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Fortress of Antwerp in the Great War

In 1859 it was decided that Antwerp should be taken as the main pivot of the system of national defence of Belgium, and that the numerous frontier fortresses should be suppressed. Its defences were therefore designed so as to form a vast entrenched camp, capable of receiving 10,000 men, and affording them facilities for an active defence. The old enceinte, which the town had long outgrown, was demolished ; together with its famous citadel, built by the Duke of Alva in 1575. The new enceinte forms an irregular curved line, about 9 miles in length, and consisting of eleven fronts. At the north extremity is a citadel abutting on the river Scheldt.

The seven southern fronts were alone exposed to regular attack. Their salients were in most cases very obtuse, so that the prolongations of the fronts were intercepted by the ravelins, but the suburb of Berchem made it necessary to throw forward the salient in advance of it, and the fronts on either side of this salient were therefore provided with detached ravelins, and counterguards to the faces, to protect the caponiers of these fronts from distant fire, and to make it more difficult for a besieger to establish himself at this salient. This, and the two salients nearest to it, were also provided with cavaliers. The remaining four fronts, between Deurne and the north citadel, were of the simplest possible trace. They had a rampart and broad wet ditch, flanked by caponiers, having seven guns in casemates on each side, but they had no ravelins.

The citadel was a simple polygon of seven sides, varying from 350 to 500 yards in length, and had a broad wet ditch. The two inner sides, facing the town, formed a re-entering angle, and defended each ofher. The remaining faces were flanked by four caponiers armed with artillery. The citadel was intended primarily to allow the garrison to defend the enceinte up to the last moment, and then to cover their retreat. It was also meant to make them independent of the temper of the population. Its position gave it the command of the Scheldt, both beside and below the town ; so that it can protect the passage of the garrison from the right to the left bank, when the enceinte had been forced, and can also oppose vessels that may have passed the lower batteries of the Scheldt.

The citadel and the four simple fronts adjoining it were provided with a covered way and an advanced wet ditch and they can be further covered by an extensive inundation in case of attack. In advance of this inundation, and extending from it to the bank of the Scheldt above the city, was a chain of detached forts.

The enceinte of Antwerp was of the polygonal trace. They were for the most part about l mile apart, and from 2 to 3 miles in front of the enceinte. They were large and powerful works, with a crest line of more than 700 yards on the front faces, and about the same on the gorge side. Each wns intended for an armament of 120 guns and 15 mortars, and required a garrison of 1,000 men. Their ditches were wet, and are flanked by caponiers mounting seven guns in each flank. In the gorge of each work was a large casemated keep, screened by a glacis in front, and a redan in rear. It is assumed that the regular siege of one of these forts would not be possible, in presence of the army encamped behind them, and that the enemy would attempt to carry them by assault after a heavy bombardment. In the intervals between the forts, batteries would be thrown up and armed to support them, as soon as the enemy showed where he intended to attack.

Despite all of this, by 1910-11 the defences of Antwerp against attack from the lower Scheldt were weak and inadequate, and they still remain so. It was decided to remove this weakness by constructing two new forts below Antwerp, one on each bank of the river, but this plan could not be carried out because it was dependent on the grandiose project for changing the course of the Scheldt. Consequently the forts were not and have not yet been built, but the weakness of Antwerp in the direction of the river and the sea remained none the less glaring and incontestable.

The Belgian Government had come to the momentous decision in 1911 that, whatever aid it might accept in the event of invasion from its friendly guarantors, in other directions it would itself defend alone its fortresses. This decision was most unqualified and emphatic in regard to Antwerp. The old understanding, one might even say, the fundamental axiom of Anglo-Belgian co-operation, was thus abandoned. Whereon a British expedition might be landed on the Belgian coast at the invitation of the Belgian Government, notice was given three years before the event that it was not to come to Antwerp.

They had every reason to believe that, when the outer ring of the forts were completed as was done in 1913, Antwerp could put up a very good defense and stand a long siege. No one imagined that monster guns up to those of 16.8 caliber could be conveyed across country or transported on any railway trucks that could be conceived. The 6-inch guns in the Antwerp forts were considered to be quite good enough to deal with any guns the Germans were likely to be able to bring against them. The first reason thus was belief in the strength of the fortified position of Antwerp. The second was a neutral and commendable patriotic pride which prompted the desire to make Antwerp the place of a final national stand. At Antwerp the Belgians were convinced that they could make a very protracted resistance, and best prolong the defense of their country. That part they attributed to themselves. Their allies and friends could operate elsewhere in Belgium, but Antwerp was to be reserved for the national forces.

In the Belgian scheme of national defense Antwerp was to be the shelter of the Government, including the Sovereign, the Legislation, the Treasury and the national archives, and of a large part of the fugitive population. In other words it was anticipated that there would be very little available space within the fortified position of Antwerp, and consequently a large British force could not be easily provided for. In old days the assumption had always been that Britain would send in the first place an expeditionary force of very limited dimensions, but the development of Continental armies had suspended that view, and the Belgian Government had to envisage the arrival not of a merely supporting but of a completely overshadowing British army. Looking at the situation before the terrible experiences of the Great War had opened everybody's eyes, it was very natural that the Belgians did not like to think of being effaced in the defense of their great national fortress, in which their faith and confidence were then complete.

Antwerp was not only one of the wealthiest commercial centres in Europe, but it was also a fortified place reputed to be of great strength. It was ringed around with two girdles of steel-and-concrete forts, the outer of which, some sixty miles in circumference, had been completed just before the outbreak of war. Its position, moreover, was naturally strong. It was protected on the south, east, and north-west by low-lying ground which could be readily flooded; its proximity to the Dutch border made its complete investment impossible; and the sea behind it afforded a means whereby it could obtain, if necessary, supplies and relief. It had been fortified indeed with a view to just such a contingency as had arisen: it was a sort of national citadel, within which the Belgian army might take refuge while assistance was coming.

The garrison, beginning to profit by the lessons learned at Liege and Namur, attempted to keep the enemy's big howitzers beyond range of the forts, but were driven back by the superior numbers of the Germans, whose siege guns were then brought up and quickly demolished the masonry forts. Thus the garrison was deprived of any further assistance from its larger guns and, being but poorly entrenched and unable to withstand the overwhelming artillery fire, was forced back to the inner line, thereby permitting the siege guns to come within range of the city, which had therefore to be abandoned promptly in order to prevent its destruction by bombardment.

The British expedition to Antwerp in October 1914 formed a very small part in a succession of blunders which after three years culminated in the great tragedy of the fall of the bulwark of Belgium's independence. Mr. Winston Churchill's so-called blunder was only the last and very far from the greatest of the many sins of omission and commission with which the British Foreign Office must be charged in connection with Antwerp.

The Antwerp door being closed to the British expedition, that through Ostend was held wide open, the Belgian Government made all the necessary arrangements for its reception at that port, and the military programme was drawn up on this assumption. It soon became clear that Ostend, even with the supplementary aid of Zeebrugge, would not do as the place of debarkation. Not merely is the entrance of such an intricate and restricted character that the necessary rapidity could not be attained, but the port could not be used by the large liners in which the bulk of the British forces and their supplies were sent across the Channel. The Belgian Government was informed, on or about the 9th of August, that the British expedition could not be landed at Ostend or on the Belgian coast at all, and that it was coming through France.

If Antwerp had been its landing place, as contemplated in the earlier plans, the British army would have occupied by that date a commanding strategical position on the flank and rear of the German armies advancing to attack the northern frontier of France, and many favorable opportunities must have presented themselves for attacking their narrow and exposed line of communications.

Belgium was at last engaged in a struggle for national existence produced by the attack of a ruthless neighbor. That national existence was limited to the fortified city of Antwerp. After evincing noble heroism, after suffering incredible and incalculable outrages and injury, Belgium was reduced to her last redoubt. The Belgian Government transferred its seat from Brussels to Antwerp between the 15th and 17th of August. On the 19th the Belgian main army under King Albert retired to Antwerp before the overwhelming masses of the German armies (eleven army corps), and after one severe combat at Aerschot it was completely under the shelter of the forts on the next day. The Germans marched on to attack the Allied armies in the south, leaving a comparatively small force to hold the Belgian army in Antwerp.

It was not until September 25th that the arrival of considerable bodies of troops with a train of formidable sized guns including 16.8 howitzers warned the Belgian authorities in Antwerp that the crisis had arrived. It took forty-eight hours to place the howitzers in position, and on September 28th they began the bombardment of the two principal forts on the south side, Waelhern and Waure St. Catherine. These forts were much damaged on the first day, and more or less destroyed on the second. It became clear that the defense of Antwerp could not be protracted any more than had proved to be the case at Namur, Maubeuge, and other French fortresses.

The German guns, from a distance of from seven to eight miles, pounded the steel cupolas and concrete works of Forts Waelhem and Wavre Ste. Catherine, neither of which mounted a gun having a range of over six miles. It was a repetition of the fate of Liege and Namur. By the early morning of September 29 Fort Wavre was silenced; its cupolas and concrete works were smashed as by an earthquake, its magazine was blown up, and its commander, when he insisted gallantly on returning to it with a fresh garrison, found that every gun was out of action. Waelhem, with one of its cupolas wrecked, continued its resistance during the day; but it was so battered that by October 1 it had only one gun firing. By October 1 Forts Koningshoyckt and Lierre to the north had also been silenced. During the following night the Belgian forces, abandoning the line of the ruined forts, fell back to a previously prepared line of entrenchments behind the Nethe, an affluent of the Scheldt. The Belgian authorities recognized that, once the outer defenses had gone, the fate of Antwerp was sealed.

Antwerp, said to be the second most strongly fortified city of Europe, encircled by a girdle of 20 permanent forts and 12 earthen redoubts, was quickly reduced by the heavy siege guns. But on October 4 there arrived in Antwerp no less a personage than Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the British Admiralty. He was followed by a brigade of Royal Marines, regular troops with several naval guns, and by two brigades of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, newly organized troops with imperfect equipment and still in the drill-book stage of training. As the situation developed, Churchill's intervention proved unfortunate. On October 4-5 the Belgian army would have been able to withdraw virtually unmolested behind the Scheldt; whereas by waiting, as they did, until October 9, they and the British contingent suffered many casualties, lost thousands who were taken prisoners or interned in Holland, and invited untold damage to Antwerp and its environs. But because the event turned out badly, it does not follow that there were not solid reasons for Churchill's action.

The fortress of Antwerp or what remained of it was left to the defense of the permanent fortress garrison, a Belgian infantry division and three British naval brigades. Of the last named force one brigade arrived on October 3rd, and the two others on the 5th. They came by train from Ostend via Ghent and St. Nicolas, and their total strength was about six thousand men.

The formal capitulation took place October 10th.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:10 ZULU