How Winston Churchill Tried (and Failed) To Defend Antwerp in World War I

September 10, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IHistoryBelgiumAntwerpWinston Churchill

How Winston Churchill Tried (and Failed) To Defend Antwerp in World War I

Despite the failure, Churchill's efforts had produced a positive outcome for the Allied powers.

Key Point: Antwerp proved no match for the German Army’s Krupp guns in the autumn of 1914 despite the best efforts of Winston Churchill to bolster the city’s defenses.

Joseph Mary Nagle Jefferies, a correspondent for Britain’s Daily Mail, was assigned to cover the opening phases of World War I in Belgium in October 1914. One day in early October and decades before Winston Churchill was to become Prime Minister of Great Britain, Jeffries was standing on the Lier Road, not far from the city proper. As the minutes passed, the scene quickly dissolved into chaos. Jeffries was at a crossroads, but he did not know the exact location. The commotion and confusion were so great that he had lost his bearings.

Tensions ran high among the soldiers and civilians in whose company Jeffries found himself. This was because monstrous German artillery guns that could maim and kill with horrifying ease might start a terrifying barrage at any moment. A traffic jam of immense proportions developed at the crossroads.

“The jamming of vehicles to and from the front, rearing of horses and shouts, ambulances involved with ammunition wagons, cars all honking and screaming at each other, [and there was] no one to direct, no one to disentangle the jumble, which grew worse every minute,” wrote Jefferies.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man jumped out of a car and began directing traffic with unusual verve and surprising skill. He climbed atop what appeared to be a platform, although Jefferies could not see exactly what he was standing on. The platform raised the man slightly above the seething mass of animals, vehicles, and men. The red-haired, slightly balding man was flamboyantly dressed in a “flowing dark blue cloak [with] silver lion-head clasps,” Jeffries wrote. The man’s stint as a traffic guard was a virtuoso performance, with precise movements and sharp gesticulations that he punctuated with loud commands given in a crazy mixture of English and French.

Jefferies watched in awe as the stranger’s efforts actually helped the traffic flow and ended the chaos. But the most remarkable thing about the man was his identity. He was none other than Winston Spencer Churchill, Great Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty. The ministerial civilian position was the Royal Navy’s political head, appointed by the ruling party.

Why Winston Churchill Was Stationed in Belgium During World War I

It was highly unusual for an Englishman to be directing foreign traffic in the middle of a war, but even more unusual for the First Lord of the Admiralty to be in Belgium. Winston Churchill was on a mission that, if successful, might rescue Antwerp from the clutches of the Germans. At the very least, a successful defense of Antwerp would buy time and prevent the Germans from pushing on and taking the Channel ports, Great Britain’s gateway to Europe and a vital link to its ally, France.

Churchill was in Belgium to assess the situation and persuade the wavering Belgian government that London had both the will and the means to keep Antwerp out of German hands. His French was serviceable but far from perfect. Could he talk the Belgians into continuing their stout-hearted defense of Antwerp?

Antwerp’s crisis had its roots in the outbreak of the war, a scant two months earlier. Germany, faced with the prospect of a two-front war, thought it had the solution in a modified Schlieffen Plan. The first step was to fight a holding action against the Russians in the East. The Russian steamroller was a lumbering giant, ponderous and slow, and would take time to mobilize fully. While the Russian bear tried to wake from its peacetime hibernation, the Germans intended to knock France, and perhaps even Britain, out of the war.

The Germans planned to lure French armies into the disputed Alsace-Lorraine region of northeastern France, and if the French took the bait, the second phase of the operation would commence. The German First and Second Armies, massing on the Belgian and Luxembourg borders, would suddenly spring forward in a wide, sweeping arc, a great enveloping movement that would continue into northern France and get behind the unsuspecting French armies. If executed well, this right hook would also take Paris in the bargain.

To perform this maneuver, however, German troops had needed to march through Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by the Allied powers. Belgium prided itself on its strict adherence to neutrality principles but was far from naive when it came to the exigencies of European power politics. A minnow surrounded by predatory sharks, Belgium knew its small field army could never fend off an invasion from one of the European great powers such as France or, after its unification in 1871, a militaristic Germany.

Belgium had won admirers from around the globe for its heroic, month-long stand against the German juggernaut following Germany’s invasion of the country in August 1914. The stubborn resistance of its small army had bought precious time for the French and British to marshal their forces and achieve victory at the Marne River in September.

Although Franco-British forces had checked the German onslaught at the Marne, the Germans still seemed to have momentum enough to turn defeat into ultimate victory. Antwerp, which was situated on the lower Scheldt River, was Belgium’s great commercial emporium, a major seaport, and a mighty fortress.

The German Army’s mop-up operations in October included the reduction of Antwerp, which the Germans invested on September 28. Jefferies was on hand to witness what seemed to be the death throes of Belgian independence.

Antwerp’s strategic importance had been recognized for centuries. The Spanish had erected a bastion wall around the city in the 16th century, and other works were built as the years went on. But the port city’s real life as a fortress began in the late 1850s, nearly 30 years after Belgium’s independence. Belgian planners recognized the country had few viable options. The national territory was only about 150 miles east to west and 100 miles north to south, so a system was developed that divided Belgium into fortified zones. The Belgian Army, too small to fend off a major invasion in the field, would use the rivers and a series of fortresses to slow enemy progress until help arrived. Sooner or later, one or more of the Allied powers would come forward to rescue the tiny nation.

As plans developed, the idea of a National Redoubt became firmly lodged into the Belgian national consciousness. Antwerp was designated to become an impregnable fortress where the government and army could find refuge in time of war. The Belgians began constructing a series of eight forts in 1859 along the southern flank of the city. The works, which were numbered One to Eight, were situated between the outskirts of Wijnegem and Hoboken.

But that was not all. Fort van Merksem was erected on the right bank of the Scheldt facing the Netherlands and Germany, and on the left bank, Forts Kruibeke, Zwijnddrecht, and St. Marie were intended to protect the city from a coastal attack from France or Great Britain. In the murky, ever-changing world of European power politics, it was better to hedge your bets as to who would ultimately be your friend or foe.

General Henri-Alexis Brialmont was taking no chances. A brilliant military engineer, he was nicknamed the Belgian Vauban for his talented designs. But forts One though Eight and the other posts generally had been built between 1861 and 1871, a time of rapid advancement in artillery and fort construction. By 1880, even the newest of these were approaching obsolescence. They were mainly made of brick, serviceable enough to withstand the artillery of the 1850s but woefully inadequate against the heavier guns being developed in the latter half of the 19th century.

An Ambitious Plan for a National Redoubt

Recognizing this, an ambitious plan envisioned a new defensive ring of concrete fortresses that would be situated just forward of the natural borders formed by the Rupel and Nethe Rivers, between Lierre and the lower loop of the Scheldt. This new ring would feature fortresses of the very latest design, with reinforced concrete and revolving steel turrets. These steel cupolas were designed to absorb the pounding of 21cm siege guns.

The majority of the forts were to be polygon-shaped. Each had a water moat and a spannning bridge. The steel turrets boasted 15cm, 12cm, and 7.5cm guns, all capable of dealing out considerable punishment. The approaches to the forts were defended by 5.7cm rapid-fire guns, also encased in steel turrets. Forward observation posts, each of which was sheathed in concrete, would give excellent target information to fort guns, the data communicated through a series of telephones.

Unfortunately, politics and budget restrictions got in the way of construction goals. There were the usual bureaucratic squabbles, and it was not until 1906 that construction on the new ring of forts began in earnest.

By 1914 much had been accomplished, but the so-called National Redoubt was still incomplete and riddled with flaws. To save money, some older-model cannons were emplaced. These weapons used old-fashioned gunpowder, whose telltale smoke gave away an artillery position. There were gaps in the telephone lines, some turrets did not yet have guns, and concrete had not been poured in some places.