Netherlands – The Knocking At The Gates

EVERY few years there is an insignificant break in some dyke by which a small polder is flooded, acres of arable land ruined and some one or two families lose their homes. Now and then it happens that a portion of a dyke on some one of the islands of Zeeland is under-mined by the constant gnawing of the tides, and crumbles; a breach is made through which the sea-water enters and covers the farm lands, bringing to naught the work of generations and making new shoals to exercise the mariner’s caution.

There is but one watchword for this land: Eternal vigilance. This watchword entails such foresight, such exercise of engineering powers, such espionage, such labor in repairing and strengthening the sea defences, the sea and river-gates, that only those who have been privileged to see something of these works,— these ram-parts and bastions against the invasion of the waters, — and witness the devastation caused by a general breaking of the dykes, when the sea enters triumphant and inundates the land, can realize something of this word’s significance.

The story of the breaking of the dykes and the great inundations, caused by the inrush of the sea, has been told from father to son for many generations. Yet, despite this, and the fact that it stands written in records and old chronicles, the thought of all that terror of devastation is dim now; the reading is almost like a myth. Those times when provinces, cities, villages, were overwhelmed, when great forests disappeared from sight beneath the waters never more to be seen above the engulfing waves, seem, even to the Dutch themselves, tinged with the fabulous. t 20o is so far away; 1500 not much nearer, and the middle of the seventeenth century, when a great inundation took place, a remove of eight generations—long enough in the past to allay any fear, with the watchword ever in mind, for the present. Since the seventeenth century no flood of great importance has occurred until this year.

One evening after dinner the Captain was showing us an army map of the provinces of Utrecht and Gelder-land, and marking out for James’ instruction and mine the line of water defences which would be opened in case of foreign invasion. They extend deep into the land. He told us that as a child he had seen a break in a dyke near ‘s Hertogenbosch, or Bois le Duc, in the province of North Brabant, and what an impression it had made upon him. By his father also, who had been dykgraaf, or Dyke Count — Superintendent of Dykes — he had been told of one by which their home was flooded and valuables ruined by the water.

“But,” said James, “have you no fear now?

“Oh, no,” he replied in his earnest way; “they are so strong now; we have no fear.”

This was in February when high water was reported all along the Upper and Lower Rhine, and the thou-sand or more windmills on the Zaan, north of Amster-dam, appeared, from the illustrations in the newspapers, to be setting sail for a long voyage down stream. Both banks were under water. The rise of the inland waters is gauged with such nicety, and the system of “coming high water danger signals” and the telegraphy so perfect, that from hour to hour a rise of the Upper Rhine or of the Maas, is recorded and telegraphed all along the line of waterways and the infinite number of branches, that the inhabitants may take every precaution by closing the river-gates to guard their property from destruction. In this way much danger to shipping, wharves, warehouses, farm lands and private property is averted. This is also true of the Scheldt.

But it is quite another thing when the confines of the German Ocean become too small for their contents. Then there is nothing for it but to wait upon the powers of wind and tide, and hope they may not combine at an inopportune moment. If the conditions of high north-west winds and abnormally high tides obtain at the same time that the Upper Rhine and the Maas, swollen by rains and melting winter-ice, send down their fulness to the North Sea, there would seem to be but little that could save the land. That the North Sea might rise up in its might and pour over the tops of the dykes, was not to be imagined by the present and a few preceding generations.

But this is just what occurred, to the utter terror and consternation of the inhabitants of this hollow-land, much of it so far below the level of the sea and merely reclaimed sea-bottom. As a result, lack of confidence in the dykes as protection has been engendered, faith in the resisting power of the sea and river-gates has waned, and a haunting fear of danger substituted.

From the middle of January high winds prevailed, sometimes for a week. The Old Scheveningen Road after one of these windstorms was strewn with branches; the sand was blown into Keizer Straat. There were wrecks reported all along the coast. The shipping broke loose in the Maas. We read in the morning paper only a word or two: “Helder No. — gone down,” and we knew that broken hearts and orphans’ tears were filling some humble home near the great northern dyke with pain of loss. And this high wind continued to shriek and roar around the eaves and down the chimneys until, as James said, “it got on the nerves.” During these nights little sleep for anyone was possible within two miles of the shore. The esplanade above the Old Church was not to be attempted. We wanted to see the sea from there, but the drift of spume and sand was like a mist, and would have dimmed all sight even could we have stood against the pressure.

We read of the overfull Rhine, the overflowing M “‘s, the lawless Scheldt. A few months afterwards we saw recorded on a public building just above the steamer landing at Coblentz, the height of the Rhine at that time — the highest water mark ever recorded there. We went down to Rotterdam one day and found the water in the Coolvest in the centre of the city even with the street. These winds continued to blow at intervals until near the middle of March; then suddenly they increased to almost hurricane force. For fifty hours a northwest wind howled like a thousand fiends let loose, shrieked like a bedlam of banshees, wailed like the lost souls of a whole race, and deluged the coast lands from The Helder to Zeeland-Flanders in sounding fury. It was the time of the spring tides, and they were abnormally high. For days the German Ocean had been pouring its waters, driven by the furious winds south-eastwards, onto the coast. For two days and nights the sound of the rising tides carried on the great winds boomed in our ears. Then the Unexpected happened.

We can never forget that night. The tide turned about two, and its coming was heralded from afar by a sound so awful that no words are adequate to describe it. All that night the great spring tide, goaded by the gale, continued to heap itself higher and higher and hurl itself against every rampart of the coast — against every dune, every dyke, from The Helder to Walcheren. It hammered on the iron flood-gates of the sea, it pounded against the dunes, breaking them and undermining them. It rolled up to every wooden river-gate and tried to force an en-trance. In the terror of that dark early morning, the belfries on the churches throughout the threatened land sent forth their warning; but it was too late. At seven o’clock of March 12th, the thunderous knocking of the sea at the gates of the trembling land was obeyed. The sea refused to be denied admittance. It claimed its own again. A dyke gave way on Tholen, another in South Zeeland. The dykes in South Beveland heard the call and opened. At Antwerp there was a break of several hundred feet. In the sea defenses of The Helder a great rent was made. Marken was a watery expanse. The polders north and south were under water. The sea-dyke at Moddergat was broken. At St. Annaland the sea-defense opened for two hundred and forty feet. Oud-Vosmeer was drowned out, and the skippers of Tholen sailed their sloops and schooners through the great rents in the dykes from one village to another!

The sea had forced its entrance, and, not content with breaking the dykes, had risen up and poured over the protecting ramparts, flooding the polders, containing a hundred thousand acres of the richest tillage in the Nether-lands, rendering thousands homeless, destroying barns, wharves, warehouses, dwellings, drowning thousands of cattle and sheep, burying graveyards deep beneath sea sand, stripping trees of branches and hedges of twigs, stripping, also, from hundreds of families their hope and every earthly possession.

Had this cataclysm occurred in the night there would have been another record for the centuries of thousands who had found death in the merciless sea. But human life was spared, and, after the second great tide of March 13th, that completed the devastation, the sea ceased to knock at these great Water-Gates of the Netherlands, and left the half-drowned land and its forlorn people free to draw one breath without being in terror of their lives.

As an aftermath, we saw one day the women of the nobility and gentry, with bands on their arms, on which was printed, “For the sufferers from the Flood,” and a tin cup in their hands, standing on the street corners and walking the avenues of The Hague, asking alms. They let no one pass them whether on foot or on horse, whether a Scheveningen peasant woman, or a lady of the court, a vegetable vendor with his cart, or an officer on horse-back. They thrust their tin cups into both public and private carriages; they appealed to every passer-by, were he banker, butcher, president of the senate, or day laborer. A cent was received with the same cordial thanks as a gulden or a stiff bank note. The young Ruler went down into the stricken islands to show her people her sympathy by her presence. An old woman on Tholen asked her queen into an humble fisher’s hut and bade her rest. A Tholen youngster of five went up to Her Majesty — which was no majesty to him — and of his own accord extended the small hand of fellowship with a cordial, “How do you do, Queen ?” or Kwaën, as he pronounced it in his dialect. It was the one touch that made all the world akin for a moment — for a moment, only, alas! But I fancy Life itself showed another, a new face to the young queen at that moment.

I, too, wanted to go down into Zeeland at the time of the great inundation; but James objected, and the Captain advised us to wait for the tardy spring. The weather was inclement, the land flooded, trains running irregularly and a possible prospect of railroad dykes giving way, and more dykes succumbing to the inevitable. He further advised us if we should find our stay limited in the Netherlands, to spend most of our time in Zeeland. He declared it to be the most interesting portion of his country, and we were quite sure he knew his own land. And he told us, moreover, that the only true way to see the characteristic beauty of his land was from its water ways. Thereupon I had what I shall always consider an inspiration: I proposed to James to hire a boat and knock at these same sea and river-gates, as well as at all the other gates of cities and towns, and inform ourselves about these defences of dunes and dykes, and the life of the people who live either on or behind them. James agreed at once, and immediately asked the Captain to join us as companion and guide. He was not loath, I am pleased to say, to accept our invitation, and promised us so to arrange his furlough, if possible, that he might be with us at least three weeks in Zeeland, and a day or two in some other place. He begged us not to go into any detail of paraphernalia for sleeping and eating, as, from time immemorial, the water ways of the Netherlands had been its highways, and beds and food could be found in passable inns all along our route which he therewith sketched out for us, — much to our delight, for it coincided with certain lines of travel which we had planned to follow.

How we looked for the spring! And how it tantalized us by long delay! I was positively sure that on the seventeenth of January — the last marigold having just faded on its stalk in our garden — that I saw a pussy-willow showing its tail over in the Scheveningen woods. I know the crocuses were up in the last of February and a pink oleander bud made an abortive attempt to blossom. The climate is not severe in South Holland, nor is it particularly trying. There are no great changes in temperature. The mercury averaged during the months of December, January, February and March about forty. It is the absence of sunshine, the prevalence of the cool mists that make a stay in Holland depressing. The nights are interminable; the days only a few hours long; the gas is lighted as early as three in the afternoon – once we were obliged to light it at half-past two — and the mornings are really gone before there is light enough to accomplish anything. This condition of things it is that makes the sun-loving and sun-wonted American homesick in a strange land.

After the crocuses came a flurry of snow. We had had but two small storms during the winter, and those caused an outburst of editorial tirade because it lay three inches deep in the principal streets for two days! Then followed the chill winds that, without being in any sense cold, brought with them a feeling of discomfort. We were glad that Ben Hardon had been prevented from coming to us before May. These winds continued throughout the first part of April; then came the spring, quick with its tender beauty. The rooks were loud in the garden, the ducks lively in the bright waters. The Oude Scheveningsche Weg was a green mist of young foliage. The swans in the Vÿver plumed themselves in sunshine at last! It behooved us to leave our nest, now that the birds were building theirs, and take to the water like the ducks.