The Taking of Antwerp
By E. Alexander Powell, F.R.G.S.
[Scribner's Magazine, January 1915]
Things were looking very black for Antwerp on the afternoon of the 2d of October. The forts comprising the Lierre-Waelhem sector of the outer line of defences had been hammered to pieces by the German siege-guns; pushing through the breach thus made, a German army corps had forced a passage across the Néthe in the face of desperate opposition; after a fortnight of continuous fighting the Belgian troops were in a state of complete exhaustion; the already overcrowded hospitals were swamped by the stream of wounded which was pouring in; a cloud of despondency overhung the city, for the people, though unaware of the extreme gravity of the situation, were oppressed with a sense of impending disaster.
When I returned that evening to the Hôtel St. Antoine from the battle-front, which was then barely a dozen miles outside the city, the manager stopped me as I was entering the elevator.
"Are you leaving with the others, Mr. Powell?" he whispered.
"Leaving for where? With what others?" I asked sharply.
"Hadn't you heard?" he answered in some confusion. "The members of the government and the diplomatic corps are leaving for Ostend by special steamer at seven in the morning. It has just been decided at a cabinet meeting. But for heaven's sake don't mention it to a soul. No one is to know of it until they are gone."
I remember that as I continued to my room the corridors smelled of smoke, and upon inquiring its cause I learned that Sir Francis Villiers, the British minister, and his secretaries were burning papers in the rooms occupied by the British legation. The Russian minister, who was standing in the hall superintending the packing of his trunks, stopped me to say good-by. So I was considerably astonished upon going down to breakfast the following morning, to meet Count Goblet d'Alviella, vice-president of the Senate and a minister of state, leaving the dining-room.
"Why, count!" I exclaimed, "I had thought of you as being well on your way to Ostend by this time!"
"We had expected to be," explained the venerable statesman, "but at four o'clock this morning the British minister sent us word that Winston Churchill had left London for Antwerp, and begged us to wait and hear what he had to say."
At one o'clock that afternoon (October 3) a big gray motor-car filled with British naval officers tore up to the Hôtel. Before the car had stopped the door was thrown violently open and out sprang a smooth-shaven, sandy-haired, stoop-shouldered, youthful-looking man in the undress uniform of a lord of the admiralty. It was Winston Churchill. As he darted into the lobby, which was crowded with Belgian, French, and British officers, diplomatists, and cabinet ministers, it reminded me for all the world of that scene in the melodrama where, at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute, the hero dashes up, dust-covered and bareheaded, on a foam-flecked horse, and saves the heroine, or the old homestead, or the beleaguered garrison, as the case might be.
While Churchill was lunching with Sir Francis Villiers and the staff of the British legation, two English correspondents approached and asked him for an interview.
"I will not talk to you," he almost shouted, smashing his fist down upon the table. "You have no business to be in Belgium at this time. Get out of here at once!"
My table was so near that I could not help but overhear the request and the response, and I remember remarking to the friends who were lunching with me: "Had Mr. Churchill said that to me, I should have answered him: 'I have as much business in Belgium at this time, sir, as you had in Cuba during the Spanish-American War!'"
Half an hour later I was standing in the lobby chatting with M. de Vos, the burgomaster of Antwerp, M. Louis Franck, the Antwerp representative in the Chamber of Deputies, and the American consul-general, Mr. Diederich, when Churchill rushed past us on his way to his room. Intercepting him, the burgomaster introduced himself and expressed his anxiety as to the fate of the city. Before he had finished Churchill was half-way up the stairs.
"I think everything will be all right now, Mr. Burgomaster," he called, in a voice which could be heard throughout the lobby. "You needn't worry. We're going to save the city."
Whereupon most of the civilians present drew a sigh of relief. They felt that a real sailor had taken the wheel. Yet for some reason the words of this energetic, impetuous young man did not entirely reassure me. Perhaps it was because from the windows of my room I could hear the grumble of the German guns quite plainly. Since morning they had come appreciably nearer.
That afternoon and the three succeeding days Mr. Churchill spent in inspecting the Belgian position. He repeatedly exposed himself upon the firing-line, and on one occasion, near Waelhem, had a rather narrow escape, a shell bursting in his immediate vicinity. Perhaps it was because his high spirits were in such marked contrast to the gloom which prevailed among those around him, but he gave me the impression of having, in the words of that distinguished American whose mannerisms he seems to have taken for his own, a perfectly bully time.
Had it not been for the promise of reinforcements which Mr. Churchill gave to the King and cabinet, there is no doubt that the government would have moved immediately to Ostend, as had been planned, and that the inhabitants of Antwerp, thus warned of the extreme gravity of the situation, would have been enabled to leave the city with a semblance of comfort and order, for the railways to Ghent and to the Dutch frontier were still in operation.
The first of the promised reinforcements arrived on Sunday evening, October 4, by special train from Ostend. They consisted of a brigade of marines, about two thousand strong, seasoned and well-equipped men. They were rushed to the southern front and immediately sent into the trenches to relieve the worn-out Belgians. On Monday and Tuesday the balance of the British expeditionary force, consisting of six thousand volunteer naval reservists, arrived from, the coast, their supplies and ammunition being brought by road in fifty or more London motorbuses. When this procession of lumbering vehicles, bearing the signs "Bank," "Holborn," "Piccadilly," "Shepherd's Bush," "Strand," and placarded with advertisements of teas, soaps, tobaccoes, whiskeys, and current theatrical attractions, rumbled through the streets of Antwerp, the inhabitants went mad. The British had come at last! The city was saved! Vive les Anglais! Vive Tommy Atkins!
I witnessed the detrainment of the naval brigades at Vieux Dieu, and accompanied them to the trenches north of Lierre. As they tramped down the tree-bordered, cobble-paved highroad we heard, for the first time in Belgium, the lilting refrain of that music-hall ballad which has become the British soldier's fighting-song:
"It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go;
It's a long way to Tipperary—
To the sweetest girl I know!
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It's a long, long way to Tipperary;
But my heart's right there!"
And many and many a one of the light-hearted lads with whom I marched down the Lierre road on that October afternoon was destined never again to feel beneath his feet the flags of Piccadilly, was never more to lounge in Leicester Square.
They were a body of as clean-limbed, frank-faced, wholesome-looking young Englishmen as you would find anywhere, but to any one with military experience it was evident that they were not "first-class fighting men." By this I do not mean to imply that they were wanting in courage and determination, but rather that they were lacking in training and experience. Moreover, their equipment left much to be desired, only a very small proportion, for example, having pouches to carry the regulation one hundred and fifty rounds. They were, in fact, equipped about as haphazardly as some of our militia regiments in the days before the reorganization of the National Guard. Even their officers—those, at least, with whom I talked—seemed to be as lacking in field experience as their men. That these naval reservists were insufficiently drilled and improperly equipped for the task in hand has since been admitted by the British Admiralty. Yet these raw troops were rushed to Antwerp on an almost hopeless hope, were placed in open trenches, and, though unsupported by effective artillery and raked by a terrific shrapnel fire, held those trenches for three days and then fell back in perfect order. What the losses of the naval division were in this mad adventure I do not know. In Antwerp their casualties were reported and generally believed to be in the neighborhood of two thousand, upward of three hundred wounded being treated in one hospital alone, while it was officially announced by the admiralty that four thousand were forced across the frontier and interned in Holland.
By Tuesday night a boy scout could have seen that the position of Antwerp was hopeless. The Austrian forty-two-centimetre siege-guns, from their concrete emplacements behind the Malines-Louvain railway-embankment, had smashed and silenced the chain of supposedly impregnable forts to the south of the city with the same businesslike despatch with which they had smashed and silenced those other supposedly impregnable forts at Liège and Namur. Through this opening a German army corps had been hurled against the second line of defence. This second line of defence was formed by the Rupel and the Néthe, which, together with the Scheldt, form a great "natural moat" sweeping in a huge semicircle around three sides of the city. Across the Néthe, under cover of a terrific artillery fire, the Germans threw their pontoon bridges and when the first bridge was swept away by the Belgian guns they built others, and when these were destroyed in turn they tried again, and at the third attempt they got across. With the spiked helmets across the Néthe, it was all over but the shouting. Yet the Belgians, reinforced by the little handful of English, battled on. Their forts pounded to pieces by guns which they could not answer, their trenches raked by shell fire, the men heavy-eyed and heavy-footed from lack of sleep, their ammunition almost gone, the horses staggering from exhaustion, the hospitals and surgeons unable to cope with the flood of wounded, the fields and ditches strewn with dead and dying, their line, though slowly pressed back by sheer weight of numbers, held unbroken against the onset of the German legions.
On Tuesday evening General de Guise, the military governor, informed the government that the position of the garrison was fast becoming untenable, and on Wednesday morning the capital of Belgium was transferred from Antwerp to Ostend, the members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps leaving at daybreak by steamer, while Winston Churchill departed for the coast by automobile under convoy of an armored motor-car. Before leaving he gave orders that the condensers of the German steamers in the harbor be destroyed, in retaliation for which the Germans demanded an indemnity of twenty million francs.
As late as Wednesday morning the great majority of the inhabitants of Antwerp were still in profound ignorance of the real situation. Morning after morning the Matin and the Métropole had published official communiqués categorically denying that any of the forts had been silenced, and asserting in the most positive terms that the enemy was being held in check or being repulsed all along the line. As a result of this policy of denial and deception, the people of Antwerp went to sleep on Tuesday night calmly confident that in a few days the Germans would raise the siege from sheer discouragement. Imagine what happened, then, when they awoke on Wednesday morning, October 7, to learn that the government had fled during the night, and that the field army was in full retreat, and to find staring at them from every wall and hoarding proclamations signed by the military governor, announcing that the bombardment of the city was imminent, urging all who were able to depart immediately, and advising those who remained to shelter themselves behind sand-bags in their cellars. It was like waiting until the entire ground floor of a crowded tenement was in flames, and the means of escape almost cut off, before shouting "Fire!"
No one who witnessed the flight from Antwerp will ever be able to erase it from his memory. No words can describe its pathos, its miseries, and its horrors. It was not a flight; it was a stampede. The sober, slow-thinking, slow-moving Flemish townspeople were suddenly transformed into a herd of terror-stricken cattle. So complete was the German enveloping movement that only three avenues of escape remained open: westward, by the St. Nicholas-Lokeren road, to Ghent and Bruges; northeastward into Holland; and down the Scheldt toward Flushing. Of the four hundred thousand fugitives—for the exodus was not confined to the people of Antwerp, but included the entire population of the countryside for thirty miles around—probably a quarter of a million escaped by river. Everything that could float was pressed into service: merchant steamers, dredgers, ferry-boats, barges, canal-boats, tugs, fishing-smacks, yachts, scows, row-boats, launches, even extemporized rafts. There was no attempt at maintaining discipline or order. The fear-frantic people piled aboard until there was not even standing-room upon the vessels' decks. They were as packed with humanity as are the New York subway trains on a Saturday noon. Of all the thousands who fled by river, but an insignificant proportion were supplied with food, or with warm clothing, or had space in which to lie down. Yet through two nights and two days they huddled together on the open decks, while the great guns tore to pieces the city they had left behind them. As my launch threaded its way up the crowded river after the first night's bombardment, we seemed to pass through a wave of sound—a great moan of mingled anguish and misery and fatigue and hunger from the homeless thousands adrift upon the waters.
The scenes along the highways leading toward Ghent and to the Dutch frontier were even more appalling, for here the soldiers of the retreating field army and the fugitive civilians were mixed in inextricable confusion. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday the main highway from Antwerp to Ghent was jammed from ditch to ditch with a solid stream of hastening humanity, and the same was true of every road, every lane, every foot-path leading away from the advancing Germans.
I doubt if the world has ever seen so pathetic, so heart-breaking, so terrible, a procession. It seemed as though no wheeled vehicle had been left in Antwerp. There were people in motor-cars, with others standing on the running-boards and clinging to the hoods and mud-guards; there were people in carriages, in delivery-wagons, in moving-vans, in farm-carts, in omnibuses, in carts drawn by dogs, on bicycles, on horseback, and thousands upon tens of thousands afoot. I saw men pushing their wives and children in wheelbarrows piled high with bedding. I saw sturdy young peasants carrying their aged parents in their arms. I saw monks in woollen robes and sandals bearing wounded men on stretchers. I saw white-faced nuns urging forward groups of war-orphaned children who had been confided to their care. I saw mothers, so weak and ill that they could scarcely totter forward, with week-old babies in their arms. I saw priests assisting the feeble and the wounded. I saw women of fashion, in fur coats and high-heeled shoes, staggering under the weight of the belongings they were carrying in sheet-wrapped bundles upon their backs. I saw white-haired men and women grasping the harness of the gun-teams or the stirrup-leathers of the troopers, who, themselves exhausted from days of fighting, slept in their saddles as they rode. I saw springless farm-wagons filled with wounded soldiers, with bandaged heads and arms, and with piteous white faces, and through the straw beneath them the blood dripped...dripped...dripped, leaving a crimson trail along the road.
The confusion was beyond all imagination, the clamor deafening: the rattle and clank of batteries, the trample of hoofs, the cracking of whips, the throb of motorcars, the curses of the drivers, the moans of the wounded, the cries of women, the whimpering of frightened children, threats, pleadings, oaths, screams, imprecations—and the shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of countless feet. And the fields and ditches between which these processions of disaster passed were strewn with the prostrate forms of those who, from sheer exhaustion, could go no farther. Within a few hours after the exodus began, the countryside for miles around was as bare of food as the Sahara is of grass. By this I do not mean that there was a scarcity of food; I mean that there was literally nothing to eat. Near Capellen a well-to-do resident of Antwerp eagerly exchanged his five-thousand- dollar motor-car for food for his starving family. Time after time I saw famished fugitives pause at farmhouses and offer all of their pitifully few possessions for a loaf of bread, and the country people, with tears streaming down their cheeks, could only shake their heads. I saw prosperous-looking men and smartly gowned women, and wounded soldiers, pull up turnips from the fields, and devour them raw—for there was nothing else. It will probably never be known how many people perished during that awful flight from hunger and exposure and exhaustion; many more, certainly, than lost their lives during the bombardment. Near one small town on the Dutch frontier twenty children were born during the night, in the open fields, the mothers being without beds, without shelter, and without medical attendance.
The bombardment of Antwerp began about ten o'clock on Wednesday evening. The first shell to fall within the city struck a house in the Berchem district, killing a fourteen-year-old boy and wounding his mother and his little sister. The second decapitated a street-sweeper as he was running for shelter. Throughout the night the rain of death continued, the shells falling at the rate of five a minute. The streets were absolutely deserted. Not a living being was to be seen. The few who had remained in the city were cowering in their cellars. Though the gas and the electric lights were out, the streets were illuminated by the glare from the blazing oil-tanks at Hoboken, which had been set on fire by the Belgians. The racket was deafening. The pavements trembled. The buildings seemed to rock and sway. The very air vibrated to the incessant concussions, It was indeed a City of Dreadful Night. There would come the whistling shriek of a shell passing low over the housetops, followed, an instant later, by a shattering, rending crash, and the whole facade of the house where it had struck would come toppling into the street in a cascade of brick and plaster. It was not until Thursday night, however, that the Germans brought their famous forty-two-centimetre guns into action. The destruction wrought by these monster cannon was appalling. The projectiles they rained upon the city weighed a ton apiece, and had the destructive properties of that much nitroglycerine. So terrific was the noise of their discharge that it seemed at first as though the German batteries were firing salvos.
We heard them as they came. We heard the roar in the air which they caused, sounding at first like an approaching express-train, but rapidly increasing in volume until the atmosphere quivered as before a howling cyclone. Then came an explosion which seemed to split the very earth. Huge geysers of dust and smoke shot high into the air above the shivering city. When one of these projectiles struck a building it did not merely tear away its upper stories or blow a gaping aperture in its walls: the whole building collapsed in utter ruin as though flattened by a mighty hand. When they exploded in the open streets, they tore out yawning pits as large as the cellar of a good-sized house and wrecked every building within a radius of two hundred yards. The preceding shell-fire seemed insignificant and harmless. It seemed as though in another moment the whole city would come down about our ears. The thickest masonry was crumpled up like so much cardboard. Buildings of solid stone were levelled as a child levels the structure which it erects with building-blocks. It was hell with the lid off—and I am not using the expression lightly, either. By Thursday noon there was scarcely a street in the southern portion of the city which was not obstructed by heaps of fallen masonry; the only quarter which escaped being that containing the handsome residences of wealthy Germans, The sidewalks were slippery with glass. The streets were littered with tangled telephone and lighting wires, with shattered poles and lamp-posts and with fallen trees. Upward of two thousand houses were struck by shells and of these more than three hundred were totally destroyed. By Friday morning Antwerp looked as though it had been visited by an earthquake, a cyclone, and a conflagration.
The evacuation of Antwerp by the garrison began on Thursday and, everything considered, was carried out in excellent order, the troops being gradually withdrawn from the outer line of defences, marched through the city and across the pontoon bridge which the Belgian engineers had thrown across the Scheldt at the beginning of the war, and thence down the road to Saint Nicholas to join the retreating field-army. Early on Friday morning General de Guise ordered the destruction of the pontoon bridge, so that when, a few hours later, the last Belgian troops came pouring down to the water-front they discovered that this avenue of escape was no longer open. When it was found that the bridge had been destroyed, scenes of the wildest confusion ensued, the soldiers, suddenly falling victims to a blind, unreasoning panic, rushing frantically aboard such few vessels as still remained at the wharves, or opening fire with their rifles on those already in mid-stream which failed to obey their signals to return. I wish to emphasize the fact, however, that these were but isolated incidents; that these men were exhausted in mind and body from many days of continuous fighting; and that, as a whole, the Belgian troops bore themselves, in this desperate situation, with a courage and coolness deserving of the highest admiration. I have heard it said by British officers that the naval division was sent to Antwerp "to stiffen the Belgians." The Belgians needed no stiffening. They did everything that any other troops could have done under the same circumstances—and then some. Nor did the men of the naval division, as has been frequently asserted in England, cover the Belgian retreat. The last troops to leave the trenches were Belgians, the last shots were fired by Belgians, and the Belgians were the last to cross the river.
On Monday morning all telegraphic communication with Antwerp abruptly ended. Now, a war correspondent who is unable to get his despatches on the wire is as valueless to the newspaper he represents as a soldier who has been taken prisoner is to his country, so I started in my car for Ghent, where the telegraph was still uninterrupted, at noon on Wednesday. I had filed my despatches and was on the point of starting back to Antwerp when Mr. Johnson, the American consul, who was at Ostend, called me by telephone. He informed me that the Belgian Government had turned over to him the keys of the stores and dwellings in Antwerp belonging to German residents who had been expelled, at the beginning of the war, with the request that they be forwarded immediately to the German military authorities in order to obviate the breaking of doors, which might quite conceivably lead to a sacking of the city by the German soldiery. Mr. Johnson asked if I would wait until he could bring the keys through by automobile from Ostend, and if I would undertake to deliver them to the German commander, to which I, of course, assented. Owing to the crowded condition of the roads it was early on Thursday morning before Mr. Johnson, who had travelled through a greater portion of the night, reached Ghent and handed me the bulky package bearing the red seals of the Bureau des Réquisitions. By this time the main road from Ghent to Antwerp was literally choked with the troops of the retiring field-army and with demoralized fugitives, and to have driven a car through that panic-stricken mob would have been as impossible as to paddle a canoe up the rapids at Niagara.
By taking a roundabout course to the north, however, I succeeded in reaching Doel, which is a fishing-village on the Scheldt ten miles or so below Antwerp, by noon. By means of alternate bribes and threats, Roos, my soldier-driver—before the war he had been one of the jeunesse dorée of Brussels—succeeded in persuading a boatman to take us up to Antwerp in a small launch. The river was as crowded with vessels of every description, their decks black with refugees, as Fifth Avenue is with vehicles on a pleasant afternoon in winter. Our little craft, with a small American flag flying from its stern, was the only one going upstream. As we picked our way through the refugee flotilla we were greeted with a chorus of shouted warnings: "Go back! You'll be captured by the Germans! The city is burning! Shells are falling in the river! The Germans will shoot you!" which, well-meant though they were, were scarcely calculated to have a reassuring effect upon our already quaking boatman. It was well into the afternoon, and the bombardment was at its height, when, swinging around a bend in the river, the gray-blue spire of the cathedral rose, in all its lace-like beauty, before us. From its highest pinnacle the red, yellow, and black banner of Belgium still defiantly floated. The city was overhung by an ominous pall of smoke from the burning oil-tanks at Hoboken, shells were bursting with ear-splitting crashes every few seconds; the air reverberated as to a continuous roll of thunder. As we ran alongside the deserted Red Star quays, over which floated the Stars and Stripes, a shell burst with a terrific explosion in an adjacent street. That was all that was needed to complete the boatman's panic and, before I realized what he was doing, he had reversed his engine and was backing into the middle of the river. Roos drew his automatic and covered the terrified man.
"Go ahead!" he commanded. "Run up to the quay and let us land." Before the grim menace of the pistol the man sullenly obeyed.
"I've a wife and family at Doel," he muttered. "If I'm killed there'll be no one to look after them."
"I've a wife and family in America," I retorted. "You're taking no more chances than I am."
I am perfectly willing to confess, however, that as we ran alongside the wharf and clambered up the iron ladder, I would quite willingly have been back on Broadway again. In the first place, a great city which has been suddenly deserted is the most depressing place one can well imagine. Not a living human being was to be seen anywhere, though a few yards down the street the body of a man was sprawling, face down, in a pool of crimson. Shells yowled overhead, and, falling in the river, threw up hundred-foot-high jets of water. Every now and then there would come a shattering explosion from somewhere behind the line of buildings that screened the water-front, followed by the crash of falling masonry.
Just about that time I would quite willingly have given all I possessed for a convenient cellar—but it did not seem to be a propitious moment to go out and hunt for one. After all, as I tried to argue to myself, there was really an exceedingly small chance of a shell picking out the particular spot on which I happened to be standing, and even if it did it seemed more dignified, as it were, to be blown to pieces in the open than to be killed in a cellar like a cornered rat. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have disdained the cellar had I known where to find one. About ten in the evening the bombardment slackened for a time, and the denizens of Antwerp's underworld began to creep out from their hiding-places and slip like ghosts along the quays in search of food. The great supplies of provisions, which had been taken from the German vessels which were in port at the outbreak of the war, had been stored in temporary warehouses upon the quays, and it was not long before the rabble had forced an entrance and was looting. As a man staggered past under a load of wine-bottles and tinned provisions, our boatman, who by this time had become reconciled to remaining, approached and inquired wistfully if he might do a little looting, too. "We've no food to eat down the river," he explained, "for the refugees have eaten everything, and I might just as well get some of these provisions for my family as to let the Germans have them." I agreed with him, whereupon he disappeared into the darkness of the warehouse with a hand-truck. He was not the sort who did his stealing by halves, was that boatman. By midnight Roos and I were shivering as though with fever, for the autumn nights on the Scheldt are damp and chilly, and we had had nothing to eat, save chocolate, since early morning.
"I'm going to do a little looting on my own account," I announced, finally. "We're almost frozen, and I haven't the least doubt that over in that warehouse there is something that would warm us up. I'm going to have a look." Roos declined to accompany me, because, as he explained, being a soldier and in uniform, it was not etiquette for him to engage in looting. "But you might see if you could find a bottle of whiskey," he added, with a shiver. Groping my way into the pitch-black warehouse, I struck a match. The first thing I saw by its flickering light was a case filled with bottles packed in straw. Just as my fingers closed around one a shell burst directly overhead. At least it seemed as though it had burst overhead, the concussion was so deafening, though, as I learned afterward, it had exploded fully a hundred yards away. I thought for a moment that the roof was coming down on top of me. Clinging to the bottle, I sprinted down the quay for my life. "At any rate, I've found something to drink," I remarked to Roos when my heart had ceased its pounding, and, slipping off the straw casing, I struck a match to see the result of my maiden effort at looting. It was a bottle of pepsin bitters!
At daybreak we started down the river again for Doel, where we had left the car, it being my plan to motor to La Clinge, a Dutch frontier hamlet, where I had been told that there was a telegraph-station, file my despatches, race back to Doel, and return in the launch to Antwerp. But at La Clinge I found that the nearest telegraph-station was at Hulst, eight miles away, and the Dutch frontier-patrol refused to let me enter Holland with the car, which bore a military number. Fortune continued to be kind, however, for a Belgian priest volunteered to walk the eight miles to Hulst and file the despatches. Thanks to that little man, in his black cassock and shovel-hat, the American people were enabled to read the story of the bombardment of Antwerp at their breakfast tables the next morning. But when, we got back to Doel the launch was gone. The boatman had decamped without even waiting for the money which was still due him. For a time it looked as though I might as well attempt to get to the moon as to get back to Antwerp. The stories told by the thousands of refugees who were pouring in had so terrified the boatmen that they would not even listen to the offers I made them. Then I remembered the keys, which were still in my possession, as I had been unable to deliver them. It was a fortunate inspiration.
Hunting up the commandant de place, who was an energetic young infantry officer, I explained the situation and the necessity of my getting back to Antwerp, and, as a conclusive argument, displayed the package, with its impressive seals and the imprint of the Belgian War Office. That was all that was needed. "I will place the quarantine-launch at your disposal," said the commandant, and began shouting orders like the captain of a Jersey City ferry-boat in a fog. Ten minutes later I was sitting in lonely state on the after-deck of a trim, black launch—for I had ordered Roos to make his way to Ostend with the car while there was still a chance of getting through—and we were streaking it up the river at twenty miles an hour. By way of precaution, in case the Germans should already be in possession of the city and should open fire upon us, I had taken the two American flags from the car and had hoisted them on the launch, one at the masthead and the other at the taffrail. It is a certain satisfaction to know that the only craft that went the wrong way of the river during the bombardment of Antwerp flew the Stars and Stripes. As we came within sight of the city, the bombardment, which had become desultory, broke out afresh, and it required alternate threats and bribes to induce the crew to run in and land me at the quay. An hour after I landed the city surrendered.
At half past two on the afternoon of Friday, October 9, half a dozen motor-cars filled with armed men in gray uniforms and spiked helmets entered Antwerp through the Porte de Malines, sped down the broad, tree-shaded boulevards which led to the centre of the city, and drew up before the Hôtel de Ville. In response to the repeated knocks of a young officer in a voluminous gray cloak, the door was cautiously opened by a servant in the blue-and-silver livery of the municipality.
"I have a message to deliver to the communal council," said the young man pleasantly.
"The communal councillors are at dinner and cannot be disturbed," was the firm reply. "But perhaps monsieur will have the kindness to take a seat and wait until they have finished."
So the young man in the spiked helmet seated himself on a wooden bench, and the other men in spiked helmets ranged themselves in a row along the wall and leaned stolidly upon their rifles.
After a quarter of an hour's delay the door of the dining-room opened and a portly councillor appeared, wiping his mustache.
"You have a message you wish to deliver?" he inquired, pompously. "Well, what is it?"
"The message I am instructed to give you, sir," said the young man, clicking his heels together and bowing from the waist, "is that Antwerp is now a German city, and you are requested by the general commanding his Imperial Majesty's forces so to inform your townspeople, and to assure them that they will not be molested so long as they display no hostility toward our troops."
While this dramatic little scene was being enacted in the Hôtel de Ville, the burgomaster, unaware that the enemy was already within the city gates, had motored out under a flag of truce for a conference with the German commander, who informed him that if the outlying forts immediately surrendered no money indemnity would be demanded from the city, though all merchandise in its warehouses would be considered as legitimate spoils of war. The burgomaster was accompanied on his mission by Deputy Louis Franck, Councillor Ryckmans, and the Spanish consul. It was expected that the American consul-general, Henry Diederich, to whom had been turned over the British interests in Antwerp, would also accompany the delegation, but upon inquiring for him, it was learned that he had left the city with the entire consular staff on Thursday morning. He did not return until four days later.
The first troops to enter were a few score cyclists, who, advancing cautiously from street to street and from square to square, quickly formed a network of scouts spreading over all the city. After them came a brigade of infantry, and hard on the heels of the infantry clattered half a dozen batteries of horse-artillery. These passed through the city to the water-front at a spanking trot, unlimbered on the quays, and opened fire with shrapnel on the last of the retreating Belgians, who had already reached the opposite side of the river. Meanwhile a company of infantry started at the double across the pontoon bridge, only to find that the middle spans had been destroyed. Without an instant's hesitation two soldiers plunged into the river, swam across the gap, clambered up onto the other portion of the bridge, and dashed forward to reconnoitre. It is for such deeds that the Iron Cross is bestowed. Within an hour after reaching the water-front the Germans had brought up their engineers, the bridge had been repaired, and troops were pouring, across it in a steady stream in an effort to overtake the Belgian rear-guard. The grumble of field-guns, which continued throughout the night, told us that they had succeeded.
Though the bombardment ended early on Friday afternoon, Friday night was by no means lacking in horrors, for early in the evening fires, owing their origin to shells, broke out in various portions of the city. By far the most serious one was in the narrow, winding thoroughfare known as the Marche aux Souliers, which runs from the Place Verte to the Place de Meir. By eight o'clock the entire western side of this street was a roaring furnace. The only spectators were scattered groups of German soldiers, who watched the threatened destruction of the city with complete indifference, and a few companies of firemen, who stood helplessly beside their lines of empty hose, for there was no water. I firmly believe that the saving of a large part of Antwerp, including the cathedral, was due to an American resident, Mr. Charles Whithoff, who, recognizing the extreme peril in which the city stood, hurried to the Hôtel de Ville and suggested to the German military authorities that prompt steps be taken to check the spread of the flames by dynamiting the adjacent buildings. Acting on this suggestion, a telephone message was sent to Brussels, and four hours later several automobiles loaded with hand-grenades came tearing into Antwerp. A squad of soldiers was placed under Mr. Whithoff's orders and, following his directions, a cordon of buildings was blown up and the flames effectually arrested. I shall not soon forget the picture of this young American, in bedroom slippers and smoking-jacket, coolly instructing German soldiers in the most approved methods of fire-fighting.
Nearly a week before the surrender of the city the municipal water-works, near Lierre, had been destroyed by shells, so that when the Germans entered the sanitary conditions had become intolerable and an epidemic was impending. It was evident, however, that the Germans were by no means blind to this peril, for before they had been in Antwerp an hour their medical corps was at work cleaning and disinfecting. Every contingency, in fact, seemed to have been anticipated and provided for. Every phase of the occupation was characterized by the German passion for method and order. The machinery of the health department was promptly set in motion. The police were ordered to take up their duties as though no change in government had occurred. At the post-office, stamps bearing the portrait of King Albert were replaced by German stamps surcharged Für Belgien. The train service to Brussels and Holland was resumed. The electric-lighting system was repaired, and on Saturday night, for the first time since the German Zeppelin paid the city its memorable visit in August, Antwerp's streets were lighted. Though a very large number of German troops passed through the city during Friday night in pursuit of the retreating Belgians, the triumphal entry of the victors did not begin until Saturday afternoon, when sixty thousand men passed in review before the military governor, Admiral von Schroeder, who, surrounded by a glittering staff, sat his horse in front of the royal palace. Donald Thompson, the war photographer, and I, standing at the windows of the deserted American consulate, were the only spectators in the entire length of the mile-long Place de Meir—which is the Broadway of Antwerp—of the great military pageant. Not a soul was in the streets; with the exception of the consulate, every window was dark, every shop-front shuttered. As Thompson dryly remarked: "It reminds me of a circus that's come to town the day before it's expected." For five hours that mighty host poured through the canyons of brick and stone. Company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade swept past, until our eyes grew weary watching the rise and fall of the brown boots, the swing of the gray-clad shoulders, and the rows of linen-covered helmets under the slanting lines of steel. As they marched the soldiers sang, the high buildings along the Place de Meir and the Avenue de Keyser echoing to the thunder of their voices in "Die Wacht am Rhein," "Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles," and "Ein' Feste Burg ist unser Gott." Each regiment was headed by its band and colors, and when darkness fell and the street lights were turned on, the shrill music of the fifes and the rattle of the drums and the rhythmic tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet reminded me of a torchlight election-parade at home. The chief difference was that these men stood for the bullet instead of the ballot.
Heading the column rode a half-squadron of gendarmes—the policemen of the army—grizzled, fierce-mustached fellows, in uniforms of bottle-green and silver, mounted on sleek and shining horses. After them, came the infantry: solid columns of gray-clad figures, with the cloaked forms of the mounted officers rising at intervals above the forest of spike-crowned helmets. Then the field-artillery, the big guns rattling and rumbling over the uneven cobblestones. These were the same guns that had been in almost constant action for the preceding fortnight, and that for forty hours past had been raining death and destruction into the city, yet everything about them—the blankets, the intrenching tools, the buckets, the brown leather harness—was in as perfect order as though they had just come from an inspection on the Tempelhof Field instead of from the field of battle. After the field-batteries came the horse-artillery, and after the horse-batteries the quick-firers—each drawn by a pair of horses driven with web reins by a soldier seated on the limber—and after the quick-firers an interminable line of lean-barrelled machine-guns, until one wondered where Krupp's found the time and the steel to make them all. Then, heralded by a blare of trumpets and the crash of kettle-drums, came the cavalry:
cuirassiers in helmets and breastplates of burnished steel, hussars in befrogged gray jackets and linen-covered busbies, and finally the Uhlans, riding amid a forest of lances under a cloud of fluttering pennons. But this was not all, nor nearly all, for after the Uhlans came the sailors of the naval divisions, brown-faced, bewhiskered fellows, with their round, flat caps tilted rakishly, and the roll of the sea in their gait; then the Bavarians in dark blue, the Saxons in light blue, and the Austrians—the same who had handled the big guns so effectively—in uniforms of a beautiful silver-gray. Accompanying one of the Bavarian regiments was a victoria, drawn by a fat white horse, with two soldiers on the box. Horse and carriage were decorated with flowers and ferns as though for a floral parade on the Riviera; even the soldiers had nosegays pinned to their tunics and flowers stuck in their caps. As for the carriage, it was evidently a sort of triumphal chariot dedicated to the celebration of the victory, for it was loaded with hampers of champagne and violins!
The army which captured Antwerp was first, last, and all the time a fighting army. Despite the assertions in the British press, it contained neither Landsturm nor Landwehr. The soldiers were as pink-cheeked as athletes, they marched with the elastic step of men in perfect health, and as they marched they sang. They struck me, in fact, as being as keen as razors and as hard as nails. As that great fighting machine swung past, efficient as a trip-hammer, remorseless as a steam-roller, I could not but marvel how the gallant, chivalrous, and heroic but ill-prepared little army of Belgium had held it back as long as it had.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald