Canals at War



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Near the Channel coast of Belgium, lying between Ostend and Dunkirk, is the little town of Nieuport (Nieuwpoort on Belgian maps).  Although a kilometer or two inland, Nieuport is a proper port, with a fishing fleet, a fair trade in bulk sand and gravel, and a massive yacht harbour.  It is connected to the sea via the tidal mouth of the River Iser (Yzer).  Right down on the coast, a whole new Nieuport has been built as a holiday town, taking advantage of the long stretches of sandy beaches.

Tidal locks connect one to the canalised River Iser, and interconnect with the canal that runs down the coast from Bruges to Dunkirk and, ultimately, to Calais.

Moving inland, the Iser is a sluggish, slow moving river, travelling through flat, cultivated land.  The route is quite pretty, though the banks often restrict the vistas.  In Autumn, the sloe bushes provide a rich harvest for the gin drinkers.

At the little country town of Diksmuide, it becomes obvious that this bucolic scene hides a dark secret.  The massive (and rather ugly) war memorial that has been hovering on the horizon gets closer and closer, and one passes a place which advertises itself as 'The Trench of Death'.

If you pass through Diksmuide, the River Iser eventually swings away to the right, but, by a pretty lift bridge, a left turn leads onto the Iper Canal, which heads inland, past the Bosinge Locks, to terminate in the bustling town of Iper.  Do you recognise the name?  Probably not.  We know it better as Ypres, though in the First World War it was known as Wipers and gave rise to the poignant song 'Far far from Wipers, I want to be'.

The River Iser and parts of the Iper Canal were, for much of the war, the front line.

When the Germans attacked in WW1, their armies headed towards Paris.  The British Army, which had been dismissed by the German High Command as 'that contemptible little army', briefly held them up at Mons, but were forced to retreat back down to roughly the line of the River Marne, where the French General 'Pappa' Joffre organised stern resistance.  As the fighting here stagnated into trench warfare, the Germans tried right hooks to the north, to outflank the resistance and to take the Channel Ports, hence isolating the British Army in Europe.  The Belgians put up a stout defence, but were being overwhelmed by superior forces.  Luckily, they had a cunning plan.

At Nieuport, where the Iser terminates in a tidal lock, there is a big tidal basin, with four other sets of locks and sluices.  The basin is called the Ganzenpoot (the Goosefoot).  One lock takes the canal north and eastward, up towards Ostend, whilst the second heads south and west towards France and Dunkirk.  The other two sets of sluices control important drainage channels.  The cunning plan was to open the sluices at high tide, and to twiddle with the sluices on the drainage channels, to flood the area to the north and east of the Iser, which is where the Germans were.  The detailed knowledge of which sluices to open and when to do it resided with the old canal lengthsmen.  The strategy was enacted, and the River became the front line between Germany and Belgium for most of the war.

Of course, the sluices needed adjusting as the weather conditions changed.  If too little water went out to sea, then the Belgian side of the river would flood.  If too much water was let out, then the German side would dry out.  The area around the Ganzenpoot is littered with memorials to the men who were killed whilst winding the paddle gear.

Once one knows this story, the relevance of the Iser/Ypres line falls into place.  Diksmuide was 100% flattened.  Stop by any of the older bridges across the Iser, and there are plaques and memorials to those who were killed defending them.  Other memorials peep out through the trees that now line the banks.

The Bosinge Locks were the scene of fierce battles involving British troops.  Nearer to Ypres is the Advanced Dressing Station at 'Essex Farm' where Canadian Army Medical Colonel McRae wrote the lines:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Among the crosses row on row
.

In Ypres itself the terminal basin was known to the Brits either as (with droll humour) Dead End, or as Tattenham Corner (the horses were watered there).

There is a very special bond between the Brits and the Belgians.  They appreciated our help in WW1, and it was Brits, in the main, who liberated Belgium after WW2.

Incidentally, the gallant defence of Belgium during WW1 is in great contrast to what happened at the start of WW2.  Almost as soon as the Germans hove into view, the Belgian king at the time (to the disgust of the Belgian people) surrendered himself, his army and his country to them.  After the war, the Belgians had a vote as to whether or not they wanted him back.  He returned with such a slender majority (a few percentage points) that the general feeling was that a man of honour would have stayed away!


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