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Title: The Belgian Front - and Its Notable Features
Author: Breton, Captain Willy
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Belgian Front - and Its Notable Features" ***

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_Translated from the French_


_Price Sixpence net_




_The illustrations are from photographs taken by the Photographic
Service of the Belgian Army Command_




Everyone knows how severely the Belgian Army was tested in the initial
stages of the campaign. Caught unawares by the war while in the midst of
re-organisation, it had to struggle alone, for long weeks on end,
against forces greatly superior in both numbers and equipment, suddenly
hurled against it in accordance with a deliberate and carefully planned
scheme of attack.

Yet the Belgian Army bravely faced the enemy, grimly determined to
fulfil its duty to the last, and at once aroused enthusiasm by its
heroic resistance at Liège, from August 8 onwards, to the onset of
several army corps. On the 12th the troops emerged victoriously from the
bloody engagements at Haelen; and not till the 18th, and then only to
escape being overwhelmed by the ever-rising flood of invasion, did the
Belgian Army abandon its positions at La Gette and fall back on Antwerp,
the national stronghold in which would be concentrated the whole of the
country's powers of opposition. Its retreat was covered by rearguards
which fought fiercely, especially at Hautem Ste. Marguerite. Namur,
threatened since August 19th, fell to the enemy on the 23rd, after
several of its forts had been destroyed by a terrific bombardment and
the complete investment of the position made further resistance
impossible. By a desperate effort, some 12,000 men of the 4th Division
escaped the assailant's grip and succeeded in reaching France in the
first instance, and Antwerp subsequently.

The army, left to its own devices in the great fortress which it still
hoped to make impregnable, continued the stubborn fight against its
implacable foe, though it had suffered cruel losses and the Germans had
initiated a reign of terror in the invaded provinces. It did everything
possible to assist the Allies against the common enemy; first, by a
sortie, made while the battle of the Somme was in progress; and then by
a second vigorous and timely attack which coincided with the immortal
victory of the Marne. For four days (September 9-13, 1914) the Belgian
troops hurled themselves on the strong German positions facing Antwerp,
drove back the masking forces in them, and prevented three whole
divisions from going to the support of von Kluck's hard-pressed army.
The part played by the Belgian Army in the battles of the Marne was,
although an indirect one, very important and effective--as the Germans
themselves have admitted.[A]

While engaged in continually harassing the enemy and also putting the
fortress into a proper condition for defence, the Belgian Army was
preparing, in the closing days of September, for a fresh and vigorous
offensive to be directed chiefly against the left wing of the German
containing forces, when it was confronted by a pressing danger which
completely altered the aspect of affairs.

The Germans, having massed before Antwerp all the huge resources at
their disposal, decided to attack the Belgian Army as it lay by
breaching the defences of the fortress. On September 29th the first
shells from the mammoth guns fell on the forts of Waelhem and
Wavre-Sainte-Catherine, doing fearful damage, and from that moment the
fate of Antwerp was sealed. The Belgian commander saw this clearly; and
one of the things most greatly to his credit will always be that in
these tragically momentous hours he was able to keep a stout heart and
make the manly decision to abandon a position which he could not hold,
in order to save his fighting army and continue the struggle elsewhere
without respite or signs of weakening.

To cover the operations of evacuating from Antwerp all supplies that
could be moved, and to ensure the army's retreat towards the coast, the
Belgian troops, though exhausted and half-dead with fatigue, fought
steadily for eight days under a fire of unprecedented violence.

The order for a general retreat was not given till the night of October
6-7, by which time the limit of resistance had been reached. Only one
narrow avenue still lay open--between the Scheldt on the one side and
the Dutch frontier and the sea on the other. Protected at first by a
flanking guard (a cavalry division and two infantry divisions) and later
by a rear-guard of two cavalry divisions, the field army managed by a
miracle to reach the Yser, without leaving anything behind in the hands
of the enemy during that epic retreat in which the exhausted troops had
to cover more than 100 kilometres of congested roads.

The Yser line had not been designedly selected. But at the moment it
happened to be the nearest line on which the Belgian Army could link up
with the Allied forces now gradually advancing northwards along what has
been termed "the sea-board route." Prodigies of valour and endurance
were still needed to make the continuous front a fact and to shatter the
enemy's efforts in the great battle of Flanders.

It is not my intention to recapitulate here the ensuing changes of
fortune. The first act of the drama was, as everybody knows, the
desperate fight which the "Belgian Army of ragamuffins"--now reduced to
80,000 men, with but 48,000 rifles and 350 guns--put up on the Yser
during the last two weeks of October, against 150,000 Germans--mostly
fresh troops--employing at least 500 guns of all calibres. Except for a
reinforcement of 6,000 French marines, it was at first unsupported, yet
it maintained an heroic resistance for eight days, fired by the
passionate appeal and the example of its king. After October 23rd it had
the help of the first detachments from the French division under
Grossetti, and kept up the fight for another week with almost superhuman

On the 31st the Germans were driven from Ramscapelle, and obliged to
give ground before the inundation, whose dark, stealthy waters slowly
but surely invaded the low-lying plain between the river and the
Nieuport-Dixmude railway.

The battle of the Yser was then practically over. It had ended in
victory, and the direct road to Dunkirk and Calais was barred to the
enemy. He had suffered huge losses; but those of the Belgian Army also
had been heavy enough--they were placed at 11,000 killed and missing and
9,000 wounded, a total of some 25,000 men, including those put out of
action by sickness and exhaustion. The cadres had been so depleted that
some regiments had only about ten officers left. Material was in a sad
condition; half of the guns, rifles and machine-guns were useless, at
least for the time being, and reserves of ammunition had given out.

The men looked hardly human in their ragged clothing. There were
terrible gaps in their ranks. The infantry--to mention only the arm
which had the hardest fighting to do--was reduced to 32,000 rifles. Yet,
in spite of its weakness and its destitution--all the more pitiable now
that winter was approaching--this army set about mounting guard over the
last fragment of Belgian soil which its valour had preserved for the

Three years have passed, and it still clings obstinately to its
position, though the front originally defended in the battle of the Yser
has been gradually lengthened. Circumstances have not hitherto allowed
the Belgian Army to undertake operations on a large scale. Except for
the considerable part which it played in checking the German attack on
Steenstraat (April-May, 1915), when poisonous gas made its first
appearance, its activities have been limited to minor operations,
carried out chiefly with the object of improving its positions. These
last have, however, been held with admirable courage and tenacity.
Simultaneously with the tremendous effort which resulted in its glorious
resurrection, the Belgian Army has done wonders along this front under
peculiarly trying conditions, by dint of hard work and stoical
endurance. Amid mud and water its soldiers have raised fortifications
which are models of strength and ingenuity. So that the Belgian front,
despite the unparalleled difficulties to be overcome, is admittedly
among those whose defences have been constructed in the most solid
possible manner. It is, in fact, a vast fortress, extending over many
square kilometres. The visitor may be astonished when he notes the
degree of perfection to which the Belgian Command has brought the
organisation, properly so-called, of an army now consisting of robust
men, well supplied with all kinds of armament and technical material,
self-reliant and confident in its renewed strength; but he is
dumbfounded when he realises what infinite labour was needed to build
across these wet plains, oozing water everywhere, the impassable
barrier which has arisen under the very guns of the enemy.

We propose to notice briefly here the chief features of this last
enterprise, which is unknown to the world in general. Perhaps a
description of it will lead to fuller appreciation of the part played by
the Belgian Army since its front was immobilised on the Yser, and to a
better understanding of the energy, goodwill and endurance of which it
has given proof.


After their failure to trample upon the remnants of the Belgian Army and
take Calais, the Germans had transferred their activities to the Ypres
district, where they hoped that attacks pressed home with the utmost
fury would enable them to effect their purpose. This second stage in the
battle of Flanders ended in the enemy experiencing a second check as
costly as the first. While it was in progress, the Germans, with the
double object of holding the Allied forces on the north and of trying to
force the Yser at that point, renewed their assaults on the Dixmude
bridgehead. On November 10th, 1914, the weakened French and Belgian
troops, whose muddy trenches had been blown to pieces by the
bombardment, had to give ground before the enemy's pressure and fall
back on to the left bank of the Yser, leaving the ruins of Dixmude in
the hands of the Germans. But all attempts of the enemy to cross the
river were fruitless. The Germans encountered so stubborn a resistance
that they soon abandoned a project which had already cost them frightful

With the approach of winter, fighting gradually died down all along the
Flanders front. The two opponents were exhausted, and were obliged to
reconstitute their forces and organise their respective positions. From
this time onwards there was nothing to record save a few local
engagements of short duration, though fierce and always entailing heavy
casualties. The enemy's artillery, however, took advantage of its
numerical superiority and greater weight in the Belgian sector to keep
up a ceaseless and destructive fire upon our works, now in their
earliest stages, and on the villages which acted as cantonments for our
wearied troops. One after the other, the humble townlets of the Yser
front crumbled into dust, shot to pieces by shell and devoured by fire.

It was in this devastated and desolate region, and in the depth of a
severe winter, that the hastily reformed Belgian Army--as yet hardly
recovered from its terrible experiences and still lacking a thousand
necessaries--had to set to work to convert into a solid rampart the weak
barrier on which the enemy's attacks had been broken only by prodigies
of heroism.

The front entrusted to its care extended from the outskirts of Nieuport
to the old Knocke fort at the confluence of the Yser with the Yperlée.
Passing round the east side of Nieuport, it rejoins the railway to the
south of the town and then follows the railway embankment to Dixmude,
separated by the inundation from the Yser itself. To the south-west of
Oud-Stuyvekenskerke the front curves inwards to meet the Yser dyke at
the 16th milestone, and runs along the left bank of the river, skirting
the lands which the flood waters, working steadily southwards, have
converted into swamps.

As fast as the Belgian Army regained its strength the front was extended
further, along the Yperlée and the Ypres canal, to the north of
Steenstraat in the first instance, and then to Boesinghe. So it is
really the Belgian Army which has definitely organised the whole front
up to the latter place, over a distance of at least 31 kilometres.

If one considers only the portion which had to be defended by the army
in the early stages--that between the sea and Fort Knocke--it is clear
that a heavy strain was put upon the weak effectives left in being after
the battle of the Yser--a strain all the greater because the gaps in the
ranks could be filled but slowly and with great difficulty.

The inundations certainly protected a large part of the front and made
the enemy's attacks less formidable. But the protection might be
nullified by frost. A great deal of work was, therefore, needed to
enable the area of the inundation to be regulated at will, to prevent
the water invading our own trenches, and to make it impossible for the
enemy to use the inundation against us.

It would be a serious mistake to assume that this sheet of water formed
an impassable obstacle at all points. Where it seemed to give the
greatest security--between the Nieuport-Dixmude railway and the
Yser--the roads and tracks, which are causeways in all weathers, and the
small risings in the ground near the buildings and farms scattered about
the country, stood out of the great lagoon and offered chances of
getting across, or formed islands that might usefully be occupied.

From the first Belgians and Germans had fought for the possession of
these points, in order to cover their main positions and prevent access
to them by the creation of advanced posts in the very heart of the
floods. Further to the south, the water had spared the Dixmude region,
where the ground rises slightly. At this place the two foes lay facing
one another, separated only by the width of the Yser--some 15 to 20
yards. Just as it was necessary to organise a bridgehead able to resist
any attack at Nieuport--where the locks are--so at Dixmude, where we
were in close contact with the enemy, we had to construct a bastion of
the strongest possible kind, since this was a vital spot in the Belgian
line, and the enemy's repeated attempts upon it showed clearly enough
how extremely important he considered its possession to be.

Still further south, the Belgian front clung to the western bank of the
canal formed by the Yser and Yperlée, while the enemy occupied the
other, keeping as close to it as he could and standing off only when
compelled to do so by the floods.

To sum up: though the main positions were not very near together, the
advanced posts of both sides threatened each other, in some instances at
point-blank range. The Germans, who were well aware of the weakness of
the Belgian Army, would not have failed to profit by the least
negligence on our part, nor to try for an easy success at any weak point
discovered in our lines. But no chance of the kind was given them.

       *       *       *       *       *       *

The system of defence created by the Belgian Army along the front, as
briefly described above, served a double purpose.

First, it gave support to the left flank of the Allied forces along the
western front, and at this end barred the most southerly roads to
Dunkirk and Calais.

Secondly, it preserved unviolated for Belgium the last fragment of her
national soil--an object of both political and military importance.

While the first shows with sufficient clearness the importance of the
part undertaken by the Belgian Army, the latter explains even more fully
the great value which that army sets upon the positions entrusted to its
valour. It realises in full the seriousness of its task, for by
relieving the Allies of all anxiety concerning the most northerly part
of their front, it gives them the necessary freedom of action for
dealing the enemy, in selected sectors, those heavy blows which have
already repeatedly shaken the might of Germany.

But how the Belgian soldiers' readiness to do their part without
flinching stiffened into a firm resolve when they reflected that, in
doing it, they were also defending against the enemy's greed the last
few square miles of Belgian territory, in which the air they breathed
was still free, in which lived their king! What a holy enthusiasm was
kindled in their hearts by the prospect of one day leaping from their
trenches to drive out the tyrannical and cruel oppressor!

These are the noble feelings whence spring the moral strength and
stout-heartedness of our troops--qualities which have enabled them to
endure without a murmur severe privations, the cruel separation from all
they hold most dear, the long sojourn in their comfortless trenches,
amid water and mud and ruins that become more and more
depressing--heart-breaking surroundings among which they will have to
pass yet a fourth winter, now close at hand.

       *       *       *       *       *       *

To give a better idea of the work imposed on the Belgian Army it will be
convenient to summarise what, in the present war, is implied by
organising the defences of a sector. The power of modern artillery and
explosives, which are able to destroy the most massive fortifications,
renders it impossible to rest content with a single position, however
strong it may be. Hence the absolute necessity for extending the state
of defence to a _deep zone_ and for creating _several successive
positions_. This is the only way of localising a temporary success, such
as the enemy may win at any time if he take the necessary steps and be
willing to pay a heavy price for it. Moreover, every position must
itself consist of a series of defensive lines, a short distance apart,
each covered by its own subsidiary defences.

These conditions are all the more difficult to fulfil when the defences
are rendered less permanent by the nature of the ground, as is the case
on the Belgian front, where one cannot burrow into soil which is
practically at sea level. It thus comes about that--to take an
example--the organised zone, 10 to 12 kilometres deep, between the two
natural defensive lines of the Yser and the Loo canal, is nothing more
than an unbroken series of organised lines, placing as many successive
obstacles in the path of an assailant who may have succeeded in breaking
through at any point.

The positions nearest to the enemy are necessarily continuous; and the
lie of each is influenced not merely by the terrain but still more by
the arbitrary direction of the contact lines of the two opponents. Each
line, therefore, follows a twisting course. More or less straight
stretches are succeeded by salients and re-entrant angles which take the
most varied forms. The defences embrace farms and other premises and
small woods, all converted into _points d'appui_. Where such are lacking
at important points, they must be created artificially.

Communication trenches, allowing movement out of sight of the enemy,
connect the various positions, and the successive lines of a position,
with one another. Shelters have to be constructed everywhere--they
cannot be built too strong, to protect the men as much as possible from
bombardment and from the weather during their long spells on guard in
the trenches. Special emplacements must be most carefully prepared for
machine-guns, bomb-throwers and trench-mortars, which play a part too
important to need special comment.

The whole zone is dotted over at various distances from the enemy with
batteries, or emplacements for batteries, of all calibres. You will
understand that their construction represents a vast amount of hard and
exact work, and that only with the greatest difficulty can they be more
or less satisfactorily hidden from the enemy's direct or aerial
observation in a plain that is practically bare and commanded everywhere
by the Clercken heights.

The magnitude of the movements of troops and material, as well as the
need for ensuring rapid transfer in all directions, have compelled the
creation of all means of communication to alleviate the existing
shortage--roads, tracks and railways of standard or narrow gauge. The
execution of such work is attended by great difficulty where the soft
nature of the soil gives an unreliable foundation. You may imagine also
how complicated the task is when foot-bridges, in many cases several
hundred yards long, have to be carried right across the floods in full
view of the enemy, to give access to the most advanced positions. In
conclusion, we may mention among the most important undertakings the
vast network of telegraph and telephone wires, with which the whole of
the occupied zone has to be covered in order to inter-connect the
numberless centres and keep them in touch with the posts close to the
enemy lines.

       *       *       *       *       *       *

Topographically, the sector which the Belgian Army has had to organise
and defend is certainly one of the worst. This will be denied neither by
the British units which this year occupied the Nieuport district nor by
the French units linked up with the Belgians near Boesinghe and
Steenstraat. Several descriptions have been written of the peculiar
appearance presented by this low-lying, perfectly flat, region between
the Franco-Belgian frontier, the sea coast and the Yser, and known as
the "Veurne-Ambacht." It is a monotonous plain of alluvial soil, which
centuries of toil have slowly won from the waters. As far as the eye can
see stretch water-meadows, which serve as pasturage for large numbers of
cattle. That they may be flooded during the winter and drained again
later in the year, these water-meadows are surrounded by irrigation
ditches three to four yards wide--"vaarten" or "grachten," as they are
called locally.

A glance at the Staff map reveals so great a number of these ditches
that the district appears to be nothing more than a huge marsh. As a
matter of fact, the country is subdivided into innumerable lots by this
inextricable tangle of ditches, and looks like a huge fantastic
chess-board. With the approach of winter the "vaarten" become brimful
of water; and at any time of the year a short spell of rain makes them
overflow and transform the ground into a morass.

During the happy times of peace the only shelter to be found on the
plain was that of the villages or hamlets, their houses as a rule
grouped round a slated steeple, and of the isolated farms whose red
roofs relieved the monotony of the landscape with bright splashes of
colour. Apart from Nieuport and Dixmude it could boast but one town of
any importance--Furnes the dismal, which German shells soon reduced to
deserted ruins.

In this essentially agricultural country, boasting not a single
manufacturing industry, a people of simple tastes, strongly attached to
the fruitful soil which supplied most of their wants, lived a peaceful,
sober life, into which, at regular intervals, the village fairs
introduced an element of rude and boisterous gaiety. Property here has
always been much subdivided, and large farms are quite the exception. So
that in Belgium, which as a whole is so rich and thickly-populated,
"Veurne-Ambacht" has always been regarded as a district that would
afford an army the minimum of billeting facilities and of the various
supplies required.

Communications, too, are few and far between. Except for the
Nieuport-Dixmude railway--which follows the same course as our main
positions--and a few very second-rate light railways, there is but one
line, that connecting Dixmude and Furnes with Dunkirk; and it is only a
single line without depôts or sidings.

Roads worthy of the name are rare enough. One of them, which begins at
Nieuport and passes through Ramscapelle, Oudecapelle and Loo, runs
almost parallel to the front, under the enemy's direct fire. To the west
there is only one more, the high-road from Furnes to Ypres. This, also,
is of great importance, although, being within range of the German guns,
it is constantly subjected to bombardment.

Lateral communications towards the front are confined on the one side to
the roads which connect Furnes with Nieuport and Pervyse; and on the
other to the by-roads which the main Furnes-Ypres highway throws off
towards Oudecapelle, Loo and Boesinghe.

The remainder of the system is made up of badly-paved or dirt roads,
which are rendered useless by the lightest shower. Men and horses get
bogged in a deep, sticky mud, from which they can extricate themselves
only by the severest exertion. Of a truth the thick, clinging mud of
"Veurne-Ambacht" is a persistent and terrible enemy, which one can only
curse and fight without respite.

We may add that this inhospitable region is entirely exposed to an
observer stationed at any of several favourable points east of the Yser.
The plain is commanded on the north from the top of the Westende dunes;
centrally, from near Keyem; on the south, by the Clercken heights, where
the ground rises to Hill 43. Not a movement, not a single work
undertaken by the Belgian troops escaped the enemy until the clever but
very complex arrangement of artificial screens was evolved which now
protects almost the whole of this vast plain from direct observation.

The above is a short and imperfect description of the region in which
the Belgian Army has made a stand for the last three years, and which it
has converted into a practically impregnable fortress. The features
emphasised by us will enable readers to understand the very special
character of the defence works which it has had to construct, and the
amount of patient labour which was and still is imposed on it.

For Germany is not the only foe that the Belgian Army has to fight. It
must struggle ceaselessly with the weather and the treacherous water
which oozes from the inhospitable soil and gnaws at the foundations of
defences whereon shells and bombs fall day in, day out. It lives in a
country which has a disagreeable climate; where rain persists for
two-thirds of the year; where dense and quickly-forming fogs spread an
icy murk in the winter; where fierce storms rise suddenly and at times
blow with extraordinary violence.


Before we proceed to a short account of the main defensive works,
special attention should be drawn to certain constructive features
common to them all.

We must remember that it is impossible to excavate even to a slight
depth, except in some parts of the more southerly front, where the
ground rises on a gentle slope. Drive a spade in but a few inches, and
you strike water. The result is that defence-works of all kinds _have
had to be built with imported material_.


_With Arches and Duckboards_.]


_Revetted with Sandbags and Hurdles_.]



_With protective Arches and Light Railway Track_.]

The trenches of the Belgian line are not the least like the narrow, deep
ditches of the western front, of which we all have seen many
illustrations taken from all points of view. Properly speaking, they are
nothing else than _ramparts_ raised _above_ the ground. Behind these
breast-works, built throughout with the greatest difficulty, the
defenders tread on the natural ground, which thus really forms the
bottom of what is incorrectly named a "trench."

The mere fact that one cannot excavate obviously makes it necessary to
bring up from the rear--often from a great distance--all the materials
required, including earth, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of which
is piled up in millions of bags.

The transport of these materials meant a very formidable task,
especially in the early days. We have referred to the country's
deficiency in means of communication of any value. So
everything--sand-bags, stakes, tree-trunks, rails, cement, bricks,
shingle, hurdles, barbed wire--has to be moved to the front lines by
night on men's backs or in light vehicles able to carry only a strictly
limited load, as a heavy one could not be got along the muddy and soft
roads. Need one dwell upon the peculiar difficulties encountered in
consolidating the ground sufficiently to bear the weight of special
defences, such as those of concrete?

Not till long after the battle of the Yser, when the main positions had
been adequately strengthened, could attention be given to improving the
road system by building new roads and constructing additional railways
of narrow and standard gauge. It is, therefore, not surprising that the
recollection of the labour, more particularly that done during the
winter, has remained a veritable nightmare to the men engaged upon the
task. Shot and shell raked them incessantly. They had to toil knee-deep
in water and mud, perished with cold, whipped by wind and rain. Owing to
the depleted condition of the ranks, most of the fighting forces had,
one may say, to mount guard continuously along an extended and still
imperfectly consolidated front.

An appeal was made to the older classes, elderly garrison troops, or
"old overcoats" as the soldiers picturesquely called them. Working
tirelessly behind the lines, they "shovelled their fatherland into
little bags," so they jokingly described it among themselves. These old
fellows, assisted by a few resting (?) units, toiled day and night,
preparing all the indispensable materials and carrying them to the front
trenches over sodden roads swept by the enemy's fire. There, the stoical
defenders of the Yser, protected by watchful guards and with their
rifles always ready to hand, patiently, persistently and with marvellous
pluck raised bit by bit the invincible barrier which they had sworn to
hold against every new effort of the enemy.

(_a_) _Mastering the Floods_

The inundation let loose at the most critical period of the battle of
the Yser, when the enemy had succeeded in crossing the river at Saint
Georges, Schoorbakke, Tervaete and near Oud-Stuyvekenskerke, could not
at first be so regulated as to harass the enemy only. It had gradually
invaded part of our own trenches, and it was therefore an urgent matter
to get the waters under complete control, lest the heroic means employed
should compel the Belgian Army to abandon positions held hitherto at so
serious a cost of life. To effect this, important works had to be put in
hand without delay; some for defence, others for offence.

The first defensive measure consisted in the construction of trenches,
which it was imperative to build at once, whether in water which oozed
up at all points or in deep mud. Working with feverish activity, men
piled sand-bags, brought up in a constant stream from the rear, on the
marshy soil. In this manner parapets of a steadily increasing solidity
slowly formed a continuous front which, though still of doubtful
strength, sufficed to protect the occupied zone against surprise

Before the business of putting the ground in a proper state of defence
could be initiated, the inundation had to be got under effectual
control. This implied, let us note, the power to flood the ground on the
enemy's side at will, while preventing the water passing beyond a
sharply defined line, and making it quite impossible for the enemy to
threaten us in turn.

The enormous technical difficulties which our engineers had to overcome
can easily be imagined. We may observe, in the first place, that the
Yser district is intersected by many small tributaries of the river and
by a number of interconnected canals. The two zones--our own and that of
the enemy--thus had direct communication with one another, so that,
unless minute precautions were taken, and a great deal of work done, it
was not possible to flood either zone without exposing the other to a
similar fate.



[Illustration: A SHELTER]


_From the First Line to an Outpost_.]


_Where it crosses Flooded Ground_.]


_Note the arch-shaped Traverses for protecting its Occupants from


_Beyond it is seen "No Man's Land."_]

Nor was this all. The enemy was, and still is, at liberty to lower the
water level by "bleeding" the inundation on his side. To defeat such
attempts, it was necessary to put ourselves in a position to turn the
requisite volume of water towards his lines.

Finally, provision must be made for draining off the water promptly and
carefully, should the need arise, so as to prevent a disaster being
caused by the enemy increasing the inundation, or merely by the
torrential rain which falls at times with disheartening persistence in
this depressing region. A constant struggle between the two opponents
was thus always in progress. Let us say at once that the ingenuity and
unwearying exertions of our men always triumphed in contests of this
kind. They continue to dominate the situation completely, and the
Germans have had to own themselves beaten.

The reader will realise that we cannot give a detailed description of
the measures taken; the most difficult and complicated of which were
unquestionably those designed to protect the Belgian lines from
inundations let loose on the enemy's positions.

It has been mentioned more than once that, thanks to their command of
Nieuport and its locks, the Belgians held the key of the inundations in
their hands. But we must not forget that for three years German shells
have been continually directed at the locks and bridges. The works that
have had to be undertaken, carried out and maintained in good condition
throughout this region will astonish the experts when it is possible to
reveal their real character.

What shall be said, then, of the great importance of the many barrages
which we have had to raise; of the dykes--some of them more than a
kilometre long--of the strengthening of the banks along the canals and
water-courses that furrow the country in all directions?

The embankments are of two main kinds: the solid and those with
sluices. The second are used in places where the free play of the water
must be allowed and regulated. It will easily be believed that the
construction of these artificial barriers, able to withstand heavy
pressure, needed the piling up of 100,000, 200,000 and even 300,000
sand-bags apiece; that not fewer than a _million_ bags were required for
the largest dyke, the contents of which were a trifling 30,000 cubic

We cannot say more on the subject here; but the few figures given will,
we think, convey an adequate idea of the vast work entailed in
controlling the inundations.

(_b_) _The Trenches._

When the first dyke, running continuously along the front, had been
finished, and the waters were sufficiently under control to relieve all
fears of a serious catastrophe, and when the water-posts disputed with
the enemy had been occupied in the midst of the floods, we had to give
immediate attention to improving the lines, completing earthworks and
organising the depth of the positions in accordance with the general
principles set forth above.

There was no time to be lost. With the return of fine weather we had to
expect a renewal of activity on the part of the enemy, who apparently
had not given up his ambitious designs on Dunkirk and Calais. In each of
the sectors which our depleted divisions had to guard, operations were
organised on a systematic plan, with the firm determination of carrying
them through in the shortest time possible. Work of any importance could
not, of course, be done in broad daylight, for, as we have already said,
nothing escaped the enemy's notice. Though far away, his guns never
ceased to plough up the grounds, and to what losses should we not have
exposed ourselves had we attempted to strengthen our positions in
daylight, close up to his fines and before his very eyes!

So in the depths of a wet and severe winter our men had to toil during
the night, under the most trying conditions imaginable. Now that these
have been considerably improved, thanks to a perfect organisation which
extends to the smallest details, it is difficult to realise the enormous
efforts and the real physical suffering which the defenders of the Yser
had to face during those long months of the early part of the war.

[Illustration: A SECOND-LINE TRENCH]


_Forming the point d'appui for a First-line Trench_.]


The unit detailed for work in the front line of a given sector was, by
the irony of words, "resting," or partly resting--which means that it
was quartered among ruins in cantonments partially destitute of
resources, a long way from the workshops to which it had to find its way
at night-fall. "Doing their bit" valiantly, sustained by a
self-confidence which never deserted them, the men showed on all
occasions the greatest goodwill, and--despite certain reports to the
contrary--unfailing good humour. They grumbled a good deal, goodness
knows; and who would not have done the same in their place? But they
kept going, enduring hard labour and privation, under the stimulus of a
burning desire to punish the enemy who was responsible for all the
troubles that afflicted them.

Clad in the most weird and often deplorable clothes, these men trudged
along through the darkness of the night, over muddy tracks and sodden
roads, towards the marshy belt of flooded meadows. This tramp through
the night was a real penance. At every step the men stumbled in the
heavy and sticky mud, over displaced cobbles or in shell-holes brimming
with water. They had to struggle along in this fashion, sometimes for
hours on end, to reach the "material depôts" where such sand-bags,
stakes, corrugated iron sheets, barbed wire and tools as could be got
together were distributed among them. To-day there is an abundance of
all these things; but at the time of which we write supplies were very
short, and one had to get along as best one could with anything that
came to hand in a haphazard way which now seems pitiable.

However, what did it matter? Carrying loads which added to the
difficulties of progress, the men plodded along almost indistinguishable
paths and tracks where the least slip threatened to send them headlong
into deep mud. Extreme caution was needed to avoid rousing the enemy.
Lights were constantly thrown up from his lines, flooding the dreary
country with their pale radiance. When one rose, the men instantly threw
themselves flat in the mire. Occasionally the column would be surprised
before it could take cover, and be subjected to bursts of machine-gun
fire. In this way many brave fellows died an obscure death while
performing one of the most thankless and disagreeable tasks imaginable.

On reaching the scene of action, the men set to work, forgetting their
fatigue in the anxiety to add their quotum to that done on the previous
night before daylight should return; raising and consolidating the frail
rampart of sandbags, building fresh shelters or arranging the auxiliary
defences in front of the trenches.

What words can fitly describe the patience, courage and endurance of
these workers, perpetually overlooked by the enemy, toiling to
exhaustion under the fire of machine-guns trained on our lines, exposed
to death-dealing bombs, a single one of which would sometimes nullify
the efforts of a whole night or burst like a thunder-clap in the midst
of a group of men, scattering death and horrible wounds?

No suffering, however, could break their indomitable will. Admirable
they were and are. Nothing could be more touching than the
self-sacrificing spirit which animated these heroes. They had not even
the satisfaction of being able to return blow for blow, to increase
their keenness and energy. On the contrary, they knew that death
threatened them, not while rifle in hand and drunk with the madness of
the fray, but while ingloriously wielding a common trenching-tool.

This dreadful life lasted for weeks and months on end. Think of the
exhaustion of it, when the same men had to work every night, then take
their turn on guard in the trenches without any chance of getting a
really refreshing sleep! Later on, the bringing of the regiments up to
full strength and the advanced condition of the work fortunately made it
possible to arrange a judicious rotation of duty. Nevertheless, our men
have never been able to consider their job quite done, since on the
Belgian front one has constantly to reconstruct, repair, even entirely
rebuild, fortifications damaged by the enemy's fire or by water--that
second foe which is often more destructive than the first.

The best means of arriving at a due appreciation of the perseverance
shown by the Belgian troops and of the time required for the completion
of their task, is a numerical statement of the work actually achieved.
We may note that the whole front organised by the Belgian Army extends
for about 31 kilometres (19¼ miles), as measured along the front line of
trenches; also, that this system of continuous or discontinuous
positions has a great depth, and that each position is made up of
several lines, one behind the other, their number varying according to
tactical requirements or topographical conditions.

Without fear of being accused of exaggeration, we may, therefore, reckon
the total length of the trenches which the Belgian Army had to make, as
10 to 15 times that of the front itself. To this we must add the many
kilometres of communication trenches which allow the men to move from
one line to another without being seen and to a certain extent without
being hit by the enemy.

At a low estimate the total work amounts to at least 400 kilometres of
earthworks[B]--the distance, as the crow flies, from Paris to Cologne or
from Paris to Strassburg, or half as much again as that from Ostend to
Arlon, the longest stretch which can be measured in Belgium.

The accompanying photographs show several views of the trenches of the
Belgian front on the Yser, and give a better idea than any words of the
real convict work accomplished during three years of incessant labour in
horribly difficult ground. Just think what it involved! Every yard of
fire-trench--traverses and parados included--required the moving of 7 to
8 cubic metres of earth; every yard of communication trench, the
transport and placing of at least 4 cubic metres. You will not be far
out if you reckon at 3½ _million cubic metres_ (4-2/3 million cubic
yards) the volume of the earthworks raised on the Belgian front in the
construction of the main and communication trenches alone.

Trenches of both classes are either formed entirely of sand-bags or very
solidly revetted with sand-bags, wattles or bricks. All these materials
have had to be laboriously brought up from the rear. We mention this
fact again, as it cannot be over-emphasised. The total number of bags
used runs into _tens of millions_, while the superficial area of the
hurdles placed in position must be reckoned in _thousands of square

But the mere making of the trenches is not the whole business. They
must be protected from attack by means of a dense and deep system of
auxiliary defences--networks of barbed wire, _chevaux de frise_, land
mines, etc. What statistician could calculate the number of the
_hundreds of thousands_ of stakes that have been driven and the
_thousands of miles_ of wire arranged in front of the parapets by our
heroic workers?

Wherever our lines are near those of the enemy--who as a rule possesses
the great advantage of commanding them--special works are needed to
prevent bullets enfilading the trenches and doing havoc. All these
trenches are, therefore, covered with a series of arches, which may be
seen in some of our photographs. The soft bottoms of the whole system of
defences must also be carefully consolidated to render their occupation
possible and to enable the men to move about with ease. Duckboards,
assembled just behind the front and then brought into the lines, have
had to be laid everywhere with infinite labour in the muddy bottom of
the trenches--dozens of miles of them--and relaid heaven only knows how

It would be a good thing if one could regard the works when once carried
through as definitely finished; but that would be too much to hope for,
since the most solid revetments crumble in sorry fashion under
bombardment, and the elements also seem to be bent on destroying them.
Anything heavy settles little by little, owing to the lack of
consistency in the subsoil. In bad weather especially, when the rain
never ceases and the floods spread, our men daily report parapets giving
way and duckboards disappearing under the water or mud. Then everything
has to be done over again. One must set to work, with a patience ever
sorely tried, to reconstruct laboriously what was originally put
together only by the most strenuous efforts. Thus it has come about that
many of the trenches have had to be reformed _five or six times_.

So far we have dealt only with the main positions. We turn now to the
prodigious effort demanded by the construction of advanced
fortifications right in the middle of the floods. The first step is to
make foot-bridges, several kilometres long in some places. (One of our
photographs gives a striking view of such a bridge.) Over these, which
the enemy can sweep with his fire, all the materials needed for making
the advanced works must be carried, usually on men's backs and in any
case by very precarious means of transport. A mere "water-post" requires
thousands of sand-bags, so you can form some idea of the labour implied
in the building of one of the many important posts situated in the
inundated area to protect our main positions. All the earthworks,
reckoned in hundreds of cubic yards; all the concrete emplacements which
alone are able to withstand the continual bombardment; all the close
networks of barbed wire have had to materialise but a few yards away
from the enemy's lines. You may well ask yourself whence the men have
drawn the reserves of perseverance, energy and pluck that were needed in
such conditions for raising fortifications like these above the waters.

(_c_) _Various Engineering Works._

Most of the works already referred to were carried out either entirely
or chiefly by the infantry, who, after hours of guard duty in the
trenches, laid aside the rifle only to pick up a tool and indefatigably
continue their rough and dangerous labour among the same scenes of ruin
and devastation.

We have remarked in passing that much detail work of widely different
kinds has had to go forward simultaneously with the organisation proper
of the defensive positions. Its execution was entrusted to special
troops; engineers (sappers), bridge-builders, telegraphists, railway
corps, etc., as well as to many labour companies consisting of men of
the older classes attached to the engineers. Men of the heavy and field
artillery have had to make the many emplacements for batteries of all
calibres, which have increased steadily in number as the Belgian Army
has been able to get and assemble in its workshops an abundance of the
requisite material. It is impossible to describe the innumerable works
of this kind in detail without straying too far, so we will content
ourselves here with reviewing them briefly and giving some figures which
will enable the reader to appreciate the great responsibilities assumed
by the various branches.

1. _Concrete Shelters, Redoubts and Fighting-Posts._--The weakness of
earthworks constructed with sand-bags, which are scattered in all
directions by bursting shells, has compelled us to build numerous
concrete shelters, though the work is beset by many difficulties and
sometimes has to be executed right under the enemy's nose--bombproofs,
machine-gun posts and fighting-posts for the battalion, regimental and
battery staffs. All construction of this kind must be preceded by a
thorough consolidation of the ground, which in its natural condition is
too soft to support such heavy weights. At several points in the front
lines themselves we have also had to make particularly strong _points
d'appui_, usually concrete redoubts, in which a large garrison may hold
out to the last man.

The importance of these works will be inferred from the statement that
their construction has involved the use of at least 300,000 to 400,000
cubic yards of concrete.

2. _Communications._--It will be remembered that the district occupied
by the Belgian Army was poorly supplied with railways, roads and usable
tracks. After the battle of Flanders (October to November, 1914) the
continuous movement of troops over the existing roads, added to the
effects of bombardment and bad weather, had done great damage to almost
all the few available means of communication. This state of things had
to be promptly remedied, both to accelerate putting the sector into a
state of defence and, what was still more urgent, to enable all kinds of
supplies required by the troops and the materials for the defence works
to be brought up.

Special units, therefore, laid in the advanced army zone some 180
kilometres of new railways of standard gauge, and several hundred
kilometres of Decauville railway. The light tracks were gradually pushed
through the communication and main trenches, and even along the
foot-bridges leading to the main pickets.

So that our men might cross the countless canals, streams and ditches
met with everywhere, and move over flooded and marshy areas, the Belgian
engineers built hundreds of bridges and thousands of culverts, besides
some tens of kilometres of the foot-bridges already described. As an
example, we may mention that one of these foot-bridges, crossing a marsh
in the southern part of the front, is quite 800 metres long.

As for the road-system, existing roads had to be remade and improved,
while new ones were built and narrow ones widened and strengthened
sufficiently to carry all kinds of traffic. This road-building and
mending was applied to 400 _kilometres of roads and usable tracks_ in
all; and absorbed some 500,000 tons of road metal and as many tons of
sand--which involved the moving and handling of, say, 1,000,000,000 tons
of various materials.

The upkeep of the roads, which carry a dense and continuous traffic,
demands unceasing labour, especially in the winter.

In conclusion, we should mention that there are, in addition to the
road-system properly so-called, many infantry routes and approaches for
artillery which have had to be made with great difficulty across marshes
and soft meadowland.

3. _Various Forms of Construction._--One cannot pretend to give even a
bare list of the varied and numberless erections for which our engineers
have been responsible behind the Belgian front, to accommodate the
fighting troops and auxiliary services and mitigate the scarcity of
suitable quarters. For three years German guns have battered everything
within range, and converted the humble, peaceful villages of
Veurne-Ambacht into heaps of ruins. One must go far behind the front to
find any premises that have still escaped shell-fire. In them have been
established all the organisations which need not be actually in the
lines, and there also are quartered as large a part as possible of the
resting units. But they cannot hold all the troops not in the trenches;
and it will readily be understood that battalions held in reserve and
warned first in case of an attack, must be near enough to throw
themselves into the fight without loss of time. The problem has been
solved by building a large number of huts in each divisional sector; yet
without grouping them so closely as to afford an easy mark to the
enemy's guns and aeroplanes. So the hutments, capable of accommodating
some 100,000 men and about 15,000 horses, have been scattered over the
whole of the district occupied.

In addition, much has had to be done and many buildings have had to be
erected, in order to secure the best possible conditions for the
elaborate organisations of the medical service, even in the fighting
zone. We have had to provide bombproof first-aid stations,
dressing-stations, and field hospitals, in many cases quite close to the
lines, under circumstances the difficulties of which have already been
sufficiently emphasised.

Huge hospitals, with several thousands of beds, have had to be built
from the foundations upwards for the reception of the wounded not able
to endure removal to the rear. Furnes, the only town in the district, at
first provided invaluable accommodation; but, when systematic
bombardment of the city endangered even the lives of the poor wounded,
the hospital services had to be transferred elsewhere. The splendid
hospital at La Panne, Adinkerke, Hoogstade and Beveren-sur-Yser, have
long been regarded as models of their kind, though their establishment
was attended by serious difficulties. Every possible modern improvement
has been turned to account in their equipment; and although within
earshot of the never-silent guns, they have accomplished marvels which
the greatest authorities on the subject have on many occasions
unstintedly and rightly praised.

We may conclude by just mentioning the aviation and balloon parks, the
necessary installations for the various technical services, and the
repair shops for motor- and horse-drawn vehicles, all of which have been
established in the advanced zone by the Belgian Army. The vast amount of
labour represented by these undertakings is self-evident, as the
district contained practically no supplies of the materials needed.

4. _Artificial Screens._--Unless we were to be content to expose
ourselves to grave inconveniences and suffer huge losses, it is obvious
that we could not long tolerate the enemy's full command of a plain
entirely devoid of any cover able to interfere with his observations.
The only means of blinding him was to protect all our works with
artificial screens, composed of branches, hurdles and canvas set or hung
all over the area occupied. Viewed by an observer in the German lines,
these screens overlap in such a way as to form a virtually unbroken
barrier, impenetrable to the eye.

To the layman this picturesque solution of the problem may seem
simplicity itself, because he does not take into account the trouble of
establishing these screens. As usual, all materials have to be brought
to the spot from the rear. Fabulous quantities of branches are
transported to the front by rail or barge, then loaded on to vehicles
and taken to the workshops, where they are converted into enormous
screens to be placed in carefully selected positions by special gangs
detailed for the purpose.

As the supply of branches is not enough to meet all requirements, our
resourceful fellows make use of reeds cut in the marshes of flooded
meadows, some of them adjacent to the enemy's lines. The reeds are tied
into large bundles and carried on the back to the hurdle-works, there to
be interwoven and arranged between suitable supports.

Many thousands of square metres of these artificial masks have been set
up all over the great plain. But, unfortunately, they are as fragile as
they are picturesque. The wind, which often rises to a gale in this
coastal region, blows them down or makes yawning holes in them; so they
need constant attention. However, our long-enduring men have worked so
well that the enemy cannot now watch what goes on in our lines.

5. _The Supply of Drinking Water._--By a peculiar irony of fate,
although the Belgian soldiers live in a country so saturated with water
that every possible means must be employed to combat it, they would die
of thirst had not works of considerable magnitude been undertaken to
provide them with water fit to drink. During the battle of the Yser,
when complete disorganisation reigned among the supply services of our
valiant but unlucky army, many of the men could quench their thirst only
with the muddy and loathsome water of the ditches which served them as
trenches. As soon as that tragic fight was over, the greatest
precautions had to be taken to prevent an epidemic of typhoid fever
decimating what remained of our army. The existing wells in the fighting
area had been invaded by the brackish flood water, in which floated
hundreds of corpses; while those in the districts not yet ravaged by
fire scarcely sufficed for local needs.

So to the rear, as in other cases, we had to look for drinkable water,
which must be got up to the front lines in spite of transport

As soon as circumstances allowed, we began to sink an adequate number of
wells; and while in some places our fighting men obstinately strove to
protect their defensive works from the treacherous floods, in others our
workmen dug and bored into the unkindly soil in search of a stratum
yielding potable water, which was struck at a depth of 125
_metres_--sometimes even further down. This alone will give some idea of
the obstacles that had at all costs to be overcome. Our desperate and
unwearied efforts were happily crowned with success, and soon the whole
army, including the many auxiliary services of the advanced zone,
enjoyed an abundance of good water.

6. _The Telephone System._--Everybody knows how very important the
telephone has become during the present war; but even the most
far-sighted people who had strongly urged the general employment of this
essentially practical and rapid means of communication, had not
anticipated the extraordinarily wide scope which was to be given it.

To-day the telephone is the real bond of union between all units serving
at the front, from the observer crouching in his advanced post to the
commander-in-chief. It links those who issue commands with those who
obey them, the lowest with the highest, and makes it possible for all
efforts directed towards a single end to be correlated most efficiently
in the performance of the common task. If so bold a comparison may be
permitted, the telephonic network is the nervous system traversing the
huge body of an army in action. The best mode of showing the prime
importance of this network is to give some figures, which certainly
exceed all the calculations that the layman would be likely to make.
Would he imagine, for instance, that, by about the middle of the year
1917, the telephone wires of a single sector held by the Belgians had a
total length greater than half that of the equator, or exactly 21,950

It is not difficult to realise what labour was needed to install such a
system. The innumerable wires and posts had not merely to be put in
place, but to be protected from destruction, sheltered against incessant
bombardment, and repaired at once if unavoidably damaged. In the most
dangerous areas the wires had to be buried deep, or, where they crossed
flooded areas, laid under water. This meant the excavating and
filling-in of hundreds of kilometres of deep trenches before the
delicate work of burying wires and cables was completed. The 21,950
kilometres of wires in the Belgian front system are made up of 6,600
kilometres of buried or submerged wires and 15,350 kilometres of aerial
line. The telephone instruments in use number nearly 8,000; the exchange
switch-boards, not far short of 1,000.

Let us add that this network requires unremitting attention, and that it
is being extended and improved daily, and we shall have said enough to
give an idea of the prodigious task accomplished by the special corps
entrusted with the management of this arduous undertaking.

7. _The Batteries._--The Belgian Army began the war with but a limited
supply of 75-mm. guns and hardly a couple of dozen 149-mm. and 150-mm.
howitzers; so that it was for a long time compelled to face its
powerfully equipped enemy on very unequal terms, a state of things which
gave rise to much anxiety. Its battery crews, however, though so
seriously handicapped, always fought with remarkable courage and
technical skill. During the violent battle of the Yser, especially,
their self-sacrifice and devotion won the deepest admiration: and they
were also largely responsible for the heroic stand which will be one of
the most glorious pages in our army's history.

It was apparent in the very first encounters that artillery would play a
much more important part than had been assigned to it by pre-war theory.
As soon as the two opponents had dug themselves in opposite one another,
it became evident that strong entrenchments, forming an unbroken barrier
along an extensive front, could be mastered only by the number and
weight of guns brought into action.

We shall say nothing here about the great effort which enabled us to
solve the second part of this momentous problem,[C] our immediate object
being to demonstrate the intense effort which the fighting army had to
put forth in organising the Yser front.

When the last struggles of the battle had ceased, our artillerymen vied
with one another in the keenness and industry with which they screened
their pieces from enemy observation in the open plain whereon they had
perforce to establish them. It was impossible to dig into the ground and
sink the guns behind solid earthworks. As with the trenches, all
structures had to be laboriously fashioned out of imported materials,
not merely under the enemy's eyes but under the fire of his formidable
artillery. Over and over again the gunners had to cease work in order to
reply to the enemy, giving him as much as he gave, and showing
themselves always ready for a fight, whatever the odds. The duel over,
they picked up their tools, repaired any damage done, and cheerfully
carried on.

However, thanks to the steady augmentation of Belgian resources, the
German superiority gradually disappeared; while, on the other hand, the
number of works to be executed increased. As the positioning of mere
field-pieces was a very troublesome business, one can guess what was
entailed by the installation on such unstable ground of heavy batteries
with ponderous platforms to support them. Nevertheless, our men
patiently overcame all difficulties.

An imposing number of batteries--greater than the public imagines--is
now disposed _en échelon_ over the plain. Cannon, howitzers and mortars
are hidden so skilfully that they can hardly be detected even at a short
distance. Hundreds of concrete shelters have been built for ammunition
dumps and headquarters. Among the ruins rise practically indestructible
observation posts, themselves invisible from afar, but commanding the
whole country. From these a ceaseless watch is kept upon the enemy's
lines. Artificial screens protect the works from direct observation, and
clever "camouflage" entirely conceals them from overhead view. To
mislead the enemy, "dummy" batteries are scattered about everywhere.
Many reserve positions have also been prepared so that, should the need
arise, the batteries may be shifted and re-concentrated in different

It has been, one sees, a great enterprise; and the men who have worked
so hard and unremittingly may well feel a legitimate pride in what they
have so successfully accomplished. Yet in this, as in other spheres of
activity, work can never stop. Bad weather and bombardment alike inflict
constant havoc; and in spite of the most ingenious precautions the enemy
always succeeds eventually in spotting the emplacement of this or that
battery or in marking off an area which conceals a group of batteries. A
furious fire from heavy guns is then concentrated upon the point
discovered, and by the time our artillery manages to silence it the
damage done is sometimes of such a nature that works which represent
long months of labour may have to be practically reconstructed.


We have now described the most outstanding features of the remarkable
feat which the Belgian Army has accomplished with the object of
rendering impregnable the important sector of the western front
entrusted to its watchful care. It may claim to have safely defended the
vital route leading to Dunkirk and Calais.

Mere written words can, however, but imperfectly convey a complete idea
of the colossal work it did among most discouraging and desolate
surroundings; and prudence forbids us to say anything at all about many,
and those by no means the least considerable, of the operations.
Moreover, the few data which we have been permitted to give are but a
slight indication of the efforts unsparingly made by men and officers

The task was done in self-effacing silence; the world at large scarcely
knows of it. But perhaps in these few pages we may have succeeded in
making the merit of our fearless and tenacious troops better
appreciated, and in showing how well they have earned the homage due to
the determined energy which they have displayed for more than three
years, with no thought but that of valiantly performing a duty of prime
importance to the common cause, though it brings no glory with it.

Can anyone realise fully the kind of life Belgian soldiers are leading,
even now that the essential military works are completed? A division
guarding a sector of the front invariably divides its time between duty
in the trenches, outpost duty and rest. Rest! magic word! You would like
to think that our men enjoy a blissful calm, long hours of pleasant
freedom, lounging about all the day, almost forgetful of the war and its
cruel chances. Alack! how far the reality falls short of this seductive
vision! "Rest" means shelter in comfortless hutments or squalid
cantonments, with a truss of straw to serve as bed. Fatigue duties are
needed to prepare, load up and move the materials for all the works
whose upkeep and completion demand constant care. Then there are the
long route marches to keep the troops in perfect training, and drill in
which military instruction is given and our men are taught the latest
modes of fighting with a view to making future attacks. At night come
alarms and enemy shells bombarding their quarters and poisoning them
with asphyxiating gases.

When on outpost duty in the second-line positions one must always be
ready for a fight. When the German guns concentrate an intense fire upon
certain sectors, one must wait stolidly and stoically in the shelters
which a single shell can blow to atoms. Then, too, whenever the chance
is offered, one must toil to restore defence works which are as
constantly knocked to pieces again. With nightfall come the reliefs, a
long and tiresome business, surrounded by deadly peril if the enemy be
on his guard and puts up a barrage, searching the ground with sudden,
furious bursts of machine-gun fire.

In the trenches one has to keep a close and cautious lookout, always
watching the enemy's lines, mind and body ever alert, while pitiless
death prowls about and threatens at every point. At times, no doubt, the
hours pass slowly with tiresome monotony. A heavy silence broods over
this corner of the great battlefield wherein the Belgian soldiers,
tramping along the bottom of the trenches or huddled in a dark shelter,
dream at length of all that they have in tender memory, the affections,
the hopes left behind them in the country now oppressed and tyrannised
over by the invader. Their souls are full of bitterness, as with fixed
stare they dumbly surrender themselves to their sad musings. A mad
desire comes over them to clasp again to their breast, if only for a
moment, some suffering dear one--whether still living or with eyes
closed for ever in death, they do not know. So violent an access of
home-sickness sweeps over them that at times they cannot restrain their

Then, suddenly, all heads are raised: eyes flash like points of steel.
Let a shell whistle over the trenches and burst a few yards further on,
and these men, who a moment ago were numbed by their gloomy broodings,
become in a trice the fighters whose keenness awakes when danger

Explosions, nearer and yet nearer. The earth quivers under the
continuous shell-bursts. An acrid smoke spreads in the trenches, now
all alive. The men rush to arms. With an eye glued to their peep-holes
the look-outs feverishly scrutinise the enemy's lines, while the
infantry lean against the broad, high parapets or crouch in their
dug-outs, stoically waiting for the rain of steel and fire to cease
falling about their ears.



_Replaces a Road and carries a Narrow-gauge Railway_.]


_Armed with Machine-guns_.]

But the bombardment, far from dying down, seems to increase in fury.
Here come grenades and torpedoes, bursting everywhere with a terrible
din, excavating huge holes in the ground, throwing up great sheaves of
earth and mud, scattering sand-bags, stakes, planks and beams in all
directions, demolishing with fiendish persistency the ramparts built so
painstakingly by our stubborn workers.

We on our part have been prompt to reply to the enemy's fire. Our
gunners are already busy; mortars and bomb-throwers discharge a stream
of projectiles into the opposite trenches without intermission. And
soon, far away on the plain, the batteries also lift up their voices.
The long-drawn-out, deep growls of the heavy guns mingle with the sharp
barks of the "soixante-quinze." Everything round about the bombarded
trench seems to be engulfed in the terrific uproar.

The struggle continues obstinately, with periodic bursts of excessive
violence, until the enemy's fire is mastered and dies away into silence.
When quiet returns, the officer of the guard, in his half-demolished
post, pens his terse report by the flickering light of a candle:--

     "To-day, from 4 to 8 p.m., the trench occupied by my company was
     heavily bombarded. Shells and bombs have damaged our works very
     seriously for about 50 yards. Two shelters were entirely destroyed.
     The men behaved splendidly in spite of heavy losses: 10 killed, 27
     wounded--a dozen severely. Stretcher-bearers just arrived. The
     company has got to work again. Moral excellent."

       *       *       *       *       *       *

Some may imagine that the Belgian troops must have had their readiness
to attack blunted, and their desire to leap over the entanglements and
hurl themselves on the enemy weakened, by their long immobility in the
same trenches, by the never-ending construction of defensive works, by
the interminable residence in the same monotonous environment.

But they are wrong. Their sadly mistaken conclusions would soon be
corrected could they but see how eagerly our soldiers contend for the
honour of taking part in those adventurous patrols in No Man's Land and
in the risky reconnaissances towards the German lines. If 10 volunteers
be called for, a hundred offer themselves. Hardly a night passes without
some expeditions of this kind being set on foot. Then are fought in the
darkness weird and deadly combats, wherein our men display magnificent
courage and wonderful dash.

Neither bad weather nor suffering can quench their desire to conquer and
their hot eagerness to fling themselves upon the enemy and hunt him out
of the country which he has remorselessly despoiled. As the soldiers of
justice and right, they wish to be--and will be--the soldiers also of
deliverance and liberty. They know that their hour is coming and that
they cannot choose it; but they are ready to throw themselves heart and
soul into the thick of the fray when they get the impatiently awaited

Meanwhile they are content simply to do their hard duty in what remains
of a free country--a tiny corner of Belgium where the eye sees nothing
but a vast battlefield with its ruins; its camps, bubbling with active
life; its hospitals, homes of suffering; its cemeteries, too, where rest
those who died for their fatherland.

_Printed in Great Britain by Alabaster, Passmore & Sons, Ltd., London
and Maidstone._


[A] See _Les Batailles de la Marne_ (_Die Schlachten an der Marne_), by
An Officer of the German General Staff. Translated from the German by
Th. Buyse. Van OEst & Cie, Paris, 1917.

[B] Going into detail, we may point out that 60 kilometres of fire and
communication trenches are included in the area of the front line
organised defensively _for a single division occupying but a very narrow

[C] For information on this subject, consult _Les Établissements
d'artillerie belges pendant la guerre_, by Captain Willy Breton.
Berger-Levrault, Paris and Nancy, 1917.

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