Above: a Minerva armored car fights one of three sorties from Antwerp against German lines.
Today, as German artillery pummels the Belgian city of Antwerp, the remaining defenders are already in full flight. About 80,000 Belgian troops marched west yesterday and last night, passing Ghent on their left. Most of the Royal Marines and other British personnel who came to defend the city “to the last man” marched away with them, but today many are still escaping: some 33,000 Belgians and nearly 1,500 British troops, most of them on the east bank of the River Scheldt, are forced to enter neutral Holland, where they are disarmed and interned for the duration of the war. The Germans capture 900 British soldiers and 30,000 Belgians who surrender along with the city today. In between are an unknown number of desertions and adventure stories.
Officially, the Siege of Antwerp has lasted six weeks, but has only been happening in earnest for ten days. One of the most formative and consequential phases of the war, this clear defeat is virtually lost on popular culture, but it does cause the first round of blowback in the British press.
When tomorrow’s newspapers announce the fall of Antwerp, it is not what the British people have been told to expect. Newspapers which had withheld announcement of the units sent to Belgium now reveal the paltry size of the force to their shocked readers. The government had reassured the public every day for weeks that they intended to defend Antwerp, extolling their complete commitment.
But the truth is that there are no spare soldiers to send into Antwerp. British reserves (‘Territorials’) are woefully untrained and underequipped for land warfare. The troop shortage was created by Prime Minister Asquith’s prewar defense policy; now his cabinet has lost the very nation whose independence the United Kingdom had declared war to defend.
Sunday editorial reactions question the wisdom of the government’s public relations as well as its troop deployments. Little do they know that the commander of the British Expeditionary Force wanted to bring his troops out of line two weeks ago and bring them to Antwerp, where his army would have surely had its own Tannenberg today.
There was simply no good way to defend Antwerp. Most of the area has a water table between one and three feet below the ground surface, making effective entrenchment very difficult. Some of the ‘modern’ fortresses ringing the city have no clear fields of fire because building ordinances were ignored, but those which have been able to clear their vicinity in anticipation of oncoming troop formations just made themselves easier targets for German artillery spotters by doing so. To put it simply, there were no good choices in Antwerp.
Traveling beside and sometimes within the marching army are thousands more refugees. Belgium has already paid a terrible price for being in the Kaiser’s way; everyone in Antwerp has heard the tales of murdered priests and families, burned towns, and ravaged villages. Antwerp surrenders tomorrow afternoon; the crossings into Holland are jammed until late tomorrow; there are hardly any railcars left in the city, and no locomotives.
What is left of the Belgian army retreats now to the banks of the Yser River, where they dig in for the remainder of the war. Belgium will not be liberated until the end, but the last free piece of the country will never be taken, for the ‘grey wave’ of Germans has finally crested.