The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 146th installment in the series.
September 29, 1914: The Siege of Antwerp
As German troops approached Brussels in mid-August 1914, King Albert made the painful decision to abandon the unfortified Belgian capital and withdraw his outnumbered forces to the port city of Antwerp. Belgium’s main commercial city, Antwerp was protected by two rings of forts and could be supplied from the sea, raising hopes that it would withstand a long siege. But that was before anyone knew about Germany’s super-heavy artillery (some of it was actually Austrian), which first debuted at Liege; when the final test came, the “National Redoubt” managed to hold out against the big guns just two weeks.
In August and September, the Belgian Army had already staged several daring sallies from Antwerp in order to harass and distract the Germans at key moments, first during the Battles of Charleroi and Mons and then again during the Battle of the Marne. Ultimately these raids accomplished little, but they did highlight the threat Antwerp posed to German supply lines and communications—especially if the Allies decided to send reinforcements there by sea.
The siege of Antwerp was finally prompted by events a hundred miles to the south in France. Following the stalemate on the Aisne, the Germans and Allies both tried to outflank each other in the Picardy and Pas de Calais regions of northern France, leading to a rolling series of battles known as the “Race to the Sea.” As the armies deadlocked again and again, the “open” end of the front moved rapidly northwards towards the Belgian frontier, and it soon became obvious to commanders on both sides that they were headed for a showdown in the Flanders region of western Belgium. In this situation, Antwerp would be much more than an annoyance in the German rear—a strong Allied force based there could disrupt German logistics and maybe even attack German armies in Flanders from behind.
In short, the Germans could not allow Antwerp to remain in Allied hands. As early as September 20 they began moving siege artillery to Antwerp (image above), and the bombardment began in earnest on the night of September 28-29 with the destruction of Fort Walem, a key position south of Antwerp near the village of Duffel (see footage of German guns in action outside of Antwerp below).
Meanwhile, the Germans began tightening the noose in an attempt to cut off the Belgian Army’s line of retreat, but the outnumbered Belgians fought back tooth and nail, leading to heavy fighting around the towns of Dendermonde (Termonde), Mechelen (Malines), and Hofstade. To the southwest over 30,000 inhabitants fled the town of Aalst (Alost) between Brussels and Ghent, correctly anticipating that the resistance couldn’t go on much longer.
In occupied Brussels, American Ambassador Brand Whitlock, could hear the guns in action 25 miles to the north:
More and more loudly every minute, as it seemed, the great siege guns boomed around Antwerp; there were constant movements of troops through the city, a constant drumming of those heavy iron-shod heels on the pavements, the great grey automobiles forever dashing about… The incessant thud and rumble shook the house so that it trembled and rattled the windows in their casements; and it got on the nerves. The doom of Antwerp was not far away.
Overseas Troops Arrive
As its name suggests, the First World War involved people from all over the globe, including millions of troops drawn from European combatants’ sprawling colonial empires. While many of these colonial soldiers did their service overseas, large numbers also served in the main European theaters of war, and they began arriving almost immediately.
French colonial troops from Morocco were ordered to embark for France as early as July 27, along with two classes of Algerian troops—Zouaves recruited from the white settlers and Turcos recruited from the native population. Later, the French would begin recruiting Senegalese troops, who also served in separate units. As in all European colonial armies, the French observed strict racial segregation.
In an era when racist attitudes were endemic, the presence of native African troops in Europe caused consternation and soon became an obsession of German propaganda, which depicted them as animal-like savages—and even the French and British troops fighting alongside them questioned the propriety of using “inferior races” to fight Europeans. But European racial views weren’t always derogatory; indeed, racial rhetoric cut both ways, and the exotic foreigners inspired fear as well as revulsion. On September 28, a German schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr, noted in her diary: “People talk much of the ferocity of the French colonial troops. The blacks are said to have sharp curved knives, which they carry between their teeth when charging. They are very tall and as strong as lions.”
Meanwhile, the war spurred a flurry of activity in British dominions and colonial possessions. The first Indian troops embarked for British East Africa (now Kenya) on August 19, arriving in Mombasa on September 1, where they prepared to invade German East Africa (now Tanzania). Elsewhere, Australian troops occupied German New Guinea unopposed on August 11, and German Samoa surrendered to New Zealanders on August 29. Back in Australia, men walked hundreds of miles across the outback to volunteer for service.
After a journey through the Red Sea, Suez Canal, and Mediterranean, on September 26 the first British Indian troops arrived in Marseilles en route to the Western Front (above, a French postcard shows Sikh troops arriving). They too were met with a mixed reception from their peers and the civilian population, but it wasn’t always unfriendly—many people were just curious. In October, a native Indian officer, Amar Singh, noted that simply visiting a café in Orleans could draw crowd: “There was a whole crowd of boys and girls and young and old men and women round me. I was a new object to them.”
Canadian troops also began their service with a long journey by sea. The first convoy, carrying the first 31,000-man contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, formed in the Bay of Gaspé in eastern Quebec from September 26-October 3, with ships arriving from all over Canada’s east coast (below, the convoy gathers).
Frederic Curry recalled a furtive departure from Quebec City, with the timing kept secret for fear spies would alert German submarines:
“For two days we lay at anchor opposite the Citadel of Quebec… Then one evening the throb of the propeller drew the crowd from the saloons to the decks and we watched the lights fade away in the night. From the forts long fingers of light followed us down stream, and blinking lights here and there sent us farewell greetings.”
The convoy left for Britain on October 3, giving many young men their first experience of an ocean voyage (photo of the convoy at sea, above). The accommodations were far from luxurious. One soldier, Louis Keene, noted that he slept with five other men in a cabin measuring six by nine feet, adding, “The trip has been so long that we are now beginning to hate each other.” But the excitement and pride they took in their mission more than made up for these privations: “It gives you a great thrill to see a British ship and to have the knowledge of what it represents. To be British is a great thing, and I'm proud to think that I'm going to fight for my country.”