Siege of Antwerp
German army captures the city of Antwerp
28 September - 10 October 1914
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
The Siege of Antwerp was a battle fought on the Western Front of World War I between the German Imperial Army and the Entente forces of Great Britain and Belgium. The Germans besieged the Belgian army and the British Royal Naval Division in the Antwerp area, after the German invasion of Belgium. With no hope of holding Antwerp, the Belgian army withdrew towards the Yser river. In the Battle of the Yser, close to the French border, the Belgians held out against the German onslaught and defended the last part of unoccupied Belgium. The Belgians held the area until late 1918, when they participated in the liberation of Belgium.

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The Siege of Antwerp was a battle fought on the Western Front of World War I between the German Imperial Army and the Entente forces of Great Britain and Belgium. The Germans besieged the Belgian army and the British Royal Naval Division in the Antwerp area, after the German invasion of Belgium. With no hope of holding Antwerp, the Belgian army withdrew towards the Yser river. In the Battle of the Yser, close to the French border, the Belgians held out against the German onslaught and defended the last part of unoccupied Belgium. The Belgians held the area until late 1918, when they participated in the liberation of Belgium.

Antwerp was the most heavily defended of the three fortified Belgian complexes of 1914, and it had the most modern forts: twelve of its nineteen forts had been built between 1907 and 1910, and one of the forts, Bornheim, dated from September 1913.

As might be expected from troops with little experience, the Germans made all sorts of costly mistakes. They didn’t manage to seal off the perimeter of Antwerp sufficiently, so reinforcements went in and, as the siege came to its inevitable conclusion, most of the Belgian Army was able to slip out.

The eleventh-hour British contribution to Antwerp's defence was too small to save the city; however, it did help to delay the surrender for some five days, winning precious time for the main British Expeditionary Force to reach Flanders.

Antwerp, like Verdun, had numerous small structures — called, variously, fortins or ouvrages — scattered in the intervals between the forts. Antwerp, like Namur and Liège, was heavily gunned.

Once the Race to the Sea gathered speed, the Germans knew that they must eventually deal with the problem posed by Antwerp, to which the Belgian Field Army had withdrawn.

As the fighting developed along the coast, and specifically on the Yser, the guns of Germany's battleships could have made a significant tactical contribution. But the fleet — partly out of ignorance as to the Grand Fleet's position as well as of its own army's situation — did not push its cause, and General Erich Falkenhayn did not ask for its aid.

By this point, what was left of the Belgian army was at Antwerp: a force of six divisions and eighty-seven battalions of artillery. This was much more than a garrison: it was a force large enough to make the threat of Antwerp as a port quite real. The Belgians conducted three separate offensive operations out of Antwerp. And, as the siege progressed, Antwerp received reinforcements: British marines and French naval troops. General Hans von Beseler, who had the task of taking Antwerp, had only been given about eighty-five thousand men to do it with. Not only was he outnumbered, but his forces were hardly first-line troops.

Von Beseler had the Third Reserve Corps, which contained six reserve infantry regiments and two regiments of Landwehr, the so-called Marine Division, which consisted of sailors, three independent brigades of Landwehr, and the fourth Ersatz division, which consisted of three mixed brigades. Von Beseler didn’t have much in the way of soldiers, but he had an enormous deployment of firepower. The Naval Division alone had three batteries of 305 mm howitzers, one battery of 210 mm howitzers, one battery of 150 mm howitzers, and three batteries of 100 mm guns. In addition, von Beseler had two of the monster 420 mm guns, as well as four Austrian and two German 305 mm howitzers. He also had engineer units equipped with heavy mortars, as well as ordinary field artillery.

The Belgians had learned something from their defeats. When General Gerard Leman had pulled out his infantry from Liège, he had given the German artillery observers a free ride. Now the Belgians realized their error. To have any chance of success, the defense of a fortified place required a joint effort involving the garrisons of the forts, infantry operating in the intervals between the forts, and artillery behind the forts. Besides, Antwerp was the last defensible Belgian position. So the army stayed put and von Beseler’s troops had to attack each position separately.

Ersatz divisions were composed of men who had not been called up for compulsory military service before the war owing to the budget restrictions placed on the army by the Reichstag. Since they had done no military service prior to the war, they had to be put into newly formed units and given their basic training. By the time the siege started, these men had perhaps two months of military experience. At the other end of the spectrum, the Landwehr consisted of men whose basic training had been decades earlier.

The Belgian perimeter was 96 kilometres in length, but its main defences were concentrated in an outer ring. These provided concentrated targets for the German artillery attack. A dispersed defence, less reliant on armor and concrete, would have stretched the Germans' heavy artillery and ammunition supply to far greater effect.

The Belgian general staff, whose chief was responsible for the army when it was in the field, favored operations that were independent of the city. This line of thought tied in with the hopes of the French mission, who wished to see the Belgian army cooperating in the French great allied envelopment developing from the south, planned by General Joseph Joffre. But while the field army was within the fortifications, its command was in the hands of Antwerp's governor. His need was to pull the British and French to the Belgians, rather than to have the Belgians pulled to the British and French.

The Belgian government appealed to France and Britain for direct support. Joffre's response to Belgium's appeal was half-hearted. He refused to release anything more than a scratch force. Furthermore, their task as he saw it was to cover the Belgian army's retreat into France, so that it could join the main operations and extend his left wing. While the British were urging the Belgians to prolong Antwerp's defence, Joffre was simultaneously using his emissaries to persuade them to abandon it. In the event, Britain's direct contribution to Antwerp's defence was limited.

In addition to being a port, Antwerp, located 126 kilometers from Ypres, was of course close to the allied lines, and could have been reinforced. At the rate of a fortification every day or so, it would take weeks to reduce the place. So the Entente had plenty of time. Disturbed by the prospect of losing the port, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, went to Antwerp to see for himself what the situation was, and Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, telegraphed that he was organizing a relief force.

Britain's real problem was that it did not have the men to pursue two strategic options simultaneously. Its decision to send the newly formed 7th division to Belgium did not stop the Belgians concluding that the government should leave Antwerp. This was widely interpreted as a resolve to abandon the city entirely, a confusion compounded by Churchill, who thought that the plan was to evacuate the field army.

Winston Churchill had himself appointed the British plenipotentiary, and together with the Royal Naval Division undertook to revitalize the city's defence. The First Lord's actions generated severe doubts as to his judgement. It was not appropriate for a cabinet minister to leave his post in the middle of a war in order to undertake a de facto field command. Churchill justified his unconventional behaviour by arguing that he had prolonged the defence of Antwerp, and that in doing so he gave sufficient time for the allies to secure the Channel ports.

The Antwerp forts had not been built to withstand the shells the German and Austrian heavy weapons were firing. Fort de Wavre fell, and from then on the fortifications surrendered at the rate of one or two a day. Von Beseler was full of plans to speed things up by more aggressive attacks, but he didn’t have the men, and the German General Staff wouldn’t give them to him. Despite French and British reinforcements, the garrison could not hold and had to withdraw. Five days of infantry attacks and bombardment by super-heavy siege artillery were enough to breach the outer ring of forts.

Most of the projected reinforcements never actually arrived, save for the British marines. The handful of marines who arrived — approx 3,000 — did little to turn the situation around. The Entente had basically decided that Antwerp was a lost cause. The Field Army evacuated, and the population followed it, their desire to flee stimulated by a German ultimatum that unless the place capitulated, they would start shelling the city itself.

The Belgians had made sorties from Antwerp trying to disrupt German communications, but these efforts had merely exacerbated the exhaustion and low morale of their own troops. King Albert's objections notwithstanding, Joffre spurred him into ordering a third sortie. This had hardly begun when the Germans opened a bombardment against Antwerp's outer forts.

At Antwerp the Germans had been far too slow, and not particularly adept; as was to be expected of a patched-together force composed of rusty reservists and brand-new recruits. As inept as von Beseler’s mixed force of the raw and the retired was, he had still managed the remarkable feat of forcing the surrender of an opponent who not only outnumbered him but enjoyed uninterrupted communications with the outside.

The Germans found thirteen hundred artillery pieces and nearly a million rounds of ammunition, together with hundreds of trucks. And, of course, the greatest prize of all: Antwerp, arguably the most important port in Europe. In London, Lord Hankey, who like everyone else in the Cabinet was surprised by Antwerp’s sudden fall, thought this the worst loss so far.

The Entente were not so much beaten in combat as scared into quitting. At first glance, the actual military effects of the heavy guns was less than impressive: in two weeks of shelling, the Germans managed to knock out less than half the heavy guns of the forts. But much of the shelling was aimed not at the forts, but at the infantry positions in the intervals.

The psychological impact of the big guns was enormous. Near misses might not destroy a turret, but would pop the rivets on the armor plate loose, with lethal consequences. Few observers or gunners would man a turret after witnessing the gruesome results. The occasional direct hit, which did spectacular damage, apparently left a lasting impression in the collective mind of the garrison. Facing what seemed the near certainty of annihilation — and being helpless to fight back — the gunners increasingly opted to surrender.

German attacks drove the Entente out of most of the little that was still left of independent Belgium. The greater part of the Belgian Field Army duly carried out a further retirement to the Nieuport-Dixmude line along the River Yser. The front line was held in a costly defensive battle. Victory at the Yser allowed the Belgian Army to maintain control of a small portion of its territory, while the Germans controlled 95% of Belgium.

Joffre failed to grasp how disorganized the retreating Belgian army had become. He assumed that it could return to the fray within forty-eight hours, intending it to swing inwards towards Ypres, and so extend once more his left wing. King Albert had different ideas: his priority was to preserve his army and even, if possible, a bit of Belgium. Having abandoned Antwerp, the Belgian Field Army, with the French Marine Brigade, consolidated its positions between Dixmude and the coast near Nieuport. King Albert's decision to stand there, rather than help his allies inland, proved sensible.

King Albert's order of the day to the Belgian army on the 16th of October 1914 was uncompromising: those who fled the battlefield would be shot by marksmen posted to the rear, officers claiming to be sick would be court-martialled, and general staff officers were to be posted to the front line. The Yser itself was not a major obstacle, and the waterlogged ground meant that trenches could only be one or two feet deep.

The German attack pushed back Belgian outposts east of the Yser, but further assaults were repulsed at Dixmude and at Nieuport, where the Germans were shelled by Entente warships. French General Ferdinand Foch sent the French 42nd Division to stiffen the Nieuport sector, but the Germans established a bridgehead across the Yser, at Tervaete. Once again employing their super-heavy guns, the Germans delivered repeated blows at Dixmude — now perilously close to being outflanked.

As their losses grew, it became progressively more difficult for the Belgians to continue their stubborn defence. Consequently they opened the gates of the Fumes lock at Nieuport and flooded the low ground east of the embankment carrying the Nieuport-Dixmude railway. At first this desperate measure did not stop the Germans who had reached Pervyse. However, the rising water forced von Beseler to pull back across the Yser. Frustrated near the coast, General Erich von Falkenhayn and Duke Albrecht were obliged to turn their attention inland again and launch their next major attack in the Ypres area.