The Final Siege: Antwerp 1914 Part I

42 cm M-Gerät

On Saturday, 10 October 1914 Admiral von Schroeder, Antwerp’s new military governor, and General von Beseler, commander of the siege troops that had captured the fortress, watched as the siege corps marched in review, celebrating the capture of the Belgian National Redoubt. The most noteworthy thing about that day was the absence of civilian bystanders. Antwerp was practically empty of its citizens, most of them having fled before the fall of the city. Buildings were smashed and the smoke from the petroleum tanks burning at Hoboken could still be seen rising above the city to the west. Antwerp had become a dead city.

The forts were also dead and empty, their defenders having either escaped to the west, surrendered to the Germans or fled to Holland, where they would be kept in internment for the remainder of the war. It seemed as if it was all over for Belgium. Since 4 August Belgium’s three fortresses had been crushed by German siege guns and the remnant of the Belgian army was fleeing to the French border. But the loss of the city and the forts was not the end. In fact, the Belgian army escaped to the west only because the forts and defenders held out long enough for them to do so. Thanks to the Belgian and British defenders of Antwerp, the Belgian army would live to fight on and to hold a small piece of west Flanders that would cost the Germans (and the Allies) hundreds of thousands of casualties over the next four years. The Germans captured the city but they lost the Battle of Belgium.

On 16 August the last forts of Liège fell. In short order the German First and Second Armies advanced across Belgium. On the 17th the Belgian government fled from Brussels to Antwerp. The following day King Albert moved his army headquarters from Louvain to Mechelen, 25km from Antwerp. On the same day the Belgian army, minus the 4th Division at Namur, withdrew from its concentration point on the Gette and headed to Antwerp. When it seemed as though Namur was about to fall, General Michel pulled the 4th Division out of the fortress and it eventually made its way via France to Antwerp. The Germans marched triumphantly through Brussels on 20 August and began to move south into France. General von Kluck detached and left behind III Reserve Corps, along with the German Naval Division, to keep watch on the Belgian forces at Antwerp, and to guard his lines of communication to Liège.

King Albert and his commanders ordered a number of sorties from Antwerp to disrupt the German forces guarding the city. If they succeeded, perhaps the Belgians could move further across the country and disrupt the German lines of communication. Regardless, the goal was to cause havoc. The first sortie occurred on 24 August in the direction of Mechelen. The Germans easily held their position and pushed the Belgians back. On 9 September a second sortie was launched towards Vilvoorde and met with greater success, this time reaching a point 16km from the fortress line. On that same day, realizing the danger Antwerp posed to the German flank, and needing to remove the obstacle blocking the seizure of the channel ports, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered its capture. A relatively ineffective third sortie took place on 27 September, at the same moment as the siege of the fortress began.

On 27 September the Battle of Antwerp began, just as the other fortress sieges had, with a heavy bombardment. The following day King Albert received reports that this wasn’t just a demonstration of strength but an all-out offensive to capture the city: large bodies of German reserves were observed assembling at Liège to move towards Antwerp.

There was a general belief among those in the army and the government, and perhaps also the Belgian population, that Antwerp would never fall to a besieger. It was one of the largest fortified places in the world, with numerous forts. On the map the defences seemed to be formidable and impregnable, but the only map that mattered to the Germans was the one that told them the distance between their heavy siege artillery batteries and their targets: Antwerp’s obsolete ring of forts.

Fortress Antwerp was built by the Spanish in 1567, as the northern bastion and major port city of the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish surrounded the city with a bastioned wall fashioned with lunettes to the north, east and south, the Scheldt river acting as a major obstacle to the west. A large crown work called in later years the Vlaamsch-Hoofd or Tête de Flandres defended the left bank of the Scheldt. Two large citadels flanked the eastern and western ends of the enceinte where it met the river. This was what King Leopold’s commission of government and military officials found when he ordered a study of Belgium’s defences. In 1859 the decision was made to create a national redoubt and to improve the defences of Antwerp so it could serve as a place of refuge if Belgium were attacked. The army would retreat, along with the government, into the city, safe behind the ring of forts, and await rescue by the allied powers according to their terms of guaranteed neutrality.

Between 1861 and 1871 General Brialmont directed the construction of eight large forts along the southern flank of the city, between the outskirts of Wijnegem and Hoboken. These were simply called Forts I to 8. Their purpose was to extend the fortress perimeter in order to keep enemy guns out of range of the city. Flood zones were developed to protect the outlying portions of the perimeter. However, after the Torpedo Shell Crisis of 1885, and because the town had outgrown Brialmont’s inner ring, these defences had become obsolete. To counter the increased range of enemy guns, a second ring of forts was built further out from the city.

Due to financial constraints, only a few works were actually constructed. Two forts were built to the south at Walem and Lier, and a defensive dyke that could be controlled to create a flood zone was added on the left bank of the Scheldt, covered by Forts Zwijndrecht and Kruibeke. To the north Fort Ste-Marie was built and Forts St-Philippe and La Perle were modernized. Each of these forts was built of brick. Fort Steendorp was the first to be built using brick with a layer of concrete added on top. As funding became available in the late 1880s, Fort Schoten was built to the northeast, along with the small Fortin of Duffel to guard the Brussels–Antwerp railway. These were built entirely in non-reinforced concrete. The ring was completed in 1893 with the construction of Forts Oorderen, Berendrecht and Kapellen.

A new round of construction was planned in 1900 but was delayed for funding reasons until 1906. Thirteen new forts and twelve permanent interval redoubts were added. The forts were polygons, surrounded by a water-filled moat, with the entrance reached by a bridge across the moat. These forts more closely resembled the configuration of Brialmont’s earlier models, Forts 1 to 8, than the more modern Forts of the Meuse at Liège and Namur. The latter forts were built on high ground and had a central redoubt surrounded by a dry ditch. The terrain around Antwerp was flat and low-lying, with a high water table, so no ditch would stay dry for long.

By 1914 Antwerp was one of the largest fortresses in the world, with a circumference of some 95km. It consisted of thirty-five forts and twelve redoubts. The guns in the older forts were placed in open air batteries, but the new forts were equipped with 15cm, 12cm and 7.5cm guns in revolving steel turrets. The approaches to the forts were defended by 5.7cm rapid-fire guns in turrets. Like the forts of Liège and Namur, the Antwerp forts were built to withstand shelling from 21cm siege guns. Unfortunately the German siege corps brought much larger guns to use against the forts in 1914, including the 42cm and 30.5cm howitzers. Many of the forts were incomplete when the Germans approached in early September 1914.

The Opposing Forces at Antwerp

Belgium had six divisions to defend the fortress: a total of 80,000 men. Four divisions were tasked with defending the perimeter, with one division in reserve; the weakest division – the remnant of the 4th Division from Namur – was placed at Termonde to guard against a German crossing of the Scheldt. One cavalry division with 3,600 men was located southwest of Termonde to guard the lines of communication between Antwerp and Ghent. Finally, the forts were garrisoned with 70,000 fortress troops. General de Guise, who had left Liège in July, was in charge of the entire force.

The German siege corps was commanded by General Hans von Beseler and had a total strength of about 125,000 men. It consisted of III Reserve Corps, IV Ersatz Division, one division of Marine Rifles from Marine-Korps-Flandern, one Bavarian Division, the 26th and 27th Landwehr Brigades, one brigade of siege engineers, one brigade of light artillery and nine extremely powerful heavy siege mortar batteries. The heavy artillery batteries included the following:

•  KMK Battery 2: Hauptmann Becker with two 42cm Gamma

•  KMK Battery 3: Hauptmann Erdmann with two 42cm M-Gerät (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 1: Hauptmann Neuman with two 30.5cm mortars (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 4: with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 5: Hauptmann Sharf with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 6: Hauptmann Buch – one 30.5cm mortar

•  Festungsartillerie-bataillon Batteries 7 and 9, each with two 30.5cm Austrian mortars.

The Battle for Antwerp

Great Britain played a significant role in the battle for Antwerp. In fact, had it not been for the assurances of Sir Winston Churchill, there might not have been a battle in the first place. In support of his promises, the British sent a Royal Naval brigade and a brigade of Royal Marines – a total of 10,000 men under the command of General Archibald Paris – to Antwerp, although they were mostly raw recruits, poorly equipped and trained, with few, if any combat skills.

On 2 October, a few days into the battle for Antwerp, things were not going well for the Belgians. King Albert notified the British government of his intentions to pull out of Antwerp immediately to prevent his army from being trapped, as it was apparent that the fortress line was breaking and the Allies didn’t appear to be coming to the aid of the Belgians. General Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, had planned to send British troops to relieve Antwerp, and the French had promised the same, but these forces were still a few days away and would not reach the area in time. Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, replied that the British would send a brigade of marines to arrive on 3 October. Churchill himself decided to make a visit to Antwerp to reassure his ally, not least because it was in Britain’s best interests that Antwerp hold out as long as possible so the channel ports were not seized by the Germans. Their loss would be a severe blow to the allied efforts.

Churchill worked out an arrangement with the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles de Broqueville, under which the Belgians would hold out until the Allies arrived from the south. De Broqueville told Churchill he was confident they could hold for at least three more days, possibly more. Churchill assured him that if, in three days, they were not confident they could hold, they were under no obligation to stay and could retreat with Britain’s help: ‘If we can’t help them hold, we’ll help them get out.’ Thus, on the evening of 3 October some 2,000 marines were dispatched by train to Antwerp.

The fortress was far from complete at the start of the battle and the defences were still being organized. Concrete protection around the turret cylinders was not yet in place, and the engineers were obliged to use sandbags instead. Many of the turrets were without guns, and several of those that had guns were missing their firing sights. The forts also had other major construction flaws, in particular the quality of concrete used in their construction. They had been built to withstand 21cm shells, but the Germans had brought 30.5cm and 42cm guns to the front with an unlimited ammunition supply. Even if all the fortress guns had been available, the forward observation posts had not yet been set up so the guns would be firing blind. They also lacked an adequate supply of munitions. Worst of all, the Belgian guns did not have the range to reach the German batteries.

The engineers worked to overcome numerous geographic challenges presented by the region. The city had continued to expand outward, and obstacles blocking the guns’ lines of sight had to be cleared. Churches, farms and trees were levelled to the ground with explosives – nothing that stood in the way was spared. Because the land was flat, once the surrounding structures were cleared away, the outlines of the forts were easily visible to enemy observers. Worse, when the guns fired, they produced black smoke that could be seen for miles.

Principal targets of the German guns

•  below the Nethe river:

Fort Lier (10), Tallaert Redoubt (h), Fort Koningshoyckt (11), Boschbeck Redoubt (i), Dorpveld Redoubt (j), Fort Wavre-Ste-Catherine (12), Duffel Redoubt (k), Fort Waelhem (13);

•  to the west of the Willebrouck Canal:

Fort Breendonck (14), Lettereide Redoubt (l), Fort Liezele (15), Puers Redoubt (m), Fort Bornhem (16);

•  north of the Scheldt:

Fort Ruppelmonde (17), Lauwershoek Redoubt (n), Landmolen Redoubt (o), Fort Haesdonck (18), Fort Cruybeke (19), Fort Zwyndrecht (20); and

•  northwest of Antwerp, on either side of the Scheldt:

Fort Ste-Marie (21), Fort St-Phillippe (22).

Preparation of a 100km defensive perimeter line was a monumental task. Interval trenches were dug along most of the perimeter, but they tended to be shallow and poorly organized, and had no bomb-proof shelters. In some places they were little more than gullies. Obstructions were placed across the access roads. Paving stones were pulled up and used as barricades. Miles of barbed wire was stretched along the perimeter and around the defensive strongpoints. Infantry parapets were built up along the streams and canals. Bridges and viaducts were strewn with explosives, ready to be destroyed at a moment’s notice.

The outer ring of fortifications extended three-quarters of the way around the city, beginning on the right bank of the Scheldt north of the city and ending on the left bank to the northeast. The outer perimeter consisted of large forts with permanent redoubts built between the forts to serve as rallying points for the interval defence. The outer ring, beginning on the right bank northeast of Antwerp, below the Netherlands border, was arranged as follows: Berendrecht Redoubt (a), Oorderen Redoubt (b), Fort Staebroek (1), Staebroek Redoubt (c), Fort Ertbrand (2), Fort Cappellen (3), Fort Brasschaat (4), Dryoek Redoubt (d), Fort Schooten (5), Audaen Redoubt (e), Fort St Gravenwezel (6), Shilde Redoubt (f), Fort Oeleghem (7), Massenhoven Redoubt (g), Fort Broechem (8), Fort Kessel (9). The inner ring consisted of Forts 1 to 8 (23 to 30) and Fort Merxem (31). The Vlaamsch-Hoofd (32) was located across the Scheldt from the town centre.

The fortress was divided into five defensive sectors:

•  Sector 1: north – Forts St-Phillipe, Merxem, Cappelen

•  Sector 2: east – s’Gravenwezel, d’Oelegem

•  Sector 3: southeast – Nethe line near Lier and Duffel

•  Sector 4: along the Rupel – Bornem, Liezele

•  Sector 5: left bank of the Scheldt and in the area of Waes.

The Belgian army ordered the 1st and 2nd Divisions to Sector 3, while the 3rd and 6th Divisions were kept in Sector 4; the 4th Division occupied Termonde and the 5th Division remained as the general reserve.

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