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.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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