Primary Documents - The Siege of Antwerp by Winston Churchill, October 1914

Karsh's celebrated photograph of Sir Winston Churchill Reproduced below is an account of the siege of Antwerp in October 1914.

Written by Winston Churchill the account comprises a defence of Churchill's role in despatching British Marines to assist Belgian forces in the defence of Antwerp.  This decision was regarded somewhat critically by contemporary historians (including Arthur Conan Doyle).  Specifically Churchill denied being the originator of the British plan.

Click here to read Conan Doyle's summary of the siege.  For a Belgian view click here; and click here to read German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn's summary.

The Siege of Antwerp

The project of sending a relieving army to the aid of Antwerp did not originate with me.  It originated with Lord Kitchener and the French Government.  I was not concerned or consulted in the arrangements until they had advanced a long way; and until large bodies of troops were actually moving or under orders to move.

On the night of October 2, 1914, at midnight I was summoned to a conference at Lord Kitchener's house.  I then learned, what to some extent I knew from the telegrams first, that plans for sending a relieving army to the aid of Antwerp were already far advanced and were being concerted between Lord Kitchener and the French Government, that they had not yet reached a point where definite offers and promises could be made to the Belgian Government, and that, meanwhile, that afternoon the Belgian Government had telegraphed its decision to evacuate the city with the field army and to withdraw from the fort and practically to abandon the defence.

We were all extremely distressed at this; it seemed that at the moment when aid was available everything was going to be thrown away for the sake of three or four days' continued resistance.  In these circumstances I offered - and I do not regret it a bit - to proceed to Antwerp at once, to tell the Belgian Government what was being done, to ascertain the situation on the spot, and to see in what way the defence could be prolonged until a relieving force could be established.

My colleagues accepted this offer on my part, and I crossed the Channel at once.

The next day, having consulted with the Belgian Government and with the British Staff officers who were at Antwerp watching the progress of the operations, I made a telegraphic proposal.  I had to be extremely careful not to say anything on behalf of the British Government which would encourage the Belgians to resistance in the hopes of getting help we could not afterward make good.

The proposal which I made may be briefly stated.  It is all set out in the telegrams, and some day will be made public.  It is as follows: The Belgians were to continue the resistance to the utmost limit of their power.  The British and French Governments were to say within three days definitely whether they could send a relieving force or not, and what the dimensions of that force would be.

In the event of their not being able to send a relieving force the British Government were to send in any case to Ghent and other points on the line of retreat British troops sufficient to insure the safe retirement of the Belgian field army, so that the Belgian field army would not be compromised through continuing the resistance on the Antwerp fortress line.

Incidentally, we were to aid and encourage the defence of Antwerp by the sending of naval guns, naval brigades, and any other minor measures likely to enable the defenders to hold out the necessary number of days.

This proposal I made subject to confirmation on both sides.  Nothing was settled until both Governments accepted.  The proposal was accepted by both Governments.  I was informed by telegraph that a relieving army would be sent, its dimensions and composition were sent to me for communication to the Belgians, and I was told to do everything possible to maintain the defence meanwhile.  This I did without regard to consequences in any direction.

I am not going to describe the military events which are well known; but I think it is a great mistake to regard Lord Kitchener's efforts to relieve Antwerp - in which I played a subsidiary though important part - as an event which led only to misfortune.

I believe that military history will hold that the consequences conduced extremely to the advantage of the Allies in the west.  The great battle which began on the Aisne was spreading day by day more and more toward the sea.  Sir John French's army was coming into line and beginning the operations of the battle of Armentieres, which developed into the great battle of Ypres, and everything was in flux.

The prolongation of the resistance of Antwerp, even by only two or three days, detained great German forces in the vicinity of the fortress.  The sudden and audacious arrival of a fresh British division and a British cavalry division at Ghent and elsewhere baffled the cautious German staff and led it to apprehend that a large army was arriving from the sea.

At any rate, their advance proceeded in a halting manner, although opposed by weak forces, and I believe it will be demonstrated in history - certainly it is the opinion of many highly competent military officers at the present time - that the whole of this enterprise, the moving of those British troops and the French troops who were in association with them, though it did not save Antwerp, had the effect of causing the great battle to be fought on the line of the Yser instead of twenty or thirty miles further south.

If that is so, the losses which were incurred by our naval division, luckily not very heavy in life, will certainly have been well expended in the general interest.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

By 1918 the percentage of women to men working in Britain had risen to 37% from 24% at the start of the war.

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