The Time Flooding Was Used As a Weapon and It Permanently Scarred the Landscape

It was a bad idea that didn't work.

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Jun 9 2015, 12:00pm

The remnants of the former breach made here in February 1584, now a tidal channel. The marshland visible in the picture is former arable land. Image: A. de Kraker

During the Eighty Years' War, or Dutch War of Independence, William of Orange tried strategically flooding an area east of Antwerp in order to liberate the city as well as Ghent and Bruges from the Spanish. As a new paper appearing in the open access journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences outlines, it went really poorly.

"The three cities were not liberated at all, and were lost forever to become part of Belgium in the 19th century," said professor Adriaan de Kraker, the study's author. Meanwhile, the flooding caused long term consequences, including "complete abandoning of flooded area" and "eroding new tidal channels and creeks."

It was, he said, "the loss of the late medieval landscape and the gradual shaping of a new one."

De Kraker studied war correspondence and decisions made by William of Orange's rebel war government; regional and local authorities on both sides and maps; and reports of the consequences of his flooding strategy.

The low-lying tidal plane at the delta of the Meuse, Eastern, and Western Scheldt rivers had been made livable through dikes and seawalls since around 1000 CE. The flooding was achieved by removing sluices and making 100 to 150 meters wide gaps in the seawalls.

The flood waters came in from from the ocean, ruining farmland and leaving a thick layer of clay on what was left of the buildings and roads in the area. Almost two-thirds of the medieval landscape was lost, and the whereabouts of some villages remain unknown.

The paper has a few choice anecdotes, including this one is from the strategic floods of the 1620s:

"The floodwater also came into the main church of Antwerp. Here tombstones were uplifted, and graves collapsed. In the cemetery of the fortress called Vlaamse Hoofd dead bodies were lifted from their graves and floated towards the main gate of the fortress. Here the floodwaters washed a hole in the pavement of about sixty feet long, making its way to the gate in the interior, which was ruined."

De Kraker also noted that there may be justification for (nonviolent) flooding in what is now Begium and the Netherlands today.

"Some areas have been closed-off since about 1200 AD," he told me. "These lands have missed natural depositing and therefore have—certainly in view of the present sea level rise—a relatively low surface level." Allowing the tides to rise naturally again over that land could restart the process of depositing, he said. The question is whether this should be done by removing the dikes, he said, or by creating controllable gaps the way William of Orange did, which "would produce smooth and gradual depositing, resulting in building up a thick new clay layer.... when depositing has reached a high enough level, close the gaps again."

That's a sensible thing to try to do with flooding. Trying to retake a town from the Spanish? Not so much.