The Siege of Antwerp

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 146th installment in the series. 

September 29, 1914: The Siege of Antwerp

As German troops approached Brussels in mid-August 1914, King Albert made the painful decision to abandon the unfortified Belgian capital and withdraw his outnumbered forces to the port city of Antwerp. Belgium’s main commercial city, Antwerp was protected by two rings of forts and could be supplied from the sea, raising hopes that it would withstand a long siege. But that was before anyone knew about Germany’s super-heavy artillery (some of it was actually Austrian), which first debuted at Liege; when the final test came, the “National Redoubt” managed to hold out against the big guns just two weeks.

In August and September, the Belgian Army had already staged several daring sallies from Antwerp in order to harass and distract the Germans at key moments, first during the Battles of Charleroi and Mons and then again during the Battle of the Marne. Ultimately these raids accomplished little, but they did highlight the threat Antwerp posed to German supply lines and communications—especially if the Allies decided to send reinforcements there by sea.

The siege of Antwerp was finally prompted by events a hundred miles to the south in France. Following the stalemate on the Aisne, the Germans and Allies both tried to outflank each other in the Picardy and Pas de Calais regions of northern France, leading to a rolling series of battles known as the “Race to the Sea.” As the armies deadlocked again and again, the “open” end of the front moved rapidly northwards towards the Belgian frontier, and it soon became obvious to commanders on both sides that they were headed for a showdown in the Flanders region of western Belgium. In this situation, Antwerp would be much more than an annoyance in the German rear—a strong Allied force based there could disrupt German logistics and maybe even attack German armies in Flanders from behind.

In short, the Germans could not allow Antwerp to remain in Allied hands. As early as September 20 they began moving siege artillery to Antwerp (image above), and the bombardment began in earnest on the night of September 28-29 with the destruction of Fort Walem, a key position south of Antwerp near the village of Duffel (see footage of German guns in action outside of Antwerp below).

Meanwhile, the Germans began tightening the noose in an attempt to cut off the Belgian Army’s line of retreat, but the outnumbered Belgians fought back tooth and nail, leading to heavy fighting around the towns of Dendermonde (Termonde), Mechelen (Malines), and Hofstade. To the southwest over 30,000 inhabitants fled the town of Aalst (Alost) between Brussels and Ghent, correctly anticipating that the resistance couldn’t go on much longer.

In occupied Brussels, American Ambassador Brand Whitlock, could hear the guns in action 25 miles to the north:

More and more loudly every minute, as it seemed, the great siege guns boomed around Antwerp; there were constant movements of troops through the city, a constant drumming of those heavy iron-shod heels on the pavements, the great grey automobiles forever dashing about… The incessant thud and rumble shook the house so that it trembled and rattled the windows in their casements; and it got on the nerves. The doom of Antwerp was not far away.

Overseas Troops Arrive

As its name suggests, the First World War involved people from all over the globe, including millions of troops drawn from European combatants’ sprawling colonial empires. While many of these colonial soldiers did their service overseas, large numbers also served in the main European theaters of war, and they began arriving almost immediately.

French colonial troops from Morocco were ordered to embark for France as early as July 27, along with two classes of Algerian troops—Zouaves recruited from the white settlers and Turcos recruited from the native population. Later, the French would begin recruiting Senegalese troops, who also served in separate units. As in all European colonial armies, the French observed strict racial segregation.

In an era when racist attitudes were endemic, the presence of native African troops in Europe caused consternation and soon became an obsession of German propaganda, which depicted them as animal-like savages—and even the French and British troops fighting alongside them questioned the propriety of using “inferior races” to fight Europeans. But European racial views weren’t always derogatory; indeed, racial rhetoric cut both ways, and the exotic foreigners inspired fear as well as revulsion. On September 28, a German schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr, noted in her diary: “People talk much of the ferocity of the French colonial troops. The blacks are said to have sharp curved knives, which they carry between their teeth when charging. They are very tall and as strong as lions.”

Meanwhile, the war spurred a flurry of activity in British dominions and colonial possessions. The first Indian troops embarked for British East Africa (now Kenya) on August 19, arriving in Mombasa on September 1, where they prepared to invade German East Africa (now Tanzania). Elsewhere, Australian troops occupied German New Guinea unopposed on August 11, and German Samoa surrendered to New Zealanders on August 29. Back in Australia, men walked hundreds of miles across the outback to volunteer for service.

After a journey through the Red Sea, Suez Canal, and Mediterranean, on September 26 the first British Indian troops arrived in Marseilles en route to the Western Front (above, a French postcard shows Sikh troops arriving). They too were met with a mixed reception from their peers and the civilian population, but it wasn’t always unfriendly—many people were just curious. In October, a native Indian officer, Amar Singh, noted that simply visiting a café in Orleans could draw crowd: “There was a whole crowd of boys and girls and young and old men and women round me. I was a new object to them.”

Canadian troops also began their service with a long journey by sea. The first convoy, carrying the first 31,000-man contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, formed in the Bay of Gaspé in eastern Quebec from September 26-October 3, with ships arriving from all over Canada’s east coast (below, the convoy gathers).

Frederic Curry recalled a furtive departure from Quebec City, with the timing kept secret for fear spies would alert German submarines:

“For two days we lay at anchor opposite the Citadel of Quebec… Then one evening the throb of the propeller drew the crowd from the saloons to the decks and we watched the lights fade away in the night. From the forts long fingers of light followed us down stream, and blinking lights here and there sent us farewell greetings.”

The convoy left for Britain on October 3, giving many young men their first experience of an ocean voyage (photo of the convoy at sea, above). The accommodations were far from luxurious. One soldier, Louis Keene, noted that he slept with five other men in a cabin measuring six by nine feet, adding, “The trip has been so long that we are now beginning to hate each other.” But the excitement and pride they took in their mission more than made up for these privations: “It gives you a great thrill to see a British ship and to have the knowledge of what it represents. To be British is a great thing, and I'm proud to think that I'm going to fight for my country.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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