The Fall 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 148th installment in the series.
October 10, 1914: The Fall of Antwerp
With Allied and German armies fast approaching western Belgium in the “Race to the Sea,” the Germans urgently needed to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, which would give the Allies a base to attack German armies operating in Flanders from the rear. After a week of shelling, the Germans penetrated the outer ring of forts protecting Antwerp on October 6, prompting the Belgian government to flee to Ostend, while King Albert ordered civilians to evacuate the city and prepared to lead the Belgian Army to safety further west. As belated British reinforcements staged a last-ditch defense, the Germans moved up their artillery to target the inner forts; now it was only a matter of time.
The siege of Antwerp—its prewar population of 320,000 swollen by refugees from other parts of Belgium—was the first time since the Franco-Prussian War that a major Western European city came under deliberate, prolonged bombardment by heavy artillery, although the shelling of Rheims (population 115,000) and Arras (25,000) certainly provided a preview. As the Germans brought their super-heavy 42-centimeter “Big Bertha” guns to bear in the final days of the siege from October 7 to 10, 1914, the effects were both horrifying and spectacular. An American journalist, Reginald Kaufmann, described the impact of one of these huge shells:
Suddenly something bolted past above my head… something hot, scorching, and of tremendous size, something that roared like a frightened train and sped like a meteoric sun. The very draft of it seemed first to suck me upwards and then hurl me far forward and sidewise on my face. I fell, as a man might fall before a cyclonic blast from the furnace where worlds are made… If I thought of anything, it was of an earthquake… a shell from a forty-two centimeter gun would strike a building and the entire structure would vanish in a puff of smoke – absolutely vanish, so that when the smoke cleared, there was nothing where it had stood save a great hole in the ground.
Now thousands of terrified inhabitants (who’d ignored earlier warnings to evacuate) began fleeing the city in panic, mobbing the Antwerp docks as they struggled to get aboard overcrowded ferries, barges, and fishing trawlers (above, refugees on the docks) or over an improvised pontoon bridge across the River Scheldt (below). Once on the left bank of the river they headed west towards the cities of Ghent and Bruges via the one land route still in Allied hands. Others fled to the neutral Netherlands, until Dutch officials finally closed the border because they feared the country’s resources would be overwhelmed. Although estimates vary widely, a total of up to half a million people may have fled Antwerp as the city burned.
Edward Eyre Hunt, a delegate with the American Commission for Relief in Belgium, recalled the flight of inhabitants towards the docks: “Old and young, in little coveys of fours, fives, half-dozens, dozens, ran along the sidewalks, slipping and crashing over the broken glass… whenever a shell snarled unusually near, the groups fell cowering on hands and knees against the nearest houses.” And Horace Greene, a correspondent for The New York Evening Post, described the pathetic scene as refugees streamed out of the city:
You saw great open wagons carrying baby carriages, perambulators, pots and kettles, an old chair, huge bundles of household goods, and the ubiquitous Belgian bicycle strapped to the side. There were small wagons, and more great wagons crowded with twenty, thirty, forty people: aged brown women, buried like shrunken walnuts in a mass of shawls, girls sitting listlessly on piles of straw, and children fitfully asleep or very much awake and crying lustily…
The bombardment continued mercilessly into the evening of October 8-9, when huge oil tanks along the lower Scheldt exploded, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air and creating an apocalyptic backdrop for the drama unfolding below; both sides accused the other of setting fire to the tanks. As night fell on October 8, the entire skyline was lit by fire, with collapsing buildings sending huge clouds of glowing cinders into the air. Hunt went up on the roof of his hotel in the city center and encountered a thrilling scene:
I looked out upon the most horrible and at the same time the most gorgeous panorama that I ever hope to see. The entire southern portion of the city appeared a desolate ruin; whole streets were ablaze, and great sheets of fire rose to the height of thirty or forty feet. The night, like the preceding, was calm and quiet, without a breath of wind. On all sides rose greedy tongues of flame which seemed to thirst for things beyond their reach. Slowly and majestically the sparks floated skyward; and every now and then, following the explosion of a shell, a new burst of flame lighted up a section hitherto hidden in darkness… It was all a glorious and fascinating nightmare.
By October 9, almost all the Belgian and British defenders had withdrawn from the city (in one of the more inglorious episodes of the war, 1500 British sailors got lost and wandered into the Netherlands, where they were interned for the duration of the conflict). German scouts were pleasantly surprised to find the inner forts abandoned, although the Allies still held a few positions west of the city. The bombardment ended, and on October 9-10, German troops occupied the burning, largely abandoned city.
After the horrors of the last few days, the fall of Antwerp was something of an anticlimax, as the Germans simply marched in unopposed, witnessed only by small groups of inhabitants and a few foreign observers who had braved the siege to the bitter end, and now emerged from their hiding places in cellars and the city’s elaborate underground canal system to see the last act in the drama. Hunt noted that the soldiers, primed by rumors of Belgian guerrilla warfare, were on the lookout for franc-tireurs:
Line after line they tramped by, anonymous as swarming bees, indistinguishable from the mass at fifty years, stamping the cobble-stones in perfect time, with the remarkable, tireless, spring march-step of the German recruit… The men glanced suspiciously at the shuttered windows, as if they suspected that snipers lurked behind in the darkened rooms.
Thankfully there was no evidence of civilian resistance (real or imagined) and Antwerp, while heavily damaged by bombardment, was spared the deliberate, systematic destruction previously meted out to Louvain. Anyway the Germans were in too much of a hurry to bother leveling the city, pushing on in a bid to cut off the fleeing Belgian Army—to no avail. King Albert’s scrappy force was already entrenching itself near the coast in the remaining sliver of free Belgian territory; Belgium would live to fight another day.
Meanwhile to the south the Germans and Allies were grappling for advantage as the Race to the Sea drew to a close. Still trying to outflank each other to no end, the Allies and Germans both rushed reinforcements north, with French chief of the general staff Joffre forming the new Tenth Army near Amiens and redeploying the British Expeditionary Force to Flanders, while German chief of the general staff Falkenhayn moved the Sixth Army north and created the new Fourth Army west of Brussels, in preparation for a final push towards the English Channel.
As the adversaries took their positions, the next week would bring a series of battles – all epic in their own right – at La Bassée, Messines, and Armentières. But these were just the prelude to the nightmare of Ypres.
A thousand miles to the east the Germans—now led by Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—came to the aid of their beleaguered ally Austria-Hungary. The new German Ninth Army under August von Mackensen helped Hapsburg forces push back the Russians, but this success proved fleeting, as the Russians drew on their seemingly endless reserves of manpower to rush new divisions to the front. In fact during this period the fighting on the Eastern Front resembled seesaw warfare, with the two sides chasing each other back and forth over a few hundred miles of territory in Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (driving millions of peasants from their homes in the process).
By early October, the Russians had penetrated as far as Krakow in western Galicia, just 200 miles from Vienna, while further east they invaded Hungary, capturing Máramarossziget (today Sighetu Marmației in Romania). On October 4, the Austro-German counteroffensive began, forcing the Russians to halt these advances and pull back to defensive positions. By October 8 the Germans had captured Łódź, 50 miles from Warsaw, and in Galicia the Austrians were able to relieve the key fortress town of Przemyśl (pronounced Puh-SHEM-ish-le), lifting the Russian siege, at least temporarily.
However, the Russian retreat was mostly orderly, allowing Grand Duke Nicholas to reconstitute his forces behind the defensive line of the Vistula. Meanwhile the Austro-German offensive was beginning to run out of steam, due to Falkenhayn’s refusal to commit more troops to the Eastern Front, as he prepared to deliver what he hoped would be a knockout blow at Ypres on the Western Front. On October 10 Mackensen’s Ninth Army defeated the Russians at Grójec, just 10 miles south of Warsaw, but this would prove to be the high water mark for this offensive; two days later Ludendorff ordered Mackensen to entrench, with Warsaw still in Russian hands.
On the other side the Russians were bringing up the First and Second Armies, finally reformed with fresh troops after their defeats at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and now freed up by the new Tenth Army, holding off the Germans in East Prussia. In the second half of October it would be the Central Powers’ turn to retreat.
Boer Rebellion Spreads, British Invade Southwest Africa
When news of war arrived in South Africa it reopened old wounds, as the proud Boers—the descendants of Dutch settlers who rejected British rule, and identified culturally with Germany—sought to reverse their defeat in the Boer War of 1899-1902. On September 15, 1914, some Boers rose in rebellion, and the uprising soon spread across the Transvaal, Orange Free State, and elsewhere thanks to appeals by Boer generals who were heroes of the previous war, including Christian Frederick Beyers, Manie Maritz, Christiaan de Wet, and Jan Kemp.
On October 9, 1914, Maritz led a force of 500 Boers into neighboring German Southwest Africa, where he signed a treaty of alliance with the German colonial government and received a commission as a German general, as well as arms and ammunition for his troops. On October 12 South African Prime Minister Louis Botha (a Boer who remained loyal to Britain) declared martial law and called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion.
Meanwhile loyalist South African forces were proceeding with their invasion of German Southwest Africa (today Namibia)—one of a number of campaigns to occupy German colonial possessions in Africa, which also saw Allied forces invade Cameroon, Togo, and German East Africa (today Tanzania). These colonial mini-wars were small in terms of manpower but epic in terms of distances covered, and the results were decidedly mixed.
On September 18, 1914 South African troops landed at Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay) in German Southwest Africa. But a week later on September 26 a German schutztruppe (a militia composed of German settlers and native troops) inflicted a defeat on another South African force at Zandfontein to the south, ending a separate attempt to invade the German colony overland. Facing scrappy German colonial units in front and a Boer rebellion to the rear, the South Africans soon realized that conquering the rugged desert territory would be a far more challenging proposition than they’d hoped.