Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: January 23, 1915
The cover of this issue of the magazine has a boisterous scene from the opening months of the First World War, titled “Night attack by German armored motor boats in a flooded section of Flanders.” There is no story inside relating to the image (a not uncommon practice at the time).
The Belgians in October 1914 had deliberately flooded the low-lying farmland in the region of Flanders bounded by the Yser river and the North Sea coast: the drowned fields had halted the invading German army. Ian F. W. Beckett in The Making of the First World War calls this flooding defense a “silent conqueror” and one of “the major turning points of the war.” The 20-mile zone of flooded fields became a watery no-mans-land with Belgian troops on one side and German on the other. As with any terrain, wet or dry, both sides sought control of it: they set up listening and observation posts, harassed the enemy with artillery, and conducted frequent boat-mounted raids, such as the one depicted here.
I cannot tie this image to any one particular action; it may be a compilation of events shoehorned into one depiction chock full of imaginative details. It does have the feel of another episode from “The Boys’ Own...” guide to derring-do in the Great War. The sleek, heavily armed German boats (you can tell they are German by the distinctive “pickelhaube” helmets on the troops) were more likely to have been motorized barges with iron plates bolted on. The well-entrenched and smartly turned-out Belgian troops seem too warm and dry for the muddy terrain. The searchlight mounted on an armored car is a nice touch, as are the boat-mounted searchlights. Perhaps one of our more knowledgeable readers can illuminate us as to whether such “bullet magnets” were ever used in close combat on the Western Front?
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has articles from 1914–1918, including many on warfare on the Western Front. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi