News Articles

Waterways figure both ways in military defense plans

Multiple meanings in Dutch language

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Canadian soldiers found the terrain in the Lowlands (it is much the same in the western part of Belgium) an extremely huge challenge. The book Terrible Victory by military historian Mark Zuehlke offers a keen insight into the problems the Allies faced as they tried to dislodge tenacious German resistance in the Scheldt estuary.

The web of waterways, canals and ditches are an obstacle for invaders and friends of the defender. Early Dutch military planners understood that waterways could make the difference in holding an enemy at bay. Many castles and other fortifications with moats prove the point, but none as strongly as the famed Waterline, which halted the advance of the French invaders, when a poorly equipped Dutch army could not.

Although Hitler's Blitzkrieg took the Netherlands in just five days in 1940, it needs to be remembered he expected to do it in one day, and then showed his extreme displeasure by taking his anger out on Dutch cities, bombing the Dutch into submission when conventional warfare frustrated his plans.

Dutch waterway web terms

Canals, or the Dutch plural kanalen (from the latin canalis), the Dutch have a list of descriptions for them. Some terms have been around for a very, very long time. The name of a man-made waterway tells us something about how the people of that time viewed it and its purpose as well as about the terminology, which varied from region to region as well. What follows are some of the words used for these man-made waterways:

Wetering (before 1200 weteringhe): man-made, wider than a sloot (ditch), dug for draining an excessive supply of water from polders, but could also be a naturally formed or dug waterloop or waterway (sometimes also described as a beek or kreek (creek), riviertje (small river), kanaal (canal), gracht (moat).

Sloot: man-made, smaller than a canal or wetering but wider than a greppel (tiny drainage trench usually found in low lying fields) for drainage, also used as a divider between properties and fields.

Gracht: a man-made, protective water-filled channel around a city, a city district, a fortification or castle but one that also could function as part of a drainage system and transportation (the canal maze of Amsterdam and other cities serve all of these purposes).

Grift: a variation of gracht, graft or graaf but also a waterway or canal.

Vaart: synomynous with kanaal (canal) but an older term.

Diep: see also kanaal, vaart, especially in the northern provinces, but also natural transportation corridors or shipping channels in coastal estuaries (between Dutch coastal islands).

Vliet: a natural waterway with a current, frequently found near or at estuaries but also used for very old man-made waterways in the western part of the country.

Geul or kille: natural channel or waterway between sand bars. A kill could also be an inham (inlet).

The above list is far from complete (think of a Lee, Lei, Ee or A) but it will be obvious that the older terms referenced above are also found in numerous Dutch place names as well as surnames.