The Fall 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 148th installment in the series. 

October 10, 1914: The Fall of Antwerp

With Allied and German armies fast approaching western Belgium in the “Race to the Sea,” the Germans urgently needed to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, which would give the Allies a base to attack German armies operating in Flanders from the rear. After a week of shelling, the Germans penetrated the outer ring of forts protecting Antwerp on October 6, prompting the Belgian government to flee to Ostend, while King Albert ordered civilians to evacuate the city and prepared to lead the Belgian Army to safety further west. As belated British reinforcements staged a last-ditch defense, the Germans moved up their artillery to target the inner forts; now it was only a matter of time.

The siege of Antwerp—its prewar population of 320,000 swollen by refugees from other parts of Belgium—was the first time since the Franco-Prussian War that a major Western European city came under deliberate, prolonged bombardment by heavy artillery, although the shelling of Rheims (population 115,000) and Arras (25,000) certainly provided a preview. As the Germans brought their super-heavy 42-centimeter “Big Bertha” guns to bear in the final days of the siege from October 7 to 10, 1914, the effects were both horrifying and spectacular. An American journalist, Reginald Kaufmann, described the impact of one of these huge shells:

Suddenly something bolted past above my head… something hot, scorching, and of tremendous size, something that roared like a frightened train and sped like a meteoric sun. The very draft of it seemed first to suck me upwards and then hurl me far forward and sidewise on my face. I fell, as a man might fall before a cyclonic blast from the furnace where worlds are made… If I thought of anything, it was of an earthquake…  a shell from a forty-two centimeter gun would strike a building and the entire structure would vanish in a puff of smoke – absolutely vanish, so that when the smoke cleared, there was nothing where it had stood save a great hole in the ground. 

Now thousands of terrified inhabitants (who’d ignored earlier warnings to evacuate) began fleeing the city in panic, mobbing the Antwerp docks as they struggled to get aboard overcrowded ferries, barges, and fishing trawlers (above, refugees on the docks) or over an improvised pontoon bridge across the River Scheldt (below). Once on the left bank of the river they headed west towards the cities of Ghent and Bruges via the one land route still in Allied hands. Others fled to the neutral Netherlands, until Dutch officials finally closed the border because they feared the country’s resources would be overwhelmed. Although estimates vary widely, a total of up to half a million people may have fled Antwerp as the city burned.

Edward Eyre Hunt, a delegate with the American Commission for Relief in Belgium, recalled the flight of inhabitants towards the docks: “Old and young, in little coveys of fours, fives, half-dozens, dozens, ran along the sidewalks, slipping and crashing over the broken glass… whenever a shell snarled unusually near, the groups fell cowering on hands and knees against the nearest houses.” And Horace Greene, a correspondent for The New York Evening Post, described the pathetic scene as refugees streamed out of the city: 

You saw great open wagons carrying baby carriages, perambulators, pots and kettles, an old chair, huge bundles of household goods, and the ubiquitous Belgian bicycle strapped to the side.  There were small wagons, and more great wagons crowded with twenty, thirty, forty people: aged brown women, buried like shrunken walnuts in a mass of shawls, girls sitting listlessly on piles of straw, and children fitfully asleep or very much awake and crying lustily… 

The bombardment continued mercilessly into the evening of October 8-9, when huge oil tanks along the lower Scheldt exploded, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air and creating an apocalyptic backdrop for the drama unfolding below; both sides accused the other of setting fire to the tanks. As night fell on October 8, the entire skyline was lit by fire, with collapsing buildings sending huge clouds of glowing cinders into the air. Hunt went up on the roof of his hotel in the city center and encountered a thrilling scene: 

I looked out upon the most horrible and at the same time the most gorgeous panorama that I ever hope to see. The entire southern portion of the city appeared a desolate ruin; whole streets were ablaze, and great sheets of fire rose to the height of thirty or forty feet. The night, like the preceding, was calm and quiet, without a breath of wind.  On all sides rose greedy tongues of flame which seemed to thirst for things beyond their reach. Slowly and majestically the sparks floated skyward; and every now and then, following the explosion of a shell, a new burst of flame lighted up a section hitherto hidden in darkness… It was all a glorious and fascinating nightmare.

By October 9, almost all the Belgian and British defenders had withdrawn from the city (in one of the more inglorious episodes of the war, 1500 British sailors got lost and wandered into the Netherlands, where they were interned for the duration of the conflict). German scouts were pleasantly surprised to find the inner forts abandoned, although the Allies still held a few positions west of the city. The bombardment ended, and on October 9-10, German troops occupied the burning, largely abandoned city. 

After the horrors of the last few days, the fall of Antwerp was something of an anticlimax, as the Germans simply marched in unopposed, witnessed only by small groups of inhabitants and a few foreign observers who had braved the siege to the bitter end, and now emerged from their hiding places in cellars and the city’s elaborate underground canal system to see the last act in the drama. Hunt noted that the soldiers, primed by rumors of Belgian guerrilla warfare, were on the lookout for franc-tireurs:

Line after line they tramped by, anonymous as swarming bees, indistinguishable from the mass at fifty years, stamping the cobble-stones in perfect time, with the remarkable, tireless, spring march-step of the German recruit… The men glanced suspiciously at the shuttered windows, as if they suspected that snipers lurked behind in the darkened rooms.

Thankfully there was no evidence of civilian resistance (real or imagined) and Antwerp, while heavily damaged by bombardment, was spared the deliberate, systematic destruction previously meted out to Louvain. Anyway the Germans were in too much of a hurry to bother leveling the city, pushing on in a bid to cut off the fleeing Belgian Army—to no avail. King Albert’s scrappy force was already entrenching itself near the coast in the remaining sliver of free Belgian territory; Belgium would live to fight another day.

Meanwhile to the south the Germans and Allies were grappling for advantage as the Race to the Sea drew to a close. Still trying to outflank each other to no end, the Allies and Germans both rushed reinforcements north, with French chief of the general staff Joffre forming the new Tenth Army near Amiens and redeploying the British Expeditionary Force to Flanders, while German chief of the general staff Falkenhayn moved the Sixth Army north and created the new Fourth Army west of Brussels, in preparation for a final push towards the English Channel.

As the adversaries took their positions, the next week would bring a series of battles – all epic in their own right – at La Bassée, Messines, and Armentières. But these were just the prelude to the nightmare of Ypres.

Austro-German Advance

A thousand miles to the east the Germans—now led by Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—came to the aid of their beleaguered ally Austria-Hungary. The new German Ninth Army under August von Mackensen helped Hapsburg forces push back the Russians, but this success proved fleeting, as the Russians drew on their seemingly endless reserves of manpower to rush new divisions to the front. In fact during this period the fighting on the Eastern Front resembled seesaw warfare, with the two sides chasing each other back and forth over a few hundred miles of territory in Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (driving millions of peasants from their homes in the process). 


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By early October, the Russians had penetrated as far as Krakow in western Galicia, just 200 miles from Vienna, while further east they invaded Hungary, capturing Máramarossziget (today Sighetu Marmației in Romania). On October 4, the Austro-German counteroffensive began, forcing the Russians to halt these advances and pull back to defensive positions. By October 8 the Germans had captured Łódź, 50 miles from Warsaw, and in Galicia the Austrians were able to relieve the key fortress town of Przemyśl (pronounced Puh-SHEM-ish-le), lifting the Russian siege, at least temporarily.

However, the Russian retreat was mostly orderly, allowing Grand Duke Nicholas to reconstitute his forces behind the defensive line of the Vistula. Meanwhile the Austro-German offensive was beginning to run out of steam, due to Falkenhayn’s refusal to commit more troops to the Eastern Front, as he prepared to deliver what he hoped would be a knockout blow at Ypres on the Western Front. On October 10 Mackensen’s Ninth Army defeated the Russians at Grójec, just 10 miles south of Warsaw, but this would prove to be the high water mark for this offensive; two days later Ludendorff ordered Mackensen to entrench, with Warsaw still in Russian hands.

On the other side the Russians were bringing up the First and Second Armies, finally reformed with fresh troops after their defeats at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and now freed up by the new Tenth Army, holding off the Germans in East Prussia. In the second half of October it would be the Central Powers’ turn to retreat.

Boer Rebellion Spreads, British Invade Southwest Africa

When news of war arrived in South Africa it reopened old wounds, as the proud Boers—the descendants of Dutch settlers who rejected British rule, and identified culturally with Germany—sought to reverse their defeat in the Boer War of 1899-1902. On September 15, 1914, some Boers rose in rebellion, and the uprising soon spread across the Transvaal, Orange Free State, and elsewhere thanks to appeals by Boer generals who were heroes of the previous war, including Christian Frederick Beyers, Manie Maritz, Christiaan de Wet, and Jan Kemp. 

On October 9, 1914, Maritz led a force of 500 Boers into neighboring German Southwest Africa, where he signed a treaty of alliance with the German colonial government and received a commission as a German general, as well as arms and ammunition for his troops. On October 12 South African Prime Minister Louis Botha (a Boer who remained loyal to Britain) declared martial law and called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion.


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Meanwhile loyalist South African forces were proceeding with their invasion of German Southwest Africa (today Namibia)—one of a number of campaigns to occupy German colonial possessions in Africa, which also saw Allied forces invade Cameroon, Togo, and German East Africa (today Tanzania). These colonial mini-wars were small in terms of manpower but epic in terms of distances covered, and the results were decidedly mixed. 

On September 18, 1914 South African troops landed at Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay) in German Southwest Africa. But a week later on September 26 a German schutztruppe (a militia composed of German settlers and native troops) inflicted a defeat on another South African force at Zandfontein to the south, ending a separate attempt to invade the German colony overland. Facing scrappy German colonial units in front and a Boer rebellion to the rear, the South Africans soon realized that conquering the rugged desert territory would be a far more challenging proposition than they’d hoped.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

Billie Lourd Shares What (Very Little) She Can About Star Wars: Episode IX

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

​Nearly nothing is known about the final film in the latest Star Wars series, except that J.J. Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens, will be returning as director, and many of the cast members from both Abrams's earlier effort and The Last Jedi will be reprising their roles. Even the late Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away on December 27, 2016, will be included in Episode IX, through unused footage from the previous two films.

Though all the stars of the upcoming film are sworn to secrecy about it, Fisher's daughter, Billie Lourd, is spilling what she can. Lourd, who played the minor role of Lieutenant Connix in the last two films, teased what it was like being back on set.

"I gotta watch myself because the Star Wars PD is going to come get me, but it is incredible. I’ve read the script and I’ve been on set," Lourd told ​Entertainment Tonight. "I was on set for, like, three weeks back in September, and it is going to be magical. I can’t say much more, but I’m so excited about it and so grateful to be a part of it. Star Wars is my heart. I love it."

A lot of things are riding on Episode IX, especially considering how divided fans were over The Last Jedi. Though with Abrams back in the director's chair, it seems likely that the new film will be a return to form. The as-yet-untitled film hits theaters on December 20, 2019.

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