RACE TO THE SEA - ANTWERP 1914

 
 
 

As the Battle of the Aisne drew to a close one problem became clear to the British High Command; their army was in the wrong place.  With the unprotected Channel ports looking increasingly vulnerable, the B.E.F. had to be relocated before the Germans were able to exploit the situation.   The B.E.F. was sandwiched between two French armies, and had to be extracted with the French nudging to the right to fill the gaps.  This must be done surreptitiously to avoid giving the Germans an opportunity to exploit the temporary confusion that this manoeuvre would create.  First to leave was the cavalry who were followed night after night by infantry units. They marched to railheads (sometimes 50 miles away) by circuitous routes and in darkness.  During daylight hours they rested - concealed from prying enemy airmen.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 25th September 1914

British Army in Secret Manoeuvre

British Army in Secret Manoeuvre–Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

The ‘Race to the Sea’ was the name given after the war to the last mobile phase of the conflict.  This was a massive outflanking manoeuvre employed by the German army to get round the extending lines of trenches and to capture the ports of Calais and Boulogne.  There is little consensus among historians on when the movement of troops became a race but on the 26th September the German 6th Army marched in determined  fashion from the  Somme  towards  the English  Channel.  British concern

The Race to the Sea

British Cavalry Race to the Sea–Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

THE FIGHT FOR ANTWERP

Image:  One of Antwerp’s fortifications, as seen today.

 

On 1st October, the German High Command switched its attention from the static trench lines near Paris and towards the besieged city of Antwerp.  Lying at the mouth of the River Scheldt (and on the border of neutral Holland) Antwerp was of great strategic value.  It was by-passed by the German army in the first weeks of the war but von Kluck had left enough troops to cork the bottle.  Within the besieged city sheltered not only the Belgian royal family and government,   but   crucially   around   65,000   soldiers   of   the   Belgian  army.   The  British

All Eyes on Antwerp

Antwerp Fortifications-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image:  A German ‘Big Bertha’ gun prepares to smash Antwerp’s concrete forts.  Ironically the guns of the Belgian forts were also manufactured by Krupp - although they were much smaller in size.

The Destruction of Antwerp Begins

Big Bertha Gun Destroys Antwerp-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

ANTWERP FALLS TO THE GERMAN ARMY

 

Image:  A German view of the siege of Antwerp.

 

On 6th October 1914, around 8,000 men of Britain’s newly created Royal Naval Division (R.N.D.) arrived in Antwerp.  To all intents and purposes the battle was already lost and, 36 hours after their arrival, they had to pull out.  The lucky ones managed to board trains or clamber onto buses and trucks.  Others had to travel on foot along with masses of refugees who snaked in massive columns from the burning city. Around 1500 British servicemen, either by design or by mistake, crossed into neutral Holland where they were interned for the duration of the war.  Some 800 others became prisoners of the Germans.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 6th October 1914

R.N.D. Arrive but Antwerp's Fate is Sealed

German View Siege of Antwerp-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image:  Troops and civilians flee the burning city of Antwerp.

 

Antwerp surrendered to the Germans on 9th October - but it was not a complete disaster.  The Belgian army escaped and marched south to take up position alongside French troops on the banks of the River Yser.  British involvement at Antwerp and the role of Winston Churchill both arouse controversy.  At one point during the withdrawal, the future Prime Minister was seen to climb onto a pedestal to direct the flow of traffic, clad in a blue cloak and dark blue yachting cap! Not everyone welcomed his involvement and ‘proper’ army officers resented his presence. Nevertheless ‘Winston’s Little Army’ may have made a significant contribution to the outcome of the war.  Their presence at Antwerp helped stiffen Belgian resistance and so delayed the fall of the city by 5 days.  This gave valuable time to the B.E.F. who, some 80 miles to the south, were preparing defences around Ypres to block German access to the Channel ports.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 9th October 1914

Antwerp Falls

Burning City of Antwerp 1914-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image: On 23rd September 2014, a London bus passed through the Menin Gate as a prelude to the daily ‘last post’ ceremony.

 

On 10th October 1914 German soldiers posed for photographs beside a couple of disabled London buses in the Belgian city of Antwerp.  The buses had been left behind by fleeing British troops and a photo with them was an essential souvenir to the Germans, especially if the London destination boards were prominently featured.  The German High Command considered the victory rather hollow as the Belgian army and most of the British Royal Naval Division had slipped away to the south where they would continue their resistance around Ypres.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 10th October 1914

London Bus Becomes an Attraction....Again!

London Bus at Menin Gate-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE CHANNEL PORTS

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 26th September 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st October 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 2nd October 1914

Image:  Soldier-sailors arrive in Oostende en route to Antwerp.

 

To help the beleaguered defenders of Antwerp, Winston Churchill organised an expeditionary force of a most unusual type.  Churchill, a member of the U.K. cabinet (First Lord of the Admiralty), persuaded the Prime Minister to allow him to use surplus sailors supported by a Territorial Army cavalry unit belonging to the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars.  The latter happened to be under the command of the First Lord’s brother, Jack Churchill.   The Prime Minister relieved Winston of his cabinet post - as requested - and Lord Kitchener accepted him into the army as a Lieutenant General – the same rank as Sir Douglas Haig! It has been suggested that Churchill was both abusing his power and being reckless with British resources.  However, he had at least made several reconnaissance visits to Antwerp to study its defences, travelling around the city in a Rolls-Royce.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 3rd October 1914

Winston's Little Army is Born

Soldier Sailors Head to Antwerp-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image:  British troops in Flanders board some modified London buses.

 

To help transport ‘Winston’s Little Army’ to Antwerp, scores of London buses were requisitioned by the Royal Navy (Winston Churchill had been its political boss).  Driven by volunteers these buses were on this day heading up the coast-road loaded with men of the newly formed Royal Naval Division.  The buses no longer bore their civilian livery as they had been prepared for military service in Dunkirk.  This work was carried out by the drivers themselves who had to remove seats (to increase capacity), board over the glass windows, and paint the whole vehicle.   The paint the Admiralty supplied for the job was battleship grey – excellent camouflage when the sea is the backdrop but not so great elsewhere.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 4th October 1914

Hail to the Bus Driver

London Buses Transport Troops-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image:  A soldier-sailor of the Royal Naval Division.

 

Belgium had been on the point of surrendering but they had been given new heart by the promise of British assistance. On 5th October 1914, Churchill arrived in Antwerp along with 3,000 men of the Royal Marines who had spent the previous month garrisoning Oostende. Travelling towards them were the men of the hurriedly created Royal Naval Division, still clad in their dark blue naval uniforms and without basic kit such as water bottles and kit-bags.  The rifles they carried were issued only a day or two before they sailed and not only were these obsolete, but the soldier-sailors had not yet been given an opportunity to fire them.  Notable soldiers in the ranks of the R.N.D. were Rupert Brooke (a celebrated war poet) and Arthur Asquith (son of the Prime Minister).

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th October 1914

Belgian Surrender is Postponed

Royal Navy Soldier Sailor 1914-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

Image:  Belgian soldiers in 1914 with dogs hauling some of their armies 102 machine guns.

 

Belgian neutrality was a cause of war and thereafter a cause of problems.  The Belgian army retreating from Antwerp was inexperienced and ill equipped (e.g. no artillery) and had no system to collaborate with allies. However they played a major role in foiling the German war plan.  The Schlieffen plan demanded the capture of Paris within 6 weeks, but little resistance was anticipated from the Belgians.  However the capture of Liege took the Germans much longer than planned (11 days instead of 2) and the plan ultimately failed.

For Belgium the Fight Goes On

Belgian Soldiers Retreat from Antwerp-Western Front Witness– Race to the Sea Antwerp 1914– British Army WW1

was heightened by the imminent prospect that the enemy would soon be reinforced by around 90,000 others who were currently besieging the city of Antwerp in which the Belgian army had sought refuge.

government was desperate to help them escape but the British army had no soldiers to spare.  Of course our shortage of fighting men was the main reason that we did not want the Belgians to surrender.  Britain needed a cunning plan.

The army surrounding Antwerp today (2nd October 1914) increased to 90,000 men as the German High Command set about capturing both the city and all who sheltered there.  The British government watched aghast as the Big Bertha guns systematically smashed the Belgian defences and the German infantry moved through the breeches.   Rumours abounded that the Belgian army would soon be forced to surrender and that Belgium would capitulate; with catastrophic consequences for Britain and France.  However Winston Churchill stepped forward to make a proposal to Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister.  It was a crazy idea but it just might work!