Sunday, 28 September 2014


I have visited Antwerp twice, once by accident when taking the wrong exit off the ring road and once by intention for a longer stay because I was fascinated by what I saw on my first unintentional visit.  In my last War Illustrated post our French dragoons were looking for Germans and a few pages on in the same 29th August 1918 edition it was probably where they should have been galloping.
As the article implies Antwerp was considered the great redoubt built by the one of the leading fortification engineers of his time.  After Belgian independence in 1830 the city of Antwerp was proclaimed the National Safe Haven of Belgium, the last bastion of Belgian army in case of invasion by enemy troops and a safe haven from which to wait for help from allies.

As planned, the government, royal family and civil service in 1914 had decamped to Antwerp from Brussels to hold fast and the War Illustrated reported

"Gay, bright, picturesque Brussels has bravely prepared for the greater Waterloo.  The Government has been shifted to Antwerp, and the unfortified capital has opened to the enemy without a struggle. It had become a city of hospitals.  King Albert gave his splendid palace for hospital work and big hotel-keepers and large shop-owners turned their buildings into Red Cross institutions..."
"The immense fortress town, with triple belt of forts where the Belgians prepared for their last heroic stand"
The Gothic cathedral spire with its carillon bells still dominates the Antwerp skyline today as it does in the photograph and map. The optimism of holding the city for a year was ill founded as the Germans attacked with heavy artillery and on September 28th captured many of the outer ring forts.   The Belgian troops fought a rear guard action but were heavily outnumbered.  On October 1st the Belgium government sent a telegram to the British saying they would retreat in three days time.
Two more photographs of Antwerp and the Scheldt River that could be taken today.  In the background of the photograph on the right is Steen Castle
Steen Castle, Antwerp
where next month on the 3rd October 2014 a reconstruction of the pontoon footbridge across the River Scheldt to the Left Bank (Linkeroever) will be built by the Belgian and Dutch Engineering Corps and named the Peace Bridge. (See the Flanders Today article here)  Its purpose in 1914 was to be able to fortify the city with supplies and as a last resort be quickly evacuated. This was the route that the inhabitants would escape.
Belgians fleeing Antwerp to avoid entrapment (from 1914)
I have not found any pictures of that original pontoon bridge but the War Illustrated shows the rear guard in action
"Belgian rear-guard covering retirement"
And a reminder that after perfect weather the harvest of 1914 had been especially good
"Fighting Amongst the harvest. The Belgians and their black helmets with wheat-stalks to escape notice until they fire"

The pictures of the fleeing populace down tree lined avenues remind me that a hundred years later civilians are still fleeing violence in huge numbers in the Middle East.  Lets hope that in a hundred years time they too will live on a continent of peace. 
Antwerp surrendered on 9 October 1914 and one in five Belgians fled the country some to the Netherlands, France or Britain.   The Germans had a scorched earth policy because of the fear of guerrilla action.
"The rear of the German Army leaving Mouland burnt and sacked"

The village of Mouland or Moelingen in the photograph is near the Meuse river and was rebuilt after the war when the streets were widened and the central square enlarged.
"The railway from Landen to St Trond, destroyed by the Belgians to hinder the German advance".
(This was 6 miles of a single line of track first opened to traffic on 6 October 1839 )


Vanessa Morgan said...

I was in Antwerp on Saturday, so I really enjoyed your post. Where are you from?

Joy said...

Envious you were in Antwerp Vanessa, thanks to the channel tunnel I'm only a train journey away but its a long one as I live in the north of England.