Siege Of Antwerp
( Originally Published 1918 )
WHEN General Brialmont succeeded, after a determined opposition on the part of the Belgian Government, in carrying out his ambitious engineering scheme, and when the old system of a walled enceinte was replaced by a system of isolated forts, it was assumed that the new fortified position of Antwerp was to be the pivot of national defence. It was assumed that within the two concentric circles of fortresses a Belgian army could hold out for two years, and that the position was practically impregnable. It was assumed, therefore, that the whole history of any future Belgian campaign would be limited to two chapters. It would begin with Liége and it would end with Antwerp. The Belgian Army, having held back the invader on the Meuse, was to withdraw to the entrenched camp on the Scheldt, which was to be both the headquarters of the Government and the base of the Army.
Alas ! the stronghold supposed to be impregnable was taken after a siege of eleven days, and the main part of Brialmont's prophecy has been contradicted by the event. On the other hand, almost up to the last his main plan of campaign was carried out. No doubt there have been more than the two chapters of Liége and Antwerp. There have been many other episodes, heroic and tragic. But notwithstanding appal-ling sacrifices, notwithstanding a guerilla warfare which can only be compared with the warfare of the Peninsular campaign, the Belgian Army had to retreat to Antwerp. Less than three weeks after the beginning of the war the King, the Government, and the Diplomatic Corps had to make their headquarters in the ancient Flemish city.
THE history of Antwerp is a paradox. Her commanding position on the Scheldt gave her a contradictory mission. Geographical conditions made her a commercial centre given up to peaceful pursuits. But the same conditions predestined her also to be a military strong-hold. That divided function has appeared through all her chequered history. Again and again commerce had to reconstruct what war and politics had destroyed. Again and again Antwerp was besieged by invading hosts. In the fourteenth century, after the closing of the Zwyn, Antwerp succeeded to the prosperity of Bruges. She reached her zenith under the Dukes of Burgundy. Under Charles Quint she fell a victim to the wars of religion. In 1576 Spanish soldiers looted the city and 8000 citizens were massacred. In 1585 she sustained one of the most memorable sieges in history, immortalized in the pages of Motley. But even the Spanish terror would not have permanently arrested the prosperity of the Flemish metropolis, and twenty-five years after the Spanish terror Antwerp saw the golden age of Rubens and Van Dyck. It was not war, but diplomacy, which dealt the death-blow to the greatness of Antwerp, for it was diplomacy which, at the behest of the Dutch Republic, closed the Scheldt to commerce in 1648. Rotterdam and Amsterdam had for generations envied the wealth of their rival, and by the Treaty of Westphalia they obtained that the Scheldt should be closed to international commerce. For more than two centuries that iniquitous measure was maintained, and was only repealed in 1863. In vain did Napoleon, who saw in Antwerp a pistol aimed at England, try his utmost to restore the former greatness of Antwerp. That greatness was dependent on trade, and trade was impossible as long as the Scheldt was closed.
The modern prosperity of Antwerp, therefore, dates from the reopening of the Scheldt by the Treaty of 1863. Since then her commerce has grown by leaps and bounds, and on the eve of the war Antwerp had become the most flourishing port on the Continent.
In building his line of fortifications General Brialmont managed to reconcile the demands of national defence and the demands of commerce. He built his two rings of forts in such a wide circle that the city was allowed to expand freely. On the outbreak of the war fifty years of rapid growth had not yet overtaken the outer forts.
I WAS in Antwerp for a fortnight immediately after the capture of Brussels. All through those critical days the greatest optimism prevailed.
La situation reste bonne " : such was the invariable formula which summed up the situation in the military bulletins. Whatever might happen elsewhere, Antwerp would certainly hold out. It may have been only official optimism with the laudable purpose of keeping up the spirits of the population and in order not to alarm public opinion. But, sincere or not, wise or unwise optimism was certainly the order of the day. Antwerp, we were told, might be invested, although this was very unlikely, as the German forces were not sufficient to invest such an immense circle. But probably Antwerp would not be besieged. Most certainly it would never be captured. It was practically " impregnable." I t had become doubly " impregnable." Since the outbreak of war defences had been still further strengthened by earthworks, trenches, redoubts. Whole villages had been burnt to clear the country for the fire of the forts. Historical châteaux had been razed to the ground. Woods had been felled. Forests of barbed wire had taken the place of the green woods. Hundreds of square kilometres had been brought under water to prevent the Germans from bringing up their heavy artillery.
IT was a strange life which I was to observe from the Hôtel St. Antoine, where I was staying with the Ministers of State and the Diplomatic Body. Some of my English friends were evoking reminiscences from " Vanity Fair," and used to compare our hotel life to that of Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. The city was not yet technically beleaguered. The Belgian army made sorties every day. Individual citizens could leave at will, although under police supervision. I motored out every morning in the wake of the Belgian troops. The communications with Holland and Flanders were still open. One main railway line, that from Antwerp to Ostend via St. Nicholas and Ghent, was still going. Yet, for practical purposes, the Belgian Government in Antwerp was cut off from the outer world and could only communicate with England. A town which had grown rich through international intercourse, a city which in normal times was in touch with every corner of the globe, was practically isolated.
And that isolated city was full of contrasts.
The docks and quays were vacant. The magnificent port was deserted. Its mighty life had come to a complete standstill. Only a few ships were held up where a month before the docks were crowded with the argosies of four continents. The spacious boulevards were desolate. A thousand German merchant princes, whose insolent luxury had asserted the wealth and power of the " Vaterland," had left the city whose hospitality they had so shamefully abused. There were few motors or carriages in the streets, for nearly all had been commandeered by the military authorities. There was little outward display of wealth, for most of the rich people had fled from the country, and the few who had remained had little inclination to spend.
Yet in other quarters of the city there was intense animation. The population had nearly doubled owing to the presence of a big field army, of the Government officials, owing also to the influx of tens of thousands of refugees. That outside population was mainly living in the streets. Most offices and banks were closed. Half the population was idle, and the idlers would gather in the cafés or the public avenues to discuss the latest sensation. News vendors at every hour of the day and night were hawking their newspapers, which contained no news. Life was especially animated round the Place de Meir, in the neighbourhood of the King's palace, of the Government offices, and of the military headquarters. Motors were going to and fro. Orderlies were taking messages.
Poverty did not obtrude itself. Where there was so much acute suffering, where many private residences were being turned into hospitals, one had hardly time to think of the slums. No one thought of the poor where everybody was reduced to poverty, except the very richest. But if the poverty of the slums did not obtrude itself, it was there all the same, and one felt its darkening shadow. One thought of the thou-sands of clerks, of the tens of thousands of dockers all thrown out of work. One looked at the staring, vacant crowds and one wondered what the approaching winter was going to bring in misery and starvation.
In the evening a weird transformation scene suddenly changed the aspect of the city. For fear of the Zeppelins, all lights were turned out, and the city was wrapped in darkness. People would still crowd the streets, but they had to grope their way, and the silent and shadowy figures, moving through the murky streets, produced a most uncanny impression. No other aspect of the city drove home more forcibly the horrors of the present war, nor enabled one better to realize how the war had altered all the conditions of normal life.
THERE was still plenty of excitement in Antwerp. And perhaps it was as well that there should still remain something to distract public attention from the anxieties of the moment, and to relieve the dreary monotony of everyday life. There was the excitement produced by the arrival of German prisoners, who were brought to headquarters at every hour of the day. There were the convoys of the wounded. There were the daily arrivals and departures of the armoured motor-cars. There was the departure of the troops, a departure which took place without any of the pomp and circumstance of war. After five weeks one did not hear the sound of military music. Belgian soldiers did not need to be stirred by the strains of martial airs to do their duty to their country.
By far the most dramatic incident which happened during those early weeks was the first raid of the Zeppelin monster. As I wrote my impressions on the spot and immediately after the disaster, I can do no better than merely repeat the account which I gave of the impressions produced by that historical raid.
" ANTWERP, August 25.
" I have just lived through the most tragic night of the war.
" For the first time in history a great civilized community has been bombarded from the sky in the darkness of night. Count Zeppelin, whom the Kaiser has called the greatest genius of the century, has performed the greatest exploit of his life. He may well be proud of his achievement. He has mangled and slaughtered non-belligerents, men, women, and children. He has thrown bombs on hospitals where the Belgians were tending German wounded. He has staggered humanity.
" On August 5 the German commander warned General Leman at Liége that if the forts did not surrender, the Zeppelin fleet would move at once. The forts of Liége did not surrender, and the Germans have been as good as their word. They have surpassed themselves in the art of striking terror, and they have placed themselves outside the pale of humanity.
" I was awakened at 1 o'clock this morning by a frightful cannonade. A Zeppelin had been sighted about 700 feet above the town. I at once went out into the streets, and for eleven hours from one hour after midnight until noon I have scarcely left the scene of the catastrophe.
I have explored every one of the devastated streets. So far I have found ten bombs in ten different streets. It is impossible as yet to get accurate statistics. In my calculation there are about 900 houses slightly damaged, and about sixty houses nearly destroyed.
"The number of victims is unknown. In a single house I found four dead. One room was a chamber of horrors, the remains of the mangled bodies being scattered in every direction. In the house opposite a husband and wife, whose only son had just died in battle, were killed a whole family wiped out.
" The street where the tragedy happened surpasses in horror anything I have ever seen.
" I brought the King's secretary with me. It is significant that the Zeppelin bombs were all aimed at public buildings, at the barracks, at the Government offices, and especially at the Royal palace.
" I was given by the King's secretary two fragments of a bomb that had been found a few yards from the palace."
ALMOST immediately after the capture of Brussels Antwerp became the centre of national defence. It did not confine itself to being the last refuge of Belgian independence. It became the base of a new Belgian offensive. Every morning the Belgian army would make its sorties, generally in the direction of Louvain or Brussels, harassing the German troops. Every evening my friend, M. Hanhart, the young ironclad hero, would bring his haul of prisoners. As a rule, those operations partook of the nature of guerilla warfare. There were many partial engagements. The only pitched battle, which I have described in a previous chapter, involving about r 50,000 men, was fought at Malines. But encounters took place every day, sometimes at two or three different points. Almost invariably the Belgians were successful in driving back the German forces and in checking the German advance.
They succeeded too well. If the Belgians had been less successful in their offensive, if they had been less energetic, the Germans would have remained content with guarding their lines of communication. But as the fortunes of war turned against the Germans in France, as the retreat from France to Belgium became every day a probable contingency, the Germans could not allow a formidable foe to remain on their line of retreat, a foe who at any moment might cut off their communications with Germany. In that sense it may be truly said that the fate of Antwerp was decided on the Aisne and on the Oise. As the battle of the Rivers dragged on week after week, and as the Germans were slowly losing ground, the capture of Antwerp became a vital necessity. The Germans knew that the Flemish capital had to be taken. They also knew that if they were prepared to pay the cost, it could b taken.
The Germans paid the cost, and the last strong-hold of Belgium fell to the enemy after one of the briefest and one of the most dramatic sieges in world history.
THE end came suddenly. As the retreat of the German armies from France became an impending probability, it was decided to strike a decisive blow at the commercial capital of Belgium. Heavy artillery was brought up from Maubeuge. The whole fleet of Zeppelins was mobilized, and on the 26th the siege of Antwerp began.
Attacks were started simultaneously on the southern line against the Fort of Waelhem, and on the eastern line against the Forts of Lierre. Again and again the Germans were repulsed. The defence of Waelhem, which the Belgians held for three days in the face of furious assaults, is one of the heroic episodes of the war. But it was proved once again that even the most modern forts could not hold out against the new artillery. Nor was the Belgian garrison large enough both to defend the wide perimeter of the Antwerp position and to make continuous sorties. On the 5th the two forts of Lierre were silenced and the Belgians had to retreat behind the Nethe. The whole fate of Antwerp depended on whether the enemy would be able to cross the little river. The Germans tried to throw pontoon-bridges. They were repeatedly repulsed with heavy losses by the Belgians and by the British Marines, who had appeared at the last moment in response to an urgent appeal of the Belgian Government. By the evening of the 5th the Belgians had to retire, and the enemy was able to cross the river and to establish himself between the inner and the outer forts. From that moment the bombardment of the city -became possible.
It began on the 7th. The Germans disposed of two hundred guns, many of them being 42 cm. howitzers. An uninterrupted hail of shells was poured on the city. The invaders had solemnly promised to respect the historical monuments. They did not keep their pledge. Before the end of the first day of the bombardment bombs exploded in the Place Verte in front of the Cathedral. The Palais de Justice was burned to the ground. Part of the city was in flames. . The population fled in a panic ; thousands kept in hiding in cellars. Half a million escaped into Holland. On Saturday and Sunday the stream of refugees which spread over Holland, France, and the United Kingdom had reached as far north as Edinburgh. On both days, from 7 in the morning, refugees were arriving at my house in the Belgian Consulate.
The terrifying effect of the bombardment by the heavy guns was still further intensified by the bombardment from the air. Six Zeppelins hovered above the hapless city. When I remember the nerve-shattering effect of one single Zeppelin monster, I can realize what the bombardment by a whole fleet must have been to a panic-stricken population, whilst the town was being simultaneously attacked on all sides from the forts.
The end could not be delayed. Armchair critics have expressed astonishment at the rapid surrender of a city which was supposed to be impregnable. The wonder is not that Antwerp should have surrendered. The wonder is rather that it should have held out for eleven days. I had been pessimistic from the first as to the fate which would befall Antwerp. The recent experiences of Liége, Namur, and Maubeuge could leave one in no doubt as to the final issue. If the war has driven home one certain truth, it is this, that no modern fortress is capable of resisting the destructive effect of the newest artillery. To have held out any longer would have led to the slaughter of the civilian population, to the complete destruction of one of the finest cities of the world, and, last but not least, to the capitulation of the Belgian army.
IT has been asserted with wearisome iteration that the capture of Antwerp was only a futile vengeance wreaked on the unfortunate Belgians, and that the occupation of the metropolis on the Scheldt could have no possible effect on the future campaign. The Allies have been too much inclined to believe that whatever disaster happened in Belgium would have but little effect on the general situation. No assumption could be further from the truth. The capture of Antwerp will give the German army a formidable base of operations. When they fall back on Belgium, as they certainly will, they will be in possession of a line of defence of four big cities, of which three at least are first-class fortresses. Entrenched behind these fortresses, the Germans will have their lines of communication assured, and they will receive their supplies without any difficulty or delay. The possession of Antwerp is therefore certain to make the work of the Allies very much more difficult and to protract the duration of the war. Its effect certainly ought to be to decide Great Britain to strain every effort to throw all her available strength into Belgium at the very earliest moment.
And whatever the possession of Antwerp may mean to the Allies, to Belgium it opens a new era of suffering. A leader-writer in the Times remarked that " the bombardment and the surrender of Antwerp is the culmination and the conclusion of Belgian agony." Alas ! it is only the beginning. The worst is still to come. Before a few weeks are over, three mil-lion soldiers will again invade the country and trample Belgian fields, live on a starving nation, and destroy what still remains of what was only three months ago the richest and most prosperous country in the world, and what is now a scene of universal desolation.