by John Norris
Awarded for defending the Yser River in 1914
After four years of war, the Belgian army instituted a new award n October 18 1918, known as the Yser (pronounced “EEZ-air”) Medal. It was created to commemorate the action of the Belgian Army that had stood along the Yser river in north Belgium, facing the full might of the German army between October 17 and 31, 1914. Despite being outnumbered by a better trained and equipped army, the Belgian soldiers acquitted themselves and held their ground, sustaining some 60,000 casualties. The fighting was fierce and bloody, but it was essential the area be held at all costs.
The German Army was trying to outflank the Allies in the north in an attempt to capture Dunkirk. The port city was vital to the supply lines of the Allies. The Belgian soldiers were holding positions from Nieuport in the north, extending inland towards Ypres via Dixmude, and were determined to keep the lines of defense intact. One of the Belgian tactics was flooding part of the area by opening the sluice gates of the Yser Canal. This prevented the Germans from advancing.
The creation of the Yser Medal was to reward those men who had fought in this early action of the war. The medal could also be presented posthumously. Because of the small size of the Belgian army at the time, around 180,000 men, this is one of the most unusual medals from the First World War.
In 1914, Belgium was a neutral state. Despite this status, Germany invaded in August that year in order to attack France in the north. What the German Army did not count on was the Belgian resistance. They held out and secured the left flank of the Allies positions. In doing so, the Belgian troops prevented what could have been a disaster.
Although the Yser Medal was primarily for those Belgian soldiers who fought in the action, it was not exclusive to them, and French and British troops who served on the Yser during the qualification time were also eligible for the award.
At the time it was created there was still just over three weeks fighting left before the Armistice on November 11, 1918. The new medal was called the Médaille de l’Yser in French and in Dutch it was known as the Medaille van de Ijzer. Measuring 35mm in diameter, it was cast in bronze with a very dull appearance.
The medal was designed by Emile Vloors a highly respected artist and sculptor. Born on May 31, 1871, in Borgerhout, he went on to hold the post of director of the Royal academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp between 1924 and 1934. His name appears on the obverse just behind the right leg of the male figure.
The Yser Medal does not have an appearance that reflects its military origin. Instead, it rather resembles something more akin to an Art Deco design. The obverse shows a full frontal view of a naked male figure, legs astride, with his head turned to his left looking at his left hand that holds a sword. The lower end rests on the ground between his feet and around the handle is hung a victors garland of laurels. Some sources interpret it as a lance because of its length. The image represents the halting of the German army by the Belgium army along the Yser River in 1914.
Around the sword appears the date “17-31 Oct 1914,” the turning point, during the fighting that has become known as the First Battle of Ypres. The background shows rippling folds of material which could represent national flags.
Around the edge is a garland to form a frame and the upper edge is surmounted with a small medallion with a green enamelled centre in which appears the name “YSER.” Around it is draped a horseshoe-shaped garland with the tasselled ends dangling into the upper edge of the medal.
The reverse of the medal shows a lion seated facing to the right in profile to expose its left side, with its tail tapering to the edge which is decorated with a garland. The lion is wounded in the shoulder by an arrow, which can be seen protruding from its side by the mane. It is roaring defiance and below the image appears the word, “YSER.” The depiction represents the Belgian defensive line resisting on the Yser River. Set to the side, behind the lion’s back, is a flaming torch, the symbolism of which is not entirely clear.
The royal crown is placed over the capital letter “A,” the monogram of King Albert I of Belgium who instituted the medal. The Yser Medal is suspended from a ribbon with a central vertical red stripe with a black stripe either side. These colors are symbolic: The red representing the blood spilled in the fighting, and the black represents the mourning for those killed in battle. The ribbon passes through a ring which is attached to a ringlet mounted on the green enameled part of the medal.
In 1934, a decision had been made to replace the Yser Medal with an award known as the Yser Cross. Known in French as the Croix de l’Yser and in Dutch as the Kruis van de Ijser. The Royal Decree on February 5 1934, would be one of King Albert’s last acts. He died in a climbing accident two weeks later. He was replaced by his son, who ruled as King Leopold III. The new King promulgated a Royal Decree on August 22 that year, instituting the new design.
Though one of the new King’s first acts, it was not a move that pleased the veterans of the Yser River. The new award was basically appeared the same as the Yser Medal with the addition of flared terminal ends of a cross pattée. The additional metal of the new design made it heavier than the original award. Emile Vloors retained the imagery of the obverse and reverse of the Yser Medal including the green enameled medallion surmounting it. His name appears in the same place as on the reverse of the Yser Medal. The imagery is more defined and certainly on the reverse the background is more clear. The Yser Cross is usually seen with a slight green tint, looking like discoloration due to verdigris. Close inspection will reveal this is a patina of the bronze metal and not corrosion.
To add insult to injury in trying to foist a replacement medal onto veterans for the action, the veterans were expected to pay for the privilege of replacing their earlier medal with the new cross. This caused a great deal of consternation among the old soldiers who felt they should not pay for something the Government should provide. After all, as they saw it, the original Yser Medal had been presented by a grateful nation. As a result, few veterans took the trouble to apply and pay for the new award. Those who did receive the Yser Cross were told they could not wear both medals together. It was one version or the other.
The new Yser Cross was suspended from the same color ribbon as the Yser Medal. However, there was an unofficial variant used by a select section of veterans who did apply for the Cross. In this case the ribbon had a central vertical stripe of yellow with black vertical stripes either side. This was worn by Flemish veterans because it identified them as Dutch-speaking Belgians. Neither version of the award was named, and unless a group of medals with paperwork is obtained, the individual examples are anonymous.
Because of the small numbers who served in the Belgian Army the Yser Medal is quite unusual. The Yser Cross, because of the veterans’ feeling about obtaining it, is quite rare. Examples can be obtained and prices for these begin around $150. The Yser Medal can be obtained from around $50. Together, the medals for the same action make a very nice addition to a WWI collection.