No, not the Trench of Death, but one of the many water channels that criss-cross this part of Flanders. This photograph shows you how close to the surface the water table is around here, and why trenches had to be built above ground level using wood, sandbags, wire and, frankly, any other material that came to hand.
Before we go in…
…down at the river’s edge (the Yser is actually more canal than river for much of its length), this view looks north…
…this one south…
…and this one east. The far bank of the canal, as you know, was occupied by the Germans at the start of the Battle of the Yser, and would remain in their hands for the rest of the war.
Before we enter the trench proper, the Dodengang Memorial remembers all Belgian soldiers who were killed in the trench…
…and beyond the memorial, that looks like an entrance to me.
Let’s go in. This particular section of trench, at right angles to the canal, was attached to the Belgian front lines that stretched away first west, and then north along the railway embankment. In 1916 Belgian engineers heavily fortified this section, creating an impregnable defensive position known as the Horseman’s Redoubt that stood above the existing trenches, bristling with machine guns commanding a 360° field of fire.
I don’t think we’ll go that way, though. Not today.
This looks better.
There are a number of photographs positioned along the trench that show what conditions were like here during the war.
View looking north east, the Dodengang proper running from right to left, just this side of the row of posts that line the canal bank.
Above & below: Another view looking towards the Dodengang, the tops of the sandbags just visible in front of the row of posts.
This is where the Dodengang proper starts. The canal bank, of course, being slightly higher than the surrounding countryside, allowed trenches to be built deeper into the ground than elsewhere, although the high water table still precluded the construction of dugouts, and sandbags were still required to heighten these trenches before it was possible for a man to stand upright in safety.
Looking north along the canal…
…and south, the Yser Tower in Diksmuide on the horizon.
Defensive loophole designed to cover enemy infiltration into the trench.
Memorial plaque (above & below) to Major Felix Bastin, ‘Mort Pour La Belgique’ in November 1917.
Observer and sniper.
The trench meanders…
…for two thirds of a mile along the canal bank. It’s all very clean though. It wouldn’t have been once upon a time. There are the most appalling tales, if you search for them, of conditions here. Walking this empty trench on a summers’ afternoon, it’s difficult to imagine how truly awful this place must have been all those years ago.
But it was. Truly awful:
“…we began walking through the trench of the Yser, a march that seems to last for a century and where the imagination of Dante was not surpassed in horror in his visions of hell…in the shadows, all of a sudden, a dark mass lies motionless, pasted at the bottom of the trench…and forward we go, feet trampling the dead, slipping on the head, sinking in the belly…”
This is the Dodengang, the photograph taken from the German trenches on the east bank of the canal. I cannot remember where I got hold of this picture, so I hope I am not infringing anyone’s copyright by using it in this post.
Along the way, fittingly, the ubiquitous Flanders poppy.
Finally we reach the end of the trench. The photograph on the information board (see also below) shows the same view soon after the war’s end; no one could have stood where the photographer was standing during the war years and survived.
In 1917, to prevent German incursions into the Dodengang, the Belgians reinforced their defences here at the head of the trench creating what soldiers referred to as the Mousetrap, a bunker and barbed wire redoubt that would trap any attackers and leave them at the mercy of the Belgian machine gunners.
The loophole in the concrete observation post to the left of the previous picture looks out on a bunker sited just a few yards away from the end of the trench.
Graffiti covers the walls inside this post, the marks of those who knew full well that they were right on the very edge of life and death in this godforsaken place.
One wonders the fate of these particular men.
Ah, look. Another Demarcation Stone. Before we check it out, inside this bunker…
…another loophole looks across the canal towards the German positions that once followed the eastern bank.
At the end of the trench, as we have just seen, a Demarcation Stone signifies that this was the furthest east the Germans ever managed to advance during the war; the Trench of Death never fell into their hands. For the lowdown on Demarcation Stones, click here: Potijze Demarcation Stone
Time to take a look at the bunker we saw through the loophole earlier.
What I didn’t mention at the time (though you may have worked it out – there was a clue) is that this is a German bunker. Not only did the Belgian defenders have to worry about the Germans just a few yards away to the east on the other side of the canal, but they also had to deal with Germans just a few yards north of their positions here at the end of the Dodengang, on the west side of the canal. The trench map below, from later in the war, shows the Dodengang quite clearly in blue along the western canal bank, with the German positions (in red) both opposite the Belgian positions, on the other side of the canal, and north of them, along the western bank.
Apart from a line of outposts on by this time mainly dry land immediately north west of the Dodengang, you can see how exposed the trench was, the Belgian front lines curving away to the top left hand corner of the map.
By the end of 1914, as elsewhere on the Western Front, trench warfare had taken over in the Belgian Sector. Franco-Belgian forces had fortified the railway embankment between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide, while the Germans held the east bank of the Yser as well as bridgeheads on the western side, in particular the loop in the canal between Tervaete and Schoorbakke. Further north, although both sides held outposts forward of their lines, the flooded polders between them created a virtually impassable lake, but at this point, at the far south of the inundations, it was necessary to defend the canal bank to prevent the Germans from attempting to cross the Yser between here and Diksmuide.
Following the Battle of the Yser, French troops holding what was, at the time, not much more than a series of shell holes along the canal bank, had been relieved by men of the Belgian Army, who subsequently began to strengthen the position. In the spring of 1915 German troops occupied two oil tanks (these same oil tanks, by the way, had been ignited by the Germans during the Battle of the Yser, leaving one tilted, but the other still standing) along the western bank of the Yser, just north of the Belgian positions. Realizing that the Germans had now gained an excellent position from which to observe their lines, the Belgians determined to recapture the oil tanks. A Belgian assault across the flooded fields, however, failed with heavy loss of life, as did a second attempt some weeks later. The Belgians then decided to extend their trench on the west bank of the canal north, and assault the oil tanks from there.
On 18th May 1915 digging began on what was initially referred to as ‘Boyau de Communication de la Borne 16 de l’Yzer’, but would soon become known as the Dodengang, or the Trench of Death, or the Boyau de la Mort if you prefer. As the Belgians advanced the new trench slowly north, the Germans, aware of the Belgians’ intentions, began to extend their own trench south along the same canal bank to protect the site of the oil tanks. Continuous artillery fire from both sides, night after night, made the task of trench digging in the dark far from easy, as each side came nearer and nearer to the other.
Looking south west from the bunker towards the Dodengang (above & below).
By now the strategic position of the Dodengang had become more important than the recapture of the oil tanks, which had been reduced to rubble by Belgian artillery. Both sides realized that a breakthrough at this point on the Yser could spell disaster for the other, and vicious fighting continued at the head of each trench throughout the summer months, although neither side could gain an advantage. Finally, in October 1915, Belgian engineers blew up part of the canal bank between the two trenches, allowing the land in between to flood, in turn giving both sides a little more security against attack from the other (at this point you might care to take a closer look at the post-war photograph exhibited in the Mousetrap that I showed you earlier).
For the next three years fighting never really ceased in this sector, although perhaps rarely to the intensity of the terrible days of 1915. As the flood waters slowly receded, both sides continued to fortify patches of dry land within the inundations. The trench system at the Dodengang was continually improved, enlarged and reinforced. As mentioned earlier in the post, the head of the trench facing the Germans across the now-flooded craters, the Mousetrap, was heavily reinforced with barbed wire, machine guns, and concrete bunkers with observation loopholes to preclude any German assault from the north. The fighting trench facing east across the Yser was also heavily fortified, and a support trench built alongside to facilitate the removal of the wounded, a small railway track allowing carts to carry the heavier equipment to and from the trench. Soldiers were expected to spend three days at a time in the trench, and I believe that the threat of gas attack was so great here that each Belgian was issued with two gas masks before entering the trench.
Above & below: A German sniper’s shield, still in place on the western side of the bunker.
The view south west from the bunker roof…
…and looking due south, across the canal.
The same sniper’s shield we saw earlier.
During the fighting for the oil tanks in the summer of 1915, a German machine gun located here caused no end of problems for the Belgians working to extend the head of the Dodengang,…
…the walk between the two only a few seconds nowdays, but a journey through hell a hundred years ago.
Looking down into the Mousetrap.
Note the shell holes on the wall above the steps.
We shall follow the line of the support trench for much of our return journey.
A wonderful photo affixed to the trench wall shows Belgian troops posing for the camera at this very spot.
The light railway necessitated the support trench being relatively straight for much of its length. Which makes our return journey somewhat easier, particularly as it was chucking out time. Yes, if you do visit, check the opening times first. Baldrick & I were very lucky.
If you associate the British Army in the First World War with, above all, perhaps, the Somme, and the French Army with Verdun, then it’s fair to say that the Dodengang was the equivalent for the Belgian Army…
…which, unlike the larger armies, had no real reserves, necessitating Belgian regiments being continuously rotated in and out of the trenches. Most, maybe all, Belgian regiments spent some time between 1915 and 1918 defending the Dodengang.
After the Armistice, the Dodengang was left to its own devices until 1924, when the Belgian government decided that it should be restored as a memorial to Belgian sacrifices during the war. The original rotting sandbags were replaced by ones made of cement, and, thanks to a major restoration project in the 1990s, that is what you see when you visit today.
This shot looks west at the Horseman’s Redoubt…
…the fortified positions clearly evident.
Nearby, a section of the railway track still survives, along with one of the little carts used to ferry supplies up and down the support trench.
Note the machine gun positions in the Horseman’s Redoubt in the background.
More photographs show this very spot a hundred years ago (above & below).
Time to leave.
As we do, this view looks south along the canal bank, the Yser Tower in Diksmuide, where we shall be heading next, again prominent on the horizon.
And so our tour near its end. Just one more stop before we call it a day.