The Siege of Antwerp
I have just finished a section of my latest book that is set during the siege of Antwerp in 1914. In conducting my research, I came across this photograph in the Imperial War Museum archives of a Belgian machine gun battery being pulled by dogs. Wing Commander Charles Samson of the Royal Naval Air Service noted in his autobiography, Fights and Flights, that whilst the soldiers might have been dead on their feet, the dogs still had the energy to fight amongst themselves.
The Germans laid siege to Antwerp in late September 1914, following the invasion of Belgium the month before. The Belgian forts, of the National Redoubt surrounding the city, were not designed to withstand the new 16.5" howitzers of the German army and began to fall after a few days. The six divisions of the BEF were already committed elsewhere in Flanders so, in early October, Churchill despatched three brigades of what became called the Naval Division to help in the defence of Antwerp. The original naval brigade was formed of men of the Royal Marines Light Infantry, but two brigades were added in August 1914. These two brigades comprised men of the Royal Fleet Reserve who had been mobilised, but for whom there were no ships to man. One of their officers was Arthur Asquith, the son of the Prime Minister. Asquith went on to win two bars to a DSO and achieve the rank of Brigadier-General before his wounds forced his retirement from the Western Front in 1917.
The sailors were not yet properly trained in infantry tactics, were poorly equipped and lacked artillery. Their inexperienced officers held to the Royal Navy habit of keeping the men busy and, as a result, the sailors lacked sufficient rest and quickly became exhausted. Nonetheless, the sailors fought valiantly and several of the gunners took over teh manning of the forts following the mass desertions of several Belgian artillerymen.
The Belgians and the Naval Division fought long enough to ensure the safe withdrawal of the wounded, the civilian population, vital machinery and equipment and the bulk of the Belgian Field Army, but ten days into the siege, the orders were given to abandon the city. Poor communications caused one of the brigades of sailors to receive the withdrawal order very late and, with the men being already exhausted, the First Brigade's line of retreat was cut off by the Germans. Rather than face a futile battle and heavy bloodshed against a superior army, or capture as prisoners of war, the commanding officer, Commodore Henderson, led his men to escape across the border into The Netherlands. There 1,500 men were interned by the Dutch, although some managed to avoid internment and escape back to Belgium.
The Naval Division went on to fight with distinction both at Gallipoli and on the Somme. The men carried their nautical traditions into the trenches and soon gained great respect for their spirit and courage. The Division suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any division on the Front, such that by the end of 1916, very few of the original naval volunteers were still alive and the division was taken over by the army to form the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. This army division fought on the Western Front for the rest of the war.
A war memorial to the Royal Naval Division was placed in the grounds of the Royal Naval College, but now stands on Horse Guards Parade.