The lasting impact of the forgotten flood of January, 1916

The lasting impact of the forgotten flood of January, 1916

During the night of January 13, 1916, the villages that form Amsterdam Noord were flooded, along with the island of Marken and large parts of the province of North Holland, after a January winter storm caused the Zuiderzee to breach the dikes in several places, resulting in houses being washed away, a large number of livestock drowning and dozens of people losing their lives.

Also known as the vergeten Watersnoodramp ("forgotten flooding disaster"), it was the first national disaster that was covered extensively by Dutch media at the time. Thousands of unique photographs and even film footage covering the event still survive to this day.

Prior to the 1916 disaster, the last time the dikes gave way was in 1825. At the time, the Dutch people still felt confident that the dikes would continue to protect them against the Zuiderzee, a saltwater inlet of the North Sea.

Vergeten Watersnoodramp: A disaster with far-reaching consequences

On that fateful night of January 13, 1916, the dikes lost the battle against the sea and a total of 51 people died. This disaster laid the foundation for the political consensus that eventually would lead to the construction of the 32-kilometre-long long Afsluitdijk and inpoldering (land reclamation) of the Zuiderzee.

How locals and livestock survived the rising water

There would have been more casualties were it not for the fact that many people in the regions that were hit the hardest by flooding - Waterland and eastern Zaanstreek - had their own boats. Also, many of the farms and houses were built on higher ground than the surrounding farmlands.

The many miniature dikes dividing up the farmland also helped to slow down the oncoming water. All of these factors helped to save lives by giving people a little more time to get to their attic or to move their livestock out of the barns.

In times of flooding, it was customary for farmers to drive their livestock towards the local church, which was built on the highest point, although in 1916 there was no longer room for all the animals.

A Dutch disaster in the midst of World War I

The flooding occurred in the midst of the First World War, which had its benefits. The army was already mobilised and was able to quickly provide assistance with evacuations as well as erect emergency flood barriers.

Schools, churches and hotels in Amsterdam, Zaandam and Purmerend served as emergency shelters for evacuees. The city made boats available to bring supplies to people still in flooded areas.

Another positive side-effect of the war was the fact that meat prices in Germany were very high. In order to help out farmers who had been hit the hardest by the flooding, the Dutch government allowed them to export their remaining dairy cows to Germany for slaughter.

Great Britain, which was suffering from a food shortage during WWI, did not appreciate this controversial measure taken by the Dutch.

Video: YouTube / noordhollandsarchief

1916 flood lead to the development of the Afsluitdijk

The failure of the dikes led to the usual finger-pointing by Dutch politicians and experts, but the 1916 disaster had one very far-reaching effect that still benefits the Netherlands today.

Political forces had, up until the disaster, resisted the very ambitious, expensive and complex plans to dry out the Zuiderzee in order to reclaim the land. Initially, the selling point of the project had mainly been to create more farmland to increase the Dutch food supply.

Then the safety aspect came to the forefront, and opponents in the Dutch government withdrew their resistance to the plans. In 1918, the Zuiderzeewet became law, protecting the central part of the Netherlands from the effects of the North Sea by creating farmland and improving water management.

It called for the construction of an afsluitdijk spanning the entire width of the Zuiderzee. The Afsluitdijk was finished in 1932 and became part of the larger Zuiderzee Works, considered by many to be a crowning achievement of modern engineering.

Remembering the 1916 flood

In previous years, to commemorate the disaster, church bells were rung on the evening of January 13 in all of the towns that were affected over 100 years ago. In 17 locations between Schardam and Amsterdam Noord, effigies of a waterwolf were set ablaze during ceremonies.

The waterwolf is a mythical creature that symbolises the everlasting battle between the mighty forces of water and humanity. 

Thumb image credit: via Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

Thomas Lundberg


Thomas Lundberg

Born as a Swede in the Netherlands, this life-long expat has spent his time in Belgium, the United States and Amsterdam. He began his professional career as a regional news...

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