The Ocean Ambulance

Europe had become a brazier, heated white-hot by the political rivalry of powers at the peak of their domination, through the harshness of an already globalized economy, coupled with the devastating exaltation of the 'nation' - albeit a positive reality in bearing the identity of peoples and fortifying individuals in the discovery of their rights as citizens. A spark was enough to ignite the flames. The very interdependent alliances these nations had set up for their security precipitated them into war. The assassination of the Austrian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 unleashed the infernal cycle. Austria declared war on Serbia, the assassin's homeland. The rest just fell into place in a spiral of general mobilizations and ultimatums. In the West, intense battles raged in rapid succession from August to October. What had been manoeuvre warfarefroze up in a cruel face-off along a front stretching over 700 kilometres, from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

To attackFrance, Germany invadedBelgiumon August 4th, 1914. Its  cities were taken one by one. After the fall of Antwerp, the ultimate front for King Albert's soldiers would be on the Yser. The Yser, is a small coastal river, rising in the Pas-de-Calais and then looping for 50 km through Belgium before emptying into the sea at Nieuport. It became the frontline on October 18th. To defend it, courageous individuals opened the locks letting the sea flood the polders. The Siege of Antwerp's wounded, and then those from the Yser front, were cared for in Dunkerque and Calais. But evacuation there was much too slow and the hospitals too far away. Infection had already done its deadly work.

La Panne, the last coastal town before the French border, belonged to the last and minuscule national territory. A villa facing the sea became the residence of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth. The Government was in exile in Le Havre and Parliament could no longer sit. The King governed, as foreseen by the Constitution. Belgian units came to La Panne between two rotations of the first line. The 35,000 Belgian soldiers held the front between the sea and Dixmude. There, the British sector began, which included a bulge, projecting into the German occupied territory on the level of Ypres. Exposed on three sides and the object of three offensives, that zone would prove to be extremely deadly. The name of Ypres resounds in the memory of the people of the former British Empire like that of Verdun for the French. Nor should we forget German suffering.


Françoise Hiraux