The Siege of Antwerp

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.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

25 Surprising Facts About Love Actually

Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it’s officially classified as a romantic comedy, Love Actually—Richard Curtis’s intertwining tale of love and loss in London in the midst of the Christmas season—has become a staple of holiday movie marathons everywhere. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the hit 2003 film.

1. Love Actually‘s airport footage was shot with hidden cameras.

Footage of passengers being welcomed and embraced by loved ones at Heathrow Airport was shot on location with hidden cameras for a week. In the film’s DVD commentary, writer-director Richard Curtis explains that when something special was caught on camera, a crew member would race out to have its subjects sign a waiver so the moment might be included in Love Actually. This was a fitting production device, as Curtis claims that watching the love expressed at the arrival gate of LAX is what inspired him to write the ensemble romance in the first place.

2. Four plot lines were cut from Love Actually.

Curtis initially aimed to include 14 love stories in the film. Two were clipped in the scripting phase, but two were shot and cut in post. Those lost before production involved a girl with a wheelchair, and one about a boy who records a love song for a classmate who ultimately hooks up with his drummer. Shot but cut for time was a brief aside featuring an African couple supporting each other during a famine, and another storyline that followed home a school headmistress, revealing her long-time commitment to her lesbian partner.

3. A fifth of Love Actually is commonly cut from television broadcasts.

Martin Freeman in ‘Love Actually’ (2003)
Universal Studios

It might be of little surprise that the raciest element of this holiday movie rarely makes it on TV. The love story of John and Judy has Martin Freeman and Joanna Page playing a pair of stand-ins on an erotic drama. Their scenes have the pair mimicking sex acts, but even as simulations of simulated sex, their storyline is usually deemed too hot for TV.

4. Martine McCutcheon’s role in Love Actually was penned just for her.

Curtis wrote his screenplay with some stars in mind, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and McCutcheon, the charismatic English ingénue best known for her role on BBC drama EastEnders. So sure was Curtis that he wanted McCutcheon for the role of the love interest to the Prime Minister that he had the character’s name as "Martine" in early drafts. Curtis explained in the DVD commentary that the name was changed to "Natalie" before McCutcheon’s audition, "so she wouldn’t get cocky."

5. Richard Curtis sent request letters to his American talent.

Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, and Denise Richards received letters asking them to consider a role in the film. Both actresses were impressed by the unconventional move, but Linney told The Daily Beast she was even more flattered by its contents.

"I got a letter in the mail from Richard Curtis saying that he’d been trying to cast this part, and he’d kept saying to his partner, Emma Freud, that he’d been looking for a ‘Laura Linney-type,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask Laura Linney?’"

6. Bill Nighy didn’t realize he had auditioned for Love Actually.

Bill Nighy in ‘Love Actually’
Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

This was the first collaboration between Nighy and Curtis, with the former playing the shameless, comeback-seeking rocker Billy Mack. On the film’s 10-year anniversary, Nighy recalled to The Daily Beast, "I did a rehearsal reading of the script as a favor to the great casting director, Mary Selway, who had been trying to get me into a film for a long time. I thought it was simply to help her hear the script aloud and to my genuine surprise I was given the job."

7. Love Actually‘s actors had their own trailer park village during production.

"We didn’t all film together, but we had a big trailer park for all the cast," Nighy told The Guardian. "There were so many famous people in there, we used to talk about being on Liam Neeson Way or Emma Thompson Road or Hugh Grant Avenue. And it was a masterpiece of diplomacy, too; we all had the same size and type of trailer." Linney remembered the place having a warm sense of community.

8. One scene from Love Actually was lifted directly from Four Weddings And A Funeral.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, also penned by Curtis, there was a scene where Hugh Grant’s character Charles flirts with a woman at a wedding by mocking the terrible catering, only to discover that she is the caterer. The scene was cut from the 1994 film, but was reshot nearly a decade later with Kris Marshall acting out the flirtatious faux pas. In the commentary track, Curtis admits that some drafts of the Love Actually script still had Charles’s name on portions of the scene.

9. The late Joanna was played by a real-life Richard Curtis crush.

In the commentary, Curtis also confessed his affection and admiration for writer-director Rebecca Frayn and how it led to a heartbreaking scene in Love Actually. She’s uncredited in the film because she never has a scene to perform. But when Curtis needed images to create a slideshow of Sam’s beloved mum/Daniel’s departed wife, he turned to Frayn, asking for "all the prettiest pictures of her from her whole life." In real-life, Frayn is married to Oscar-nominated Scottish producer Andy Harries.

10. Emma Thompson shot her crying scene 12 times.

Arguably the saddest moment in Love Actually is when Thompson’s character realizes her husband has been unfaithful. In the privacy of their bedroom, she listens to Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now" and weeps.

"We decided to do it like how Mike Newell did it in Four Weddings—I shot in medium-wide, and didn’t move the camera," Curtis recalled. "We just let it happen, and Emma walked into the room 12 times in a row and sobbed. It was an amazing feat of acting." He also noted this was the only scene she was asked to perform that day.

11. Hugh Grant did not want to dance.

Though Grant and Curtis had worked together on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, they had a deep disagreement on how the Prime Minister should be played. Grant wanted it to be a grounded performance and resented Curtis’s push to make the part more whimsical. This came to a head when shooting Grant’s dance number, which the actor refused to rehearse.

"He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song—it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it—so he was hugely unhappy about it," Curtis explained. "We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words!" It was a tricky thing to cut, but the final result with Girls Aloud’s cover of “Jump (For My Love)” speaks for itself.

12. Tony Blair found it impossible to live up to Hugh Grant’s fictional prime minister.

In 2005, when facing criticism for his dealings with the United States, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, "I know there’s a bit of us that would like me to do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually and tell America where to get off. But the difference between a good film and real life is that in real life there’s the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause."

13. It took 45 minutes to pick out Aurelia’s underwear.

When the loose pages of Jamie’s (Colin Firth) in-progress novel blow into a nearby lake, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) is quick to strip down and dive in to rescue them. But in the DVD commentary, Curtis admits that what she wore beneath her cozy sweater was a major matter of debate that involved a lengthy meeting with his producers and 20 different sets of bras and panties to be considered.

14. Simon Pegg auditioned for Love Actually.

Before he broke out with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg was best known for his work on the British sitcom Spaced. It was in this stage of his career that he was eyed for the role of Rufus, the jewelry salesman in Love Actually. However, Curtis ended up casting Rowan Atkinson, who was not only a bigger star but a longtime friend from their college days; the two had previously worked together on Four Weddings and A Funeral, Mr. Bean, and Black Adder.

15. Rowan Atkinson’s character was meant to be an angel.

Rather than just an overenthusiastic gift wrapper with a good Samaritan streak at the airport, Atkinson’s Rufus was initially written as a heavenly helper in disguise. A scene was even shot were he’d evaporate after helping Sam get past security at Heathrow. "But in the end," Curtis said in commentary, "the film turned out so sort of multiplicitous that the idea of introducing an extra layer of supernatural beings was (too much)."

16. Sarah’s apartment is based on Helen Fielding’s.

When Sarah (Laura Linney) takes her office crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) back to her flat, a crane shot reveals that her bedroom is perched above the first floor, with a half-wall serving as a sort of balcony. In the DVD commentary track, Curtis mentioned this layout was poached from the Bridget Jones’s Diary author’s home. To him, it seemed a charming staging place for this tender seduction scene.

17. Test audiences spurred a change to the ending of Sarah’s story.

Curtis originally intended for Sarah and Karl’s love story to fizzle out after the phone call from her brother. However, when Love Actually was screened to test audiences, the feedback begged for a clearer resolution. So Curtis provided it, creating an extra scene in reshoots that made it unmistakable that Sarah and Karl would not end up together. "Be careful what you wish for," he warned on the DVD commentary.

18. Andrew Lincoln hand-wrote those romantic signs.


Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

In 2013, The Walking Dead star reminisced about his climactic gesture in Love Actually with Entertainment Weekly, and revealed, "It is my handwriting! It’s funny, because the art department did it, and then I said, ‘Well, can I do it?’ because I like to think that my handwriting is really good. Actually, it ended up with me having to sort of trace over the art department’s, so it is my handwriting, but with a sort of pencil stencil underneath."

19. The American bar scene included some improv.


Peter Mountain, Universal Studios

Regarding the scene where three American girls (Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, and Ivana Milicevic) flirt with Kris Marshall, Cuthbert told VH1, "It was such a creative space and we were allowed to improvise and try different things and it wasn’t just completely set into Richard’s writing. I mean we were allowed to sort of venture … It was nice that we got to sort of play around.”

Curtis remembers it differently, noting in the commentary track that the Brits were "respectful" with his script, but these Americans wanted to "pep it up a bit."

20. Bernard is a running joke based on a real man.

Every film Curtis writes contains a "Bernard," and he’s always the butt of a joke. In Love Actually, he’s the son of Thompson’s character who is described as "horrid." This all dates back to a love triangle that didn’t turn in Curtis’s favor. Bernard was the name of a young man who won the heart of Curtis’s crush Anne, and so he will forever be lampooned. In real life, Bernard is a successful politician, namely Bernard Jenkin, Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex since 2010.

21. Olivia Olson’s performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was too good—which was problematic.

Over 200 girls auditioned for the part of Joanna, the talent show star that young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) falls hard for. But with pipes that blew away the casting director, Olivia Olson blew the competition away. In the commentary track, Curtis notes that Olson sang the song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" so flawlessly that he feared it sounded manufactured. He had sound editors cut in breaths to the performance to make it more believable.

22. Sam and Joanna reunited in 2008.

Child stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Olivia Olson were utterly adorable together as drum-playing Sam and his grade school crush Joanna. But Love Actually wasn’t the end of the pair’s onscreen romance. They were reunited in 2008 when Olson joined the voice cast of the Disney Channel cartoon show Phineas and Ferb. While Brodie-Sangster lends his voice to the oft-silent Ferb, Olson often sings as Ferb’s crush, the sleek and cool Vanessa Doofenshmirtz.

23. The movie has already been remade—three times!

The central concept of a movie packed with stars and intertwining love stories has been translated into a trio of films. The first is the Indian offering A Tribute To Love, an unofficial remake in the Hindi language. Next, Poland took a turn with Letters to St. Nicolas. The most recent version is Japan’s It All Began When I Met You, which borrows the concept as well as the film’s poster layout.

24. Love Actually got a sequel (of sorts) in 2017.

In March 2017, in celebration of Red Nose Day, Curtis and several members of the original cast—including Grant, Knightley, Firth, Neeson, Nighy, Lincoln, and Atkinson—reprised their characters for a short film, Red Nose Day Actually, that caught viewers up on what the characters are doing today.

"I would never have dreamt of writing a sequel to Love Actually, but I thought it might be fun to do 10 minutes to see what everyone is now up to," Curtis said when the project was announced. "Who has aged best?—I guess that’s the big question ... or is it so obviously Liam?" The short debuted in the U.K. on March 24, 2017, but American audiences had to wait until May 25, 2017 to see what happened to their favorite characters. (Here’s a cheat sheet.)

25. Alan Rickman’s death prevented Emma Thompson from appearing in the sequel.

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it was announced that Curtis would be revisiting some of the Love Actually characters for a short sequel, he knew right away that out of respect for Alan Rickman—who passed away in early 2016—he did not want to revisit Emma Thompson’s character.

"Richard wrote to me and said, ‘Darling we can’t write anything for you because of Alan,’ and I said, ‘No of course, it would be sad, too sad,’" Thompson explained. "It’s too soon. It’s absolutely right because it’s supposed to be for Comic Relief, but there isn’t much comic relief in the loss of our dear friend really only just over a year ago."

But the 2003 film wasn’t the end of the story for Thompson and Rickman’s characters. In 2015, Curtis’s longtime partner Emma Freud live tweeted some details of what happened to the couple after the credits rolled. The short version? "They stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was," according to Freud.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

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