Belgium 1914
Antwerp Falls, Part I

Antwerp in Flames
October 1914

Lately, I have been concentrating on some of the lesser-known aspects of the opening of hostilities in 1914. This month, in the first of a two-part special edition of the Trip-Wire, the siege of Antwerp is examined. It was a critical step—with the Race to the Sea, along with the First Battle of Ypres, which we will be covering in two months—to the locking in of the Western Front and 41 months of trench warfare. Our articles on the siege are from contributing editor and Antwerp resident Tony Langley.  MH

The Siege of Antwerp: The Defenses
By Tony Langley

Antwerp and Its Harbor Before the War

Defeats are never particularly endearing to the country suffering them, and since Antwerp was heralded as one of the largest and most stoutly fortified areas in the world, its loss was an embarrassment that no amount of twisting and turning of the events could ever turn into anything but a missed opportunity by the Entente to hold a more northern front line and secure an important industrial area and fortified zone for their use. The loss of Antwerp was one of a series of defeats and setbacks that almost brought Belgium to defeat in 1914 and contributed to the fall from grace of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.

Antwerp, a mercantile city and trading center of great importance since the late Middle Ages had been subject to attacks and sieges countless times, the most recent having taken place in 1831, when, during the Belgian revolution against Dutch rule, the Dutch garrison commander defended the southern citadel against a besieging French army and shelled the city in retaliation with firebombs. This was the cause of many bad memories and protests when in the late 1850s the Belgian government finally decided upon a comprehensive national policy of defense. Belgium, a neutral country, had been guaranteed independence and aid against aggressors by several signatory nations: France, Great Britain, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. The only sensible military policy for a small country such as Belgium would therefore be to fall back on an easily defensible position and await the arrival of a friendly force, most likely one or a coalition of the signatory powers. In 1859 the government decided that Antwerp would have the honor of being the National Redoubt in time of war, a last line of defense in which both the Belgian government and the army would await help from one of the signatory nations that had guaranteed her independence.

Additional smaller defensive positions were constructed at Liège and Namur, while several smaller, older fortifications such as those at Diest, Termonde, Dinant, Huy, Ostend, and other locations were kept in service, these last often being of Napoleonic origin (if not older), and all being outdated by the mid-19th century.

The defenses at Antwerp were conceived on a grand scale. The 1859 plans called for a double circle of fortifications to guard the city and harbor area to the north: an inner ring consisting of an intricate series of bastions, ravelins, water moats, causeways, raised earthen walls covering brick casemates and barracks, artillery positions, supply depots and fortified ornamental city gates controlling entrance and egress, and a second ring of fortifications, some 7 km distant from the city center, consisting of eight brick-built forts, once again encompassing artillery positions, barracks, and depots, built at intervals of 5 km apart to allow mutual artillery support, but otherwise not connected to each other. To the north, south, and west of the city extensive flooding was planned in the event of an attack on the city.

The two encircling rings of fortifications were built during the years 1859-1865, despite ineffectual protest from citizens and merchants alike. It was a showcase example of military architecture, incorporating all the latest advances and techniques. It was built at great cost, and the main contractors, having apparently misjudged the complexity of things, went bankrupt. Nevertheless, the works were completed in the planned timeframe.

But by 1878 it was already agreed that the fortifications were in need of extension. Artillery range and explosive power increased at a steady pace, and to compensate for this a third encircling series of forts was planned to be built 15 km from the city center, in a great 100 km-long perimeter, which would hopefully keep all vital parts of the city and harbor safely out of enemy artillery range.

The long siege of Port Arthur in the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06 drove home the need for updated and enlarged fortifications if Antwerp were to hold against a modern army. In 1907 the political decision to build the third line of 17 forts, smaller redoubts, and field positions was finally taken and funds allocated by the Belgian parliament. These 17 outer perimeter forts were the most modern then available, built in non-reinforced concrete several meters thick and incorporating almost every modern design and military application then conceivable: revolving retractable steel turrets housing long-range artillery directed by an intricate system of field telephones and forward observers; steel observation turrets; concrete walls and subterranean tunnels; retractable drawbridges; independent electrical power stations in each fort; flood and searchlights positioned on the walls; concrete-protected machine gun positions and powder magazines; positive-pressure ventilation systems to evacuate noxious gases; and supply rooms and infirmaries.

These forts were built in the following years, with most finished by 1912 or 1913, though in August 1914 there was still work to be completed, often involving the fire and control systems and the protection of steel copulas. They were the most modern and up to date series of fortifications on the Continent, and, therefore, upon the outbreak of war in 1914, the Belgian government and both France and Britain were confident that even in the face of a determined German assault, the city would be able to hold out indefinitely.

The Siege of Antwerp: Belgium's New Capital

King Albert in Antwerp

The first German troops crossed the Belgian border on 4 August and started operations against the Liège forts the following day. Initially, the first assaults—overconfident and hurriedly carried out—were repulsed, much to the satisfaction of the newspaper press, especially in Great Britain, which carried overconfident headlines about the resistance of the gallant Belgians. By the 10th, however, German heavy artillery was brought to Liège, and when the 420mm siege guns started firing on the 12th, it was only a matter of time before a breach was created in the Belgian fortifications. One by one the forts fell, in one of which, Fort Loncin to the west of Liège, General Leman the Belgian commander at Liège, was knocked unconscious and wounded when the powder magazine of that fort was hit and exploded, all but obliterating almost half of the underground casemates and gun turrets. Overnight, General Leman became the first Entente hero of the war and a symbol of Belgian resistance to the invading German armies.

The Belgian government and the king and queen officially relocated to Antwerp upon the occupation of Brussels early in August. There was no shortage of large buildings to house the ministries and parliament and senate. The Atheneum (or high school) and the grand and ornate municipal ballroom were pressed into service for government use. Hotels, of which there was a multitude in Antwerp for use by businessmen and emigrants awaiting departure to the New World, were soon full to capacity, housing diplomats, officers, journalists, and refugees from all over the occupied parts of the country. The rich and wealthy opened their homes for use as hospitals or nursing stations. The Antwerp Zoo, with many large festival and conference halls, was also turned into a casualty recovery ward, and a number of municipal trams were converted into useful and picturesque Red Cross streetcars, plying the routes from outer fortifications to the city center with wounded and injured soldiers.

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Different Perspectives

Here are some helpful supplemental sources on Antwerp and the war available online.

Belgium's National Redoubt

Brief History of Antwerp

Belgian Order of Battle in 1914

Virtual Tour of Antwerp

King Albert I

Illustrator Correspondents at the Siege of Antwerp

Winston Churchill's Antwerp Mission

The Armored Cars of Antwerp

Antwerp's German Community During Occupation

An Early Call to Duty

We have been living in a sheltered valley for generations. We have been too comfortable, too indulgent, many perhaps too selfish. And the stern hand of fate has scoured us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation; the great peaks of honor we had forgotten – duty and patriotism, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to heaven.

David Lloyd George,
19 September 1914

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The Kaiser Had Threatened Two Belgian Kings

Kaiser Wilhelm II was not known for his finesse or sense of decorum; in fact, he was notorious for his complete lack of tact. Take, for example, a speech he gave in 1900 urging his soldiers to model themselves on the barbarian Huns, or the time in 1908 when he told a British newspaper that most Germans hated the British. But the gaffe-prone German emperor outdid himself on November 6, 1913, when he turned a pleasant diplomatic welcome for King Albert I into a terrifying dinner party from hell for the guest of honor.

It seems Albert's hosts had decided to take the opportunity to persuade the Belgian king to ally with Germany in any future war with France—or at least allow the Germans to pass through Belgium unimpeded on their way to France. The treatment was remarkably similar to the treatment received by Albert's uncle, King Leopold II, on his state visit to Berlin in 1904. Both Belgian kings were in essence told to pick sides in the coming war. We can't be sure what Leopold might have decided, but we know Albert's decision.

Source: Mental Floss, 6 November 2013

E. Alexander Powell Describes the Beginning of the Main Siege of Antwerp

The retreat from Malines provided a spectacle which I shall never forget. For twenty miles every road was jammed with clattering cavalry, plodding infantry, and rumbling batteries, the guns, limbers, and caissons still covered with the green boughs which had been used to mask their position from German aeroplanes.

Gendarmes in giant bearskins, chasseurs in uniforms of green and yellow, carabineers with their shiny leather hats, grenadiers, infantry of the line, guides, lancers, sappers and miners with picks and spades, engineers with pontoon-wagons, machine-guns drawn by dogs, ambulances with huge Red Cross flags fluttering above them, and cars, cars, cars, all the dear old familiar American makes among them, contributed to form a mighty river flowing towards Antwerp. Malines formerly had a population of fifty thousand people, and forty-five thousand of these fled when they heard that the Germans were returning.

The scenes along the road were heart-rending in their pathos. The very young and the very old, the rich and the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, the lame and the sick and the blind, with the few belongings they had been able to save in sheet-wrapped bundles on their backs or piled in push-carts, clogged the roads and impeded the soldiery. These people were abandoning all that they held most dear to pillage and destruction. They were completely terrorized by the Germans. But the Belgian army was not terrorized. It was a retreating army but it was victorious in retreat. The soldiers were cool, confident, courageous, and gave me the feeling that if the German giant left himself unguarded a single instant little Belgium would drive home a solar-plexus blow.

E. Alexander Powell, Fighting in Flanders, 1914

Part II of Tony Langley's account of the Siege of Antwerp will appear in next month's issue of the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire.

Belgium's Army Manages to Escape

The Siege of Antwerp: Enemy at the Gates

Belgian Infantry Awaiting the Invaders

Morale was high in the newly designated capital. There was some initial rioting against German inhabitants of Antwerp, their homes looted and furniture thrown into the streets and destroyed or burned. Rumors and lurid stories of German spies abounded as well, it being told that said perfidious persons were executed in secret at night on the glacis of the inner forts. None of this was true, of course, but it all added to the sense of excitement and adventure among the general public, which displayed patriotic sentiments hereto unseen in the average Belgian. According to eyewitness accounts, along with the black-gold-red tricolor of Belgium, the streets were abundantly adorned with flags of all the Entente nations: Great Britain, France, and Imperial Russia. Prices for foodstuffs and other goods remained at very reasonable levels; the city was not encircled by German forces, and, therefore, supply routes were guaranteed and confidence in the protection afforded by the triple ring of fortifications was high. Neither the Belgian government nor, apparently, the British nor French governments were concerned that any real threat existed. In good time Antwerp would be relieved, and in the meantime, the forts would of course hold.

The heroic stand at Loncin notwithstanding, this did little to stop the advance of German troops. After a short and small-scale victory won by the Belgians on the battlefield at Halen on the 12th, to the north of the fortified town of Diest (located about halfway between Liège and Antwerp), King Albert I and the military staff decided it was necessary to order the Belgian field army into the Antwerp fortified zone. By 20 August the main Belgian force was safely under the protection of the outer-perimeter forts.

Armored Cars Were Sent Out on Sorties Against the Germans

The German military command was not overly concerned with the fate of Antwerp and the Belgian Army at this time either, its main objective still being the capture of Paris and hopefully the encirclement and destruction of the bulk of the French Army. Therefore, a numerically smaller German force of mostly second-line quality, Landwehr (territorials and reservists) was left behind as a screening force around Antwerp. It was more an army of observation than a besieging force, as at no time was it strong enough to mount an assault on any of the outer fortifications. In fact, it was the Belgians who went over to offensive operations three times before the main German assault on the city started on 28 September.

The first sortie in force from the Antwerp entrenched camp was on 24 August, and by nightfall Belgian forces had advanced into Malines, a medium-sized city to the south, situated just outside the outer ring of forts. It was largely deserted and would be fought over several times during the coming weeks, changing hands back and forth. Once beyond Malines, the Belgians advanced farther along the Louvain road, pushing German troops, mostly inexperienced territorials, back to the outskirts of Louvain itself where, in the nighttime confusion, Germans fired upon each other, causing widespread fear of Belgian civilians acting as franc-tireurs (civilian snipers). This led the next day to the burning of the city, an act that had severe negative repercussions worldwide for the German cause.

The German command took the decision to reduce Antwerp on 8 September.

A second Belgian sortie took place during early September, at the height of the battle of the Marne, the intention being to take pressure off the Entente forces fighting to the south. A third and final sortie and advance took place on 13 September.

Designated German Commander for
the Siege: Gen. Hans H. von Beseler

When it became clear after the battle of the Marne that Germany was to be denied Paris and the destruction of the French armies after being forced to withdraw to the Aisne river, the German command decided it was finally time to remove the irritant of the enemy army entrenched in Antwerp. It was all well and good to bypass enemy strongpoints such as Maubeuge and Antwerp and to contain them with covering forces when engaged in a rapid advance, but once the trench lines were more or less consolidated, leaving even small numbers of enemy forces in the rear of the main army made for bad strategy. The Belgian Army in Antwerp was uncomfortably close to German supply lines running from the German border through Brussels and southward, and the prospect of Antwerp being reinforced by Entente forces was alarming as well. Lines of communication to the Belgian coast were still open and functioning, and it took about a day by motor transport for troops disembarking at Ostend to reach Antwerp. Neither Great Britain nor France had any troops to spare at that time, but the threat was always present.

The Siege of Antwerp: Under Heavy Fire

German Siege Artillery Being Placed

The German and Austrian siege artillery that was used to reduce Liège, Namur, and Maubeuge was diverted from its destination of Paris and brought to bear on the Antwerp forts. Finding adequate placements was a problem, as these artillery pieces needed a concrete flooring from which to fire. Factories and warehouses in the areas surrounding the outer forts were used to this purpose, their outer walls demolished, or else hastily constructed narrow gauge railways were used to bring up the artillery and building material. The actual number of German artillery pieces used during the siege was surprisingly small. There were four 420mm cannon with a range of about 15 km, the famous Big Berthas constructed by the Krupp works. These outranged the heaviest Belgian artillery by at least 5 km or more. There were also five 305mm naval mortars and four 305mm Austrian Skoda mortars, thus 13 artillery pieces in all that formed the backbone of the coming German assault. They were set up in four positions to the south and southeast of the city.

Command of the upcoming operation was given to German General Hans von Beseler (1850-1921), an unimaginative but thoroughly competent commander. After making his name by taking the hitherto considered impregnable fortress of Antwerp, in the coming years he would also be given command of other siege operations, mainly on the Eastern Front, and end his military career as governor-general of the German-occupied part of Poland from 1916 till 1918. Von Beseler's plan was simple: he would concentrate his forces and artillery to the south and southeast of the outer perimeter of forts and attack a small sector of the line running from the forts of Walem, Duffel, St.Catherine Wavre, Koningshooikt, and Lier. These he would subject to a concentrated artillery barrage, and when they were put out of combat, infantry attacks would follow.

Antwerp Fort Utterly Destroyed by German Artillery

The siege operations commenced on 27 September with a bombardment of the city of Malines. Just outside the city, the main pumping station for the Antwerp waterworks was hit and rendered inoperable, thereby depriving Antwerp and much of the surrounding region of potable water. Subsidiary stations were activated, of course, but during the siege, the city would be faced with a shortage of drinking water, and what water there was had a distinctly brackish and unhealthy taste to it. Lack of sufficient water pressure also hindered fire fighting in the last days of military operations. When the main bombardment started on the 28th, Belgian troops had been holding positions beyond the outer perimeter.

The bombardment against the outer forts lasted four days and was of a hitherto unknown intensity and violence. The main problem facing the Germans was to confine the bombardment to a very specific area. Accuracy in shooting from a distance of 15 km was not always guaranteed, and many shells fell short or wide. But by the law of averages, enough heavy-caliber shells hit the targeted forts in strategic places, blowing up munitions depots, such as happened at Fort Loncin at Liège, or simply putting Belgian artillery out of combat or penetrating the thick concrete walls of the forts, demolishing barracks or underground casemates in a roar of fire and acrid smoke. The demoralizing effect of the bombardment was great. Noise of impacts and explosions thundered throughout the forts, dust and smoke made breathing nigh impossible, and electrical equipment was often destroyed, throwing the forts into darkness, even at high noon. Though it was certainly not diagnosed as such at the time, cases of shell shock were prevalent, and soldiers were hospitalized with violent and uncontrollable shaking.

It did not take long before the Belgian command realized that the forts and the city could not be held, certainly not by Belgian forces alone. On 30 September the Belgian government formally asked for aid from Great Britain and France. Belgium was not an ally to either nation, merely a co-belligerent, but both Britain and France, though short of reserves, quickly dispatched token units to Antwerp with plans for more substantial reinforcements to follow.

In next month's issue we will focus on the evacuation of Antwerp and its ensuing occupation by German Forces. MH

100 Years Ago:
A Surprising German-Soviet Accommodation

Foreign Ministers Georgy Chicherin and Walter Rathenau

Germany as well as Soviet Russia were isolated in the international arena by 1921. Germany, because it had caused a devastating war, and was only reluctantly fulfilling the peace conditions; Russia, because it was a socialist state with a revolutionary agenda that aimed to overthrow all capitalist states. Whereas the Russians tried to approach Germany many times, the Germans were reluctant and aimed instead to establish good relations with the West first and not to antagonize them by an early recognition of the Bolsheviks. It owed much to circumstances and foresight of some individuals on the German side that relations began to develop.

The joint German-Russian concerns first led to the signing in May 1921 of a treaty under which Germany recognized the Soviet regime as the only legitimate government of Russia and agreed to suspend relations with all other Russian groups that still claimed power. The treaty paved the way for future German-Russian cooperation.

1928 Photo of German Staff at a Chemical Weapons Facility at Tomka, Soviet Union

The Treaty of Rapallo was an agreement signed on 16 April 1922 between the German Republic and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic under which both renounced all territorial and financial claims against each other after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the First World War.

Both governments also agreed to normalize their diplomatic relations and to "co-operate in a spirit of mutual goodwill in meeting the economic needs of both countries". Secretly, both established elaborate military cooperation but publicly denied it.

As a way to circumvent the treaty, German leaders found Soviet territory a useful place to train military staff and develop armament projects. German companies constructed military aircraft as well as tanks and produced all kinds of materiel, including chemical weapons. In return, the Red Army supported the German military and shared technological know-how.

Sources: Wikipedia; German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945

The U.S. National World War I Memorial Opens

An Army Bugler Using General Pershing Bugle Accompanies the First Raising of the Colors Over the Memorial

More than a century after World War I drew to a close, a long-awaited memorial commemorating the global conflict has opened to the public in the nation's capital. The Great War is the last of the United States' four major 20th-century wars to receive a memorial in Washington, D.C.

“The National World War I Memorial is a depiction of what happened 100 years ago, when soldiers boarded ships bound for France, determined to bring to a close what they thought would be a war to end all wars," said Daniel Dayton, executive director of the World War I Centennial Commission, during the ceremony held Friday, 16 April 2021. "By themselves they of course couldn't end all war, but their courage and sacrifice did indeed bring a decisive end to a conflict that had killed millions."

Aerial View of the Opening Ceremony

Temporary Look of Sabin Howard's Sculpture

Though the official opening ceremony and raising of the first flag at the site took place that day, the central element of the memorial remains unfinished. A 58-foot-long, 12-foot-tall bas-relief sculpture titled A Soldier’s Journey, the Wall of Remembrance is scheduled to be installed in 2024. For now, a canvas featuring sketches showing the future sculpture stands in its place. The wall is the work of sculptor Sabin Howard. Its 38 figures tell the story of a reluctant soldier who returns home a hero—a tableau that reflects the nation’s turn from isolationism to a position of global leadership.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

A World War One Documentary

In Berlin, they would halt a revolution to welcome him home. From August 1914 until after the Armistice in 1918, General-major Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck conducted a one-sided campaign against the British Empire in east Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck employed superior tactics and stealth against an impossibly large enemy, preserving the lives of his soldiers and civilians while the harsh environment and disease devastated Allied ranks. The Germans would grudgingly surrender only after news of the Armistice reached them. In this 2019 presentation, army officer, lawyer, and historian Mark Hull shares the story of a military leader who would retain the loyalty of his men and the admiration of his former enemies until his death in 1964.

Click on Title to Access Story
Filmed But Not Forgotten: The York Film Archive, 1914-1929

Aftermath of ANZAC

Language to Make a Soldier Blush

Obituary for Great War Chronicler Lyn Macdonald

Florida's Role in the Great War

Presidential Statement on the Armenian Genocide

Cotton's Contribution to Victory (Video)

The Three Wars of Sam Woodfill, MoH

A Unique Set of Colorized WWI Images

Thanks to each and every one of you who has contributed material for this issue. Until our next issue, your editor, Mike Hanlon.
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