Running the Gauntlet in Flanders
from the French magzine 'l'Illustration' - the Battle of the Dunes on the Belgian coast
British Surprise that Turned the Tide in Flanders
Have you ever lived for days on tenterhooks that kept your brain and thoughts on the stretch all day and made your very wakening in the morning a return to a sort of nightmare - a nightmare of anxiety and foreboding ?
The people of this country owing to an all-embracing censorship, were spared these tetherhooks, but over in Flanders in the early days of the war there was no merciful anaesthetic of this sort, and people there, who were in close touch with affairs, knew the whole cruel truth. It was touch-and-go with our Army, the French Army, and the Belgian Army; they were near the end of their tether. Any day might see them flung forward before the German hordes and into the sea. There is no secret much about this now. The splendid story of the Battles of the Yser and Ypres has been told, and this fact has clearly emerged. I will not tell this story again, but will only add to it a section which has been overlooked by many of the writers on this great theme.
The Germans, you remember, were sweeping on towards Ypres and Furnes and Dunkirk and Calais. They over-weighted the three Allies in guns and in men by many to one. We were stubbornly defending positions to which we clung only for want of better. Night after night I used to lean out of my bed-room window in Dunkirk listening to the booming of the guns and watching the flashes in the sky and the glare of burning homesteads, and wonder whether or not some spot in that twinkling line of fires might not it that very moment be giving way and letting the, Germans pour in. Night after night came the German attacks, on the Yser Canal, and by the time I arrived on its banks in the morning neither the bodies nor the blood had washed away.
A Nightmare of Anxiety
Man after man fell out - killed or wounded or dazed and demented with hardship and loss of sleep. Night by night our lines grew thinner; yet night after night the Germans came on again in never lessening waves - waves of men flushed with success, certain of further victory ; men in whose minds the very idea that Germany's legions could ever be withstood by, mortal man had never yet been born. (They know different now.)
Wounded men were poured into Dunkirk and Calais, but no reserves or fresh troops went out to take their places. No troops were available. Guns with barrels worn smooth of rifling answered the brand-new guns of heavier calibre which the Germans were bringing to bear on, every allied position. . These poor old guns were one to six of the German guns, vet no new guns came along to replace the old or to make good the shortage. It could not last, it seemed.
Civilians in Dunkirk, though knowing but half the truth, began to look to their loopholes for escape. I saw a Dunkirk jeweller and his wife one morning returning from a day-dawn expedition along the sands of the seashore. The woman carried a shovel. He had been burying his stock in a safe place am6fig the sand-dunes. He and his wife alone knew the place. Later in the day I was not far from the docks when an officer friend stopped me. "You are a reasonably discreet sort of person," lie said, with rather a grim smile, "and it would be unpleasant for you if the Germans collared you." I looked at him and waited.
"There is a little steam-tug over at the sea-wall there," he went on. "See ! You can see her long funnel from here. Her name is the 'Conqueror. She's British. If the Boches are. here to-night slip along down there and get aboard 'slick.' She'll ferry you over the water and out of harm's way. She's had steam up day and night for a day or two now. I've not mentioned it to you before, but I thought I'd better to-day because the Germans are on the move. They are coming down the coast road towards the place."
He said all this very coolly and in that matter-of-fact, almost cheery sort of way in which most of our officers react to trouble.
That afternoon I saw a Belgian officer (a Canadian) arrive in Dunkirk with a bleeding head and mudded from head to toe. I spoke to him. Yes," he said shakily, "it's pretty well all over. My poor devils have been licked to hell. They're through."
And that night I looked with even a greater anxiety out of my window at the Arcades Hotel. There were only the fires to see and the flashes. But they seemed nearer than the previous night. I went on the roof of the hotel. Yes, they were much nearer. Morning came.
Enemy over the Yser
I went downstairs and met an old friend of the Belgian Flying Corps - as fine a lot of fellows as one could wish to meet.
"Yes," he said," the Germans have got through in one or two places. It is a question now of whether we can cut off those who have got through and stop more coming through, or whether they will overrun us. It looks like a ' bad egg.,' as your, boys say."
Noon brought me the news that many Germans had broken over the Yser and that others were coming in great numbers along the coast road towards Furnes and Dunkirk. The resistance at the northern end of the line would stand no longer. I kept awake that night. Before dawn I climbed the tall tower of the cathedral at Dunkirk, a tower hundreds of years old; built by the Spaniards during their occupation of Flanders. Its little gate leading to the street below had by some luck been left open. From the north-eastern corner of its summit I looked towards Nieuport and La Panne and the flat plains of the one remaining strip of Flanders which the Germans had failed to take. They would take it soon. They were piling somewhere along that road which I could see stretching out like a ribbon towards the north-east. I could not see them. It was too far away for that. But soon perhaps, they would be coming into sight. I would wait.
Then a thin mist came, blotting out the farther sea and beet-fields, and the smoke of the distant guns. l could see only the red roofs of Dunkirk below and more faintly, those of the neighbouring hamlets. The Boches might heave into sight at any moment. I might have to be "slick," as the officer had said. I took a look towards the sea-wall. Yes, the little Conqueror was there all right. A faint wisp of yellow-black smoke was curling upwards from her long, thin funnel.
A Voice from the Sea
And then, amid the jumbled notes of the distant guns, there came suddenly a new and fresh note - a sharp, booming note, as clearly distinguishable amid the dull, leaden boom of the remoter guns. as a chink of light in a dark room.
"Hear that ?" I exclaimed to the tower watchman, a dear old fellow with a beard. Every three hours, day and night he blows a little trumpet from the tower-top-first north then south, then east and west, as has been done from the tower-top of Dunkirk for endless years.
The old man jumped from his seat. " Mais non, Monsieur. Que-est que ca," he said, as he hobbled out of his little shelter of glass built in a corner of the tower-top.
"Did you not hear a new gun somewhere out there, much nearer and much sharper than all the others ? Listen ! There it is again quite clearly. Oh, bless the mist, why does it not clear! For all I knew they might be German guns arrived on the outskirts of Dunkirk.
The new gun barked away. Another .tin of similar bark added its voice, then another, then another. There were many guns all barking in a new place. To be up here on the tower and able to see nothing was tantalising beyond words. Summoning all my patience, I waited.
And suddenly the mist cleared, a new wind from the east blew it away, I could see it trundling over the waves in great rolls like blankets, coiled blankets being rolled across a floor. The distant mist thinned too and through came sharp flashes, each of them a stab of white flame, followed by a boom that showed it to be the flash of a gun. The flashes seemed, to be coming out of the very sea itself from what source I could not see. But clearer and clearer became the air, and at last, faintly, and then more clearly, one could make out three of the queerest looking little craft you could ever think to set eyes upon.
They were squat and flat, like, the little boats that boys sometimes make out of a piece of board. So low in the water did they look from my tower-top as to seem no more than floating decks with funnels and masts stuck on them. And every time their guns fired 'the jets of white flame seemed to issue from the water itself.
The old watchman rushed into his shelter and emerged with a prehistoric telescope, which he passed to me. Steadying it again in the corner turret of the tower, I got the ships focused. They were banging away at something on the shore; at what one could not see for they were too far away. But unmistakable among their masts flew flags bearing the brave little red cross on a white ground - the Cross of St. George and Great Britain.
British Monitors at Work
I nearly dropped the telescope in delight. Bravo, mon vieux !" I exclaimed to the old man. ". They are British ships of war, and they are having a smack at the Boches !"
Leaving the old one to finish his hornpipe of joy alone, I hurried down the tower, found a conveyance driven by soldier friends which was bound for Furnes, and before many minutes I was dashing along the Furnes road in the hope of getting a nearer view of those little ships and their work. At Adinkerke I left the main-road, and hurried on foot up a little road towards the sea past the village of La Panne. And here from the seashore I watched those little boats spurting lead in half tons at the shore from points opposite Nieuport and Westende.
They were the British monitors Mersey, Humber, and Severn. The Germans had been coming down the coast road from Ostend. Men, bag and baggage had been filing along this road in solid mass. The ships' gunners were now planting shell after shell right among them. Details I learnt later. The German column was smashed up with the first handful of shots.
And the three little ships were cruising at full speed, mostly parallel to the shore, but zigzagging about so as not to offer a steady mark for any German gun. I could see the white feathers of water and spray at each fore-foot. They fired as they went.
The Coast Road Blocked
That day they stopped the rush on Calais and Dunkirk, Great shell-holes in the road alone made further progress impossible for the Germans. The following day the monitors were joined by other ships of all sizes, one so big that she had to stand .a few miles off shore to find water enough; another so little that every time she fired her one and only gun the little ship jumped half out. of the water. This ship I believe was a small dockyard ship, the Buzzard. She happened to have had a big gun fitted for some demonstration purposes, and when the call came for low draught ships to bombard the Flanders coast the Buzzard, trailing her big gun over her stern, had "chipped in" with the rest and scurried across the water. How she got over the water and how her crew of bluejackets managed to work her is not known. Her work must be added to the long list of daring British enterprises.
Soon the Germans got shore batteries posted to reply to those guns from the sea. They got one or two shots "home," one of which took a ship under the bridge, killing the officer in charge and some fourteen men all at once. But those German military batteries' were no real match for the British sea gunners. The Germans had to send for naval gunners before they could hope for success. And before those gunners could do much good their batteries were smashed to bits, the guns put out of action.
The Germans had to give up that coast road to Furnes and Calais. It did not pay. They have been trying to find a new road ever since. They will not find it now. But how well it is that those three little British ships came along that day !
other pieces also by the same author/reporter
Back to Introduction