Third Battle of Antwerp, 1-10 October 1914

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The Third Battle of Antwerp, 1-10 October 1914, was the final phase of a more prolonged period of fighting around Antwerp that had begun during the third week of August 1914 when the bulk of the Belgian army had fallen back from its initial front line to a new line based around Antwerp.

Although the presence of the Belgian army did force the Germans to detached the III Reserve Corps and the Naval Division from the army advancing towards the French border, the retreat to Antwerp and the fall of Liège did open up the gap in the Belgian line that the Germans needed if their plan for a rapid advance into north west France was to succeed.

Aware of this, King Albert I of Belgium ordered a series of counterattacks in an attempt to pull more German troops away from the advance. On 24 August the Belgians launched a large scale sortie towards Malines, which was turned back after three days. A second sortie on 9 September reached Vilvoorde, ten miles outside the outer line of fortresses. The final sortie came on 27 September. By this time the German attack into France had been turned back at the First Battle of the Marne and the Race to the Sea was about to end in failure for both sides.

The Germans were now free to turn more of their attention to Antwerp. General Hans von Beseler, the German commander at Antwerp was himself an engineer. By the end of September the heavy siege guns used at Liège and Namur had reached him. On 1 October the heavy siege guns opened fire, destroying Antwerp’s outermost forts one by one. On 3 October the Germans had blasted a gap in the line of forts and were able to launch an assault that came close to forcing the abandonment of the city.

On 4 October the situation was temporarily restored by the arrival of the British Royal Naval Division. British strategy for hundreds of years had been aimed at making sure Antwerp stayed out of hostile hands. This had become something of an obsession, with Antwerp and the Scheldt estuary seen as the best route for a possible invasion of southern England. In one of the more bizarre incidents of the war, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, arrived in Antwerp and took virtual command of the fighting there for two crucial days. Often criticised as a foolhardy gesture, Churchill’s presence in Antwerp probably helped prolong the defence by a crucial couple of days, during which the main British and French armies moved closer to the coast in the last days of the Race to the Sea.

The situation around Antwerp became increasingly dangerous. On 5 October the Germans breached the second and final line of modern forts around Antwerp and reached the inner line of redoubts, built in 1859 and totally unable to stand up to modern artillery. On 6 October King Albert was forced to order the evacuation of his army. The bulk of the Belgian army was able to escape along the coast to the south west. On the way they met a British force under General Rawlinson that had been sent to help defend the city. Both forces continued the retreat south west. The Belgian army escaped from Antwerp largely intact, and was able to take up a new defensive position along the Yser River, where they formed the extreme left wing of the Allied line that led from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

Antwerp itself surrendered on 10 October. By then the garrison had been reduced to General Deguise, one sergeant and one private soldier, the rest of the army having escaped. It is sometimes suggested that Antwerp could have been held if the main British relief forces had moved with more urgency. With German troops already approaching Ypres in the dash north to the sea the main Allied line was already forming up over fifty miles west of Antwerp. If Antwerp had been held, it would have been as an isolated defensive camp.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 August 2007), Third Battle of Antwerp, 1-10 October 1914, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_antwerpIII.html

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