War planners in the German General Staff planned to outflank the French fortress line by an invasion of Belgium. What they expected the Belgian army to do as they advanced across the country isn’t quite clear, although historians agree that the Belgians were not expected to put up too much of a fight. Within moments of crossing the borders, the Germans found themselves faced with a well equipped and organized army that stood behind an admittedly antiquated but impressive, massive array of fortresses.
The Belgian army consisted of approximately 340,000 men at the time of mobilization. Of this number, 140,000 comprised a mobile army while the remaining men manned the three fortresses of Antwerp, Namur, and Liege. The field army was divided into six infantry divisions and one cavalry division.
A division, with a paper strength of 22,000, consisted of three brigades each of which had two regiments. These regiments were divided into three battalions each.
Noteworthy is the mixed organization of the division. This make-up heralded organizations that followed World War 1 with their combination of all service branches rolled into one organization.
For fire power, a brigade had 12 field pieces of the Krupp 1905 quick fire model and six machine guns. Supporting the brigade was a divisional artillery of 36 cannon (three field batteries and six howitzer batteries of four guns each.)
Concepts of operations for these divisions followed French ideals of a force of attaqué outre. While the fortress garrisons sat safely behind their brick and concrete emplacements, the rest of the army was expected to attack outward to catch the adversary in the field. In the event of defeat, the army would pull back to support the fortresses with repeated sorties against an investure force.
The Belgian soldier was well armed with a Model 1889 Mauser that had a five round magazine.
The army possessed 102 machine guns of two types. There was the French model 1914 Hotchkiss that used 24 round clips and the 1909 Hotchkiss Light Machine Gun that used a 30 round clip. The light machine gun weighed 11.8kg. It was the only light machine gun in operation in Europe at the beginning of the war. As depicted in this photo, the army put the light machine gun to good use.
The soldier was a product of the conscription law of 1909. Conscripts, from the age of 20, spent from 15 months to two years with the colors and then 15 years in the reserve. Selection was restricted to one son per family by the law. This provision was dropped in 1913. The government had wanted the conscription law to create a reserve supply of trained men that would fill gaps in the line but budgetary constraints and lack of population did not allow the meeting of the goal. However, the conscription law did instill a nationalistic trend not seen when the army had been largely volunteers and made of long term professionals.
There is the inevitable question about the Guarde Civique, an organization that appeared to be military in nature. This organization was not part of the War Office. The Guarde dated back to the Napoleonic era when civilians banded together in effort to defend their rights against unjust governments.
An equivalent would be the original concept for the German Landwehr or Lanstrum. Those organizations had developed over the years into a reserve for the army. The Guarde Civique did not make such a transition. Instead, it fell under the Home Office as a type of internal defense unit not subject to the military.
The Guarde was divided into two groups. Group one consisted of all men not under the colors or a part of the reserve army between the ages of 21 and 32 and group two was made up of men in the ages of 33-50. Training for the first group amounted to 10 drills a year while the second group had only to report their whereabouts three times a year. Membership in either group was not enforced but instead voluntary. Support and enrollment was sporadic at best. Like the volunteer organizations in the United Kingdom, large enrollments were in urban areas among the middle and upper classes. An estimate placed a strength of the 21 – 32 year olds at about 35,000. Since this organization did not fall under the War Office, the German military did not recognize them as a legitimate fighting force. It gave warning that any Guarde Civique who was caught engaging in action against the German army would be considered an “irregular” and shot rather than treated as a prisoner of war if captured. King Albert disbanded the
Guarde Civique shortly after the invasion began to avoid such treatment. The majority of these units were absorbed as volunteers into the army.
In the opening shots of the war, the Belgian army placed itself in rehearsed positions to repel an invader. At mobilization, which took place under fire, King Albert called up 13 year classes. The army and volunteers were organized into six infantry divisions and one cavalry division. The Third Division went to support the 22,500 man garrison at Leige, the Fourth Division grouped around the 17,500 man garrison at Namur. The remaining divisions were dispersed between Brussels and Antwerp with the intention of protecting the capital.
Liege was the first to feel the power of the German heavy bombardment. Its forts were subject to fire from the latest in technology. Since the inception of reinforced concrete for fortifications, German industry in conjunction with the army had endeavored to find a cannon that could crack the new constructions and still be mobile enough to be brought up to the firing line and put into action without lengthy emplacement proceedings. Their answer was a plethora of cannon. Most notable was the 150mm cannon which came wheeled and could move up to the firing line as easily as the 77mm cannon. In conjunction with the Austro-Hungarians, the Germans devised 305mm mortars that came with their own transport. And last, but not least, was the 420mm guns known as the Busy Berthas. These guns were brought to bear on the Liege fortress complex with devastating results.
Reinforced concrete simply disappeared into clouds of dust as the shells exploded. Liege was evacuated on 7 August when German units successfully got through the fortress perimeter and captured the town making defense futile
The Third Division retreated to join the rest of the Belgian army behind the Gette River on a line between Diest and Perwez. Three divisions, the First, Second, and Third, were in the forward positions with the Fifth and Sixth in reserve. The Fourth Division remained at Namur. Von Kluck’s First Army moved against the Gette River emplacement on 18 August with the intention of forcing it towards Brussels where the combined First and Second Armies could annihilate them. King Albert was not so obliging. The army moved toward the Antwerp fortress region.
Namur came under the same devastating fire that Liege had received on 19 August. The fire was intensified on 21 August when the 305mm mortars and 420mm guns came into action after being moved from Liege. As before, many of the Namur forts simply dissolved into clouds of dust when the huge shells, 305mm weighed 386kg, hit them. The Fourth Division fell back to link up with the French army that had centered at Charlesroi. Namur endured three more days of shelling before capitulating.
Antwerp is a naturally fortified position. Its approaches are surrounded by wide rivers, the Scheldt to the west and the Rupel and Nethe to the south and east. On the northern approach is the Scheldt to Meuse Canal. Coupled with these natural boundaries is the Dutch border only a few kilometers distant. To this water barrier, the Belgians began adding forts.
The first ring around the city was built in 1859 approximately 3.2km from the city. Each of the forts was 2000 meters from the other thus allowing for each to support the other in an era of black powder cannon and muskets. The great engineer Alexis Brialmont was commissioned to design another fortress ring in 1879. These forts were augmented between 1906 and 1913 with additional construction that used reinforced concrete. At the same time as the last project, the inner and older, outer forts were concrete hardened as well.
Alexis Brialmont designed two types of forts. The pentagonal fort contained armaments of two 6 inch and four 4.7 inch cannons along with two 8 inch mortars supported by four 77mm quick fire Krupp cannons. The triangular forts contained two 6 inch and two 4.7 inch cannons along with one or two 8 inch mortars and four 77mm quick firers. Most of the armaments, with the exception of the 77mm, were mounted in rotating cupolas that could be lowered for safety and raised for firing. The concrete around the cupolas and the cupolas themselves was designed to withstand 6 inch howitzer fire.
The designs of the forts were brilliant. They were sunk into the earth for concealment with an earthen glacis sloping away from them. The glacis was designed to tire attacking soldiers out before they reached the real obstacles. Once over the glacis, an attacker found a deep concreted trench between him and the fort’s walls. This trench had sheer walls and was straight as an arrow. There was no cover from the machine guns’ and infantry rifles’ fire that would rake the trench from loopholed gallerias. Although these obstacles were deadly, aesthetic designs often take the lead while safety and ease for the defender come in second. Builders had not allowed for infantry fortifications outside of the forts. Consequently, assaulters could approach and scale the glacis of the forts in relative ease molested only by artillery fire. On the interior, builders had failed to install fans that would clear the air of the smoke caused by shelling and the discharge of shells. Most of this smoke was caused by the black powder cannons that had not been replaced by the new smokeless powder varieties. Not only were the fumes intolerable to the defenders but the discharges sent a huge plume of black dust into the air allowing observers to pinpoint the locations.
This lack of foresight toward concealment was complicated even further when engineers decided to level the surrounding countryside to give a clear firing zone. Trees, bushes and buildings were uprooted in favor of a featureless landscape. The result was that the mounds of the forts stood out like warts on a person’s face. Attackers could readily see the forts and register artillery on them.
By 28 August, the majority of the Belgian army was in the Antwerp fortress. The exception was the Fourth Division which had retreated to join the French near Charlesroi. The German drive had continued south into Flanders, by passing Antwerp. It was at this point that King Albert had to make a decision. Should his government continue the war by harassing the German lines of supply and communication or simply stay out and wait for the defeat of the French? To move him toward the second choice, the kaiser sent him a personal note imploring him to save lives and allow the war to progress without any further interference from Belgian soldiers. He went on to add that world opinion would undoubtedly judge the Belgian nation as having put up a very good battle in trying to defend their neutrality and no one would condemn them as collaborators of the German drive. King Albert probably added a little reality to this plea from Wilhelm. The kaiser on more than one occasion had shown his imperialistic nature. Albert may have asked himself, “How would the Germans treat the Belgians at the peace table? Would they be dealt with as a neutral who had been wronged and their conquered lands returned or would they be treated as a conquered nation and partitioned?” There could be no doubt what the answer would be then and to Wilhelm’s letter. King Albert chose to go on fighting.
On 26 September, the Belgians attacked the German rear echelons from Termonde and Lierre as diversions to a main thrust from Waelhem. The objective was to reach Louvain and threaten Brussels. Malines was retaken and the force pushed on to Nosseghem and Cortenberg. The contingency from Termonde reached Augdegem and Lebbekke on 27 September. Losses on both sides were high but the Belgians suffered the most since there were no replacements.
These forays made the German General Staff’s course of action toward the Belgians quite clear. Antwerp had to be taken and the Belgian army forever silenced. Orders designated the III Reserve Corps as the unit to finally deal with the Antwerp fortress. Comprised of the 5th and 6th Reserve Infantry Divisions, the corps was augmented by the Marine Division, the 4th Ersatz Division, and the 26th and 37th Landwehr Brigades. But this was not going to be an infantry battle. Technology would provide that answer and do most of the fighting. Artillery support included two batteries of 210mm mortars, two batteries of 305mm mortars, three 420mm cannons, a battery and a half of 100mm cannons, three batteries of 150mm, and the corps’ 72 field cannons (77mm). The larger bore pieces were placed well out of range of the fortress’s black powder guns and aimed to concentrate their fire on Forts Waelhem, Wavre Ste. Catherine, Koeningshoyckt, Lierre, Kesse, and Broechem.
The Germans began their bombardment as the Belgian sortie appeared to be gaining ground on 28 September. Shells slammed into Forts Waelhem and Wavre Ste Catherine. At Wavre, a shell managed to find the ammunition magazine which exploded leaving parts of the fort in piles of rubble. The concoction of the detonation was felt in Antwerp. Another shell fell directly into the Antwerp waterworks located just behind the fort. The damage cut the water supply to the city. The wide trenches and loopholed gallerias were of no use to the defenders as the concrete simply dissolved under the continued explosive impacts. The lack of adequate ventilation drove the defenders out as the dust and powder smoke became poisonous. By 6 October, Forts Wavre, Waelhem, Könignshoyckt and Lierre had succumbed to the bombardment.
At one point defense forces at Malines had recorded 50 shells an hour. German infantry simply followed the devastation inward while the Belgians retreated to the other side of the Nethe.
During the night of 3 and 4 Oct, a brigade of British Royal Marines arrived to assist the Belgians. This deployment was based on two concepts: 1) German possession of Antwerp would pose a serious threat of invasion should the Dutch side with the Germans; 2) The Belgian army needed to escape or the entire country would capitulate thus threatening the channel ports and the evacuation routes of the British Expeditionary Force from France. Some historians have stated that the deployment was a mistake, coming too late to be of much value and yet another example of inept leadership. On closer analysis, the deployment appears sound. A railway line from Ostend through St. Nicholas was still open to Antwerp.
Because of the neutrality of the Netherlands, the Marine Brigade had to use it to get to the beleaguered city. Also, the coast line between France and Zeebrugge was still unoccupied. The War Office had already formulated a plan for landing the 3rd Cavalry Division and the 7th Infantry Division at Ostend with the intention of securing the line at Ghent. These landings took place on 8 October. The Royal Marines were a professional force of 2200. Most of the men were long term veterans with over 15 years service. They moved into the inadequate, hastily dug trenches near Lierre but their stay was short-lived.
The Germans’ first attempted to force the river at Waelhem on 5 October but were driven off. On the same day, they also attempted a crossing at Lierre with similar results. Further north, near Broechem, the crossing was successful. The Belgians attempted a counterattack but were unsuccessful and fell back. The gap that opened as a result of the failed counter stroke exposed the Royal Marines’ flank and forced their retirement. In their retreat they met the Marine Division that Winston Churchill had deployed to bolster the Royal Marines.
Unlike the Royal Marines, the Marine Division was made up of very inexperienced men who had received little or no training before deployment. Most had never fired the rifles they had been issued less than two weeks before. Divided into four battalions, they took up positions on the inner ring of forts. Battalions Hawke, Collingwood, and Benbow were placed at forts 1, 2, and 3 while the Drake battalion was at fort 4. On 6 October, the commander of the German III Reserve Corps told the citizens of Antwerp that they could expect a bombardment on the following day. He advised them to either leave or seek shelter. The Belgians took a cue from this warning and set the oil storage tanks in the harbor on fire and destroyed most of the dock facilities.
The following morning shells began to burst above the streets. The Germans chose to use shrapnel shells instead of high explosive to minimize structural damage. Nevertheless, buildings caught fire adding their smoke to that of the oil storage tanks. As the shells burst, Belgian General DeGuise and British General Paris met to discuss their options. Both agreed that the best thing to do was to evacuate toward Ostend. The order was sent out at 5:30pm to begin the evacuation.
Evacuation was a confused lot. Without telephone connections, the transmission of orders was done with runners. Shortly after the issuance of directions the Royal Marines evacuated their positions and marched back through the deserted streets of Antwerp to get to the rail line that would take them back along the route to Ostend where they had embarked a few days before. Excess equipment was thrown in the Scheldt. Battalions Hawke, Collingwood, and Benbow did not receive the withdrawal order until two in the morning on 9 October. They arrived at the Scheldt to find the bridges already blown up. Improvising, they commandeered some barges and managed to get across to find a train going to Ghent. The Germans had already anticipated the evacuation and moved portions of the 4th Ersatz Division and the 37th Landwehr Brigade to cut the line at Lokeren. One train carrying the Marine Division stopped before running into the Germans. The men detrained, formed up and marched to the Dutch border where they were interned for the duration of the war. The Royal Marines were in similar straits. They formed a rear guard and fought a delaying action at Merbecke losing half their number. At Selzaete, they were confronted by German infantry and asked to surrender. Their refusal showed the demeanor of the times. The ranking officer answered the summons to give up with, “Surrender be damned. Royal Marines never surrender.” With that said, they fought their way through; 190 remained standing but not bowed. Marine Division casualties were astonishing. There were 57 killed, 138 wounded and 2500 interned. Only 920 returned.
On 9 October at four in the afternoon the first German units entered Antwerp. Unlike other seizures, the commanding general strictly forbade looting or foraging.
The occupation was smooth and without incident. German soldiers assisted in battling fires and attempted to put out the burning oil storage areas. For the folks back home, they had their pictures taken with captured vehicles, omnibuses commandeered by the Marine Division in their deployment to the front.
King Albert had left the city two days before to continue the fight from other parts of Belgium. The British contingent that had advanced on Ghent retreated to Ypres covering the Belgian flank. The next phase of the war, the Frontier battles began.
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