Half Time History: England v Belgium

Belgium has been involved in some of the world’s deadliest wars…read a little about England’s opponents today.

Unlike England’s other World Cup opponents so far, Belgium has played a pivotal role in some of the world’s deadliest wars, so, to keep it short enough for a half-time read, I’ll only focus on one aspect of it here; the Battle of the Yser.

Shortly before the First World War began, the German Army drew up the Schlieffen plan, the attacking motions that would take place to quickly take Paris and therefore occupy France as quickly as possible. The Schlieffen plan relied on the invasion of the neutral countries of Belgium and Luxembourg and relied on them putting up little to no resistance.

However, when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, the very action that brought Britain into the war, the Belgian army fought valiantly, and would end up fighting delaying actions in order to allow British and French contingents to prepare for later offensives, for example the Marne counter offensive that took place in September 1914.

The delaying actions that the Belgians managed to pull off in 1914, threw the Schlieffen plan right off schedule and denied the quick victory over France that Germany had wanted. This led to what has become known as the ‘Race to the Sea’, where the two power blocks began racing northwards in an attempt to outflank the other, with neither side able to secure a decisive victory during these motions.

After the Allies lost the port of Antwerp to German hands, a series of retreating actions were fought, with most of the Belgian Army being pulled back, covered by motorised machine gun sections and small numbers of infantry. This led to the Belgian army eventually digging in along the Yser Canal, with artillery support being supplied by a contingent of British ships that were ordered to assist on the seaward flank of the Belgians.

fall_of_antwerp_and_the_allied_retreat2c_1914Diksmuide was attacked by the Germans on 16th October, and despite being hit with very heavy losses, the Germans retreated, unable to take the town. It was this defence of Diksmuide that channelled a wave of nationalism in Belgium, which portrayed the defence of the town as both strategically vital and also heroic.

On 18th October, the Germans launched another attack, this time on Nieuwpoort, to deny Allied use of the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk. During this attack, the German High Command paid little attention to the human cost of this action and continued to pour men into the area in an attempt to capture it, regardless of loss. The Germans consequently secured several outposts, and brought them right up to the Yser. It was here that they were forbidden to cross the Yser around Nieuwpoort, as a result of the potential naval bombardment from the British.

Diksmuide continued to be hit with attack after attack from the Germans, and yet, the town was still kept in Allied hands. This continued until 25th October, when the decision was taken to flood large parts of the Belgian frontline, as a result of incredible pressure from the Germans.

Between 26-29th October 1914, the Belgians succeeded in flooding a large area, until an impassable level of water was achieved spanning around a mile wide.

The Germans planned to attack again on 31st October, however, after hearing of the flooding, they retreated during the night instead.

The German army had therefore failed to crush the Belgian Army in the way that it would have liked, but had also failed in getting the last sliver of Belgium as well. This would end the Race to the Sea and was a precursor to the trench warfare that we so often link to the First World War. The Yser Front became relatively stable, and would be held by Belgian forces until the end of the war in 1918.

Belgium had fought with around 52,000 men, compared to the German Army which had up to 85,000 men at its disposal in the region. The valiant fighting had come at a cost, with over 3,500 Belgian soldiers killed and a further 15,000 wounded in the action.

Well, depending on how England play in this second half, my next blog post will be either on Japan or Senegal, with one country’s military history very familiar in my mind, the other, not so much!

Enjoy the second half!


Read my other instalments of Half Time History: Tunisia and Panama

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