Primary Documents - The Siege of Antwerp by De Gerlache de Gommery, October 1914
Reproduced below is an account of the siege of Antwerp in October 1914 by Belgian Commandant De Gerlache de Gommery. De Gommery describes how the Belgian army - assisted by a complement of British marines - strived to save Antwerp until its capture by invading German forces on 9 October 1914 proved inevitable.
Click here to read a British summary of the defence by Arthur Conan Doyle; click here to read another by Winston Churchill, who played a key role in despatching British marines to Antwerp. Click here to read the summary of German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn.
The Capture of Antwerp
by Belgian Commandant De Gerlache de Gommery
In Antwerp, where for weeks the heart of Belgium had been throbbing, preparations were being made for a desperate resistance.
To facilitate the defence the dykes of the Scheldt, the Rupel, and the Nethe had been opened at several points, and in this way a large area of low-lying land had been inundated. Within a radius of many miles the Belgians had blown up luxurious country houses, ancient chateaux, charming villas, farms and windmills, and - which was an even more painful sacrifice - the thousands of superb trees, which were the only ornament of this level region, were felled.
Trenches had been dug and works of all kinds had been constructed. The armament of the forts had been completed and improved, as far as was possible, by means of cannon sent from France by way of Ostend.
Two armoured trains, veritable moving fortresses, had been built in the Cockerill works at Hoboken-lez-Anvers; they were armed with British naval guns of 4.7 inches calibre.
On the other hand, as the Scheldt had remained open to merchant vessels, and as all sorts of provisions had been arriving in abundance, the city was secured against the rigours of a long siege.
But how many things we had to think of; what anxieties were ours, from which our powerful enemies were exempt, and what distressing problems we had to solve!
Measures had to be taken to preserve from the risks of a possible bombardment the most valuable of the paintings which adorned the churches, the museums, and certain private houses. The "Descent from the Cross," the "Assumption of the Virgin," and other masterpieces of Rubens, the "Entombment of Christ," by Matsys, the "Temptation of St. Martin," by De Vos, and a number of no less inestimable treasures were transferred to places of safety.
The metallic funds of the National Bank and the blocks used in printing paper money were sent to England.
All German prisoners were also sent to England and the Belgian wounded were gradually transferred to Ostend and other places on the coast.
A further complication: homeless refugees were arriving in ever-increasing numbers from the surrounding country. It was not possible to allow them to remain more than three or four days in Antwerp, and it was therefore necessary to facilitate their exodus toward the coast or to Holland or England.
On the 26th and 27th of September the Germans made fresh demonstrations in the direction of Termonde, obviously with the intention of crossing the Scheldt at this point.
On the 26th they encountered at Andeghem (some two or three miles to the southwest of Termonde) a small body of Belgian infantry, which, although it had no artillery to support it, resisted them heroically until the arrival of re-enforcements, which put the Germans to flight in the direction of Alost.
The battle of Lebbeke was fought on the following day under similar conditions: the Belgians were at first weak in numbers, but resisted valiantly despite heavy losses; then re-enforcements arrived, and the Germans finally scattered toward Maxenzele and Merchtem.
On the 28th heavy siege howitzers, coming from Maubeuge, German and Austrian, went into action, and thenceforth the tempo of events was accelerated. These terrible guns, which nothing could resist, were installed - as we afterwards discovered - upon concrete foundations prepared for that purpose long before the invasion of our too confiding country. Their fire was in the first place directed against the Waelhem and Wavre-Sainte-Catherine forts.
On the 29th the Wavre-Sainte-Catherine fort was already reduced to silence; by 6 o'clock in the evening the survivors of its valiant garrison were forced to evacuate the works. The German fire was then concentrated upon the Waelhem, Koningshoyckt, and Lierre forts.
On the 30th the great reservoirs at Waelhem, which supplied Antwerp and the suburbs, were damaged by shells, and the water supply was seriously jeopardized. The Waelhem fort held out as long as possible, and when all that was left of its brave garrison at last abandoned it, it was only a heap of ruins.
It became evident that the entrenched camp of Antwerp - contrary to the ideas generally entertained - would not prove invulnerable. The supreme command foresaw the moment approaching when the army would be forced to abandon the fortress in order to avoid a surrender en masse.
It was decided to transfer the base of operations westward to Ostend, and immediately the work of removal began: the transport of wounded, of sanitary material, of army corps depots, of the recruits of the new levy, as well as the corps of volunteers, who were as yet untrained, the army service corps, and more besides than I can tell.
Antwerp lies wholly on the right bank of the Scheldt and there is no bridge to connect it with the left bank, whence a railway runs to Gand and Ostend. For freight of an awkward nature, which would not allow of trans-shipment, it was therefore necessary to make use of the line which crosses the river by the Tamise railway bridge - some 12 miles upstream - and which crosses the Rupel at Willebroeck - that is, within range of the enemy's guns.
But the railway precautions were so well conceived that trains were able to run every night - of course with all lights extinguished - as late as the 7th of October.
The forts of Koningshoyckt and Lierre were silenced in turn on the 2nd of October. The Belgian infantry fell back beyond the Nethe, blowing up the bridges across that river (26).
On this day General de Guise, Commander-in-Chief of the fortress of Antwerp, published the following proclamation addressed to the people of Antwerp:
I consider that it is my duty to inform the population inhabiting the territory of the fortress that the siege of the latter has for some days past entered upon an acute phase.
As is proved by military history, in the course of a siege the fortified city itself may be exposed to the effects of the besieging artillery. Thus, in the present campaign, the fortified cities of Liege and Namur have been subjected to the early stages of bombardment.
Aware of the patriotic sentiments of the valiant population of Antwerp, I am certain that it will maintain the calm and composure of which it has given so many proofs since the commencement of hostilities, and that it will thus assist me to accomplish the great task which has fallen to my lot.
That same day - the 2nd of October - a Taube flew over Antwerp, dropping numerous copies of a strange bilingual proclamation, of which the more significant passages are here translated:
BRUSSELS, October 1, 1914.
Your blood and your whole salvation - you are not giving them to your beloved country at all; on the contrary, you are serving only the interests of Russia, a country which only desires to increase its already enormous power, and above all the interest of England, whose perfidious avarice has given birth to this cruel and unprecedented war. From the outset your newspapers, paid from French and English sources, have never ceased to deceive you, to tell you nothing but lies about the causes of the war and about the battles which have ensued, and this is still happening every day.
Each day of resistance makes you suffer irreparable losses, while after the capitulation of Antwerp you will be free from all anxiety.
Belgian soldiers, you have fought enough for the interests of the Russian princes, and for those of the capitalists of perfidious Albion. Your situation is one to despair of.
If you desire to rejoin your wives and children, if you desire to return to your work, in a word, if you want peace, put an end to this useless struggle, which will only end in your ruin. Then you will quickly have all the benefits of a fortunate and perfect peace.
Commander-in-Chief of the besieging Army.
Need I say that there was not one "Belgian soldier," nor one inhabitant of the besieged city, who did not read this impudent message with disdain?
The outer forts once demolished, the German artillery was able to approach the Nethe. On the 2nd of October German shells fell on the village of Waerloos and set it on fire. On the 4th Contich was shelled and burned.
Under cover of their guns, which were so superior to ours in number, and, above all, in range, the Germans tried first to cross the Nethe by Waelhem; but the Belgian infantry, entrenched upon the opposite bank, offered a brilliant resistance, and they were forced to transfer their efforts to Duffel and Lierre.
At Lierre our enemies came into conflict with the English. England had sent us some re-enforcements: a brigade of marine infantry and two naval brigades, or some 7,000 men in all. Seven thousand men: it was not much; yet this scanty help meant to our exhausted troops, which were completely worn out, a material assistance, and, above all, an inestimable moral support.
Ah! if the left bank of the Scheldt had been ours all the way to the sea, how much more favourable the situation would have been! Our noble river would have been open to the warships of the Allies, which could have ascended it as far as Antwerp and beyond, and if a few gunboats of light draught, but powerfully armed, had been able to enter the Rupel and the Nethe, these two rivers would have been really impassable, and our "national fortress" would have been absolutely impregnable.
On the 4th of October the Communal Council unanimously voted a resolution which expressed to the Government and the military authorities "the unshakable desire of the population to see the defence of the fortified position of Antwerp continued to the end, without regard to anything but the national defensive and without considering the dangers incurred by private persons or property."
The civil population of Belgium was truly admirable! Careless of danger, it thought only of the national defensive! And you must remember that, in order to facilitate the defence of Antwerp, it had been necessary within a radius of no less than twelve miles to raze to the ground hundreds of buildings, and that the officers who superintended these operations had the satisfaction of reporting that they did not hear a complaint - not a single complaint!
Now what the Belgians themselves had not thought it necessary to demolish was being fired by the German shells, and they accepted the sacrifice with the same composed resignation "without regard to anything but the national defensive." It mattered little that the countryside which had formerly been so pleasant and cheerful was being transformed into a desert so long as it still remained Belgian soil.
However, the situation grew worse from hour to hour.
Shrapnel fell without intermission on the Belgian and English trenches; the hail of fire was infernal.
On the 6th of October, about 4 o'clock in the morning, the Germans succeeded in crossing the Nethe. The defenders of Antwerp had to fall back to the forts of the inner defences. And the circle of steel and fire grew ever closer and closer. Soon there would be nothing for it but to seek to evade its embrace and save all that could be saved.
General de Guise warned the population of Antwerp that the bombardment of the city was imminent, and urged all who could do so to leave without delay.
Early on the 7th the members of the Government, the legations, and the officials of the Central Administration left by water for Ostend.
That morning the local newspapers openly admitted the gravity of the situation. But they suffered no loss of dignity. "Whatever fresh sacrifice the salvation of the country requires of us, we accept it."
This, in substance, was what they said: "Belgium will emerge the greater for her trials." But the Belgian newspapers of Antwerp had been issued for the last time.
On the afternoon of Friday, the 9th of October, the Germans entered the great commercial city, for whose conquest they had schemed and prepared for a number of years.
"They showed by their attitude," said an ocular witness, "that they were by no means comfortable in their minds. The deep silence which hung over the city made them uneasy. They carried their rifles handy, ready to fire as they went forward."
Their booty must have caused them some disillusion. Before its cautious retreat the Belgian army had destroyed all it could not carry away; a number of forts were blown up; the bridge of boats was destroyed; the German merchant vessels seized at the commencement of hostilities were sunk or rendered un-navigable; and the great petroleum reservoirs were fired. In a word, they had destroyed all they could, and had in every way done their best to reduce the significance of the German victory to a minimum.
The retreat from Antwerp was covered and masked until the last moment, not only by the fire of the second ring of forts and by that of a few field batteries, but also by the Belgian and British detachments which courageously occupied the trenches between Contich and the Scheldt through the whole of the 8th.
Unhappily, despite the admirable order which presided during this henceforth famous retreat, several thousands of men avoided surrender only by entering Holland. A portion of our fortress troops was also forced to retire into Dutch territory in order not to surrender to the Germans.
As for the total of the material losses experienced by the nation in Antwerp and the district, it may be estimated at £40,000,000. But what matter these losses, and those, at least five times as great, which the country had suffered during the past two months! - what matter all our grief and mourning even, if honour was saved!
Moreover, the King - the soul of our resistance - and the bulk of his valiant legions had succeeded in gaining Ostend, where the Government was already installed.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Observation balloons were referred to as 'sausages'.
- Did you know?