Friday, 2 January 2015

The Defence of Antwerp and the battle for North Belgium

Stower's portrait image of the siege of Antwerp October 1914
Antwerp, strongly fortified, was strategically and emotionally important to the Belgians. It was important to the Allies, particularly the  British, with access for their fleet along the Schelde estuary. For Falkenhayn, with his priority of controlling the Belgian coast driving strategy, it became essential to over-run Antwerp. The Germans had been bothered by two Belgian sorties from the fortress – the first at the time of Le Cateau, the second during the Aisne fighting - and they were determined now to remove the lingering threat to their communications. Westwards from Antwerp they would be able to establish control over coastal Belgium and beyond if they were quick enough.

The Belgians fought a strong rearguard action to stay as far south of Antwerp as possible, so that the fortress remained out of range of the giant guns that had destroyed Liege and Namur, but the Germans continued to press. A formal siege of Antwerp’s sixty-mile perimeter began on 28 September, though the road west, running along the Dutch–Belgian frontier, remained open for Allied reinforcements to reach the city. Large tracts of surrounding countryside had been flooded, to deny them to the enemy, but the consequence was that defenders outside the forts could not entrench themselves in the waterlogged ground. The outer forts, with Fort Wavre the largest, held out for four days, more than could be expected against the modern German artillery, definitely longer than Liege and Namur. However, by the night of Wednesday the 30th, the bombardment had become continuous and murderous.
British Naval marines assisting
the defence of Antwerp

As the Belgian leadership wilted under this immense bombardment, the British and French Governments urged further resistance and defence of Antwerp to help their defence of the Channel ports in the race to the sea. Along with a Division of naval marines, Churchill went personally to Antwerp, arriving there on 3rd October. The Belgians were being crushed by the 17 inch Howitzers destroying their defensive forts one by one. The Belgian view was that to lose Antwerp AND their Army would be disastrous, so they were better off retreating north and west towards the coast. Churchill and Kitchener’s efforts secured 53,000 British and French men to support the defence of Antwerp. All this was a supportive tactic to enable the left wing of the main allied forces to join up with the defence, and push the allied position on the coast as far east and north as possible. However, the Belgian spirit was pulverized and almost broken. British naval marines appeared in the line on the morning of 4th October, and Churchill, amazingly,  found himself trapped and in command of this front line. He telegraphed London offering to resign as First Sea Lord in order to continue, but was refused, and General Rawlinson was sent to relieve him, arriving on 6th. Despite the reinforcements, a retreat along the west bank of the Scheldt became necessary to give the best chance of meeting up with the Anglo-French left wing, and to cover Ghent. Churchill got back to England on 6th, subject to much criticism. Antwerp became untenable by the evening of the 8th, and was evacuated, with the Belgian army and the French and British reinforcements heading west to the Yser and Dunkirk. By the 10th, the Germans occupied it. 
However, the defence had been extended by five precious days, this stretched to ten days with German indecision post Antwerp. Gradually they constituted a new 4th army, led by Beseler to strike west through Belgium towards Calais. This led to the battles of Yser and First Ypres, which would surely have been lost but for the time gained in defending Antwerp to the last.  It enabled French and Haig to get to Ypres, otherwise Calais, Dunkirk and even Boulogne may have fallen.

Battle of the Yser
Between Nieuport, the port on the coast a mile from the ocean, and the town of Dixmude, where the Yser turns sharply to the south west is a distance of ten miles. "The whole country there is blind and sodden, as ill fitted for the passage of troops and guns as the creeks and salt marshes of the Essex coast." (Buchan)

By 17th October Beseler was in position to the east of Nieuport, and early the next day he attacked, with the intention of seizing the Nieuport bridge. At this moment, unexpected help arrived in the shape of a coastal barrage from the  British Navy lying close in to the shore. Three shallow draught ships under command of Hood had left Dover the night before and arrived just in time to harry the German advance. But the battle for the coastal route was only just beginning. Further inland, out of reach of the British ships, the Germans had made a number of significant advances westward to challenge the line of the Yser. On 23rd October they succeeded in crossing at St. Georges and towards the railway at Ramscapelle. On 25th they were pushing hard and it looked as if they would cross the Yser line completely; but every yard was contested and the German progress was slow and costly. By 28th they were almost to the Nieuport-Dixmude railway, and the Allied left was almost broken. 
Flooding the plain of the Yser

At this point the Belgians played their last card. They broke the dykes of the Yser and gradually flooded the plains of the Yser to a depth of several feet. Germans were drowned in hundreds. They had to redirect their efforts further south and focused on Dixmude, which was the only point where a bridgehead, if won, could be maintained. The defence of the town by the Belgians was a truly valiant act. Although the town was reduced to rubble, it was held until the 10th November by which time the strategic importance had been lost, and the decisive action was further south in the Ypres salient.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.