Everyone regards the Marne as the turning point of 1914 (and of the First World War itself); indeed, it was. But it might have been only a temporary reverse if the Germans had managed to breach another river barrier, that of the Yser, little more than a month later. “Surely the most insignificant stream that is assured of an immortality in history,” one historian said of the tidal river on the Belgian coast, rarely wider than a lazy stone-toss. For the Germans, the Yser was the turning point that didn’t turn: There seemed nothing to keep them from the last genuine prizes of 1914, the Channel ports. But the human factor intervened in a most un-Tolstoy-like way. The inspirational hero of the Yser, the person who elected, first, to make a stand there with an army that had practically ceased to exist–and then to sacrifice part of his own country to the sea–was the Belgian king Albert. But the man who literally turned the tide was an almost illiterate Flemish boatman named Hendrik Geeraert, who resorted to an ultimate weapon, the environment. The story of this key but forgotten episode of the Great War is told by Robert Cowley, the former editor of MHQ and an authority on the western front.
The war on the western front is a war singularly devoid of “what ifs.” You can almost count them on the fingers of your hand. What if one side had ‘penetrated beyond the last line of resistance and had been able to pour its masses through ever-expanding gaps, to achieve not just a tactical but a strategic advantage? A rolling up of the line, an outflanking, a Cannae-like double envelopment? How often between the Marne in September 1914 and the Ludendorff offensives in the spring of 1918 did the outcome of a battle perhaps of the war itself hang in the balance, to be tipped this way or that by an unprogrammed confrontation, the fortuitous appearance of reinforcements, or the sudden, daring flash of perception that passes for genius?
The battle that took place near the mouth of the Belgian Yser River in the last two weeks of October 1914 is an exception, perhaps the only one: The “what ifs,” the teetering balances of those few miles at the edge of the North Sea, are genuine enough. Here the Germans may have squandered the last real chance for open warfare, allowing the line of trenches that became known as the western front to solidify for good. Here, too, an unforeseen occurrence did change everything–the result of a decision that only one man could have made. Never again in the war would the peculiarities of local topography be used to such advantage.
That man was King Albert of Belgium, who led his country and army or what was left of them–through the Great War. He is among the handful of genuinely attractive public figures in this century, a tall man with spectacles and a moustache that always seemed too wispy for his personality. If a single individual occasionally does have the power to shape destiny–if a leader’s character really can influence his nation’s fate–then Albert has to be counted in that select number. Pace, Tolstoy. His determined example certainly preserved Belgium in 1914, and a decision acted out on those river banks may have done for the Allied cause as well. Of all the presidents, prime ministers, and emperors who presided over the Great War, Albert was the only one who actually commanded his army, even to overseeing its day-to-day operations. He was also the only one who regularly showed up in frontline trenches. That army was, to be sure, small, but its symbolic importance was far out of proportion to its size and the tiny stretch of line it held, about four percent of the Allied side of the western front. Belgium and its violated neutrality provided the Allies with the ready-made patina of morality the war otherwise lacked. And Albert, the man who chose against all odds to resist the Hun, approached crusaderhood as nearly as anyone. He became, despite himself, the world’s last warrior king.
Albert had been elevated to the throne of Belgium only by the accident of death. He was the nephew brought up in the shadows of the presumptive royal heirs, first the old king’s son and then his own brother. Disease, as great a leveler in the 19th century as violence is in the 20th, claimed both lives. Albert quickly established his own style, becoming less like a king than a president for life. He hated pomp, and his only concession to it was to wear his general’s uniform at state functions. He often turned up with his family at a favorite country inn, where he insisted on being addressed as “monsieur.” This was not Marie Antoinette playing at milkmaid.
Neither the isolation nor the ordinary ceremonial preoccupations of kingship were for Albert. He had a collection of automobiles, which he repaired himself. He experimented with wireless radios, made balloon ascensions, and descended into coal mines. An autodidact whose formal education had been pretty much limited to some nondescript palace tutoring and train ing as an officer in military school, he became a man obsessed with, but not bowed down by, information. Albert’s appetite for books was voracious. Barbara Tuchman rightly used the word gluttony in this connection–and he read an average of two a day, in several languages. He never left a waking moment unfilled. “Boredom,” the king once remarked–he was standing on the beach at Santa Barbara, California, during a triumphal tour of the United States after the war–”is the sure sign of a mediocre mind. Such people are weary because, when alone, they are with themselves.” He kept a rowing machine beside his desk. It was as if he felt a duty to be compulsive.
Albert was a pioneer ecologist who would later worry about the effects of wartime deforestation. Unlike his royal contemporaries, who, as if participating in some ancient blood rite, slaughtered game by the hundreds and thou sands, he refused to hunt. His passion, rather, was for mountains, and he collected them the way Theodore Roosevelt collected trophy heads; he might be heard casually discussing botany as he went up the Jungfrau. “He would have discovered a pretext for scaling something in the flattest and most monotonous stretch of land,” one biographer commented. The maritime plain of Flanders, to which his patriotism condemned him for the four years of the Great War, strains even that hyperbole.
There is a monument to Albert across the Yser from the town of Nieuport. In this part of the world, it doesn’t take much for a structure to dominate the landscape-and the Albert Memorial does so by virtue of height alone, although it barely rises above a nearby grove. A kind of temple, circular, high-shouldered, and open to the sky, its square pillars and epistyle are built of once-pale brownstone that age and polluted air have treated with sooty un kindness. Its surface is covered with square studs and reminds you a bit of dried alligator hide. Or put it another way: Think of Stonehenge as conceived by the designers of suburban villas. That’s the twentieth century for you.
An effigy of Albert sits with blackened, bronzy stiffness astride a horse. Though he was an accomplished rider, this particular genre of monumental sculpture hardly suits a man who spent some of his happiest moments driving a car or motorcycle (the faster the better), or piloting a plane. The warrior king wears a ridge-back French-style helmet. The long, handsome face under it seems too haughty for someone whose instincts were more democratic than royal It’s difficult to imagine Albert in the flesh turning up his nose, except to express an environmentalist’s distaste for the traffic noise and the inescapable stench of diesel fumes that wash over his memorial.
You notice a sentence chiseled into a marble plaque: Ilsont Change l’Yser en Rampart d’Occident (They turned the Yser into a Rampart of the West). The word rampart, too, has the ring of hyperbole. Through the pillars you can see the river, an unremarkable tidal stream, narrow but dredged deep enough to accommodate fishing boats. With its concrete banks the Yser has the look of a canal. A couple of miles to the west, between two long fishing piers, it alternately empties into the North Sea at low tide and is emptied into at high. Here the western front petered out in the coastal dunes-but that is getting ahead of the story.
Within easy walking distance of the monument, the river runs up against sluice gates; the bridge to Nieuport crosses over them. When the tide rises, the water, its dirty white foam creating the effect of cheap marbleized wallpaper, fairly boils around those gates. Below them, the channel of the river on the land side is placid and the level of the water conspicuously lower. That is a constant; otherwise the general aspect of the place has changed
greatly since 1914. Six creeks and canals emptied into the river above the gates then; with modern reconstructions and hydraulic rearrangements, only two canals remain. Does it seem possible that the history of Europe may have been changed on this spot? You look in vain for more commemorative words. There are none. But then, those dark waters swirling impatiently against the sluice gates are their own best monument. Water was the essential element in the history of this part of the western front, the only element that mattered.
The channel under the sluice gates widens into a small lake whose rec tangular banks are obviously man-made. It is a reservoir where the river waters could build up until low tide, when they would be released. Sailboats move effortlessly in the soft, warm wind, blown like parachute clumps of thistle seed. A thousand years ago, the surrounding polders-land reclaimed from the sea-formed an imposing bay into which oceangoing craft could sail as far as Dixmude, ten miles distant. Here, as in Holland, the creation of the polders was the result of the labor of generations, first to contain the flood from the sea, and then little by little to drain the marshes where it had left its brackish residue, to make them not just arable but fertile. Dixmude became the lead ing agricultural town of the area, and Nieuport served as the port for Ypres, that great cloth center of the Middle Ages.
Even now much of the surrounding maritime plain would be underwater if not for the sluice gates at Nieuport. They hold back the salt water at high tide and let the fresh river water flow out at low. To let in the sea, the process can simply be reversed. If the finger in the dike is one side of the legendary Lowlands coin, deliberate inundation is the other. What the sea could take away, it could also preserve. Flanders has always been a major theater of war, and time and again besieged coastal towns such as Ostend, Nieuport, and Dunkirk have been saved by flooding the surrounding plains. It seems an obvious lesson of history that whoever controls the sluice gates controls the surrounding country as well. But in 1914 that lesson was apparently lost on everyone concerned.
Albert had been king five years when the kaiser’s armies breached the Belgian frontier on August 4, 1914. He was not quite forty, the youngest of the rulers of Europe. As a foretaste of what was to happen on the Yser, he ordered the destruction of all bridges and tunnels in the path of the advancing enemy. By October, the only real consolation prizes that still presented them selves to the Germans, temptingly so, were the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. With stalemate spreading like hoarfrost across the autumn landscape of northern France, they now concentrated their efforts in Flanders. Success beckoned, especially on the far wing of the line, the sea end-the same Channel water that, according to the mordant imagery of the original but discarded Schlieffen Plan, the sleeve of the last German soldier had been supposed to brush a month or so earlier. There, somewhere on the maritime plain, the Germans would face the remnants of Albert’s Belgian army. If they could break through here, and at Ypres, where another part of their offensive was concentrating, one commentator points out, “the Channel ports might be seized, direct communication between England and the Continent endangered and the left wing of the allies rolled up or forced to fall back….The way for an advance on Paris would once more be open.” In those first months of the Great War, only the events along the Marne were more important than those on the Yser.
The Belgian army had just managed to slip the German noose at Antwerp at the beginning of the month. In quick succession Ghent had fallen, and then Bruges and Ostend. It is hard to associate the parochial order and discrete stillness of the modern Flemish countryside with the sights and sensations of those wild days: the singing columns of German soldiers (they sang partly out of enthusiasm, partly because they were ordered to do so), the leaden skies and constant rain, the dust of summer turning into the mud of autumn, the unseasonal rumble of distant cannonfire, the villages burning on the night horizon, and, permeating everything, the rancid odor of thousands of marching men in their woolen uniforms, an odor that lingered in the air, mingling with the pungently familiar barnyard smells, long after the troops had disappeared into the morning fogs. Screens of cavalry swept in front, uhlans searching for the enemy rear guard.
Somewhere ahead were the Belgians. The greater number were refugees, packed into the last trains or fleeing by car, by cart, or on foot, heading for the French border and already crowding into the Channel ports. The exodus of populations on such a grand scale was a new phenomenon–but then, so was the “front” that caused it. Mixed in with the refugees were units of Albert’s army, men who, in the apt phrase of a British military historian, were “experienced in nothing but defeat.” A contemporary writer described the spectacle of the Belgian troops: “Instead of a haversack, almost all the soldiers carried a ‘baluchon,’ or kind of sack made of coarse grey cloth. They had all kinds of flasks, bottles, and cans by strings, laces, etc. The uniforms ‘had nothing uniform but the name.’ The soldiers who had come from Antwerp bare headed had provided themselves with caps.” Others, who had escaped into Holland after the city fell, returned rather than face internment, discarding their uniforms and recrossing the frontier in civilian clothes; many showed up on the Yser wearing sabots (wooden clogs).
In the first two and a half months of the war, the Belgian field army had lost well over half of its effectives, and by mid-October it could muster only 48,000 men. “They were almost at their last gasp,” Albert’s chief of staff admitted. Even the king himself was losing hope. “Situation very bad,” his wife noted in her journal on October 15. “Everything seems black to Albert.” He would have preferred to continue his retreat, reorganizing his shattered forces behind the French border. But he gave in to French pressure to make a stand on the Yser–though not to their demand that his troops join in the offensive they were planning along the whole Flanders front, as far south as Lille. He pointed out that the Yser position was a poor one because it was impossible to dig trenches in the low-lying, waterlogged soil: To resist the enormous German siege guns, trenches were necessary, and the deeper the better. He warned that his men could not resist here for long. Always a clever negotiator, Albert apparently used those reservations to extract from the French a reluctant promise of reinforcements.
Whatever his private misgivings or his temporary waverings, Albert kept them to himself. Once he had given his word, he held to it. Even as his wife was scribbling that gloomy entry, he issued a general order: “The line of the Yser constitutes our last line of defense in Belgium…. This line will be held at all costs.” He also added a pointed touch of his own when he informed his division commanders that they should distribute staff officers among the fighting troops. They were to remain there during the battle, “giving fresh inspiration” up front “instead of constantly grumbling” in the rear.
The progress of the Germans had been just slow enough to allow Albert’s men an interval of rest. It was at ten minutes after six on the morning of October 17, according to the journal of one of his regimental commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Arsene Bernard, that the first sound of cannonfire was heard along the Yser line. That night Bernard recorded a “small diversion”: The cloud cover had temporarily lifted and his men watched the progress of a comet across the sky. Had his family, behind enemy lines in Brussels, also seen it? “Perhaps,” he wrote, “our gazes met up there.”
Between Nieuport and Dixmude, the two strongpoints that anchored the Belgian line, the Yser describes a knobby arc. A map of the river looks rather like the caricature of a rustic’s face, one of van Gogh’s potato eaters, perhaps, gaping northward with uncertain pugnacity. The peak of the head, at the sluices, slopes into a low brow; the loop at the halfway point forms a bulbous nose; and the chin juts out at Dixmude. The Yser is really just the largest of the creeks in the area, slinking through pastureland and fields of wheat and sugar beets; it is about 60 feet wide and no more than 10 feet deep. Both sides are built up in dikes, the western one (behind which the Belgian troops crouched) commanding the eastern by a few feet. Infrequent bridges span the river. Farms built on barely perceptible hillocks as protection from flooding (a persistent threat in the wet months of fall and winter) can be seen here and there. The few trees and the isolated villages are starkly conspicuous. A couple of miles to the rear, across polders divided and subdivided into an intricate network of canals, creeks, and drainage ditches, is the Nieuport Dixmude railway. It runs absolutely straight along an embankment nowhere more than five feet high (and sometimes as little as three), the highest elevation in the area. In 1914 everyone recognized that this embankment had to be the Belgian army’s last line of defense.
On the morning of the 18th, the Germans attacked. The giant siege guns that had crushed the forts of Antwerp now systematically pulverized the brick walls and tile roofs of the farm villages where Belgian troops sought sanctuary on the right bank. By nightfall only two places on the right bank of the river remained in Allied hands: the outskirts of Nieuport, where shelling from a British flotilla offshore stopped the German advance down the dunes; and Dixmude, where a brigade of French marines, mostly young Breton sailors, wearing caps with red pom-poms, made what was literally a last-ditch stand. It would be another 24 days before the Germans finally forced them to retreat across the Yser.
The Germans brought up more heavy mortars and the pounding intensified. Their first attempts to get across the little river failed. The bombardment went on. At Nieuport that night the Belgians made their first experiment with inundation–a local initiative that has since been largely forgotten–opening the weirs of the old and uncanalized Yser channel at high tide. Their aim was to deny the bridges and the hydraulic system to the enemy by flooding. Though they created a considerable watery mess, it was not an impassable one. Their failure did not seem to justify another attempt.
The Germans, too, were busy under the cover of darkness. Just before dawn, at the loop of the river–the nose–they put a makeshift bridge across and established themselves on the left bank. During the night of the 22nd-23rd, the better part of two divisions, perhaps 20,000 men, poured over. Before long they had ruptured the Yser in several other places. It seemed only a matter of time until the Belgian army collapsed.
The Germans advanced by fits and starts; the Belgians and their French allies fell back across the amphibious landscape. Beyond that, it is hard to give coherence to the events of the next days. Attacks and counterattacks were broken as much by the slippery terrain and exhaustion as by artillery and machine guns. Formations melted away, and units, or what was left of them, became mixed up. Men skidded forward or backward in small, uncoordinated groups, taking advantage of whatever cover they could find, flopping in the sodden fields, crouching in frigid, water-filled ditches. Dead cattle littered their once-secure pastureland; corpses of every kind turned into sheltering promontories. The fighting spilled over into the night-and only became more confused. In the darkness, trenches were captured and recaptured; men trampled on the dead and wounded lying in the mud. Not even the constant rain could quench the fires of burning towns. At one place, where tanks along the riverbank went up in flames, spilling oil into the water, even the Yser caught fire.
No one–least of all the idealistic German student soldiers thrown into battle for the first time–was prepared for this sort of war. “In what bitter disappointment I now sit here, with horror in my heart,” 23-year old Alfred Buchalski wrote home during a break in the fighting at Dixmude. “It was ghastly! Not the actual shedding of blood, nor that it was shed in vain, nor the fact that in the darkness our own comrades were firing at us-no, but the whole way in which a battle is fought is so revolting….The attack, which I thought was going to be so magnificent, meant nothing but being forced to get forward from one bit of cover to another in the face of a hail of bullets, and not to see the enemy who was firing them!”
Then, in the sort of logically illogical flourish that might occur to a philosophy student like himself, Buchalski added what must surely be the saddest afterthought of the next four years: “If one could only accomplish something, then, no doubt, the bullets wouldn’t hurt so much!”
The Germans, on the 24th, were in fact on the verge of accomplishing something. They now brought heavy artillery across, and its demoralizing effect was immediate. Increasing numbers of Belgian troops drifted to the rear; those who remained to fight dug in along their last line of defense, the railway embankment. A French colonel named Brecard reported: “The front is on the point of giving way on all sides…it looks as though it will be impossible to avert catastrophe.” The Belgian army prepared to shift its head quarters from Fumes, a few miles behind the fighting, to a safer spot near the French border. Though roofs were crashing around his command post, Albert elected to remain with his military operations staff. It was the sort of gesture, hardly empty, that was his special knack. Then four fresh battalions of a French division, some 4,000 men, showed up at Pervyse, in the center of the Belgian line. They were enough to check the German advance for that day.
The Belgians were saved again on the 25th. A hard rain blew in from the sea, gradually swelling into a tempest. There was a lull in the fighting: The attackers were as worn out as the defenders; their losses, too, had been heavy, and they no longer enjoyed the numerical advantage they had begun with, a week earlier. The real crisis that day took place behind the Allied line. At dawn the operations staff at Fumes was warned that General Ferdinand Foch, commanding the French armies in the North, contemplated letting the sea into the polders around Dunkirk. The Belgians panicked. A sheet of water spreading across their rear would have cut off their main route of retreat–and retreat was apparently very much on their minds. The indications, long buried by subsequent official hagiography, are strong that retreat had been all but decided on. It took a direct appeal from Albert to General Joseph Joffre, the French commander in chief, to get the Dunkirk order countermanded.
But another option, overlooked until then, was left to the desperate Belgians. Foch’s understandable intention–somehow the enemy had to be stopped short of the Channel ports-precipitated an inundation plan of their own. It seems that a high-ranking member of the Belgian staff was quartered in Fumes with a local magistrate and antiquarian named Emeric Feys. Feys pointed out to him that deliberate inundation of the Yser had saved Nieuport from invading armies in the past; why couldn’t it be resorted to again? The idea of creating a protective lagoon from Nieuport to Dixmude appealed to his guest, and it was seized upon at headquarters. No one in the Belgian army had studied the possibility until the moment he proposed it. Neither had the Germans, for that matter; they might otherwise have been quicker to seize the hydraulic system at Nieuport. History has its uses, after all.
Nieuport and its hydraulic system is “the key to the door,” wrote that genius of French military engineers, Vauban, in 1706. He had built much of the Flanders canal network, and defensive inundation was uppermost in his mind. “Once Nieuport and Fumes slip from our grasp, we will soon have the enemy at the gates of Dunkirk.”
The decision to return a sizable portion of Belgium to the sea-the watery equivalent of the scorched-earth policy–was one that only Albert could make. He made it without hesitation. The whole operation would have to be improvised, and it would be a tricky one. Most of the men who tended the bridge and canal system had fled to France, and headquarters could not even lay hands on tidal charts. Makeshift preparations had to be made. By that afternoon, soldiers of the engineer corps-sappers had started to close the 22 culverts along the railway embankment. Small creeks ran through these culverts; blocking them would cause the creeks to back up and overflow, and would also prevent the flood from spreading behind the embankment. The sappers worked without letup in the violent rainstorm, often under fire. In places the enemy was only a few hundred yards away now.
On the morning of the 26th, the Germans attacked. Once again the intervention of fresh French battalions prevented a breakthrough at the embankment. But at the same time other French troops, who had no inkling of the contemplated inundations, abandoned the bridgehead protecting the Nieuport hydraulic system. They blew up the so-called Five Bridges there and retreated into the town. Once again, too, the Belgian staff prepared plans for a withdrawal. When he learned of them, Albert had one of his rare fits of anger. The embankment would hold. He was convinced the German offensive was beginning to run down.
As if to bear out his prediction, the Germans did not attack the next day, nor on the 28th. They were gathering their strength for a final assault. Preparation for the inundation went forward. Secrecy was maintained; the Germans suspected nothing. By now, the engineer officers in charge had located the chief lockkeeper of the Fumes canal, Carel-Louis Cogge. He would have nothing to do with the plan at first, and only the promise of a decoration induced him to help. On the night of the 27th-28th, Cogge showed sappers how to open the sluices of an abandoned canal on the sea side of Nieuport. A glance at the map makes it obvious that this was the safest one he could find. Even so, the sappers worked within hearing of the Germans, who had reached the sand flats just across the river. It turned out to be a night when tides were abnormally low, and the sappers were unable to let in much water. Then the sluice gates slammed shut. The second experiment had failed, but Cogge still received his decoration, and more than one history book gives him credit he probably didn’t deserve.
Clearly the Belgians would have to try one of the watercourses at the dynamited bridges–which would mean venturing out into what was now a no-man’s-land. And they would have to wait another day or two for the return of higher tides. At this point an engineer captain named Fernand Ume found a local Flemish boatman, Hendrik Geeraert. He suggested that Ume try a creek called the Noordvaart, which flowed between the railroad embankment and the Yser before emptying into the main channel at Nieuport. Though Geeraert was not a lockkeeper employed by the government, he claimed that he knew where to find the cranks that controlled the Noordvaart weir gates and how to manipulate them. (A distinction has to be made between sluices and weirs. The place where a canal empties into another stream is closed with sluice gates, which open outward to allow boats to pass. In a hydraulic system, creek flow is regulated by weir gates, which are raised and lowered.)
Hendrik Geeraert, to whom “the supreme maneuver” was finally entrusted, was a handsome but somewhat somber-looking man with graying hair and a thick, drooping mustache. He is described as being rough-mannered and uncommonly powerful for someone in his late middle age, intelligent but almost illiterate. “It could be said,” writes the Belgian historian Henri Bernard, “that this primitive played as decisive a role in the Flanders struggle as any Belgian or Allied general.”
At 7:30 in the evening of October 29, Geeraert led Ume and a detachment of sappers over a remaining footbridge that spanned the Fumes canal, the first branch. Covered by a machine-gun section and by carabineers from a cyclist platoon, they moved stealthily, fully expecting to encounter Germans amid the trees of the first little island. They found none. Now they had reached the Noordvaart, with its eight weir gates. On the opposite bank, hidden in a clump of bushes, were the gears that could raise those gates. They crossed the second branch. Again there were no Germans. The tide was already rising, and the wind blowing in from the sea made it even higher. Rain fell ceaselessly. To the east they could hear the sound of shellfire; the German assault on the embankment had started again.
They went to work. The seawater surged forward, soon overflowing the banks of the Noordvaart, which were not built up with dikes, and spreading over the plain. In the next few hours, they managed to let out about 700,000 cubic meters of water. At four in the morning, just before the ebb tide set in, Geeraert and the sappers closed the weir gates and returned to Nieuport.
There is something timeless about the polder landscape, even if most of the buildings date from after the Second World War. More fighting and destruction, as well as another inundation, occurred here then. It is one of those curious coincidences–history seems so full of them–that in 1940 the Belgian army was making a last stand in these parts when Albert’s son Leopold decided to surrender. You see pylon-shaped concrete telephone poles and an occasional plaster deer in a front yard. You cross under a new motor way. But otherwise the fields are just as broad (though on closer inspection drainage ditches slice them up into rough morsels), the cows as brown, the dark clayey soil as rich, the richest in Flanders, and the tile roofs and the poppies that swarm along the banks of the Yser as red as they were in 1914. Trees still explode in low, isolated bursts, their growth stunted by the wind. The tallest objects are, as they always have been, man-made: the church steeples that rise above every village cluster, as if endlessly aspiring to defeat the precarious monotony of a country rescued from the sea.
Leaving Nieuport and heading along the left bank of the Yser, you follow a road barely wide enough for your car. But it is the narrowness of the river itself that is so impressive, never more than a lazy stone-toss from bank to bank. “Surely the most insignificant stream that is assured of an immortality in history” is the way the British Official History puts it. The waters of the Yser have a sluggish and vaguely chemical opaqueness. Who would suspect that in one of the wettest places in Europe, potable water has always been in short supply? The water near the surface of the polders is likely to be contaminated by animal and fertilizer wastes; deeper down, below that impervious layer of clay, it is brackish, still flavored by the sea. “In the barn and stable of a small farm,” notes a contemporary account of the Yser battle, “there were crowds of wounded men. It was impossible to evacuate them, as the enemy was ceaselessly shelling the ground behind the Belgian trenches. The surgeon, the chaplain, and the ambulance staff did their utmost. To quench the thirst of the delirious men in agony they had to boil the stagnant water of the brooks.”
You have the feeling that you are intruding on an immense game board, but one from which the pieces long ago vanished. The cows are the main players now. Once, near that noselike bend in the river, you come on a stone commemorating a doomed Belgian counterattack that briefly held the Germans on the 22nd of October.
You wander away from the river. Somewhere in those fields you may have encountered the Noordvaart–one deep ditch seems pretty much like another. With a slight bump, you go over the railroad tracks, which run straight as a gunshot, disappearing into the ever-present haze. What can you say about the famous embankment, its careful steep talus of sharp rocks about like any other you will find in the world, except to note that it is just high enough to give shelter? You catch sight of a squarish, ruined tower with a concrete blockhouse built on top, an observation post throughout the war.
The road leads into Pervyse. If you arrive in the afternoon, you will find its metal shutters drawn against the sun. It is that empty time when all the slops are closed for the afternoon break. About this hour during the crisis of the 24th, the commander of the French reinforcements, a plump, white bearded gentleman named Paul Francois Grossetti, ordered a chair brought to the center of Pervyse’s principal intersection, the most deliberately conspicuous place he could find. There, with shells exploding around him, the general sat throughout the afternoon, leaning on a cane as he directed the defense of the town and the embankment beyond. His kind was all too rare. History sometimes becomes positively axiomatic: The longer the war lasted, the greater the distance generals seemed to put between themselves and the front.
You turn cautiously into that intersection. The notion of someone today plunking his fat body down in the midst of the ever-dense traffic seems a delicious absurdity. Lord knows, it’s not easy to find one in the solid brick of those Flanders towns. The place you are looking for is called Ramscappelle; you have to double back a few miles toward the sea. Just off the main east-west highway, at the entrance to that little town, a hedge surrounds a triangular bit of lawn and flower beds. Its centerpiece is a replica of a windmill, large enough to conceal a transformer station. (Nothing is wasted in this country.) The object of your search is a low demarcation stone erected after the war by the Touring Club of Belgium; it is set in a break in the hedge. A sizable chip, knocked off by a direct hit in the Second World War, is missing from the French-style helmet on its top. (This seems to be a feature of western-front monuments.) You try to comprehend the meaning of that stone. Presumably, in 1914, some German soldiers had reached this spot, a half mile beyond the railway embankment and at the edge of open country. The stone commemorates the limit of their advance. On the Yser front, this was as far as the Germans would ever get.
Even as Geeraert and Ume were opening the Noordvaart weir in the streaming darkness of the 29th, the Germans seemed on the verge of success. A few hours before, the young American correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer had climbed the damaged belfry at Pervyse–the same one you can see from the road–to watch the Germans attacking “across the soggy fields. I could faintly see them advancing in mass formation, singing as they came.” Mowrer wandered north, to be closer to the action, “and was sent to the rear by a French artillery lieutenant whose ‘seventy-fives’ were ‘pouring it on’ Ramscappelle. That night the Germans reached the embankment.”
They not only reached it but went beyond, fighting through Ramscappelle house by house. At 4:30 on the morning of the 30th, Lieutenant Colonel Bernard noted that he was “woken by the hell-like cannonade.” By daybreak the German waves were crashing against the embankment with full force. At Pervyse, the attackers got close enough to lob grenades across and soon had gained a foothold on the other side. Meanwhile, they drove the Belgians completely out of Ramscappelle. The way to Dunkirk and Calais was now open.
And then suddenly, around noon, the firing from the German side began to die down.
The French and Belgian troops could not understand what was happening. In the fields south of Ramscappelle, they re-formed behind yet another insubstantial stream and waited for fresh lines of attackers to emerge from the town. None appeared. The Allied troops crept back after nightfall. Though they did not clean out the town until the next day, it was clear that the main German force had gone. The end came even sooner at Pervyse. There at ten on the morning of the 30th, Bernard was ordered to counterattack; at one o’clock the order was countermanded. His regiment entered Pervyse unopposed. “The smell is putrid,” he wrote, “from so many bloated animal carcasses. We discover numerous German corpses as well as some wounded…who are made prisoners.” The enemy, he said, had fallen back because of the inundation. It was Bernard’s first mention of the word. Albert’s secret had been well kept.
The inundation had taken effect not a moment too soon. You must not imagine that Geeraert and Ume released an immediate floodlike deluge on the Yser plain, a spreading wave that uprooted trees and swept away houses and men. It was nothing so dramatic. At first the only sign was the desperate agitation of the freshwater fish-the trout, carp, and pike that inhabited the canals and side streams–as the salt water took over. As the hours passed, the meadows turned increasingly boggy. The inundation was, in the grandiose but accurate words of a French account, invincible and implacable in its slow progress. It stretched as an immense sheet of water, slightly undulating….It came noiselessly, filling the canals, leveling the ditches, the roads, and the shell holes. It glided, slipped, oozed everywhere. It was a silent conqueror at first scarcely visible. The water surrounded islets of rising ground, whence groups of soldiers fled drenched to the knees. It murmured patiently along the trenches, it came from the horizon and reached the horizon.
The Germans panicked as they felt the ground disappear under them. They could not get reinforcements forward, and soon it was all they could do to retreat to the safety of the right bank. Guns sank in the mud and had to be abandoned. The water hid ditches and creeks, into which men plunged over their heads, and cut off others dug in before the embankment, forcing them to surrender. Isolated wounded undoubtedly drowned or died of exposure. The Germans never suspected the cause and attributed it to the heavy rains. They made no further attempts to seize the Nieuport hydraulic system; the full force of their offensive was directed now at Ypres. Ypres, too, held barely. You can argue that the Germans never came as close to a break through there as some historians, mainly British, would like to make out; the Yser was another matter. If not for Albert’s decision to inundate, Ypres might have been taken from the rear in the next few days. Play with that thought.
On the night of the 30th, and the two nights following, Geeraert and Ume went back to work. By the time they were done, they had created an artificial lagoon extending from Nieuport almost to Dixmude, and from the embankment to the Yser–about three miles at its widest point and almost nine miles long. At its maximum, it was the widest no-man’s-land on the western front. The areas under water varied from three to 10 feet in depth. There were, to be sure, sizable patches not covered by water, but they were mostly impassable marsh. What had once been an estuary of the sea reverted to its original state.
“A strange silence reigned,” wrote Lieutenant General Emile Galet, Albert’s chief of staff. “The enemy, driven away by the most irresistible of the elements, had vanished.” When the mists rose, men standing on the embankment could look across a dead sea to the German shore–you could no longer talk about the “banks” of the Yser. Fence posts and the tops of pollarded willows poked up, as forlorn as the gutted walls of drowned farms; an occasional burned-out church tower cast its dark shadow over the waters. Muddy roads that disappeared into the lagoon seemed already annealed to it. Beyond, and out of reach for the duration, stood empty carts, faint waves lapping at their axles. The light caught the dull white of fish stomachs, and half-starved men scooped up the first victims of the inundation while they were still reasonably fresh. Bodies, human and animal, floated amid a flotsam of leather helmets, knapsacks, and cartridge boxes. Bloated corpses rising to the surface marked the line of yesterday’s trenches.
Albert had won the only victory he needed to win.
For the next four years, the daily communique from Belgian headquarters, its version of “All quiet on the western front,” would seldom vary. Some weeks after the battle ended, the Belgians extended the inundation by jamming the culverts in the dikes along the straight stretch of the Yser below Dixmude. The inundation now formed a semicircle of about 22 miles. A boot may be a more apt simile some might say a skeletal foot–with a high heel at the sharp Dixmude bend and a long toe pointing toward the river’s source, just across the French border. The inundation had to be one of the great unnatural wonders of the western front.
The Belgians did not budge beyond its watery confines until late September 1918, when Albert joined the final Allied sweep through Flanders. In the long interim, he steadfastly withheld his troops from the offensive adventures of his allies. With most of his small country behind enemy lines, he recognized that he could not rely on a limitless supply of expendable man power. Albert’s army suffered an average of four to five deaths a day from enemy fire, but lost a larger number to disease. The Yser was the unhealthiest sector of the western front. Surface water was hopelessly contaminated by the waste of the dead and the wastes of the living. At the end of 1914, an epidemic of typhoid fever killed 2,500 Belgian troops, only 600 fewer than their total deaths in the Yser battle.
The dedication date on the memorial at Nieuport is 1933. To begin with, it was merely a monument to the stand along the river–the river that became the westernmost dividing line, a rampart in every sense, of the western front. But one February afternoon the following winter, the king was driven to the Meuse for a solitary climb. On some needlelike rocks 80 feet above the river, he slipped, and apparently without a sound–panic was never part of Albert’s repertoire–fell to his death. He was just 58. So the monument became a memorial. You wonder whether the subsequent history of Europe would have been quite the same if Albert had lived out a normal life span.
All of that, admittedly, is afterthought. As you stroll beyond the temple dedicated to Albert, following the path to the Yser sluice gates, something else strikes you. How curious it is that a memorial to a man who loved mountains, who died scaling a rock face, stands in one of the most low-lying places in Europe–a place that was in fact, within documented memory, under the sea. MHQ
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Albert and the Yser
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