser River/Canal.
Battle of the Yser
The Fighting Starts Near the Yser
Fighting started on October 16 as the leading elements of the Germany army encountered Allied troops defending Diksmuide. During the following day, the bulk of the Fourth German Army continued their advance toward the Yser. At the same time, the British positioned three heavily armored monitors, the HMS Severn, Humber and Mersey, near the coast and, beginning on October 18, furiously shelled the Germans advancing along the English Channel, causing them to retreat. The monitors continued to sweep the coast, disrupting any enemy activity there. Inland, beyond the range of the monitors' guns, the Germans began their full offensive that same day, October 18.
British Monitors Shelled Germans
Across the Yser
After four days of constant attacks, the outnumbered Belgians and French were pushed back over the Yser. They prepared their defenses along the river/canal, with a secondary line along an elevated railroad bed. During the night of October 21, the Germans discovered a temporary footbridge across the Yser which no one was guarding midway between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. They quietly deployed a large force across the canal, forming a bridgehead. The next day, the Belgians furiously counterattacked several times but the Germans held on.
Belgian King Refuses to Retreat from Belgium
By October 24, the Germans were attacking along the entire front and the Belgians were running low on ammunition. The only reinforcements they received was a French division to strengthen the garrison at Nieuwpoort. On that day, the Germans staged 15 separate attacks on Diksmuide alone. The situation was desperate. The Belgian field guns were down to their last 100 rounds. French General Foch advised the Belgian king to pull back into France and join the French who were preparing their own defenses, but King Albert refused to give up the last tiny portion of Belgium.
Belgians Open the Floodgates
The land between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide was a “polder”-- land reclaimed from the sea using a complex system of canals, drainage systems and sluice gates. Belgian engineers had been damming the 22 culverts south of Nieuwpoort for several days. During the nights of October 26 to 29, taking advantage of the high tides, they began opening the sluice gates at Nieuwpoort. It would take days before the waters rose high enough to have any effect.
By October 26, the main force of Belgians and French had taken up positions along the railroad embankment stretching from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide behind the Yser, leaving a small rearguard force to delay the Germans. On that day they were reinforced by two Senegalese divisions.
Battlefield Becomes a Lake
On October 29, Diksmuide fell and on the 30th, the Germans launched an all-out attack against the Belgians along the embankment, but soon they were attacking in ankle-deep water. The next day, October 30, 1914, the Germans closed down their offensive because of the impossible battlefield conditions. In future, they would turn their attention to Ypres further south.
The End of the Line
The Belgians had managed to hold onto the last bit of Belgian territory and now there was no more room for the armies to maneuver. From Nieuwpoort on the English channel to the Swiss border, a system of defensive trenches meandered 400 miles. For the next three years, attrition and brutal frontal attacks defined the nature of the war as generals on both sides, over and over and over again, sought for the elusive breakthrough with the lives of millions of men.
© 2012 David Hunt