The Defence of Antwerp

4 – 10 October 1914: the defence of Antwerp. While the main body of the British Expeditionary Force is now entrenched at the Aisne, a force (mainly of naval troops) is sent to help the Belgian Army defend Antwerp. It proved to be far too little and too late.

The defences of Antwerp

1860 ring of Brialmont forts

Through its important position at the head of the long estuary of the Scheldt, Antwerp plays a major role in any strategic military thinking concerning the Low Countries.  It forms a natural supply base and military centre.  Since 1851, the city had been fortified, originally by an entrenched line. During the heightened tensions of the 1860’s, the original line was greatly strengthened.  Following the designs of the military engineer Brialmont, Forts 1 to 8, and Fort Merksem (Merxem) on the right bank of the Scheldt facing the Netherlands and Germany, were constructed.  On the left bank, protecting the city from a coastal attack from the direction of France or Great Britain, Forts Kruibeke, Zwijndrecht and St Marie were also built. They were extensive constructions, sufficient protection from the artillery of the day, and were largely of brick.  The forts girdled the city, each 3 to 4 km from the others.  However, experience of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 suggested that the ring needed to be widened if the mass armies and increasingly heavy artillery then being developed were to be withstood.  At the same time, the Belgian economy was growing, and the harbour complex to the west of the city was pushing the limits of the populated areas outwards.  It was, however, only in 1906 that the Belgian government agreed to a new scheme for the fortress.

New fortress ring of 1906

The development plan featured a new defensive ring of concrete fortresses, which would be equipped with a selection of old artillery pieces to reduce the costs. The ring would be situated just forward of the natural borders formed by the Rivers Rupel and Nethe, between Lier (Lierre) and the lower loop of the Scheldt.  The plan also called for the strengthening of the old brick forts with concrete and for the establishment of new battery positions near Doel, able to fire from the lower Scheldt to the Dutch border.  Endless planning debates and budget constraints ensured that in August 1914, the fortress construction was far from complete.

Much of the 1906 plan existed only on paper.  Many of the fortresses were as yet no more than the gun cupolas, and some of the rotating turrets were not yet concreted in by 1914.  There were gaps in the telephone and electricity supplies, and the 1859 forts were still only brick.  Trenches, designed to run continuously between the forts had not been started.

The old gunpowder cannons gave off so much smoke on firing that they could be seen from miles away.  And there was only one of them per mile of front.  To add to all of these weaknesses, the forts were garrisoned by 65,000 of the oldest classes of Belgian troops, under-trained, poorly armed and poorly supplied.  The forts were already known to be obsolete by 1914.  Observations of the effects of shelling in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 revealed that the concrete would not withstand even 6-inch shell bursts, let alone the size of the mortars now possessed by the Germans.

Belgian military engineers had also arranged for riverside areas to be flooded, but this capability was not used in the forthcoming battle.

As Belgian Army engages the initial German advance into southern Belgium, Antwerp prepares

On 8 September 1914 General Deguise relieved the old General Dufour as military governor of the Antwerp district. He ordered immediate works on the entrenchments, including continuous wiring and head cover with tree trunks and logs (which of course provided little chance of cover against all but small arms fire).  Unfortunately, the work of clearing away buildings and tress to improve the field of fire for the garrisons of the forts also allowed perfect observation from the German side of the accuracy of their artillery.

As the German advance swept through Belgium, King Albert ordered the six Divisions of the Belgian Army to withdraw to Antwerp. The main body of the German forces swept on westwards, leaving just one Reserve Korps facing the garrison of Antwerp.  This was soon found to be wholly inadequate, as King Albert ordered the Belgians to attack the Germans.  His primary objective was to divert German attention from his allies.  His second, a rather more forlorn hope of breaking through into the German rear.

Belgian machine gunners loading a Maxim gun. From a photograph album of Kapitein Gilbert of the 17th Line Infantry. Image provided by Europeana, originally from Charlotte Saelemakers, and published under Creative Commons Licence.
Belgian machine gunners loading a Maxim gun. From a photograph album of Kapitein Gilbert of the 17th Line Infantry. Image provided by Europeana, originally from Charlotte Saelemakers, and published under Creative Commons Licence.

The sorties against the vulnerable German flank

The first attack – always referred to as “sortie”s in the Belgian histories – took place on 25 August, against the German III Reserve Korps between Wolvertem and Aarschot.  Four Belgian divisions took part.  Only the 3rd Division, still recovering from the fighting at Liege and the long withdrawal to Antwerp, was held in reserve.  The 4th Division was still extricating itself from Namur.

On the morning of the 25th, that planned attack was held up, as the Germans chose this very day to open heavy shelling on Mechelen, one of the main assembly points of the Belgian 6th Division.

The story of the “sortie” is quickly told.  The Belgian divisions advanced several kilometers, pushing back the thin German screen, until they came against stouter resistance from the German artillery.  At that time, a message was received from Joffre that a general retreat had been ordered in France.  King Albert ordered the divisions to disengage and to withdraw behind the outer fortress ring.  The Belgians had played their part: not only were they now fighting for Belgium, they were helping to support the very armies whose support they so desperately needed. They had in addition, forced the Germans to reconsider making a potential thrust towards Sint Nikolaas and on towards the coast, which would have completely isolated the Belgians inside Antwerp.  They never did press their advantage in this direction.  Perhaps they took too seriously a rumour deliberately passed to them that a large British force was advancing from Dunkirk.  They certainly sent out the cavalry to question the Flemish peasants about this.

A tragic result of the first “sortie” was that German violence on the Belgian people was renewed.  Aarschot was finally completed razed.  In Leuven, the 27th Landwehr Brigade panicked at the sound of shelling by a Belgian battery in Haacht.  Their commander, Von Mantueffel, ordered the town to be set on fire.  Hundreds of houses, St Peter’s Church and the world-famous library and university were destroyed.  Civilians, fleeing the flames, were hunted down and executed.  The whole area of Mechelen, Leuven, Vilvoorde was affected by the fury.

On the night of the 25-26 August, as the Belgian troops were withdrawing from the first sortie, the first Zeppelin raid took place at Antwerp.  The rather optimistic air of the last two days abruptly ended.

The German command in Flanders decided it was high time to finish off the Belgians.  From 31 August, they assembled forces for an attack on Dendermonde as a prelude to an assault on the harbour city.  It began on 4 September, as the IX Reserve Korps advanced to the mouth of the River Leie.  Four battalions of Belgian infantry resisted, but could not hold for long against overwhelming numbers.  They made a fighting withdrawal in the direction of Lokeren.  By mid-day, the Germans entered that old town, setting it ablaze.

At the same time, the 12th Landwehr Brigade, together with the 6th Jagers, moved on Kapelle-op-den-Bos.  They were soundly defeated, cut down by murderous fire coming from Fort Breendonk.  As at Liege and Namur before, the Germans would not find Antwerp an easy nut to crack.

Good news from the Marne helped put the completely isolated Belgian army in a new mood. Its high command decided to make a second “sortie” to provide support for the allies as they moved forward towards the Aisne.  This time, they would attack with five divisions, the 4th having miraculously returned via a lengthy journey through Franc.  Facing them, the Germans had moved the IX Reserve Korps to France, replacing them with the 6th Division of the II Reserve Korps, and a division of marines.  More heavy artillery was brought up.

The second sortie began brightly on 9 September 1914.  De Witte’s Belgian cavalry, victors at Haelen, chased the Germans out of Aarschot and took 350 prisoners.  The 3rd Division, so hard to beat at Liege, crossed the Dijle in three places and steadily advanced.  By the next morning, the cavalry were on the outskirts of Leuven, but the infantry advance was increasingly held up by German artillery.

Stimulated by news of fresh successes on the Oise and the Aisne, Albert ordered the battle to be renewed on the 11th.  However, stiffening German resistance made it a trying day : the divisions were held and began to fall back in places.  The line had been further advanced from Antwerp, but 8000 Belgians were lost in doing so.

There is no doubt that the Germans were badly hurt by the two sorties.  As soon as their very heavy artillery was released after the fall of Maubeuge, it was sent to join a build-up ready for the final assault on Antwerp.

On 22 September 1914, a battalion of 700 Belgian cyclists, all volunteers, moved out with the objective of attacking and disrupting German communications outside Antwerp.  They succeeded in reaching as far afield as in Limburg, Brabant and Hainaut provinces.  Most of them returned unharmed to Antwerp, days later.

The Belgians knew well the hopelessness of their task.  If their objective had been to save themselves, they would by now have moved by train west to Dunkirk.  But they knew that the release of 125,000 Germans now standing before Antwerp to move on the feeble French line around Lille and the coast would have been strategic disaster for the allies.  They resolved to hold firm, while their supposedly stronger allies organised a stronger defence.

Part of a map contained in the British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. The six Divisions of the Belgian Army form a screen to the south of the city.
Part of a map contained in the British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. The six Divisions of the Belgian Army form a screen to the south of the city. (Belgian forces shown in brown, German in green)

The battle for Antwerp and the escape of the Belgian field army

The Germans had already shown at Liege and Namur that the old fortresses were no match for the heaviest artillery.  However, they had begun to have a healthy respect for the Belgian artillery and cavalry in the field.  They strengthened their forces in East Flanders and placed them under the orders of Von Beseler, commander of III Reserve Korps.  He had at his disposal more than the strength of five infantry divisions, plus 160 heavy and 13 super-heavy artillery pieces.

Von Beseler chose the area between Mechelen and Lier, south-east of the city, for a frontal assault.  The general plan was to break through the fortress line in one place, and then extend northwards.  Systematic shelling of the outer forts at Lier, Koningshoekt, St Katherine Wavre and Walem, together with the smaller shelters and posts between them, would open the way for a large infantry advance.

Meanwhile, the Belgians were planning a third sortie, to take place on 25 September 1914, between the Dender and the Willebroek Canal.  Unfortunately, by this time the fighting on the Aisne had subsided and the Germans were allowed to release more troops for Antwerp.  Belgian intelligence detected this, and the sortie was postponed.

On Sunday 27 September 1914, the German attack on Antwerp began with the 5th and 6th Reserve Divisions advancing between the Dijle and Nete. They were opposed by the Belgian 1st and 2nd Divisions, but made good progress – mainly a result of superior artillery fire.  Mechelen suffered grievously from shelling.  The 13th Century cathedral of St Rombold was almost completely destroyed.  Whilst the town was only some two miles from the outer fortress line, there was no military value to Mechelen.  The Germans gave no notice to the civilian population that this bombardment was about to fall on them.  Putte and Heist-op-den-Berg also fell to the Germans, and the railway at Lier was lost to the 27th Landwehr Brigade.

The Belgians, however, still had some cards to play.  At one point, one of the forts was seen by the Germans to explode in a sheet of flame.  They rose up and moved forward, only to run into devastating fire from machine-guns and rifles in trenches outside the fort, covered in front by live electrified barbed wire.  The fire had been deliberated set off by the Belgians, and they annihilated the German brigade.  In similar tricks, at least two German batteries and a number of infantry battalions were destroyed in front of Antwerp.

The next day, the large German mortars came into action in this area for the first time.  Shortly after mid-day, the first 420mm mortars fell on Fort St Katherine Wavre and 305mm on Fort Walem.  Within minutes, the gun cupolas were knocked out.  2m thick concrete walls were ripped apart, and the interiors of the forts devastated.  At Fort Walem, the magazine exploded: of 100 men inside the building, only 10 escaped.  The largest calibre fire stopped in the early evening, but the barrage from ordinary field guns carried on throughout the night.

The morning of 29 September found the German 4th Ersatz Division and 38th Landwehr in full advance between the Dender and the Dijle.  Blaasveld was flattened by gun fire, and there was in general no let up from the previous day.  The powder magazine at Fort St Katherine Wavre was hit and burned, making a black column of smoke visible for miles around.  The Belgian defences were powerless against such crushing weight of artillery.

The 420mm and 305mm mortars were well outside the range of counter-battery fire from the Belgian field guns, and were not spotted from the few aircraft and balloons.  The attack carried on into the 30th, with the same results.  Fort Walem was finally destroyed.  Just behind it, shelling burst the banks of a large reservoir, drowning men in the fire trenches.  The fighting line moved inexorably forward, and broke through the fortress ring.

The 1st and 2nd Belgian divisions were gradually pushed back.  The further defence of Antwerp, and the safety of the whole of the army still inside the perimeter, looked increasingly perilous.  It was essential to move the army out and along the coastal corridor, before the Germans encircle them.  But this would all take time, and it was obvious that if any substantial part of the army was to escape, then the fighting line must be held for another three days at least.  During the night of the 30 September – 1 October 1914 orders were given to move Belgian headquarters west along the coast to Ostende.  Antwerp itself would only finally be evacuated when the Germans were at the gates.

The British arrive

King Albert requested assistance from the French and British on 30 September 1914.  Ever since 4 August, both had made promises about supporting the Belgians but precious little had actually come about.  Quite the opposite: the Belgians had sacrificed themselves in the pinprick flank attacks to relieve pressure on the allies.  By the end of September the French were now in a better position to do something, as the front line was stabilising, releasing troops from intensive fighting. The small British Expeditionary Force could not spare a man.

On 1 October, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, called upon the British Government to provide urgent support to Antwerp.  He was well aware of the strategic importance of the city and of control of the Scheldt and the Belgian coast to the Royal Navy.  He got the necessary political support, but in practical terms the help was not great.

To the Belgians he cabled: ‘The importance of Antwerp justifies a further effort till the course of the main battle in France is determined.  We are trying to send you help from the main army, and, if this were possible, would add reinforcements from here.  Meanwhile a brigade of marines will reach you tomorrow to sustain the defence.  We urge you to make one further struggle to hold out.  Even a few days will make a difference.  We hope that government may find it possible to remain, and field army to continue operations.’

The Belgian reply was to the effect that if no serious help were forthcoming on three days, it would be necessary to evacuate the city, and to move the army to Ostende.

Churchill himself came to Antwerp, arriving by special train on 3 October.  A detachment of 2000 men of a mixed naval brigade, under the control of the Admiralty, arrived at Oude God (Vieux Dieu) at 1am on the 4 October, taking up positions in the front line in front of Lier.  It consisted of detachments of Royal Marine Light Infantry, with some Oxfordshire Hussars and Royal Engineers.  What Churchill had taken care not to reveal to the Belgians was that this force consisted largely of 21-years service reservists.  There was also a large number (about 700) of men with only a few days prior service, precious little training, and in some cases no armaments.

The British Official History refers to one platoon as consisting entirely of ‘pensioner sergeants and colour-sergeants’.  Many of the untrained volunteers came from Durham and Northumberland.  They were moved up by train via Cassel and Lille.  They were the first of 5000 others who would arrive up to 6 October.  The British also ordered six 6-inch guns to Antwerp.  They played a part in the battle but were eventually lost as no railway was available to take them away.  An armoured train, containing six 4.7-inch guns, also took part in the battle.

Men of the Royal Naval Division in trenches near Oude God (Vieux Dieu), Antwerp, 7 October 1914. Imperial War Musuem image Q14774
Men of the Royal Naval Division in trenches near Oude God (Vieux Dieu), Antwerp, 7 October 1914. Imperial War Musuem image Q14774

In addition, the British prepared the new 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division, even though they were not ready, to sail to Belgium.  They were to come under the orders of Henry Rawlinson, as a new IV Corps of the BEF.  They arrived at Zeebrugge on 6-7 October, too late to save Antwerp, and were moved to Ghent.  This city was certain to be the next to be attacked by the Germans after the fall of Antwerp, and there was little time or manpower to put it into any form of defensive state.  There were only some burgerwacht militia, some cavalry detachments, and some small units of infantry who had been sent there to recuperate after Liege.

Joffre also realised the importance of the Belgian coastal locations to both British and German fleets, and he ordered a brigade of Marins Fusiliers under General Ronarc’h to move to the defence of the city.  Unfortunately, they only arrived in Flanders on 8 October, too late to make a difference.

By the end of 1 October, the position at Antwerp was looking increasingly dangerous for the beleaguered Belgians.  The first defence lines had been pierced by the German attack, and several of the forts had been destroyed and lost.  The Belgian infantry had fallen back to a line behind the Nete.  On 3 October the government left the city, and moved to Ostende.  It was the beginning of the end.

The defence held out, under tremendous pressure on all fronts.  The British 1st Marine Brigade marched to Lier on 4 October, where the during the previous night the Germans had taken Fort Kessel, and took up positions in the firing line.  It was coincidence that the Germans had chosen the area between Lier and Duffel for the next days assault.

The next day, the Germans suffered a shock at the hands of the British as their infantry advance to was cut down by rifle fire.  Nonetheless, they got four battalions across the Nete by using a hastily-constructed trestle bridge.  It is said that at one point, the Germans were able to cross by means of a bridge that had naturally formed from the bodies of their dead.  Both Belgians and British fell back, as their positions were in danger of being surrounded.

The Belgian 1st and 3rd Divisions clung bravely on to the Nete positions until the last possible moment, but withdrawal became urgent and inevitable.  The losses were heavy: the 1st Division now had only 4,800 effective men.  The German 1st Ersatz Brigade captured the banks of the Scheldt to the west of the city and, two days later, completed the capture of Schoonaarde.  This latter position was potentially of immense importance, as it threatened the coastal corridor and the route of the Belgian withdrawal.

Belgian headquarters, in conference with Churchill, proposed to evacuate the entire army to the west bank of the Scheldt on the night of 7 October.  A small force would be left behind to cover the retreat, consisting of the garrison of the remaining forts, units of the 2nd Division under General Dossin, and the three British brigades of the Royal Naval Division.  They would hold positions at the older fortress line, now in the outer suburbs of the city, for as long as possible.

The general move westwards was fraught with the danger of a German attack towards the coast cutting the army in two.  There was by now only a thin corridor, 100 kilometers long, stretching towards Oostende and beyond into the Westhoek, along which the Belgians could move.  The roads were narrow, and poor, built on dikes across the soft polder land.  The move would be slow, and vulnerable.

The 1st and 5th Divisions disengaged in the late evening of the 7th and crossed the bridges over the wide river to the left bank.  But as a consequence of the German threat from the direction of Schoonaarde, no rest was allowed and the march continued westwards.  It was on this evening that the British 7th Division took up positions at Bruges, before being moved forward to hold Ghent while the Belgian retreat continued.  There was still no news of the French Marins Fusiliers.

King Albert and Queen Elisabeth reluctantly left Antwerp, and moving via Eekloo and Brugge, they took up residence in the royal chalet at Ostende.

Von Beseler now believed the time had come to finish off the Belgians in Antwerp.  During the evening of the 7th, he sent a neutral Spanish military representative to General Deguise with an order to capitulate or be destroyed.  The order was rejected.

At midnight, the deliberate bombardment of the old city began.  The first shell fell in the southern suburb of Berchem, killing a boy and wounding his mother and sister.  The next blew the head off a street-sweeper as he ran for shelter.  Shells fell at five a minute.  Most of them were shrapnel, designed to kill and frighten, rather than to destroy buildings.

During the next few days, some 500,000 civilians would leave the city in the directions of Ghent, Ostende and Holland.  Every road out of the city was solid with refugees.  A war correspondent reported seeing a crowd of at least 150,000 queuing to cross to the left bank of the Scheldt by the few pontoon bridges and ferries.  It was said that some unscrupulous ferry owners were charging 20 francs a head to cross.

At dawn, 8 October 1914, the German infantry began a fresh assault on the older fortress line.  The 305mm and 420mm mortars had been moved up, and opened up on the old brick forts.  Even before dawn Forts 1, 2 and 4 were reported to have fallen.  Approximately at the same hour, the French 87th Territorial Division detrained at Poperinge and moved forward to take up positions near Ypres.

By this time, the first British Marine Brigade had been strengthened by the addition of two further brigades, similarly untrained and lightly equipped, making up the Royal Naval Division.  They were by now positioned on the old fort line between Forts 2 and 7, and were right in the middle of the German fire.

Part of a map contained in the British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. The Royal Naval Division is force back from initial deployment on the Nethe and takes up a line along the older fortress ring.
Part of a map contained in the British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. The Royal Naval Division is force back from initial deployment on the Nethe and takes up a line along the older fortress ring. The Belgian Army begins to disengage and withdraws westwards into West Flanders.

During the evening, the brigades of the Royal Naval Division were ordered to withdraw.  Not all of the units received the orders, and there was some confusion.  One of the problems was the incredible congestion on the few roads heading north-west, as thousands of refugees moved in the same direction.  It was impossible even for signal runners to move back and forth between headquarters and front line units.

The 1st Naval Brigade suffered badly from confused orders and the chaotic condition of the roads.  Eventually, they made their way to St Gilles Waes, where a train had been sent to evacuate them.  Unfortunately, the Germans were attacking now at Moerbeke, just down the line.  The men were in no condition to fight: they were ordered to march across the Dutch frontier three miles to the north, where some 1,500 of them were disarmed and interned.  hey played no further part in the war. One battalion, the Portsmouth Battalion of the RMLI, went by another route to Kemseke, the next station down the line.  While there they fought with advance units of the 37th Landwehr Brigade.  About half eventually got away and finally did get a train at Zelzate.  The remainder, plus some 400 Belgians, surrendered at Kemseke.  Deguise ordered the remainder of the 2nd Division to concentrate around Fort St Marie, to make last stand.  The few remaining forts on the right bank were ordered to hold out to the last man.

The bombardment on the city increased.  Countless buildings were on fire, with the local fire brigades powerless to help as the Germans had captured the city’s water pumping works at Walem some days previously.  Their task was not helped by a strong wind, fanning the flames among the old buildings.  On the left bank, Belgian troops set the huge oil storage tanks ablaze, to prevent the precious fluid from falling into German hands.

Pitiful sights were presented as tens of thousands of the people of Antwerp fled to the west.  They crossed the river by hastily erected pontoons, and on small river craft of all sizes.  Many of these people had already fled from areas to the east and south, from Liege, Brussels, Leuven and Hasselt.

The last forts were overcome only as late as 10 October 1914, when the remnants of the Deguise’s headquarters and the 2nd Division surrendered at Fort St Marie.  25,000 Belgian troops, finding themselves isolated on the left bank and surrounded by the Germans crossed the border into Zeeuwse Vlaanderen, the part of the Netherlands south of the Scheldt, where they were interned until the end of the war.

In a final effort to round up the Belgian troops still in the city, the Germans advanced.  Von Beseler triumphantly entered the city – but he received a bitter shock.  For the only party that officially received him and surrendered the city was a delegation of council officials.  The Belgian field army had melted away; most of the fortress troops had escaped into Holland.  The Belgian army would fight another day.  As Von Beseler ruefully remarked, as 60,000 German troops marched into the city, for all their effort and not inconsiderable losses in front of Antwerp, all he got was ‘ein solche Festung und kein General‘.

In all, some 2,600 British troops were lost at Antwerp.  Only 7 officers and 50 men were killed, but 138 were wounded, 936 became prisoners of war, and 1,479 were interned in the Netherlands.

Map from "A Military Atlas of the First World War" by Arthur Banks (ISBN: 780850527919) with thanks.
Map from “A Military Atlas of the First World War” by Arthur Banks (ISBN: 780850527919) with thanks.

By 9 October the bulk of the Belgian field army, with the remnants of the Royal Naval Division, were on the west bank of the Ghent – Terneuzen canal.  They desperately needed rest, and of course their position in terms of supply of food, ammunition and other supplies was dreadful.  The main supply depots of the army had fallen into German hands, and the railways, apart from the coastal lines and the areas around Brugge and the Westhoek, had also fallen.

Intelligence showed that the Bavarian cavalry were on the move westwards, and that a column of at least 20,000 infantry was moving on Kortrijk and Menen.  Joffre requested that the Belgians move south-westwards in the direction of Deinze and Thielt.  It was Foch that planned to organise French resistance on the line Menen – Ypres – Diksmuide – Nieuwpoort.  The Belgians agreed to fall back on to the Yser, the last possible defence line in Belgium.  The British IV Corps covered their move, and took up positions at Roeselare, before eventually forming up on a defensive line in front of Ypres. The scene was set for an even greater battle.


Battles of the Western Front in France and Flanders

Royal Naval Division