From the Channel to the Ypres Salient, The Belgian Sector 1914-1918

From the Channel to the Ypres Salient, The Belgian Sector 1914-1918

Chris Baker
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
This book has taken the author many years of hard work and research to complete, from his first visits back in the 80s, he has immersed himself in the history of Belgium, learning about its geography, art, culture, architecture, food, and language, although a relatively small country it has a complex make up and several almost tribal divisions of language and culture, all of which one needs to understand when learning about the country's reaction to the German invasion

West Flanders has a complex history given its relatively small size for me , discovering that the small town I had stayed in while visiting Ypres, had in fact taken a vital part in the defence of Belgium and had far more history than was at first obvious from the war memorials scattered about, was a pleasant surprise , not having the time or information to hand, I had in fact walked or driven past many of the most important sights of the early battles of 1914 !

Much of the area around Diksmuide, and Niewpoort comprises of relatively modern architecture , few older buildings predate WW1 or even WW2, however many have been rebuilt in period and are pleasing to the eye, and as such allow one to to trace the history and locations of battles from old photographs, of which this book is well provided

This area is unique in being criss-crossed by canals and drainage ditches that both irrigate and drain and protect the fertile soil, much of it below sea level, one area in particular Westhoek was never captured by the Germans in WW1

This book is written for the English tourist and as such is very comprehensive in its attention to details, the guide covers an area in a north south direction starting from the coast at Steenstraat and Lizerne across to Ypres , and the west to east from the French borders up to an area near to the river Yser; this comprises an area of roughly 30 by 26 Kilometres, although in itself not a vast area , to see everything that is covered in this book would take several weeks of hard cycling or walking.

Public transport is well covered and that would enable you to shave much time off the routes, you can of course drive, but many of the roads are narrow, and parking may well be a problem especially in the more remote places. The Public transport system is excellent and the author gives much information on its use and remit.

Their is a lovely introduction to the book from the series Editor Nigel Cave, where he details the previous sparse coverage of this area, and how the history and its representation have been improved so much from the early days of his visits in the late 70s.

The Author start out by relating the history of Belgium ( itself a comparatively young country), only coming into being in 1830, after breaking away from the Netherlands, the history of its Army, and why it was so ill prepared both in size and and materials for the start of the Great War.

Much of the heavy munitions and artillery that were in such short supply had been ordered from German manufacturers, this of course never arrived, he then covers the period of the Franco Prussian war and how that shaped the formation of the modern Belgian army as a defence force to simply protect the Northern Borders, its steel making production which was in the area likely to be be invaded first.

In 1902 a new military act was passed which completely ignored all the recommendations to enlarge the Army , then comprising 42,800 men with the ability to swell to 100,000 in the field and a further 80,000 in the Garrisons. An annual total of 15.300 men would be conscripted for National Service, but with the strange quirk that allowed the wealthy to avoid conscription by paying some one else to serve in their place, for the less well off this was a good source of income in difficult times, but it did tend to restrict the educational level of many fighting men. By 1909 only one in every 400 men were being recruited annually against a figure of 1 in every 170 for France and one in every 241 for Germany, they even lagged far behind the Swiss.

Although the fortress Cities of Liege Namur and Antwerp were well garrisoned in materiel they were poorly provided for, 53,000 rifles, 6,000 swords alongside 324 obsolescent field guns and a mere 102 machine guns along with a large shortage of engineering stores and uniforms and transport. The author very clearly relates how this poor build up to war cause the country to fall, but it was only the action of a few small groups that fought valiantly, alongside assistance rendered by the French Marines, and our Royal Navy, combined with the flooding of the land that prevented one area of Belgium from falling into German hands.

The book details the locations of the early battles, the terrible atrocities committed by the German Troops ( often stated as propaganda by many modern revisionists) and the cold blooded murder of Belgian and French troops that was witnessed by several independent sources.

The formation of Volunteer British Ambulance Corp and their sterling work so early in the War, and their recognition by the King and the Belgian Forces for their bravery under shellfire is well covered, a subject that I knew little about.

Even the capture of some British troops who were readying for the tanks to invade , and under duress gave the Germans information that allowed them to shell the area with a rail gun, and cause many deaths well behind the lines, in fact there is so much detailed in this book, from the political and religious make up of the areas, to the unusual design of war graves, and the erection of many postwar memorials, and even buildings used in the following war in 1940

I would rate this book highly for its wealth of accurate and clear information, the maps and illustrations, period pictures and the authors dedication to preserving a part of Belgium's history.

So many visitors merely see Ypres and the Messines, and yet they miss the small personal memorials and battle sights that were fundamental in delaying the invasion of the German army, and in keeping so many of them tied down for years on end, and in so doing freeing up our troops for the fight further South.

The book is 246 pages of clear concise and easy to read text , broken down into 5 main chapters laying out the history and the battles and then 5 tours , followed by an appendix of other notable sites to visit. For any one with an interest in touring Belgium, or just for those interested in the battles of the Great War, this book is an Archive of information.

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