'The Fall of Antwerp'
from 'the Manchester Guardian History of the War'
Part IX - January 20th 1915


From a British Newsmagazine

Refugees at the station in Hulst, 25 km from Antwerp.


On the 25th of September, the German offensive against Antwerp began with a strong reply to a forward movement made by the Belgians some days previously along the three main roads from Malines to Louvain and Brussels. Desultory fighting in this area had been fairly constant for two weeks previously, and at one time the Belgians carried their advance nearly to Vilvorde, within a few miles of Brussels. They were unable, however, to hold this position, and fell back first on the villages of Eppeghem, Elewyt, and Weerde, on the 22nd and 23rd, and on the villages of Sempst and Hofstade later. From these, they were driven back on the afternoon of the 25th, after some severe fighting, to positions defending the railway line from Malines to Termonde, which were covered by the gunfire from the forts of Waelhem and Wavre St. Catherine. While making this attack, the German troops under General von Beseler, who conducted the whole of the operations, made some display of force to the south of Termonde; and in view of the possibility of a renewed attempt on the part of the enemy to force the passage of the Scheldt there, reinforcements were hurriedly sent across to aid in holding the river. These came into action oil the 26th, and succeeded in driving the enemy back from the villages of Auderghern and Lebbeke for nearly four miles, while at the same time a small force of Belgian troops attacked the Germans on their left flank, and pressed them back on Alost. This slight success, however, was counteracted by a forward movement of the Germans on the east side, where, on the 26th, they completely cleared the wooded countrv south of Malines of Belgian troops, and won the first pawn in the emplacement for their guns within striking distance of the forts of Whalem and Wavre Sainte Catherine. The strength of the besiegers was about 60 000 men.

During those two days the enemy aeroplane service was especially active. Taubes were seen constantly passing to and fro over the fortified area, and over Antwerp itself; and though these were repeatedly fired at by the Belgian high elevation guns, they succeeded in observing without mishap the Belgian positions from Malines to the city pontoon bridge over the Scheldt.


On the 27th the fighting was active on the western side, and the Germans regained much of the ground th~y had lost to the south of Termonde. Lebbeke and Audeghem were retaken, and the Belgian troops fell back on St. Gilles, the southern suburb of Termonde which was then in ruins and on Grembergen, to the north of the river. The attack on this wing was afterwards constant for several days, but the positions remained materially unchanged, the Germans contenting themselves with attempting repeatedly to shell and destroy the bridge over the Scheldt between the advance guard and the Belgian field force. On this day - Sunday, the 27th it became clear, however, that the main attack on the fortress of Antwerp, apart from any enveloping movement that might follow the crossing of the Scheldt, was to be directed against the southeast side. At about eight o'clock in the morning the Germans began the bombardment of Malines which had already suffered severely from two bombardments earlier in the campaign and the first shots were exchanged with the fort of Waelhem. In Malines a number of civilians were killed while returning from church, and buildings in the Place de la Gare, the barracks, and the establishment of the Little Sisters of the Poor were completely wrecked. By shortly after mid-day - following a heavy rain of shells for two hours - the whole of the civil population had fled towards Antwerp, and the town was in the hands of the Belgian Army. No infantry attack was made, however on the town on that day or on the day following. On Monday, the 28th, heavier guns of 28 and 30 cm. were brought into action against the forts, and it became obvious that the Germans, during their operations a month earlier to the south of Malines, must have secured concrete foundations for their guns below the embankment of the railway between Malines and Louvain, which they had obstinately held throughout the time in the face of repeated attack. On this day an infantry attack was pushed forward to the cast of Termonde, but was repulsed with some considerable loss.

Tuesday, September 29th, was in many respects the decisive day. The enemy extended his bombardment to the redoubt of Koningshoycht and the fort and town of Lierre, and till 4-30 in the afternoon maintained a continuous bombardment of the forts of Waelhem and Wavre St. Catherine. His infantry occupied the south and cast side of the town of Malines, and made a small attack between the forts of Liezel and Breendonck, which was repulsed. This attack and other similar attacks made during the course of the operations were never of a conclusive nature. Their object appeared to be merely to prevent the defending infantry force from concentrating at any one point, and perhaps as might have been done fighting forward to the gun positions. On this occasion the attack, however, cost the enemy dearly in men, as the Belgians allowed it to press well forward before sweeping and decimating the ranks with short range artillery and infantry fire.

During the day it became apparent that the guns in the two southerly forts were outclassed by the Austrian siege guns employed against them, and one of the cupolas of Waelhem fort was damaged beyond repair by the enemy's shells. Further, a severe blow was dealt to the city by. the damage done to the reservoir, which lies slightly to the north of the fort. Shells were dropped continuously on the reservoir dyke, which at last gave way in part, and was completely ruined on th2 following, day. The water poured out into the infantry trenches.. and that day till the end of the siege the city, though entirely without water, and its health was in consequence gravely endangered.

On the side of Lierre considerable progress was made by the enemy artillery, and the town especially suffered from the bombardment, which was continued throughout the night. The position of the town behind the fort had made bombardment in this case almost inevitable, and many of the civil population left at the commencement of the operations, but over a hundred civilians of all ages were killed during this and the following day, Wednesday, the 30th of September, when the bombardment of all three forts was resumed with renewed vigour. Several infantry attacks were also delivered at different points on the are of the fortifications between the Scheldt and the Serme, but these were in every case repulsed with considerable loss to the enemy, mainly owing to the elaborate preparations against infantry attack which had been made by the garrison during the preceding month. The enemy also resumed on this day his offensive movement towards Termonde, and the Belgians were forced to retire across the Scheldt, after blowing up the wooden bridge. At Waelhem fort part of the powder magazine was blown up, but whether as the result of an accident or owing to the enemy's fire has not been definitely determined.


On the evening of this day a certain amount of unrest and disquiet became apparent among the civil population of Antwerp. Constant processions of wounded had been pouring into the city, and stories spread by soldiers to the effect that the forts could not hold out were more believed than the official communiqués and the unofficial but censored accounts of the operations which appeared in the Press. The citizens had been schooled to believe the fortifications impregnable, and they did not easily abandon their belief. Once, however, a crowd gathered round two soldiers who were spreading alarmist stories, and only their arrest and the statement in the Press next day that they had been severely dealt with prevented a demonstration by at least a small part of the populace.

On Thursday, October 1st, it became clearly apparent that the attacking force had a superiority in weapons which it was useless to hope could be resisted. New emplacements were taken tip by the tighter guns, and the forts and redoubts of the whole sector from Waelhem to Lierre were pounded mercilessly. Waelhem and Wavre St. Catherine were silenced by the end of the day, and during the night the whole of the defending force east of the Senne fell back on the Nethe. The resistance of the outer ring of fortifications had lasted only five days.

The position taken up on the Nethe was a strong one if backed by good artillery, but no sooner had the Belgian force entrenched itself than the enemy changed his plan. The first ring of fortifications had been won by the use of heavy artillery on stationary forts. The second was the Belgian field army, strongly entrenched. Against his the whole weight of the lighter artillery - some four hundred guns, according to some estimates - was brought to bear, and the army, already fatigued, was subjected to a rain of shrapnel night and day, which gave no respite and little chance of reply.

On this day, the 21 rd, an interesting episode occurred. A Taube, flying very high, passed again and again across the city and dropped copies of a proclamation signed by General you Beseler, commander-in-chief of the besieging army, telling the populace that resistance was useless. Their brave army, it read, had done enough. To persist in resistance was only to imperil their own innocent lives to serve the perfidious purpose of England, which was alone responsible for such a cruel and senseless war.

The proclamation in itself had tittle effect, but by next day, Saturday, the 3rd, it was apparent that there was little hope for the salvation of the city. The fort of Lierre was occupied by the enemy, and two proclamations, one by the Burgomaster, Monsieur de Vos, giving permission to leave the city, and another by General de Guise, the military governor, calling on the people to preserve their calmness and sang froid, were issued. At one time in the day the hospitals were ordered to be in readiness to leave, and many of the wounded were actually sent away to the coast, while several members of the Diplomatic Corps and of the Ministry left for Ostend. It was well understood, that the whole of the Ministry would leave during the evening or next morning, and that the Government would be transferred to Ostend. When all preparations had been made, however, the Government reversed its decision, in consequence of a message from England that reinforcements were already on their way, and that Mr. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had left for Antwerp in order to consult on the situation.


0n Sunday, October 5th, in confirmation of this message, the first detachment of the British troops - a brigade of Royal Marines - arrived by train at the Waes station, and marched across the pontoon bridge into the city. They were greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The despondency of the previous day gave way to the wildest demonstrations of joy, and everywhere that the troops went they were cheered by enormous crowds. When completed next day, these reinforcements consisted of one Marine Brigade and two Naval Brigades, with some heavy naval guns, manned by A.B.'s - in all, 8,000 men. Under the command of General Paris, R.M.A. The first detachment to arrive was hurried at once out to the trenches on the Nethe, where they took up a position on the left of the Belgian Army and dug themselves in, making trenches in squares, with a good overhead protection.

In the course of the afternoon Mr. Churchill himself arrived and within an hour also went out to the front to inspect the position. On this day, and during the three subsequent days which he spent in Antwerp, he was repeatedly under fire. On the clay of his arrival lie informed the Burgomaster that it was the intention of the English to hold the city at all costs, but after a short inspection it became plainly obvious that the reinforcements had arrived too late. Their composition, and the action and attitude of Mr. Churchill, were subsequently the subject of considerable criticism in a section of the English Press; but adverse comment did not long survive the statement issued by the Admiralty that the Naval Brigades were chosen for the work "because the need for them was urgent and bitter; because mobile troops could not be spared for fortress duties; because they were the nearest, and could be embarked the quickest; and because their training, although incomplete, was as far advanced as that of a large portion not only of the forces defending Antwerp, but of the enemy forces attacking. “The Naval Division," the statement added, "was sent to Antwerp not as in isolated incident, but as part of a large operation for the relief of the city. Other and more powerful considerations prevented this from being carried through." (The nature of these operations and the reason for their failure will be discussed in a later chapter.)

Their numbers and inexperience considered, the British acquitted themselves well. The brigade of Royal Marines - which consisted of about 2,000 men - alone was fully trained, experienced, and equipped, but the lads of the Naval Division stood the fierce shrapnel attack of the enemy well, and repulsed repeated attempts to cross the Nethe opposite their section. Four of the six 4'7 naval guns which were brought with the force were mounted on an armoured train, which had been built under the supervision of Lieutenant-Commander Littlejohn, in the yards of the Antwerp Engineering Company, at Hoboken. This train was in action repeatedly, and though the guns were not equivalent in range or calibre to the Austrian siege guns, by reason of their mobility they inflicted considerable damage, while they themselves while being almost immune from dangerous attack.


The passage of the Nethe was resisted throughout Monday, the 5th, in the face of repeated attacks, but on the morning of the 6th the Belgian defence on the right of the Marines was forced back by a heavy attack covered by powerful artillery. It was remarkable that all attempts to pontoon the river on the two previous days had failed, and this final assault was carried out by a force of about Germans, who had waded and swum the stream during the night.

In consequence of this reverse the whole of the defence was withdrawn to the inner line of forts, the intervals between which were very strongly fortified, but it was then obvious that the city was doomed, In the evening, General de Guise informed the Government that the position was fast becoming untenable, and acting on this information the capital was transferred to Ostend on Wednesday morning, when the members of the Government and the Diplomatic Corps left by steamer. On the same day Mr. Winston Churchill also left by motor-car for the coast, under escort of one of the armoured cars of the Naval Brigade. The British and the Russian Ministers left about noon, and the King of the Belgians, who had been present during the whole of the operations and had exposed himself repeatedly frequently to fire, left for St. Nicholas.

Till this morning, Wednesday the 7th, the civil population - buoyed up by the arrival of the British - was kept in almost complete ignorance of the actual state of affairs. The two Antwerp newspapers, printed in French, the Matin and the Metropole, published each day official communiqués which categorically denied that any of the forts had been silenced, and declared in positive terms that the enemy was being held all along the line, white the Flemish newspapers were similarly restricted. Although the sound of the guns came nearer and nearer, the populace was therefore comparatively calm, though plainly anxious, till on this morning, after the departure of the Government, proclamations signed by General de Guise were posted up on the streets announcing that the bombardment of the city was imminent. A proclamation issued by the Burgomaster recommended those who desired to leave the city to do so by the north and northeasterly roads to Holland, and those who intended to remain to take shelter in their cellars, covering any apertures with sand bags. The effect of these proclamations was instantaneous. The calm and sang froid which the citizens had preserved broke down, and thousands left at once by train, by boat, by motor and carriage where possible, and on foot. The majority of these were people of the richer class, and the plight of many was pitiful. Along the western roads, in the Waes region especially, where all means of traffic broke down owing to the congestion of the roads, hundreds of elderly people and children were compelled to spend the night in the open. On this day, too, the lions and other dangerous carnivora in the city's famous Zoo were destroyed, in case any should escape as the result of the bombardment.

Meanwhile, the German artillery was brought into position across the Nethe, and though exposed to a constant fire from the British naval guns and the guns of the inner ring of forts, succeeded in establishing itself. In the evening, several shells were dropped into the suburb of Berchem, and several civilians were killed. For some hours afterwards the fire from the forts was exceedingly active, but towards ten o'clock it ceased.

On the west side, the Germans on this day forced a passage across the Scheldt at Termonde, and also further west at Schoonaerde and Wetteren, in the face of a most determined opposition. Their advance was especially strong at Schoonaerde, where some of the most severe fighting of the whole Belgian campaign took place. The line of the river was, however, too long for the depleted and thoroughly fatigued Belgian troops to hold, and a retirement became necessary towards the line of St. Nicholas, Lokeren, and Ghent. This success of the enemy over the field army completely changed the aspect of affairs for the Antwerp garrison. There appeared the greatest danger of their being completely enveloped, and a retreat was imperative if the garrison was to be saved for further service. It was therefore immediately decided in view of the facts that the city could not be held, and that as the relief operations on the western side bad failed, to evacuate Antwerp as soon as could be done. The British General requested that the Marines and Naval Brigades should act as the rearguard, but General de Guise decided to retain this honour for his own troops, who had fought with consistent and admirable pertinacity against very superior odds. Preparations for the retreat were immediately made


During the day, the commander of the attacking force, in accord with the Hague Convention, sent to the garrison an intimation that it was his intention to bombard the city., to which General de Guise responded that he would take the responsibility for the bombardment. Earlier than this, General von Beseler had undertaken that, as far as was compatible with the usage of modern weapons of war, the cathedral and other public buildings in the town would be spared.

At midnight precisely the bombardment began, and continued without intermission, but not heavily, till five o'clock in the morning, when it ceased for two hours. Six-inch common shell and incendiary shells were used, and considerable damage was done, especially in the south-east side of the town, and in the suburb of Berchem. In the Rue de justice, which had already suffered severely from the Zeppelin bomb attack in August, no fewer than six houses were alight at one time, and owing tc. the scarcity of water no attempt was made to extinguish these or any other fires. Comparatively few civilians were killed during the night, but owing to the enormous exodus of the following day, when hundreds were lost to their friends, it has been difficult to ascertain the exact number.

Throughout the night fierce fighting went on constantly near the inner ring of forts, which were maintained intact till the evening of Thursday, the 8th, when forts 3 and 4 were captured. By this time, however, a large proportion of the Belgian army and the majority of the British force had crossed the Scheldt by the pontoon bridge, and retired towards the coast.


The happenings of this day were among the most extraordinary in human history. Alarmed at the stories of German atrocities in other parts of the country, unnerved by the bombardment, and desolated by the suddenness of the defeat which had come upon their strong town, almost the entire population - augmented by refugees from the surrounding villages to nearly half a million people - took to flight. By dawn thousands were collected on the quayside ready to board any and every available craft, and a close procession, which stretched nearly twenty miles to the Dutch frontier, poured out of the town. Every available vehicle was commandeered, and almost every bite of portable food was taken from the city. The streets were absolutely deserted, except for the long train of Belgian artillery and ambulances which stretched along the quay ready to cross the pontoon bridge, which was reserved almost solely for the use of the military and those few civilians - about 900 in all - who remained, and who for the most part secured themselves during the day and the following night, when the bombardment was very heavy, in the cellars of their houses. Early on Thursday morning the Belgian rearguard began to destroy, as far as possible, all military stores and food supplies in the city, and they set fire to the huge petroleum tanks on the west side of the river, in which the whole oil supply of Belgium and the lower Rhine provinces were stored. These burned continuously for nearly thirty-six hours, lighting up the whole city and country during the night, and covering the sky with a great cloud of smoke during the day. Lighters loaded with corn and tinned provisions were sunk in the river; and although it was not possible to complete the work of destruction, only a tithe of the city's huge stores was allowed to fall into the enemy’s hands. The cylinders of thirty-four German steamers detained in the port at the commencement of the war were destroyed.

During the night a stern rearguard action was fought round the inner ring of forts, where some part of the garrison elected to remain. The rest of the army crossed the pontoon bridge before nine o’clock in the morning and the bridge was blown up.

One feature of the siege must not be omitted. In Antwerp, whatever may have been the case elsewhere, the enemy was well supplied with information from inside. Spies were known to abound, and though exhaustive search was made and hundreds were arrested they succeeded in sending out information till the last. Two persons wearing the red cross were shot behind the English trenches on the last day, after being detected in signalling to the enemy, and on the retreat two cases of treachery, which almost proved disastrous, were punished with death.

On the day of the evacuation the German enveloping movement to the west of the city was pushed forward rapidly, and continuous fighting occurred on the south of the Belgian line of march. A large part of the retreating army was almost entrapped at Lokeren, where a matter of an hour or two only elapsed between their passing and the entrance of the Germans, while almost the whole force left in the city during the night of Thursday was cut off and forced over the Dutch frontier-among them the greater part of the First Naval Brigade, amounting to nearly 2,000 men. The majority of these crossed the frontier at Hulst, but some were arrested in the Dutch territorial waters of the Scheldt, where they were taken to Bath, disarmed, and interned. Nearly 15 000 Belgian troops crossed the frontier on the same day, and were also iliterned.

The fall of Antwerp was a terrible blow to Belgium. So long as it was theirs, the Belgians, however grave their sufferings might be, had a noble and historic city to rally their national hopes and to animate their resolution to be free. The difference when Antwerp was lost was between an embodied and disembodied ideal. Its sacredness was not diminished, but all its wealth and circumstance was gone, and nothing. remained but the poverty of life eating its bread with tears. Not since the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the Captivity has a whole nation suffered so much at the hands of another as Belgium. A million people - about a sixth of the entire population of the country - became refugees in the first two months of the war. Of these, about half fled to Holland a great number, especially from the Ardennes, to France and more than 100 000 to this country, where those who were not of military age were given shelter and food, and work if it could be found for them. Nor was the plight of the Belgians who remained at home better. Industry and trade, except such as may be stimulated by an army of occupation, was at a standstill, and unemployment was almost general. There was a serious scarcity of food, and had it, not been for the Americans, who made arrangements for the distribution of food under a guarantee that it should not be diverted to the use of the army of occupation, famine would have been added to the other tribulations of the country.

The German occupation of Antwerp and of the Belgian coast brought the war nearer to England than anything that had yet happened. There was deep regret that we had been able to do so little to save Antwerp, but, as the next chapter will show, our intentions were much greater than we were able to perform. The attacks on the policy of sending an expedition to the assistance of Antwerp have already been discussed. They were, in fact, made in ignorance of the fine strategic scheme of Sir John French, which was not revealed till later. But, in any case, we could not let Antwerp fall without doing something, whether on the ground of our own interest or of our obligation to Belgium. For the fall of Antwerp, as events were to show, meant the loss of the Belgian coast-line too; and though Antwerp could not - owing to the fact that the entrance to the Scheldt is Dutch territorial waters - be made a naval base, other Belgian ports both could and were.


To a Gallery of Illustrations from 'The Manchester Guardian'

Back to Siege of Antwerp