Monday, 29 September 2014

Antwerp, the final days

Prior to the First World War, Antwerp had been designated the ‘National Reduit’, the final safe haven for King, army and government in case of a German invasion. To that end, Antwerp had been fortified with several fortified rings. Because of its renown as a safe place to seek refuge and because King Albert, government and army had indeed settled there, hundreds of thousands of Belgians had sought refuge in the fortified port city.

However, on 28 September the Germans started shelling the city, a siege that intensified over the subsequent 12 days, after which – on 9 October – the city surrendered. In the meantime, up to a million refugees had moved on from Antwerp, most of them towards the Netherlands, but also towards the United Kingdom. As such, Antwerp plays a crucial role in the initial chapter of the story of the Belgian refugees in Britain. The following concerns 29 September.

On 27 September the city of Mechelen (Malines), roughly 25km south of Antwerp, had been taken by the German generaal Von Beseler. This freed German forces to increase their pressure on the outer fortified ring, some forts of which were located literally north of Mechelen.

     On 29 September the German neared the river Rupel but were fired upon from the Fort of Walem. However, resistance did not last long there as a German granate blew up the munition chamber, destroying an important part of the fort. Nearby, the fort of Fort Sint-Katelijne-Waver managed to resist for little more than a day too. Further east, the German army installed two ‘Dikke Bertha’ canon at Heist-op-den-Berg. They started shelling the fort of Lier, roughly 8km away. The Belgian army withdraws from the fort only two days later. 

     Among the many Belgian casualties of 29 September are Armand de KeyzerFelix De PauwJoseph Dolhain, Joseph Givron, Leopold HeerenHenriAertsKarelBaeyens

In an ideal world, it would be a valuable research project to be listing all casualties of Belgian soldiers who died in the wider Antwerp area in the period 4 August – 9 October and whether or not their families had already sought refuge elsewhere and perhaps ended up in Britain. Also, how many wounded soldiers from these battlefields convalesced in Britain? However, resources are very limited for the moment.

In Flanders, people from Antwerp tend to be looked upon as boasting about themselves. However, in the case of the movement war in Belgium in the first months of the war Antwerp played a crucial part. By the end of the war, half the Belgian refugees in Britain had been from the province of Antwerp. Antwerp engineers and factory labourers from Elisabethville were among the first ones allowed to return to Belgium so as to support the reconstruction efforts there. This was also because refugees from the frontline in and around Ypres did not have a house to get back to, even roads had gone.

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