Siege of Antwerp, 1914

German Bombardment of the Forts and City

27-Sep-1914 — 07-Oct-1914

The huge German 42cm siege gun was named “Dicke Bertha”.
42cm German Heavy Siege Gun

From the night of 27/28 September 1914 the Germans launched an artillery bombardment in the southern sector of the outer ring of forts which protected the city of Antwerp. They fired over 160 heavy guns, including four super heavy 42cm (16.2") howitzers. Under the command of General von Beseler the German plan was to smash the two Waelhem and Wavre Ste Catherine forts and push north into the inner ring of forts. On the morning of 29 September, as these two forts in the south were under intense bombardment, the Belgian Prime Minister and Minister of War, Baron de Broqueville, asked the British Minister in Belgium, Sir Francis Villiers, to report officially that if the Germans broke through the outer ring of forts and were in a position to attack the inner ring then the Belgian Royal Court and Government would leave Antwerp and the Belgian Field Army (about 65,000 men) would evacuate to Ostend on the coast. The garrison of 80,000 Belgian defenders would remain in the forts and Antwerp city. A similar message was sent to the French official representative in Belgium. It was agreed by the French and British Governments to send a small force of troops to support the Belgians in the hope of holding out a defence at Antwerp until the main body of the British Expeditionary Force could arrive from its current location in the Aisne region.

Two Outer Ring Forts Evacuated

By 18.00 hours the following day, 29 September, the two forts were so badly destroyed that they were evacuated but not yet lost to the enemy. The possibility of the city holding out against such devastating, accurate firepower was under serious threat. On this day the Belgian Army Headquarters began preparing to leave Antwerp for relocation at Ostend. For the next 8 nights, under cover of darkness, trains successfully left the besieged city carrying wounded, recruits, untrained men, what munitions and supplies they could to Ostend.

On 2 October the Belgian Supreme Council of National Defence, presided over by King Albert I, decided that the Council of Ministers, the Government and the Queen would leave Antwerp on 3 October. Posters warning the civilian population about this were put up during 2 October.

Although this was not formally decided at the meeting, the British Minister in Belgium was informed after the meeting that the King would also retire from the city from 3 October with the Field Army in the direction of Ghent. The British received this news with alarm and responded by urging the Belgians to hold on if they could and that a brigade of British Marines would immediately move to Antwerp to support them.

British Relief Force Sent to Antwerp

A few days earlier the British Marine Brigade (four battalions of about 2,000 men in total) and the Oxfordshire Yeomanry had arrived at the port of Dunkirk (between 19-22 September). A detachment of British armoured cars and aeroplanes already in Flanders under Commander C R Samson, RN, with cars and 50 motor buses with drivers enlisted as Marines joined this small British force. This force was intended to give the Germans the impression that they were advanced units of a larger British force heading for Antwerp to support the Belgian Field Army. On 28 September one battalion of the Marine Brigade had gone to Lille to cover the withdrawal of French Territorial units from the area as the German advance pushed westwards during the so-called “Race to the Sea”. The remainder of the British Marine Brigade (three battalions of about 1,500 men in total) had first gone to Cassel. From there they worked with French troops clearing away German advance cavalry patrols which were scouting in the area.

On 3 October the siege and bombardment of Antwerp was in its sixth day; the two forts of Waelhem and Ste Catherine were in German hands, a gap in the south sector of the outer defensive ring had been forced, and the decision had been made to evacuate the Royal Court and the Belgian government. The three battalions of the British Marine Brigade began to move to Antwerp. On the same day Mr Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, made a day visit from London to Antwerp by special train, meeting with Baron de Broqueville and King Albert. It was agreed at the meeting that:

  1. The Belgians would endeavour to defend the city for at least ten days.
  2. Within three days the British government would confirm if it would be able to send a relieving force and, if it could, when it would arrive.
  3. If the British could not offer this assurance, the Belgian government would be free to abandon the defence of Antwerp.
  4. If the Belgian Field Army was to be withdrawn the British would send troops to Ghent to cover the retirement.

On 4 October approval was given by the British government to put together a British and French force totalling about 53,000 men. The British force would comprise:

A French Relief Force

General Joffre, the French Commander in Chief, could not offer a force of Regular troops which were not already engaged in holding up the flanking attacks by the German Armies in their attempt to advance towards the coast. Instead the following troops were offered but they could not arrive for another 7-10 days:

It was crucial to keep a corridor open for the possible retirement of the Belgian Field Army either to the coast or south to Ghent. It was necessary to prevent it being cut off by the German advances into the southern defences of Antwerp and between Ghent and Antwerp. On 4 October the Germans made attempts to cross the Schelde River at Schoonaerde. At this same time the German Armies were gaining ground at Arras, with the capture of the important mining town of Lens on 5 October. German Cavalry units were advancing from Lille in the direction of Ypres. They already had cavalry patrols on the high ground south of Ypres on the Mont Noir and Mont des Cats. The British Expeditionary Force was beginning to leave the Aisne sector to move north but could not arrive in Belgium for another few days.

On 6 October the two naval brigades of the newly formed British Royal Naval Division, which had landed at Dunkirk on 3/4 October, did arrive in Antwerp within the three day limit to support the troops already there: the Belgian garrison, the Belgian Field Army and the British Marine Brigade.

One of the two British divisions offered by the British, the 7th Division, was, however, still underway on transport ships from Southampton. It would not arrive at Zeebrugge until 6/7 October. The 3rd Cavalry Division was not due to land at Ostend until 8 October. As per the agreement of 3 October, although more British troops were indeed on their way, the British government was not able to provide the full relief force to Antwerp city within the three days. On 6 October Lieut-General Sir Henry Rawlinson arrived in Antwerp from the Aisne by motor car to take command of the British relieving force as and when it should all be assembled in the area.

The situation at Antwerp and south of Antwerp for the Belgian Field Army was precarious. On 6 October King Albert and the Council of National Defence made a decision at 16.00 hours to withdraw immediately the greater part of the Field Army across the Schelde River to its west bank. That night the 8 forts of the inner line were occupied by Belgian fortress troops. The trenches between Forts 2 to 7 were occupied by the two British naval brigades. Three Belgian divisions crossed the Schelde to the west bank to join the two divisions already there.

In the early hours of 7 October two German battalions successfully crossed the Schelde River in boats at Schoonaerde under cover of a thick fog. Later in the day more German units followed them using a constructed pontoon bridge. The Belgian 6th Division could not defeat them. It was decided at this time to make a retreat by the Field Army to a position behind the Terneuzen Canal. King Albert moved his headquarters from Antwerp to Selzaete. The Belgian Chief of Staff requested Lieut-Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson to send any available British troops to support the Belgian brigade at Ghent. German cavalry had been reported in the area about 12 miles south of Ghent.

On 7 October the Germans captured the evacuated fort of Broechem and the Massenhoven Redoubt. German artillery was then brought forward over the Nethe River. That night at 23.25 hours the Germans gave notice that the city would be bombarded from the morning of 8 October. The German commander, General von Beseler, was under pressure from the German Supreme Command to take Antwerp and free the German units there so they could move on to assist the German advancing right wing which was now in the area of Ypres.

Evacuation of Antwerp

08-Oct-1914 — 10-Oct-1914

Decision to Save the Belgian Field Army

During 8 October and into the evening the main body of the Belgian Field Army was withdrawn to a position behind the Ghent-Salzaete Canal. The German artillery fired on Forts 3, 4 and 5 in the inner ring to force a gap in the ring, and fired on the city causing fires to break out. An incorrect report that German infantry had captured Forts 1, 2 and 4 resulted in the Belgian commanders having to make decisions regarding the apparent untenable situation. It was decided that the Belgian defenders should not continue to try to hold onto the forts, and it was decided to withdraw them into the city to defend it from the ramparts. The civil authorities maintained that they were prepared to hold out to the last. Even though news was received that Forts 1, 2 and 4 were not actually captured it was decided that, if the Belgian defenders could not reoccupy that sector of the defences, the British Royal Naval Division and the Belgian 2nd Division would be withdrawn at dusk. They would join the main body of the Belgian Army on the west bank of the Schelde River. The situation with the Belgian defences did not improve as the abandoned forts could not be reoccupied. The Belgian defenders were no longer able to form effective combatant formations. The Belgian commander General Deguise was concerned that the British Royal Naval Division should not be trapped in Antwerp because it was not well equipped and had had little training. The British government was informed that a withdrawal of the three British brigades in Antwerp was deemed necessary.

At 17.30 hours General Deguise sent out the instructions to withdraw to both the Belgian 2nd Division and the Royal Naval Division. The order successfully reached the Belgian 2nd Division, which set off from 18.30 hours on a 30 mile march and arrived to rejoin the main Belgian Field Army at Salzaete on 9 October.

Withdrawal of the British Naval Brigades

The order to withdraw was sent from the Royal Naval Division commander General Paris by three separate officers to each of his three British brigades — Marine, 1st and 2nd Brigades. Three battalions of the Marine Brigade and 2nd Naval Brigade received their order successfully at about 18.30 hours and they began to move off.

However, a mistake was made in the delivery of the message to the 1st Naval Brigade and the rear guard Portsmouth Battalion of the Marine Brigade. The message intended for the 1st Brigade commander was delivered instead to the commander of the Drake Battalion only. This resulted in the Drake Battalion marching off immediately and the other three battalions of the brigade and the Portsmouth Battalion (Marine Brigade) being left with no orders to move. They were unaware of that the rest of the British force was withdrawing. The 1st Brigade commander was eventually informed of the order to withdraw but it was 22.00 hours before he could move off due to German shelling onto his positions.

Meanwhile, the British Marine Brigade (3 battalions), the 2nd Naval Brigade (4 battalions) and the Drake Battalion (from 1st Brigade) managed to cross the Schelde River and reached Zwyndrecht by 23.30 hours. General Paris, the divisional commander, was incorrectly informed that all three brigades were present and so the force continued to St. Nicolas. Unfortunately there were no trains waiting for them there. The trains were 6 miles further north at St. Gilles Waes. The troops set off on a difficult, stop-start march along country roads packed with refugees and vehicles. From dawn on 9 October the first troops arrived at the waiting trains and eventually all the men of the Marine Brigade, 2nd Naval Brigade and the Drake Battalion were sent on their way to Ostend. It was only then that the three battalions of the 1st Brigade and the Marine rear guard Portsmouth Battalion were discovered to be missing.

These units had, as mentioned, set off eventually at 22.30 hours and had managed to cross the Schelde River on barges because the Belgian engineers were already destroying the bridges when they arrived at the river. They reached the rendezvous point at Zwyndrecht by about 04.00 hours, but the division had already left to go to the trains at St. Gilles Waes. The brigade commander Commodore Henderson went in search of the division and discovered that they had gone to St. Gilles Waes. His three battalions set off on the march along the roads filled with refugees and arrived there between 11.30 and 15.45 hours. A train had been arranged for them but when they were getting on it there was a message to say that the Germans were attacking the place of Moerbeke further along the railway line. Commodore Henderson made a decision:

“His men being neither trained nor equipped for field operations, exhausted by the night march and lack of food, and without any ammunition except the small amount remaining in their pouches, Commodore Henderson decided to march them across the Dutch frontier, which lay three miles to the north. There about fifteen hundred men, rather more than half the original strength of the brigade, arrived about 10pm, were stopped and disarmed. A party of about forty stragglers, who arrived at the frontier later, succeeded during the night in making their way undetected along it. They were picked up next day and brought on by motor omnibuses sent out to search for them.” (1)

These 1,400 men were interned in neutral Holland for the rest of the war.

The rear guard British battalion of the Marine Brigade, the Portsmouth Battalion, did reach St. Gilles Waes but on hearing there were no trains there they marched on to the next station, picking up stragglers of the 1st Naval Brigade. These British troops got on a train at Kemseke, which was packed with refugees. However, near Moerbeke the engine was derailed by a German shell, causing panic amongst the civilians. The Portsmouth Battalion men made an attack against the Germans at the village. The British battalion commander and half of the battalion moved on to Selzaete and another train. Unfortunately about 900 of these British troops, most of whom were stragglers from the 1st Naval Brigade, and about 400 Belgians were forced to surrender to the Germans.

Meanwhile, back in Antwerp during the night of 8/9 October most of the Belgian fortress troops also left Antwerp and made their way to the west bank of the Schelde.

Antwerp Surrenders

09 Oct 1914 — 10-Oct-1914

On the evening of 9 October the Germans found some of the inner ring of forts abandoned and decided to cease the bombardment. General von Beseler sent a summons to the Military Governor to surrender the city. At the same time the civil authorities of Antwerp went to the general to ask him to cease the bombardment. With the threat of the Germans starting up the bombardment onto the city, the civil representatives signed the capitulation of the fortress.

The next morning the Chief of Staff of the Military Governor met with the Germans to discuss terms of surrender. He had no option but to agree to the terms already arranged with the civil representatives the night before. This Staff officer, the Military Governor and some troops still in the forts were taken prisoner. The official date of the surrender of the city of Antwerp is given as 10 October 1914, although it does appear as 9 October in some accounts.

On 10 October King Albert held a conference at Ostend with General Pau (General Joffre's representative) and Sir Henry Rawlinson. Meanwhile the German units which had already crossed the Schelde and arrived at Lokeren and Moerbeke did not follow on behind the Belgian troops towards the coast. Instead they turned east into Antwerp but were not aware until the next day that the Belgian Field Army and most of the British supporting troops had escaped being trapped in the city. Three German divisions were first ordered to Courtrai to the right flank of the advancing German front towards Ypres. This order was then changed so they were instructed to advance to the coast to Blankenberghe and Ostend via Ghent and Bruges.

Next >> Battle of the Yser 1914

Related Topic

Breendonk Fort National Memorial

Fortress of Breendonk National Memorial

One of the forts in the ring of forts around Antwerp is open to visitors.

Fortress of Breendonk National Memorial

Breendonk Fort photo licensed under Creative Commons. (1)

Acknowledgements & Sources

Dates have been taken from a 1987 reprint of the following book first published in 1922 by His Majesty's Stationery Office: History of the Great War - Principal Events 1914-1918. ISBN - 0 948 13031 8

Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1914,Volume II: Antwerp, La Bassée, Armentières, Messines and Ypres, October - November 1914, Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds, 1925

Photograph of Big Bertha 42cm howitzer in action courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

(1) Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1914,Volume II: Antwerp, La Bassée, Armentières, Messines and Ypres, October - November 1914, Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds, 1925, p 60.

(1) Photo of Breendonk. Used under license of Creative Commons: