Belgium. By September 1914 it was totally occupied but for a small coastal strip, here coloured orange. 1 is Ypres, 2 is Mons where the BEF first clashed with German forces, 3 is Nieuwport, the channel front line.

Belgium and it's army is often overlooked when WW1 is discussed. 

It was a tiny army, even by BEF standards, and the BEF was tiny in comparison to the armies of it's French Allies and German foes.

German forces invaded Belgium expecting an easy passage and their timetable to knock France out of the war before turning east and engaging Russia depended on it. 

At Liege the belgians put up stiff, but eventually futile, resistance. However it did dent the precious timetable adding more precious days in which the battered French army could regroup.

They then held out at Antwerp, finally at Nieuwport where, seeing that the coastal advance of German forces was unstoppable, they took the decision of closing the sluices of the River Yser and flooding the land known as the polders, a low lying strip of reclaimed land. 

 

 

A cold and windswept Nieuwport. In the middle distance De Panne, where King Albert and the Belgian Government retreated to, a few miles from the French border. In the distance the vital allied port of Dunkirk.

Today Nieuwport is quite sleepy.  Mostly vacationers, a bit like Southport but with the sea actually managing to reach the coast. It is hard to imagine that 100 years ago this was the point of no return. Lose the line here and it's lose the channel ports. Hard to imagine it marked the westernmost point of the Western Front.

 

 

 

Th flooding effectively stopped the coastal advance, already Ostend and Zebrugge had fallen, and ensured that any further advance to take the critical ports of Dunkirk and Calais would have to be through the flemish cloth town of Ypres.

The polders today are not that much different to what they would have been 100 years ago. Drained, farmed mostly with low growing crops such as beets, the clay soil soon becoming mud unless constant, careful attention to drainage is paid. The destruction of that drainage by constant shelling, plus, in 1917 the worst rains in memory, turned the Ypres Salient into a desperate quagmire.

 

Th landscape of the Polders. I tried to find a place where the soil structure could be seen. Impressing a man with my superb grasp of Flemish he immediately jumped into his tractor and tore up his neighbours field.

Imagine this in heavy rain, blasted by shellfire, pitted by craters full of putrid poisonous water, criss-crossed with waterlogged trenches. The horror landscape of Belgian Flanders.

Inland for about 10 miles the land was flooded, up to the crossing town of Dixmuide. 

The western front through the Polders from the channel to the small crossing town of Dixmude.

From Dixmude eastwards began what came to be known as the Ypres Salient, an allied held protrusion into german held land, surrounded on three sides.

For four years German and allied forces would stare at each other across a narrow strip of no mans land, four years of grinding attrition in which three great battles would be fought.

Next section: Ypres