World War 1 History: 1914 Battle of Yser; The Armies Run Out of Room

1914: Battle of Yser Fought between pts A and B

show route and directions
A markerNieuwpoort, Belgium -
Nieuwpoort, Belgium
[get directions]

B markerDiksmuide, Belgium -
Arrondissement of Diksmuide, Belgium
[get directions]

C markerDunkirk, France -
Dunkirk, France
[get directions]

D markerYpers -
Ieper, Belgium
[get directions]

WW1: Map showing the course of the "Race to the Sea" in1914 after the Battle of the Aisne. Allied front line and movement is shown in red, German front line and movement shown in blue. Three of the battles that occurred during or after the "race
WW1: Map showing the course of the "Race to the Sea" in1914 after the Battle of the Aisne. Allied front line and movement is shown in red, German front line and movement shown in blue. Three of the battles that occurred during or after the "race | Source

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 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.

WW1: Yser 1914 map (French).
WW1: Yser 1914 map (French). | Source

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.

WW1: British monitor HMS Mersey.
WW1: British monitor HMS Mersey. | Source

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.

Flood Plan

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.

WW1: Flooded area near the Yser, 1916.
WW1: Flooded area near the Yser, 1916. | Source

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.

WW1: Barbed wire on the beaches. The "End of the Line": the Western Front of World War I reaches the sea near Nieuwpoort.
WW1: Barbed wire on the beaches. The "End of the Line": the Western Front of World War I reaches the sea near Nieuwpoort. | Source

Trench Warfare

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.

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Comments 10 comments

rlbert00 profile image

rlbert00 4 years ago from USA

I will never in my life understand the theory behind trench warfare and the slaughter of so many men killed in no man's land, unreal. I recall reading somewhere that WWI wiped out, either completely or nearly completely, and entire generation of British men, I wish I could recall the specifics or at least where I read it. I think this article explains perfectly how the future of WWI would play out, trenches from the Swiss border to the English Chanel. Great article, nicely done.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, rlbert00. It's hard to believe when 60,000 casualties happen in one day (the British at the Somme)given the scope of today's casualty lists.I think it's whatever the "market" will bear. If 20,000 Americans were killed tomorrow in Afghanistan, I don't know whether we'd nuke them, send in a million conscripts or get out (though the debt to the dead usually obviates that course). The Western public has not been trained to accept those kinds of figures.


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Unnamed Harald...

This is a wonderfully informative article that I intend on sharing widely! I have to say...the tendency of soldiers to "dig in" is one that I can fully appreciate! I would want to find a hole myself until it all blows over.

I think it was at Petersburg (American Civil War, 1865) that the phenomenon first revealed itself (wholesale); albeit, the 400 miles of trench lines of World War One completely dwarfed those fortifications.

Thanks,

Thomas


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

ThoughtSandwiches, thanks for commenting and, especially, sharing. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have no idea how they'd get me to "go over the top" but I imagine part of it would include the "brothers in arms" factor. But I sure would be wondering when the generals would get around to trying something else.


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi UH. Again a first class presentation. Your research is outstanding. Thank you.

Graham.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, old albion. The more I write the more I learn.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Harald - Another excellent well developed Hub. Your research is top notch and the maps and graphics are extremely helpful. Good work. SHARING


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, phdast7, glad you liked it and thanks for sharing. I remember reading a lot of accounts of WWI battles, but couldn't figure out where things were happening. That's why I try to include maps (and pronunciations) so the reader can at least get an idea where they happened.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

Thanks for an interesting account of the "race for the sea", very well explained.

Voted up etc.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks very much for reading and commenting, Judi.

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