Belgium in World War One

Here you will find out about Belgium in World War One.

The area of Ypres was during 4 years from 1914 until 1918 the battle field in the big war also known as World War One. The front, they Ypres Salient, was mainly defended by British troops. All the time, the allies resisted the Germans but the city of Ypres and all the surrounding villages were flattened. 300 000 allied soldiers died from which 250 000 British. The many military cemeteries are the last witnesses of the bloody history of this area.

The center of Ypres was completely rebuilt after the war. All buildings were restored to their original state. The lakenhal, on the main square, is an impressive building from 1304 and hosts now the Flanders Fields Museum that tells you the story of the big war.

On the Menenpoort, in which the names of 54.896 British soldiers are graphed, you can still hear every day at 20h the Last Post as a tribute to the fallen heroes.

The Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passendale is maybe the most impressive one of the area. 11.856 British soldiers are buried here. Another 35000 names of misted soldiers are graphed in a half round wall.

Probably the ‘nicest’ memorial can be found in Langemark. An impressive statue of a soldier resting on his rifle, as a memorial for the 2000 fallen Canadians by German gas attacks, decorates the cemetery.

World War One was the first conflict where nations of all continents were involved. The destruction in Europe was so dramatic and the number of casualties so vast, that the survivors soon called it the Big War. A bigger catastrophe seemed to be unthinkable. History would show them wrong as the 2nd World War, only 20 years later, made even more casualties and damage.

World War One made a bigger impression on civilians then any other one. Not only the modern weaponry that made the killing so easy, but also new communication technologies as photo’s and film brought the World War One straight into the living room.

One of the most important fronts was the western front; a small line where the German troops were stopped. From the North Sea until the Swiss Alps was a web of trenches. On one site, the Belgium, French and English troops. On the other side the German empire.

Four years long, one would try to defeat the other. Ten of thousands lost their lives. But nobody won.

The siege of Antwerp

The German army invaded Belgium on the morning of August 4, 1914, two days after the decision of the Belgian government not to allow German troops unhindered passage to France.

As the Belgian army was ill-prepared and outnumbered by the better-armed and more numerous German troops, the Belgian army had to relinquish control of the strongholds of Liège (which fell on August 16) and Namur, which fell into the hands of the Germans on August 24.

Unable to withstand the massive German offensive, King Albert I of the Belgians instructed the army to withdraw to the "Fort of Antwerp" on August 20. This collection of fortifications and defensive positions around the city of Antwerp was considered to be the "réduit national" and impenetrable. The "Fort of Antwerp" consisted of an outer and an inner ring around the city of 19th-century forts and strongholds within a distance of several kilometers of each other, built to defend the vital harbor of Antwerp.

The German Army attacked Antwerp on September 28 capturing many of the outer ring forts including Fort Catharine. On October 1 the Belgian government sent a telegram to the British announcing that they would retreat from Antwerp in three days time.

The British were shocked and on the second of October they sent the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill over to inspect the situation. He telegrammed back that Antwerp would have to be reinforced and then relieved. On the night of October 3 a brigade of British marines arrived as the first element of a Naval Division to reinforce the defenders. This was a great boost to Belgian morale.

October 5 was a crucial date during the Siege of Antwerp; the German army broke through the Belgian defenses in the town of Lier, 20 kilometers southeast of Antwerp and moved on to the town of Dendermonde (south of Antwerp) where it attempted to cross the river Scheldt. This "pincer movement" of the German army threatened to block the western retreat route of the Belgian army out of Antwerp, its eastern and southern escape routes being blocked by German troops and its north blocked by the closed Belgian-Dutch border. The Dutch did not offer any military assistance, not wanting to be drawn into the conflict, preferring neutrality.

The Belgian army retreated before being trapped and left the city of Antwerp to its own defenses. Belgian forces fled westwards towards the coast on October 6 eventually stopping the German advance on the banks of the river Yser. The city of Antwerp was defended by the remaining fort's garrisons. Most of these troops were abandoned by their officers and many soldiers deserted and destroyed their own weaponry and ammunitions.

The mayor of Antwerp, Jan De Vos, offered capitulation on October 10 and the Siege of Antwerp was over. The city of Antwerp would remain occupied by German troops until 1918.

One third of the Belgian Army, about 40,000 soldiers, fled north to the Netherlands, followed by one million civilian refugees in 1914. The Netherlands interned Belgian refugees as far as possible from the Belgian border, for fear of being drawn into the conflict; many continued living in the Netherlands after 1918 and never returned to Belgium.

The rape of Belgium

The Rape of Belgium (4 August through September 1914) was a series of German war crimes in the opening months of World War One. The neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed by Prussia in 1839. Germany accepted Prussia's diplomatic obligations and offered additional guarantees in 1871 and at the Hague Conference in 1907. However the German war plan, known as the Schlieffen Plan, called for Germany to violate this neutrality in order to outflank the French Army, concentrated in eastern France. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg dismissed the Treaty of London, 1839 as a mere "scrap of paper".

German troops, fearful of Belgian guerrilla fighters, or francs-tireurs, burned homes and executed innocent civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, including Aarschot (156 dead), Andenne (211 dead), Tamines (383 dead) and Dinant (665 dead). The victims included women and children. On August 25, 1914 the Germans ravaged the city of Leuven, burning the University's library of 230,000 books, killing 248 residents, and forcing the entire population, 42,000, to evacuate. These actions brought worldwide condemnation.

The invasion of Belgium was cited by the United Kingdom as a reason for entering the war on France's side. The war crimes galvanized support for the government's decision. They also sparked much wartime propaganda -- in sensationalist war posters in Britain, the Germans were drawn as Huns or gorillas, completely dehumanized and immoral. In his book Roosevelt & Hitler author Robert E. Herzstein states, "The Germans could not seem to find a way to counteract powerful British propaganda about the 'Rape of Belgium' and other alleged atrocities." Reports paved the way for other propaganda of the war such as The Crucified Soldier, The Angels of Mons, and the German corpse factory, Kadaververwertungsanstalt.

In an attempt to substantiate the rumors, official commissions were established in Belgium and Britain. Thousands of witnesses were interviewed. While the conclusions of the British government in The Bryce Report were correct, the Appendix included some dubious testimony, particularly from Belgian soldiers. Testimony in the reports of the Belgian commission, particularly in the two volumes on war crimes issued after the war, is more accurate.

While some civilians may have fired on German troops in the opening days of the war, the German White Book (Die völkererechtswidrige Führung des belgischen Volkskriegs) identified only two by name, both incorrectly. There were no legitimate trials or courts martial. None of the thousands of Belgian civilians deported to Germany was ever charged with any crime. There is good evidence that the German Army sought to terrorize civilians in order to assure a speedy passage through Belgium and to deter sabotage against supply lines. In some places, particularly Liege, Andenne, and Leuven, there is evidence that the violence against civilians was premeditated.

Even today, the war crimes of August 1914 are often dismissed as British propaganda. Scholars in the U.S. and U.K. began taking them seriously in the mid-1990s. The debate is now between those who believe the Germans acted primarily out of paranoia (Horne and Kramer) and those who emphasize additional causes (Lipkes). Zuckerman documents the continuing oppression of Belgians under German occupation, arguing that this is the real "rape of Belgium."

Battle of the Yser

After the Siege of Antwerp, the remnants of the Belgian Army were pushed into the far south west of the country, behind a 22 mile long front on the Yser Canal as the Germans tried to reach the French Channel ports of Calais and Dunkerque.

The entire Belgian Army was deployed to defend the front. The troops were exhausted and low on ammunition after two months of fighting and retreat. France reinforced the Belgians with 6,000 Marines and an infantry division.

The first skirmishes started on 16 October 1914. The town of Diksmuide was attacked but the Germans were repelled by French marines and Belgian artillery. The following day German troops (consisting of trained conscripts, reservists and untrained students) moved southwards from Bruges and Ostend in the direction of the Yser river. It became clear that the German Fourth Army was to take the line from Nieuwpoort to Ypres.

Admiral Hood of the Royal Navy commanded three monitors, Severn, Humber and Mersey, which bombarded the German army in Lombardsijde from the sea the following day.

On 18 October the German offensive started. It initially overran the frontal defense positions of the Belgian, British and French armies along a line stretching from Nieuwpoort down to Arras in France. The objective was to defeat the Belgian and French armies and to deprive the British of access to the harbours of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkerque.

It took four days of heavy fighting for the German troops to drive the allies back and reach the borders of the river Yser. On 21 October, the Germans were able to establish a small bridgehead on the other side of the river. The last bridge over the Yser was blown up on 23 October. Diksmuide bore the brunt of repeated German offensives and bombardments yet the town was still not taken.

The French high command planned to flood large parts of their territory with water as a defensive measure and asked the Belgians to inundate part of their territory between the river Yser and the canals. On 25 October the pressure upon the Belgian army had grown so large that the decision was made to flood the entire Belgian front line. After an earlier failed experiment on 21 October during the nights of 26 October to 29 October the Belgian army managed to open the Nieuwpoort drainage channels to sea water, steadily raising the water level until an impassable marshland up to a mile wide as far south as Diksmuide was created. On 29 October Diksmuide finally fell into German hands. For 30 October, the Germans had planned another decisive attack. The attack broke through the Belgian second defense line but faced with Belgian and French counterattacks in front and the flooding in their backs, the attack was called off and the front stabilized.

The historical importance of the Battle of the Yser was not only the fact that the Germans did not manage to defeat the Belgian Army but also lost the Race to the Sea. Through the horror of war, and through the experiences of ordinary foot soldiers, Flemish national consciousness started to grow in the then overwhelmingly Francophone-dominated Belgian society.

The first battle of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres, also called the Battle of Flanders, was the last major battle of the first year of World War I (1914). This battle and the Battle of the Yser marked the end of the so-called Race to the Sea. This battle was the first battle of Ypres. Actually a series of battles, the battle starting on 19 OctoberRace tot the Sea

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French, was redeployed north from the mobile fighting of the first two months of the war to join two divisions of reinforcements recently landed in Belgium. They advanced east from Saint-Omer, met and halted the German Army at the Passendaele Ridge to the east of the Belgian town of Ypres. The Belgians opened the sluice gates of the river Yser to let in the sea into the low lying land to prevent further German advances. Both sides dug in for trench warfare. The town of Ypres was rapidly demolished by artillery and air attack.

The Germans called the battle "The Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres" (in German Kindermord bei Ypern). Eight German units consisted of young volunteers, many of them enthusiastic students, and these units suffered huge casualties during a failed attack on a smaller but highly-experienced British force, many of them veterans of the Second Boer War. The BEF was supported for the first time by battalions from the Army of India and the British Territories, whose support was essential in holding the Germans at bay. The BEF was severely weakened at First Ypres, but the battle allowed the Allies time to strengthen their lines.

In 1917, the Mons Star was awarded to those surviving British troops who had served in France or Belgium prior to the end of the First Battle of Ypres; the last surviving holder of this decoration, Alfred Anderson, died in November 2005.

Many of the German student volunteers are buried at the Langemark German war cemetery.

The second battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres is a series of battles in April and May 1915. It was the first time Germany used poison gas on a large scale on the Western Front in World War I and the first time a former colonial force (Canadians) pushed back a major European power (Germans) on European soil, which occurred in the battle of St. Julien-Kitcheners' Wood.

After the gas attack on Grafenstafel, 6000 soldiers were killed within 10 minutes. Many more were blind or injured on suffered subsequent lung and eyes damage. It was not the first gas attack – that honor goes to the battle of Bolimov where it cost to a few 100 soldiers lives – but it was the first massive attack.

With the survivors abandoning their positions en masse, a 4-mile gap was left in the front line. The German forces didn’t foresee such a success and they could exploit this situation due to their bad position.

The battle of Julien, Frezenberg and Bellewaerde were other gas attacks where thousands of Canadians, British and Irish lost their lives.

It brought the Germans a few 1000 yards closer to Ypres.

After the Second Ypres, both sides developed more sophisticated gas weapons, and countermeasures, and never again was the use of gas either a surprise, nor especially effective. The British quickly developed their own gas attacks using them for the first time at the Battle of Loos in late September. Development of gas protection was instituted and the first examples of the PH helmet issued in July 1915.

The third battle of Ypres - Battle of Passchendaele

Passchendaele could be regarded, by some, as a re-play of the Somme; an offensive mounted by the British and French Forces designed to make large gains in terms of territory. However, given the importance of the Ypres salient -- the campaign to clear the high ground east and south of the much battered city was important, but once it began, it had to be completed.

After months of fighting, the Allies had crawled forward 5 miles (8 kilometres) but had gained the high ground that dominated the salient. The price had been almost half a million men of which around 140,000 had been killed meaning that 2 soldiers fell per inch gained. Also reminiscent of the Somme were the colossal artillery barrages which failed to destroy German defenses, but which did inflict enormous losses that the Germans couldn't afford. Ultimately, as a battle of attrition, that captured some important assets, the campaign can be said to be a lean Allied victory.

Because of the Third Battle of Ypres there were insufficient reserves available to exploit the Allied success at the Battle of Cambrai, the first breakthrough by massed tanks that restored somewhat the shaken confidence of the British government in the final victory. The politicians were reluctant however to fully replace the manpower losses, for fear the new troops would be sacrificed also. This made the British Army vulnerable to a German attack.

More than any other battle, Passchendaele has come to symbolise the horrific nature of the great battles of the First World War. In terms of killed, wounded and missing, the Germans lost approximately 260,000 men, while the British Empire forces lost about 300,000, including approximately 36,500 Australians, 3,596 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians — the latter of which were lost in the intense final assault between 26 October and 10 November; 90,000 British and Dominion bodies were never identified, and 42,000 never recovered. Aerial photography showed 1,000,000 shell holes in 1 square mile (2.56 km²).

The fourth battle of Ypres

The major German offensive of 1918, Operation Michael, began on 21 March 1918, and a supporting operation which became the Battle of the Lys, began on 9 April. This regained almost all of the ground taken by the Allies at Passchendaele, with the Germans advancing about 6 miles (9.7 km). This meant that every inch of ground (that had taken 450,000 casualties and 5 months to take) gained in the offensive was lost to the Germans, in a space of about three days, further proving the point of many historians that the Ypres salient was "not the most strategically significant area on which to wage a major campaign". However, the Germans were also easily pushed away from Ypres once more in the final and fifth battle around the city in September and October of 1918. By mid October

Flanders Field Poppies

The poppy of wartime remembrance is the red corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas. This poppy is a common weed in Europe and is found in many locations, including Flanders Fields. This is because the corn poppy was one of the only plants that grew on the battlefield. It thrives in disturbed soil, which was abundant on the battlefield due to intensive shelling.

During the few weeks the plant blossomed, the battlefield was colored blood red, not just from the red flower that grew in great numbers but also from the actual blood of the dead soldiers that lay scattered and untended to on the otherwise barren battlegrounds.

Thus the plant became a symbol for the dead World War One soldiers. In many Commonwealth countries and in the United States, artificial, paper or plastic versions of this poppy are worn to commemorate the sacrifice of veterans and civilians in World War I and other wars, during the weeks preceding Remembrance Day on November 11. It has been adopted as a symbol by The Royal British Legion in their Poppy Appeal.

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