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.

Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie Is Rebooting Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

Emmet Otter may not be Jim Henson's most iconic character, but he holds a special place in the hearts of fans who grew up watching his holiday special in the 1970s and '80s. Soon, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas will be charming a new generation of viewers. As Variety reports, a reboot of the made-for-TV film is in development, with Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie attached to write the script and the songs.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas premiered on ABC in 1977. Based on the children's book of the same name, it follows a young otter named Emmet and his mother as they enter a Christmas talent competition hoping to win the cash prize. It's one of only a handful of Jim Henson-directed movies that doesn't star the Muppets.

Following the success of Emmet Otter's theatrical re-release last year, a reboot of the story is in the works. It will be a collaboration between the Jim Henson Company, the Pacific Electric Picture Company, and Snoot Entertainment. In addition to his roles as screenwriter and song composer, McKenzie also has the option to direct. Whether he'll take that job hasn't been announced.

Bret McKenzie is best known for making up one half of the New Zealand musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, but he also has experience writing songs for puppets. He served as the music supervisor for 2011's The Muppets and received an Oscar for the song "Man or Muppet" the following year.

[h/t Variety]

12 Wild Facts About Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
20th Century Fox

Lovable outlaws, buddy comedies, and Westerns have always been a part of the cinematic landscape. But it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that first combined those elements into a box office smash, setting the tone for the dozens (hundreds?) of action comedies that have followed. It also put Robert Redford on the A-list (Paul Newman was already there), and introduced audiences to the bizarrely anachronistic pop song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Here are a dirty dozen facts about one of our favorite movies about bad guys, which was released 40 years ago.

1. “Most of what follows is true” isn’t true.

That disclaimer at the beginning of the film, a variation of the familiar “based on a true story,” is tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that much of the lore surrounding Butch and Sundance was difficult or impossible to confirm or debunk, so screenwriter William Goldman (who’d primarily been a novelist before this) just went with it. In fact, that’s why he wrote a movie instead of a book: he was interested in the story, but he didn’t want to do the laborious research into day-to-day turn-of-the-century frontier life that a novel would require.

2. Paul Newman was in from the beginning, but finding his co-star took some work.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox

When he wrote it, Goldman had in mind Newman—then perhaps the biggest movie star in the world—and Jack Lemmon, who’d done a 1958 Western called Cowboy and seemed like a good fit. Lemmon turned out not to be interested, and numerous other candidates were approached, including Steve McQueen (see below), Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, suggested Robert Redford—then a stage actor who’d been in a few films but was considered something of a lightweight. Woodward, Newman, and director George Roy Hill all pestered the reluctant 20th Century Fox bosses until they conceded to casting Redford.

3. The president of 20th Century Fox could have lost his job for buying the screenplay.

Not because he bought it, but because he paid $400,000 for it. Richard Zanuck, son of Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, was authorized to spend $200,000, and later had to justify to the board of directors his decision to spend twice that much, especially since $400,000 was more than anyone had ever paid for a screenplay before. (That’s about $2.8 million in 2019 dollars, a figure that has been paid plenty of times.) The price turned out to be worth it, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the top-grossing film of 1969. But despite that and a few other hits, Fox was hemorrhaging money due to expensive flops like Dr. Dolittle, and Zanuck was fired in 1970.

4. Steve Mcqueen dropped out over billing.

If Newman was the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Steve McQueen was right up there with him. The idea of casting not one but two mega-stars as Butch and Sundance made perfect sense, but there was a problem: whose name would go first in the credits? Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck later said that he proposed an unusual arrangement where half the prints of the film would list Newman first, the other half McQueen, but McQueen (or his representatives) wouldn’t accept anything other than top billing across the board. And that was that.

5. It was titled “The Sundance Kid And Butch Cassidy” until the casting was settled.

Once they’d settled on Redford as Newman’s costar, a new (minor) issue arose. Newman thought he was playing Sundance in what had heretofore been known as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It turned out Hill, the director, actually wanted him to play Butch, and Redford to play Sundance. No problem; Newman was fine with the switch. But now they had a situation where the character being played by the less-famous actor came first in the title. The obvious Hollywood solution: reverse the title. “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy” sounds weird to us now (as does the notion of Redford being significantly less famous than Newman), but there you go.

6. They had to change the name of Butch and Sundance’s gang to steer clear of Sam Peckinpah.

In real life, Butch and Sundance’s crew of bandits were collectively known as the Wild Bunch, and were so named in Goldman’s script. But as the film was going into production, Fox execs became aware of a Warner Bros. property called The Wild Bunch, written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It wasn’t about the same guys, but it was a Western, and the story bore some coincidental similarities. What’s more, WB was rushing to get it into theaters before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So calling anybody “the Wild Bunch” in the Butch and Sundance movie was out of the question. Fox’s solution was to rename them the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, after a place in Wyoming that Butch (and other bad guys) sometimes used as home base.

7. Newman did his own bicycling stunts—because the stuntman couldn’t.

The studio sent a guy who practiced Butch’s showing-off moments for days ahead of time, but when it came time to shoot it, he couldn’t stay upright. Newman ended up doing most of it himself, which looked better on camera anyway. (The one shot he didn’t perform—the one at the end where the bike crashes through a fence—was done by cinematographer Conrad Hall.) Director Hill was duly annoyed by the waste of money on the bike stuntman.

8. Newman got mad at Redford for doing his own stunts.

To be fair, Redford’s stunts were a lot more dangerous. It was the scene where Sundance leaps onto the top of a moving train and runs stealthily across the cars. It wasn’t that Newman was jealous of Redford’s derring-do—he was concerned for his safety. “I don’t want to lose a costar” is what Redford recalls Newman saying. Chastened (and touched), Redford agreed it was a selfish move on his part, and he refrained from risking his life after that.

9. Katharine Ross was banned from the set for being too helpful.

Katharine Ross and Paul Newman in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (2019)
20th Century Fox

The 29-year-old actress, an Oscar nominee for playing Elaine Robinson in The Graduate, played Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place. In real life, she was dating (and would soon marry) cinematographer Conrad Hall, and that’s how she got into trouble. Ross was interested in photography, and while observing a scene that she wasn’t in, she asked Hall if she could operate one of the cameras. There were several cameras in use for this particular scene, so it didn’t matter (to Hall, anyway) if one of the less important ones was operated by an amateur, just for fun. Many crew members felt otherwise, and director Hill was furious when he found out. He sent word to Ross back at her hotel that she was no longer allowed on the set except when she was working. “It became a very difficult shoot for me,” she later said. “In fact, it took me a long time before I even wanted to see the film.”

Ross and Hall were married in 1969, the same years as the film's release, and divorced in 1974. Ten years later, Ross married fellow actor Sam Elliott; the couple is celebrating their 35th anniversary this year.

10. The film had to endure additional editing because it was too funny.

One of the complaints some critics had about the movie was that the glib, humorous tone felt anachronistic. They should have seen the earlier cut, which was even more uproarious. Zanuck later recalled that test-screening audiences found it too funny, funnier than the studio had in mind. They wanted it to be an amusing Western, but not an all-out comedy Western (a genre that tended to do poorly). The film was sent back for re-editing to take a few laughs out and make the whole thing feel a little more respectable.

11. There was a super-posse in real life, but with a very different outcome.

The film depicts several of the best lawmen teaming up to hunt Butch and Sundance as a group (which could actually make for a very interesting movie on its own). For a 30-minute chunk of the film, our heroes are on the run, barely staying a step ahead, ultimately escaping by leaping into a river and then moving to Bolivia. That’s all an embellishment of the truth. There was a super-posse, but they didn’t engage Butch and Sundance in much of a chase: as soon as Butch and Sundance heard who was in the group, they fled, knowing they’d never be able to beat them. The hunt was over before it started.

12. They wanted to shoot some of it on the set of Hello, Dolly!

The script called for a sequence where Butch, Sundance, and Etta go to New York before heading for South America. Recreating turn-of-the-century New York would be prohibitively expensive—but as it happened, 20th Century Fox had another movie in production for which just such a set had been built: Hello, Dolly!, the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Maybe the Butch Cassidy team could borrow it for a few days? But Fox’s Zanuck nixed it for general cost-cutting reasons (and possibly because the Hello, Dolly! team objected). Instead, Hill created a montage of period photographs with the actors pasted in.

Additional Sources: DVD interviews and features Paul Newman: A Life, by Shawn Levy American Film Institute

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