from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume I page 288
'The Terrible Battle of Nieuport'

The Great Episodes of the War

a bombed street in Nieuport


Of all the wild, fierce battles on this blood-stained planet, the Battle of Nieuport was the strangest and fiercest. It was a land battle fought by destroyers against submarines, by battleships against minelayers, by waterplanes against siege- howitzers. Vast hosts of men clashed on the land and in the skies, on the sea and under the waves. They dug themselves in the earth like moles; they soared like eagles; they fought in the sea depths like sharks. And victory remained apparently, though not really, doubtful until a Belgian engineer brought a new ally to the help of his heroic, outnumbered comrades, and, letting in the tempestuous North Sea, flooded the fields of Western Flanders and drowned the enemy.


A Futile Attempt to Intimidate Britain

The most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary battle is that it was unnecessary. Merely to attempt it was a catastrophe of the gravest kind. For the attempt signified that the German Military Staff had lost its balance and was striking blindly. In all probability the mistake was due to the interference of the German Emperor, who desired to advance along the coast and take Calais quick! v at any sacrifice of life, not for a military purpose, but for a political object—to intimidate the British people by the vain menace of invasion. The correct but slower way for a German advance towards Calais was from Lille, by the road from La Bassee. This was undertaken the same time as the roundabout attack at Nieuport. But the two divergent aims entailed a disastrous division of all the available forces, and neither, therefore, was achieved, though the Germans were in overwhelming numbers.

Never has General Joffre showed such subtlety and deadly skill as in this affair. Right from the beginning the situation at Nieuport and along the Yser Canal, running from the coast to Dixmude, was entirely under his control. He had only to order the sluices to be raised and the water in the low-lying fields round the canal would form an impassable barrier. But he did not give the order, as it would have thrown a vast German army, supported by a terrible power of siege artillery, back in their right path of advance at Ypres and Lille.

The French commander-in-chief kept the enemy divided in their aims. He seems even to have encouraged them at times to persist between Nieuport and Dixmude, by allowing his line there to grow weak. By this means he warded the full strength of the enemy from the really critical points round Lille. He began, on Friday, October 16th, by throwing a small force of French Marines to Dixmude. Then the gallant Belgian army of thirty-five thousand men moved forward to the last unconquered strip of their territory, and entrenched from Dixmude to Nieuport, along the Yser Canal, in a flat, bare land of dykes, wet pastures, and sand-dunes.

German Strength in Men and Guns

As the Belgians had scarcely rested since their retreat from Antwerp, the German Military Staff reckoned they were a worn-out, half-demoralised mob that could not make any serious resistance. So—as General Joffre had calculated—the Germans jumped at the easy, resounding victory which was offered to them. It meant the complete conquest of every scrap of Belgian territory, the entire destruction of all the Belgian force, and the road to Calais! A popular achievement of this rounded-off, finished kind could not be allowed to fall to a plebeian like General von Kluck. His Majesty King Wilhelm of Wurtemberg was given command of the extreme German right wing, so that he might win all the glory and increase the Teutonic faith in royal leadership.

The German commander brought within range of the Yser Canal all the more mobile siege artillery that had been used at Antwerp, together with the howitzers and guns of three army corps and about 150,000 men. Not only were the Belgians and French Marines outnumbered by three to one, but the artillery power against them was immeasurably superior. Certainly, in arranging a royal victory the German Military Staff took no chances whatever, and so sure were they of the result that on Sunday, October 18th, the wireless news agency at Berlin informed the world that the Teutonic forces had won through and reached Dunkirk on the French coast.

This, however, was as premature an announcement as the former notorious statement, made in similar circumstances, that the British force below Mons had been encircled. Things did not fall out in accordance with the German time-table. The heroic Belgians held their front all through that dreadful Sunday, with shrapnel bursting over them day and night from hundreds of guns they were unable to engage with their light and scanty field artillery. But when it was thought they were slain, broken, and fugitive, and grey masses of German infantry advanced to occupy the canal, the Belgians rose and, shattering the German advance with their fire, routed it with a bayonet counter-attack.

Ships of War Called to Help in the Land Battle

Then they flung themselves full length on the ground, and the shrapnel storm burst over them again. Almost every injured Belgian was wounded in the back. In the old days this would have been a sign of cowardice. In the awful conditions of the Nieuport battle it was a sign of terrible courage. It meant that the German infantry— though three to one—counted for nothing. The wounds came from shrapnel fire, while the Belgians were sprawled on the fields waiting to repel the German foot soldier. Before the battle closed one-third of the entire Belgian army was disabled or killed by hostile gun-fire.

All of them would certainly have perished in this way in the opening days of the struggle if the overwhelming German artillery had met with no opposition. It was not a human fight, but general slaughter by death machines. Happily, all this had been foreseen by the commander of the Allies, and in the darkness help was arriving, strangely and suddenly, to the sorely-pressed heroes of Belgium and to the French Marines who were fighting by their side.

No spies could signal across the dunes to the King of Wurtemberg, warning him of what was corning. The Germans were taken unawares. For at daybreak, on Monday, October 19th, the guns of the British Navy thundered over dune and polder. Three monitors—the Severn, Humber, and Mersey—warships of a new design that could float in a few feet of water, had steamed from Dover with a flotilla of destroyers, to take part in the great land battle. They carried 6 in. guns and howitzers, all directed by the new system of fire-control, of which flying machines, scouting over the enemy's batteries and trenches, formed an important feature.

A Mighty Duel of Big Guns

The German artillerymen, coolly flinging death at the distant Belgian troops along the canal, had the greatest surprise in the history of warfare. Against the attack of their strange, new adversaries, they were as completely helpless as the Belgians were against their fire. Their gun positions were fixed, and were changeable only by slow means. The guns of the British monitors, on the other hand, moved from place to place with the speed of cavalry. It was practically impossible to get their range. And all the while British fire-control officers, in flying machines and other positions of vantage, directed the deadly true, concentrated shell fire of the naval guns on to battery after battery.

At last the great, decisive contest of British genius against German genius had fully opened. For the first time in the history of the war our mechanical appliances for battle were fairly matched against the machinery of war forged by Krupp of Essen and Skoda of Pilsen. In numbers the German cannon were overpowering; there were six hundred guns and more, ranged in batteries, from Middelkerke, below Ostend. But in science of handling, the weapons made by Vickers of Barrow were supreme. And when the battleship Venerable, with 12 in. guns, and smaller warships of Britain and France joined in the great artillery duel, the German guns were thoroughly beaten. The German trenches ran with blood; the water in the dykes took a red tinge; regiments of dead and wounded cumbered the coast road, and formed banks along the canal All that the Germans had, cold-bloodedly, arranged to do to the Belgians was done to them. They perished in tens of thousands.

Where our warships' ordnance could not reach the daring Gurkha went. A few years ago, at the manoeuvres in India, one of our home county regiments was resting for the night in the midst of a sham battle. Suddenly the men awoke in the darkness to find a dark, smiling figure standing by each of them. The Gurkhas of the opposing army had crept into every tent. The British soldiers frankly admitted that thcv could all have been knifed in their sleep.

This deadly trick was now played in earnest on the Germans. A boatload of Gurkhas was landed silently in the darkness among the dunes. Leaving their rifles, bayonets, boots, and most of their clothing on the sand, the Gurkhas put their big knives between their teeth, and crept on all fours into the German lines. Each sentry was knifed noiselessly, and guiding each other by frogs' croaks, the terrible warrior- knights of Nepal reached the ammunition store, killing everybody they met. They put a bomb with a long-time fuse among the enemy's ammunition, and crawled back to the shore, and steamed away. Meanwhile, something like an earthquake, mixed up with a violent thunderstorm, occurred in the German camp, and next day there was no ammunition for the guns.

Vain Efforts of German Submarines

What was left of the German batteries when our fleet had found their positions was shifted farther inland, and the coast to the north of Ostend was rapidly fortified with heavy howitzers. Urgent telegrams were sent to Emden Harbour for submarine help, and a flotilla of these sharks of the deep sea was sent against our monitors. But as our monitors floated on the waves in raftlike fashion, drawing less water than a destroyer, the torpedoes of the submarines passed under them without striking and exploding. Hundreds of mines were then launched against our floating, mobile sea forts. But the flood tide flung the mines back on the coast, and endangered the submarines whenever they rose at night to race on the surface. Day and night, while the battle lasted, the thunder of the returning mines, striking and exploding on the sea front, could be heard at Ostend and Blankenberghe.

In light and darkness the clash of British sea power and German land power went on. When the sun set, the dazzling beams of searchlights played from the sea on to the German trenches and gun positions. And, like monstrous birds of prey, the British airmen wheeled in battle against German aviators in Taube machines and air- ships, smashed them, and held the dominion of the skies.

A Fiercely-disputed Canal Position

The King of Wurtemberg saw his promised victory changing into a defeat. He surrendered at last the country round Nieuport to the allied fleet, and massed his troops near Dixmude, where the Belgians were holding a loop-shaped curve of the canal. Here by pressure of numbers the German infantry, advancing on both sides of the loop, pressed back the Belgians at night. But at dawn the Belgians returned and recovered the canal. Seven times this happened It was all night fighting and dawn fighting, in the darkness or in the grey, misty twilight when the gunners on either side could give little support to the infantrymen.

Blank-point rifle fire, with a brief burst of machine-gin fire, heralded attack and counter-attack, but the bayonet did most of the work The carnage was inhuman, for the three German army corps were reserves, formed of partly-trained boys and old men, remarkably courageous, but badly handled by their officers. Shouting their battle cries: "Louvain! Termonde!" the Belgians stabbed till their arms grew wearied, then retired, and the French infantry and Marines took their place. Yard by yard the 150,000 Germans won their way across the red dykes. Passing the canal was now easy for them and for their foes, for though the water was six feet deep, they bridged it in several places with their bodies till they had only 100,000 men left.

When at length the Belgian army took the victory that had always been within their reach, and broke the dyke and flooded the road to Calais, they trapped a German brigade in the water. On Monday, November 2nd, the entire German force retreated hastily from the inundated land, leaving their wounded to be picked up by the Allies. The Battle of the Yser was over—the most sanguinary and the strangest that was ever fought. It lasted from October 16th to November 2nd, 1914, and more than half the Germans who took part in it were slain or disabled, Possibly one-third only being in a condition to march back.


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