1,500,000 Germans Held Back by 500,000 British, French and Belgians; Many Germans Drowned When Dikes of the Yser were Cut and the Country Flooded
Allied Armies, 500,000
General Foch, Commander-in-Chief
General Sir John French
General Sir Douglas Haig
Rear Admiral Hood (Navy)
Admiral Ronarch (Marines)
General de Mitry
German Armies, 1,500,000
Crown Prince of Bavaria
Duke of Württemberg
General von Buelow
General von Beseler
After the fall of Antwerp, on October 9, 1914, the Germans had pushed forward and occupied the Belgian coast line from the frontier of Holland as far west as Ostend. They now laid covetuous eyes upon the channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne. With Ostend and Zeebrugge already in their possession, they were enabled to establish new submarine bases, from which to attack the Allied shipping. If Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne also could be seized, it would be easily possible to bombard the English coast towns with German long range guns.
The Allied battle line at this time was continuous from the Swiss border northward to Lille, or within 40 miles of the North Sea. The Germans hoped to penetrate this 40-mile gap and seize all the seaports. To accomplish this strategy, they brought to the area of battle in Flanders a colossal force, estimated as high as 1,500,000 men. To oppose this monstrous horde, the Allies could muster less than 500,000 men. Yet this comparatively puny force was able to hold in check the whole strength of Germany. The battles in Flanders which ensued were among the bloodiest known in history.
The Line of Battle in Flanders
The British army, during the "Race for the Sea," had been transferred from the Aisne front to the left flank of the battle line in Flanders. With the fall of Antwerp, the duty devolved on the British to cover the retreat of the Belgian army. This task was brilliantly executed by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, in command of two divisions of British cavalry and two divisions of French infantry.
By October 20, 1914, the Allied line in Belgium was intact from the North Sea to Albert, a distance of 100 miles. The extreme left wing, from Nieuport on the coast to Bixschoote, was held by Belgian and French mixed troops, under command of General Mitry, supported by the batteries of an English and French fleet. A British corps, under General Sir Douglas Haig, held the line from Bixschoote to Messines. General Pulteney's British corps carried the line from Messines to Laventie, and General Smith-Dorrien extended the line to Vermelles.
The remainder of the front, between Vermelles and Albert, was occupied by French troops under command of General Maud'huy. On the German side, the line from the North Sea to Laventie was held by the army groups commanded by the Duke of Württemberg, and General von Beseler. Prince Rupprecht's army group opposed Smith-Dorrien between Laventie and Vermelles, while General von Buelow's army group occupied the remainder of the line as far as Albert.
Against the thirty army corps, or 1,500,000 men, comprising the German forces in Flanders, the Allies could muster scarcely twelve corps. Of these General Maud'huy had three French corps, or 120,000 men; the British, four corps, or 160,000 men ; and the Belgians, one corps, or 40,000 men. In addition there were two corps of French Territorial troops and two corps of French regulars, with some cavalry.
All told, there were fewer than half a million Allied troops facing three times their number of Germans. In artillery support, the Germans had a superiority of ten to one, excepting where, in rare instances, the British and French fleets could employ their naval guns from the offing against the German coast defenses. General Ferdinand Foch was in supreme command of the Allied forces north of Noyon, while Kaiser Wilhelm in person directed the operation of the German armies.
The Germans had blundered most amazingly after the capture of Antwerp. Though outnumbering the Allies in this area of battle in a ratio of three to one, they nevertheless had failed to cut off the Belgian army's retreat to the Yser River, and had permitted the Allies to occupy Ypres, Roulers, and Furness.
They had lost their chance to seize the undefended port of Calais, and instead were penned in at Ostend in the north of Belgium. Meanwhile, the British had driven the Huns across the Lys River and were masters of its left bank. Aided by the British and French, the remnant of the Belgian army had retreated to Nieuport, where the Yser River enters the sea. Here the shattered army of King Albert had been reinforced by French and British marines, some at Nieuport, others at Ypres, still some others behind the Yser River and the canal that joins it to the Lys.
In this cramped area, amidst a maze of canals and dikes, for more than a month, were fought some of the bloodiest battles known to history, participated in by the most diverse mixture of races, religions, colors, and nationalities ever assembled in combat.
The Battle of the Yser Opens
The battles in Flanders may be viewed in three principal phases: First, the engagements along the 12-mile front of the Yser Canal, between Nieuport and Dixmude, in which the Belgians, French marines, French Territorials, African riflemen, and British fleet sustained the German attack; second, the Battle of Ypres, in which the British had the larger share; third, the German assaults on La Basses and Arras, in which the French and British united to repel the German onslaught.
Resolved at all costs to break through the Allied line to Calais, the armies of the Duke of Württemberg, 750,000 strong, on October 18, 1914, made many violent thrusts at various points along the 12-mile front between Nieuport and Dixmude. The town of Nieuport on the River Yser, a mile from the sea, was defended by a force of 50,000 Belgians. The two villages of Lombartzyde and Westende, at the mouth of the river, were also occupied by the Belgians and some French Territorials.
On the seaward flank, one mile off the coast, three British monitors, with a draft of less than five feet, and mounting huge howitzers, were prepared to cooperate with the Belgians. A French naval division, under Admiral Ronarch, also brought their guns to bear on the German right. Advancing along the seacoast from Ostend, the right wing of Wurttemberg's army fell upon the villages of Lombartzyde and Westende, which they captured after a spirited resistance.
No sooner were the Germans in possession than the British monitors steamed up to within a half mile of the shore and deluged the village with shells from their howitzers and three-pounders. The German submarines from Ostènd sought in vain to reach these British monitors, being unable to follow them into the shoal water. Torpedoes were fired at the British vessels, but they all passed harmlessly beneath their hulls, having been set for much greater depth than the monitors' draught. The German big guns also failed to reach the British vessels, while the British naval guns were able to sweep the country for six miles inland, taking a heavy toll of death.
Three Belgian batteries also opened fire on Lombartzyde and Westende, and the Germans were glad to abandon these towns when the houses began toppling down upon their heads. Prevented from approaching Nieuport by the main road down the coast, the Germans withdrew, leaving thousands of their dead behind in the village streets.
The Fighting at Dixmude
Near Dixmude, on October 16, 1914, some two miles east of the Yser Canal, a force of 5000 Belgians, under General Meyser, and 6000 French marines, under Admiral Ronarch, were savagely attacked by 100,000 Bavarians, commanded by the Duke of Württemberg. Incredible though it may appear, that little handful of Belgians and French actually held the huge Bavarian army in check for several days, inflicting heavy losses on the foe. On October 19, 1914, the German high соmmand ordered the Bavarians to cross the Yser "at any cost of men." In overwhelming masses the Bavarians advanced toward Dixmude, taking several villages at a high price in human life. On the October 21, 1914, they crossed the Yser Canal near Schoorebakhe, but were soon beaten back.
A furious bombardment of Dixmude by heavy howitzers was then begun, followed by eight separate assaults against the town. At nightfall 5000 Germans succeeded in crossing the Yser, but few of them were permitted to remain there. A German cavalry brigade, numbering 2000 horses, was driven back at the bayonet's point into the Yser River, while a German infantry brigade that had wormed its way into Dixmude was practically exterminated. Dixmude became a German cemetery.
Again the Germans penetrated into Dixmude. Bayonet fighting ensued from house to house and up and down the streets. In the end, the German battalion was either slain or captured. Above Dixmude, near St. George's Chapelle, where the Germans had crossed the Yser, a strenuous struggle occurred. The Germans, after occupying Stuyvekenskerke, were expelled by the Belgians in a furious bayonet charge. Returning to the fray, the Germans concentrated their mitrailleuses on the canal bank close by, cutting the Belgian defensive force to pieces. Once again the Germans closed in on the village, but now they were confronted by the French, who drove them back across the Yser.
Flooded Meadows Cause German Disaster
By October 25, 1914, the German advance had crossed the Yser at various points. Behind them were nearly a million and a half men. Only the most heroic measures could save Belgium from complete capture. In this crisis, General Foch decided to inundate the whole region between Nieuport and Dixmude. The meadows and fields of this district at high tide were below the sea level. By a system of sluices at the mouth of the Yser, near Nieuport, the waters of the canal and the numberless dikes and ditches which drain into it are ordinarily discharged into the sea. At high tide the sluices are closed and the land water held back until the sea again fills.
The Belgians dammed the lower reaches of this canal and the waters rapidly overflowed the brim, filling the meadows. The Germans soon were floundering in water knee deep, while their heavy guns were anchored in mud. To spread the inundation, the Belgians fired shells into the dyke walls, releasing a vast volume of water that covered the district occupied by the Germans.
The Battle of Ramscapelle
The Germans, though trapped, did not yet abandon their efforts. Their one chance of escape lay in capturing Nieuport and obtaining control of the sluices. By means of table tops, boards, planks, and other devices, the Bavarians crossed the flood and gained a foothold on the railway line, afterward occupying Ramscapelle. The Belgians at once made more breaches in the dams and opened the sluices still wider, until the seething waves rose to the level of the raised railroad tracks.
Then the Belgians and French hurled themselves on the Bavarians at Ramscapelle. For a time the Bavarians held their ground, but presently demoralization seized them and after the streets of the town had been littered with their dead, they broke and turned tail, fleeing toward the lake in their rear. The French "75's" then were brought up, and a hail of shell fell on the Bavarians as they floundered through the waist-high waters. Machine guns also came into play, raking the line of retreat. Soon the lake, between the Ramscapelle and the Yser Canal,was dotted with the bodies of drowned Bavarians. The survivors were barely able to reach a haven of safety over the bridges at St. Georges, Schoorbakhe, and Tervaete.
The Battle of the Yser was at an end. Belgian and French valor had triumphed over Prussian numbers and ruthlessness. The Yser River, after this battle, ran red with blood. Canals in places were bridged with dead bodies. Germans had been drowned by thousands in the entrenchments when the flood came rushing in. On the edge of the flooded area, the Belgians and French infantry raked the doomed Germans with a pitiless fire of bullets, while the shells from the Allied fleet and land batteries broke incessantly over the waters.
Western Belgium was now as a vast charnel house filled with unburied corpses. The wounded thronged every available building, or lay by the thousands in the open without succor or shelter, facing death from exhaustion. Villages, towns, and hamlets had been reduced to ashheaps. Not only were all the roads torn up by shells, but the cemeteries were forced to give up their dead, bones dug up by shells being flung along the surface of the soil.
All the larger towns—Nieuport, Bruges, Dixmude, Ramscapelle, and Peroyse—were practically destroyed. In Nieuport, not one house remained undamaged, while the Cathedral and the Hotel de Ville were ruined beyond repair. The Germans in this battle lost nearly 300,000 men.
The Battle of Ypres
British Forces, 150,000
General Sir John French
German Forces, 400,000
Duke of Württemberg
Thwarted at Nieuport and Dixmude by the disaster which followed the inundation of the Yser, the Germans next attempted to force the British front near Ypres, a town on the banks of the Yperlee, 12 miles to the south. Here they were beyond range of the guns of the Allied fleet, which had wrought such destruction in their ranks at Nieuport.
On this front of 30 miles, General Sir John French had scarcely 150,000 Britishers to sustain the attack, while the German forces, commanded by the Duke of Württemberg,numbered 400,000. General Foch had promised, however, to send reinforcements to the British as soon as possible. On the night of October 26, 1914, a night of inky darkness and torrential rain, the Germans in mass formation attacked the British front east and west of Ypres, but were beaten back so effectively and with such terrible losses that they needed three days in which to recuperate.
The Kaiser in person then came to Menin to direct the next assault, which was launched on October 29, 1914 against the salient of the Gheluvelt crossroads near Kruiseik. A reserve army corps, 50,000 men, was sent forward in mass to crush the line held at this point by 8000 exhausted Britishers. The heroic defense of Kruiseik by the Britishers forms one of the brightest chapters in the annals of warfare, but in the end numbers prevailed and the British fell back to the slopes of the Gheluvelt ridge, where they checked the further advance of the Germans.
Bringing their heavy artillery into play, at dawn of the following day, the Germans directed their intensest fire against the ridge of Zandvoorde. Here the British trenches were obliterated and many of the brave Britishers were buried alive under mountains of debris. Yet the survivors managed somehow to preserve their line, retiring at dusk to Klein Zillebeke, a mile to the north.
The crisis of the battle came on October 31, 1914. Advancing along the Menin-Ypres road at daybreak, the Germans assaulted the village of Gheluvelt with great violence. The famous British Coldstream Guards, who sustained the brunt of the attack, were practically annihilated, while the British First Division was beaten back to the woods between Veldhoek and Hooge. The Royal Fusiliers, defending their trenches to the last gasp, were cut off and destroyed. Out of a thousand fusiliers only seventy survived.
The heroism of the British was beyond praise. Dismounted British cavalry again and again charged the Bavarians with their bayonets, hurling them back precipitately upon their reserves. In a desperate counterattack, the British recaptured Gheluvelt. When evening fell, Ypres was still in their possession. But the Germans had seized the commanding hills of Messines and Hollebeke, which afforded them ideal gun positions for the bombardment of Ypres. On the same night fresh German troops relieved those who had fought during the day, flinging themselves repeatedly against the thin but dauntless British line. So attenuated was that line that it was necessary to press into trench service, in order to fill the many gaps, all the cooks, servants, orderlies, and cyclists attached to the British army.
Though shattered, bleeding, and wasted away, the British line somehow held until the arrival next day of the 16th French army, and with it General Grosetti's 42d Division — Foch's battering ram at Fere Champenoise— to set up a new barrier against the Huns. With the arrival of this formidable fighting force the tide of battle turned and the road to Calais was closed forever against the German hordes.
The Destruction of Ypres
Encompassed on three sides by the enemy, Ypres itself was marked for destruction. From the Messines and Hollebeke hills, the great German howitzers and field guns for ten days shelled the doomed city. The inhabitants, including many refugees from the countryside, at first took refuge in cellars, but the shells crashed through the houses, bursting in basements and bringing down upon their luckless heads endless cataracts of brick, masonry, and other debris. Day and night, without ceasing, the bombardment continued.
To add to the terrors of the inhabitants, fire broke out in the poorer quarters of the city, and spread unchecked, consuming hundreds of dwellings that had been spared by the shells. Left homeless, the populace fled in terror from the doomed city. On November 9, 1914, a general conflagration set in, completing the ruin of Ypres.
Though the city was now wholly deserted, the German batteries nevertheless continued to pour their heaviest shells into the town until Ypres was reduced to a mass of incandescent wreckage.
A last supreme effort was made by the Germans, on November 11, 1914, to break through the Ypres salient. This culminating stroke was to be delivered by the Prussian Guards, under the immediate eye of the Emperor. Advancing in mass formation along the Menin road in the direction of Gheluvelt, the Germans captured the first line British trenches and were still advancing when the British infantry halted them by an enfilading; fire so deadly in its effect that a third of the Guards dropped on the field. Though urged on by their officers, the Guards reeled back to their trenches, defeated and utterly cowed. In the Battle of Ypres, the British lost 40,000 men and the Germans 70,000 men.
Last Thrust at La Bassee, Armentieres, Arras
Failing to penetrate the Allied line between Ypres and the sea, the Germans made their final thrusts further south in the sector between Ypres and Arras. A picked force of 40,000 men had been assembled for this last effort to seize the channel ports. Supporting them was sufficient artillery, apparently, to blow all Europe into oblivion. Nevertheless, the Germans failed to pass.
Just north of the Lys River, at Armentieres, there was a gap in the Allied line thinly defended by French and British cavalry. For three days, beginning with October 27, 1914 the Germans had tried to force their way through without success, but at length they succeeded in pushing the Allied line back to St. Eloi, with heavy casualties on both sides.
Reinforcements were hurried to the scene, and on October 31, 1914, amidst a blizzard of hail, when Gheluvelt had fallen and the British line was all but yielding, orders for an immediate advance were given. The Britishers sprang at their foes and whipped them to a standstill, turning a near victory into a defeat.
At Armentieres, on November 5, 1914, the Germans brought into play a new and terrible type of mortar which threw projectiles weighing half a ton or more. At dawn, they raked the Allied line with high angle fire, the giant shells falling plump into the British trenches. An enormous mass of infantry was then hurled against the Allied line in mass formation.
They presented a perfect target for the British riflemen, who raked their ranks with a storm of shrapnel and bullets, taking a frightful toll of death. The German lines wavered and then broke. Instantly the Britishers sprang over their parapets and charged the retreating foe with fixed bayonets. One stubborn line of Germans, covering the retreat, turned and faced the Britishers. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle took place, but the Germans were finally driven back to their own position.
An artillery duel on the most gigantic scale took place amidst the orchards and copses of La Bassee, where the Germans perished by thousands in a hopeless attempt to break through the French lines. The battle was unlike any ever fought before. Nowhere was a gun or a gunner exposed, all being concealed by wily devices. The French infantry, from their place of concealment, refused to be lured forth.
The German infantry, on several occasions, simulated attacking movements, hoping to draw out the French. Approaching the French lines, they fired countless rounds of ammunition at no target in particular. But on the last approach of the Huns, the French uprose from their hiding places and sent a hurricane of shrapnel into the German ranks, decimating and demoralizing them. The artillery fire, though deafening and awe inspiring, was far from effective.
Though desultory fighting took place in this area up to the close of the year, no decisive engagement was fought. The Germans had failed utterly to achieve their two great ends, first to turn the flank of the Allied line, or, failing that, to pierce the line and break through to the channel ports. They had lost the offensive and must continue the war on lines prescribed by the Allies. The backbone of the German offensive was broken by the Allies at Ypres.
500,000 Dead in Flanders
Flanders proved a gruesome graveyard for all the combatants. The Germans left 350,000 dead upon that battle field, while the Allies lost fully 150,000. To the Allied forces the British contributed 50,000, or more than half of their Expeditionary Forces; the French, 75,000; and the Belgians, 25,000.
The whole area of Flanders was a shambles. Rivers and lakes were choked with human bodies. Thousands of corpses lay unburied on hillsides and plains. The whole region was a hideous mass of ruins. Hundreds of towns and thousands of villages were reduced to ashes.