From the Channel to the Ypres Salient

The Belgian Sector 1914-1918

By Chris Baker

Pen & Sword, 2021

The Battleground series needs little introduction and have been a staple feature of battlefield visitors’ bookshelves for years. Since their introduction many areas of the battlefields have benefitted from one or more volumes. Recent years have seen the series expand to cover some of the lesser known and ‘off the beaten track’ areas. Think David O’Mara’s French sector volume or Christina Holstein’s Verdun titles, and even Chris Baker’s own Lys volumes. To this list can be added Chris’s latest work looking at the Belgian sector.

Whilst Ypres is the ‘go to’ destination for the British battlefield visitor, how many venture further afield towards the coast or know about the Belgian experience during the war? A cursory search shows just one obvious recent English language book about Belgium during the war (Belgium in the Great War by Jean-Michel Veranneman). Chris helps to redress the balance by writing about the area of Belgium from the coast down to Ypres, which was never taken by the Germans during the war.

I must admit to having practically zero knowledge of the Belgian contribution to the war, other than having read the token paragraph or two normally given to the flooding of the Yser. Chris ably explains the Battle of the Yser in more depth, as well as the actions that took place in the area throughout the rest of the war. He describes the area north of Ypres as ‘the Belgian Army’s desolate home’ for the majority of the war. This seems like an apt description – what struck me was the conditions they faced in holding this area, with exposed outposts clinging on to any vestige of ground that poked above water. In many cases the troops were actually in the water, with the shellfire and raids carried out by both sides only adding to the misery. The book also touches on remembrance (including the interesting history of the Yser tower) and Flemish independence, a fascinating topic in its own right and again something I was not aware of. A plethora of relevant pictures illustrate the text and I’m sure many will not have previously been seen by readers.

In the usual Battleground style the second part of the book moves on to relevant tours for the battlefield visitor, in this case five tours around the area. Together they provide a comprehensive overview of the Belgian sector and do not simply regurgitate the contents of the first part of the book, often providing a wider history than just that of the war.

The only thing perhaps missing is some numbering on the tour maps corresponding to the relevant passages in the text, which would have been beneficial to help better follow the tours, but it’s a minor detail that in no way detracts from what is, overall, another superb addition to the Battleground series.

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From the Channel to the Ypres Salient