Belgium in the First World War


An area of study often overlooked in any history of the First World War is that of events between the declaration of war by Germany, against France on the 3rd of August and Belgium, on the morning of the 4th of August 1914, and the stabilisation of the Western Front in late November.

The flooded Yser plain during the First World War. The duck boards lead to a Belgian outpost.

A post card showing similar view of the same area, taken after the war when the flood was drained

As pre-war plans, which saw the French army, covered by its fortresses along the Franco German border, attacking towards Eastwards towards Metz, were put in train on August 4th the German 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies, swinging slightly left to avoid neutral Holland, swept into Belgium and Luxemburg as part of the Schlieffen[1] plan, which saw them advance in an arc which would sweep North of Paris thus completing the encirclement of the capital of France blocking access to the Channel ports.

The Belgian army was regarded as an irrelevance by German planners and it was intended to destroy Belgian fortifications which threatened German movement towards France, brushing aside the tiny and poorly trained Belgian army while dealing with the remainder of Belgium at a later date. [2]

The tiny Belgian Army was composed of two parts. The garrison troops, who manned the fortresses on which defence largely relied, and the ground manoeuvre troops, who manned entrenched positions between the forts and provided mobile operations.

Re-organisation of the tiny Belgian Army, approved in 1912, was only just beginning. Rather than the planned 350,000 men only about 250,000 could be mustered. The garrison troops (approximately half the total strength) were, in the main, elderly, and the infantry poorly trained. Compare this to the 3.5 million trained men the French could put into the field and the 5 million trained men of the German army[3]. Moreover, as Belgium became almost entirely occupied it was not possible to recruit more men.

A further complication was brought about by the nature of Belgium itself, a country only formally recognised in the 1830s[4] and having a population drawn from Dutch and French stock, the two groups ancient enemies retaining a mutual distrust and dislike which survives until today. The Army drew its officers from a French speaking (Walloon) elite and its rank and file from a Dutch speaking (Flemish) farming and artisanal class. Personally, and ably, commanded by King Albert it was both a military and political tool while it remained in being.

German plans for dealing with Belgium had proceeded as planned. At Liége the town was taken on the 6th of August and the major fortress, which covered the Meuse crossing was shelled with newly arrived and specially designed long range Krupp 420mm siege howitzers on the 12th, the final fort surrendering at 8:30am on the 16th. On the 19th the Germans attacked the Namur fortress, again with Krupp 420mm howitzers. By the evening of the 23rd five of the nine forts at Namur were in ruins. At midnight the survivors of the Belgian garrison made their escape. Any major Belgian threat to the German advance into France was no more.

[1] The Germans used a modification of the plan originally drawn up by Schlieffen. In 1914 the plan followed by Helmuth Moltke the Younger had been modified by him to exclude infringing the neutrality of Holland.

[2] In a major miscalculation the Germans had not forseen the entry of Great Britain into the war. The British military had, however, been engaged in informal talks with their French counterparts since 1904, and were fully prepared to join the left of the French line. This involvement made the covering of the channel ports imperative, but the Germans simply did not recognise the danger. Hausen, commanding the German 3rd Army which attacked through the Ardennes, claimed to have received an order to “attack in the direction Calais”, but this order was cancelled when the Belgian army retreated to Antwerp. This appears to be the only mention of the channel ports at this stage of the war. The level of British preparedness might be gauged from the fact that by the the 22nd of August four Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were in contact with elements of Kluck,s First Army outside the town of Mons , 30 miles South of Brussels. The first shot fired by the British being that of Drummer E Thomas of the 4th Dragoon Guards in a skirmish with German cavalry at 6:30 AM.

[3] 10.5 million when partly trained and untrained men are included.

[4] It was the Treaty of London of 1839 which guaranteed Belgian sovereignty and provided the reason for British entry to the war.

Krupp 420mm howitzer

The Belgian Army retreated into the “National Redoubt” of Antwerp, where it was vainly hoped that the huge double ring of forts would enable a successful defence. The weakness of fortress defences when attacked by German “super heavy” artillery was added to by the Belgium arm clearing field of fire between the forts, an action which improved the German ability to spot for their guns.

As the Germans prepared to attack the corridor of land occupied by the Belgium forces, bounded by the Dutch border and the coast to the North West, and by the steadily advancing Germans, from the South East, undeterred by Belgian efforts to counter attack, King Albert had to make the painful decision that, at the last safe moment, Antwerp must be evacuated in order to preserve the remains of the Belgium Army as a fighting force, or risk either being destroyed by the Germans or having to cross the border and be interred in neutral Holland.

On the 29th of September the Germans attacked the outer ring of forts. By 6 pm the first to fall, Wavre St. Catherine, was so badly damaged it was abandoned[1]. On the same day Belgian Army Head Quarters began planning the abandonment of Antwerp and a move to Ostend.

[1] The British Official History remarks that.” The German shooting was extraordinarily accurate and was, to all intents, range practice, without hindrance from the Belgians, whose guns were outranged. Practically all hits were on vital parts of the forts.”

Royal Navy armoured train operating outside Antwerp. Early October 1914.

Belgian troops defending Antwerp October 1914- Manchester Guardian

In London the British, traditionally a seafaring nation, were fully aware of the risk to the BEF posed by any emerging German threat to the channel ports. However, the entire Army effort was taken up with supplying and reinforcing the BEF. The threat to a withdrawal route for the BEF was recognised, but it would take time to counter it from Army resources. As the German thrust towards Paris was held in the East by the First Battle of the Marne and the battles moved constantly northwards, neither side being able to turn the others flank, both sides realised that security of the ports in Belgium and France became a critical factor to the allies as they became attractive objectives to the Germans once their drive on Paris began to stall. (See: The Race to the Sea at the end of this section).

The relief of Antwerp became a major concern. Joffre, hard pressed on all fronts, could promise only a Territorial division and a marine Brigade from Le Havre as a French contribution, to arrive about the 10th of October. The British, at the instigation of Lord Kitchener, undertook to send the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division, both then in England.

Winston Churchill, 1st Lord of the Admiralty, and ever a man of action, did have men immediately available, a brigade of Royal Marine Light Infantry[1]., under Navy command[2], Hastily thrown together, this force had arrived at Dunkirk on the 19th/20th of August. It had been augmented by Royal Navy aircraft and armoured cars[3]. By the 30th of September this force was patrolling the area between Dunkirk and Cassel, to the South of the Franco British line. On the 3rd of October Churchill himself travelled to Antwerp and offered British help to the Belgium government. On the same day four battalions of the Royal Marine Brigade set off for Antwerp, arriving by train at 6 am on the 4th.

On the night of the 7th/8th of October the British 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division[4] landed at Zeebrugge and concentrated at Bruges, with orders to co-operate with French forces in Belgium and support the Belgian Army defending Antwerp. However, on the 6th the Belgian Field Army had crossed the Scheldt to facilitate a withdrawal and the situation in Antwerp itself had continued to deteriorate. The only good news was that the long delayed French aid, in the form of a brigade of French Marines had left Paris on the way to Belgium.

[1] Later the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
[2] Largely composed of reservists with over 21 years service (One platoon sent to Antwerp was rumoured to have been composed entirely of pensioner sergeants), and augmented by about 700 recruits, who had never fired a rifle. Still in Blue uniforms, transported in 50 brand new London busses which had simply been commandeered, together with their drivers, this force had arrived at Dunkirk on the 19th/20th of August. It had been augmented by Royal Navy aircraft and armoured cars
[3] A scratch force of naval guns had also been acquired, most notably an armoured train with six 4.7 inch guns, commanded by Commander A S Littlejohn, which was in action until the 7th of October, when it got clear the day before the evacuation.
[4] After a muddled crossing some elements of the 3rd Cavalry Division were actually delivered to Ostende.

On the morning of the 8th October the decision was made to evacuate Antwerp in the face of increasing German pressure. The withdrawal was made in some confusion over the next 48 hours with the majority of the Royal Marine brigade withdrawn.[1]

The British force landed at Zeebrugge was placed under Command of Sir John French as the BEF moved from Ghent towards 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 Holland. After more than two months of continuous action against overwhelming odds they were exhausted and needed rebuilding, but they still existed.

When the Germans accepted the surrender of Antwerp on the morning of the 10th of October they found the Military Governor, his Staff Officer and a bare handful of men from the fortresses. The rest had successfully escaped. However, the Belgian stand at Antwerp had bought the BEF and the French valuable time, and employed large numbers of German troops that would have otherwise have been able to fight in the crucial battles on the Marne and Aisne rivers.

Proposals for the Belgium Army were that it should withdraw west of Calais 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 mainly Dutch speaking soldiers (Who made up most of the lower ranks), while his Officer Corps, mainly Walloon and entirely francophone, might support such a change. He also saw that if he abandoned Belgian soil he could be usurped as King[2]. It was finally agreed that the Belgian Army would concentrate in the Dixmude – Nieuport – Furnes area, just inside Belgium, with the French Marines of Admiral Ronarc’h on their right, in Dixmude.

By the 14th of October the Belgian Army started to prepare positions along the Yser and It would be this small strip of Belgium which would be defended by Belgian Soldiers, Commanded by their own King, until the end of the war.

[1] Leaving 57 dead, 138 wounded, 1479 interned in Holland and 936 prisoners. The German Army found itself the proud owners of 50 brand new London buses.
[2] Albert was a distant relation of Maximillian, the French puppet emperor of Mexico, who had lost his legitimacy, such as it was, by temporarily leaving Mexican soil, and was later executed. His decision was almost certainly influenced by this.

As the Belgian engineers began the task of constructing defences along the Yser they became aware of French intentions to flood low ground behind before Dunkirk, a move which would run the risk of them being trapped by water behind them and the advancing Germans. The obvious answer was to inundate the low lying farm land running from Dixmude, some 9 miles inland, to Nieuport, on the Belgian coast. The low lying ground of the area was below high tide level and even the canalised rivers flowed between embankments, the water level higher than the surrounding land. A major problem was that the Belgian Army engineers did not understand the complex relationships governing the dykes, weirs and locks which operated the drainage.

“The Goosefoot” a complex of navigation and inundation locks at Nieuport today (Little changed)

Moreover the engineers tended to be Walloons and, largely, The Flemish water workers. many descendants of the Dutch who had drained the polders in the first place, naturally, did not take kindly to misinformed Army efforts by francophones to order them about or to damage the system. In particular the Army failed to realise that a key figure was the man responsible for operating the complex system of drainage and navigation locks at Nieuport, Lockmaster Dingens, with forty years experience in the Waterways Department.

Dingens was not cooperative to the demands of the Army. On the 16th of October the first Germans arrived and started to dig in at Westende, half a mile from Nieuport. On the 17th the inhabitants of Nieuport were ordered to leave or be prepared to take to their cellars when the German bombardment started.

By the 17th ships of the Dover Patrol were off Nieuport ready to give naval gunfire support to French and Belgian defenders of the Yser, first engaging German positions on Sunday the 18th with two cruisers and three monitors, as well as smaller vessels. Despite this German troops advanced to Lambeartzyde, less than 600 metres from the crucial lock complex known as the goosefoot, which included the Lockmaster’s house. Among the refugees moving into France under German fire were Dingens and his family together with most of the other key waterways workers.

HMS Mersey, one of the monitors used for bombarding German positions on the Belgian coast in 1914.[1]

HMS Venerable, joined the bombardment fleet on the 28th of October. An obsolete “London” class pre Dreadnaught battleship, her four 12″ guns had a range of just over 9 miles.

[1] The three “Humber” class monitors had originally been built as rover monitors for the Brazilian navy, but were requisitioned by the Admiralty at the outbreak of the war. Their weight and shallow draft made them slow and uncomfortable at sea, but ideal for close bombardment of enemy coastal batteries.

If the German Army had been able at this point to secure a crossing over the Yser there would have been little to prevent the allied line being in grave risk of being turned. What happened next is one of those accidents of history which are hard to believe.

On October the 21st Major General Daufresne of the Belgian 2nd Army Division sent an order to Major Le Clement, commanding the engineer unit at Nieuport, to flood an area known as the Nieuwendamme Polder. Like any good OC Le Clement sent a written order to his man on the ground, Second Lieutenant Françoise, telling him to set up a flood and instructing him to work with the lock keeper on how this should be done. Françoise, replied that the lock keeper had gone and asked for further instructions. At this point one of Françoise’s men, Corporal Ballon, had been drinking with a tug boat captain, Hendrik Geeraert, who knew the workings of the lock system, explained that he had a friend who might be able to help. Geeraert was approached and immediately volunteered to help.

The problem was a complex one in that there was not enough time to just shut all the locks and wait for the water draining from the land to build up. I was necessary to open the inundation locks as the tides rose in order to allow sea water to flood inland. It was also a requirement to stop the water from flooding the Belgian positions as well as stopping the German advance. Crucial to this was the railway embankment that carried the line from Nieuport to Dixmude, running almost exactly North/South this embankment gave opportunities as both a military obstacle and a dyke to contain the flood. Under the embankment were a large number of culverts which would allow floodwater to drain from exactly the area it was now required to flood.

As Geeraert had provided vital information on the workings of the Nieuport lock system there was a man who understood the complexities of flooding the polders further up the Yser river, Karel Cogge, a drainage expert working for the Furnes North Water authority. While Geeraert knew how the lock system worked Cogge knew precisely which locks should be opened and which water courses manipulated in order to inundate the land as rapidly as possible.

Cogge estimated that, if the openings under the railway embankment were all sealed and an old inundation lock at Nieuport used to let the seawater in, if the locks in the Goosefoot remained closed, the land between the Yser River and the railway could be satisfactorily flooded in three successive high tides to the requisite depth, too deep for troops on foot, but not deep enough to allow large boats passage.

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

On the 29th, Hendrik Geeraert, together with a small group of soldiers, crept across the Goosefoot locks, to find it still in no man’s land and unoccupied by the Germans. At enormous risk of discovery and death they opened a further crucial group of paddles in the Vaart lock gates, hastening the tidal flood. Six hours later the sixteen paddles were closed. They repeated the operation on the two following nights.

Realising the importance of these locks the Belgian army reoccupied the area. Belgian army engineers would control the flooding using these locks for the rest of the war, constantly under German artillery bombardment.

An arial view of the old Spanish Lock today. Now just a drainage channel with two sluice gates.

The vital Spanish Lock today, looking inland. The remains of the stonework for the lock gates can still be seen.

On the 30th of October the Germans launched eight infantry Regiments on a 6 mile front 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, realising 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.

On the morning of the 31st a Franco Belgian attack was launched on the Germans in Ramsceppelle, but General von Beseler, commanding the German Third Reserve Army Corps had already ordered a full withdrawal across the Yser. A defeat engineered in no small part by two civilians, Hendrik Geeraert and Karel Cogge.

Karel Gogge (top) and Hendrik Geeraert after the war.

The Germans now turned their attentions to the South, attacking the BEF in the Ypres salient between the 21st of October and 11th of November in a series of battles that became known collectively as the First Battle of Ypres

Beyond the inundation, the town of Dixmude, on the East bank of the Yser and held by the brigade of French Fusiliers Marins of Admiral Ronarc’h and one battalion of Belgian troops, was attacked in the early hours of the 10th of November. The Germans launched an attack on the five French Divisions between Langemark and Dixmude. The town of Dixmude was attacked from three sides after a four hour bombardment and was the scene of fierce hand to hand fighting before the defending troops withdrew across the Yser bridges, which they destroyed behind them. One small group of Germans managed to cross the river but were swiftly ejected.

Just 100 days had passed since the first German soldier crossed the border into Belgium.

For reasons that can only be guessed at the Germans did not seem to realise at first that the flood was man made. When it did become clear they never realised that they could have probably drained the water through the network of drainage dykes that served Ostend, further East.

For the rest of the war the Yser Front remained stable. Trenches occupied by the defenders opposite Dixmude have been preserved and can still be visited.

Dixmude – the Trench of Death on the West bank of the Yser. Now a monument run by the Belian Army.

Two memorials stand by the Goose Foot today, the Albert Memorial to the Belgian struggle to remain a free people, and the memorial to the 547 British soldiers, sailors and airmen who died on the Yser front and have no known grave. (See below).

The King Albert memorial

The CWGC memorial to the British dead photo: Peter Bennett


The “Race to the sea”. Once the drive on Paris had stalled the failure of the Germans to force a passage through the Belgium Army on the Yser between Oct 16th-31st 1914 finally stabilised the Western Front.

The map below shows the dates and locations of key battles in late 1914 as the Belgian army withdrew from Antwerp towards Nieuport.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Notable dates of 1914

BEF. Mons 23rd Aug

1st Belgian counter attack from Antwerp 24th-26th Aug

BEF retreat from Mons 24th – 4th Sept

1st Battle of the Marne 4th Sept – 9th Sept

2nd Belgian counter attack from Antwerp 9th-13th Sept

Battle of the Aisne 14th Sept – 27th Sept

Race to the Sea 15th Sept – 8 Oct.

BEF begins to move to Flanders area 8th Oct.

Royal Naval Division withdrawal from Antwerp 8th/9th Oct.

Antwerp falls 10th Oct

Battle of the Yser begins 18th October

1st Battle of Ypres begins 21st October

Loss of Dixmude 10th November

BEF Battle of Ypres ends ( Battle of Nonne Bosschen) 11th November

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