British See Antwerp Forts Key to Defense of the Realm.
Austrian Fortress Under Russian Siege in Poland.
Supply Lines Stretched to the Limit.
Special to The Great War Project
(1-2 October) Two medieval fortresses now emerge as strategic siege points.
In the West, the Battle of Antwerp in Belgium rages on. On the Eastern Front, the clash is at Przemysl, in the Austrian province of Galicia, now Poland.
At Antwerp defended by the Belgians, the British are convinced the Belgians must hold out at the fortress-ringed city. If they don’t, the London command fears it will open the way for a German invasion of Britain, just across the English Channel.
For the British Antwerp is so important that on this day a century ago, according to historian Martin Gilbert, the British cabinet decides to redirect a whole division of troops from northern France to Antwerp.
The next morning October 2nd, the Germans “penetrate two of the city’s forts,” writes Gilbert. That evening, the British minister for war, Lord Kitchener, and Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, meet with Winston Churchill, then the first Lord of the Admiralty, in charge of naval operations.
They tell Churchill that holding out in Antwerp is absolutely crucial to the defense of the realm. Churchill volunteers to go to the besieged city to see for himself.
“Thirsting for action and glory,” writes one historian, Churchill leaves for Antwerp that very night.
Antwerp is not the only fortress city under siege at this moment in World War One a century ago.
At Przemysl in the Austrian province of Galicia, (Poland today) the Russians are on the outside, attacking the Austrians on the inside. According to historian Max Hastings, the Austrians are slow to fortify the city and stock the necessary food and ammunition.
In the view of historian Geoffrey Wawro, when the Austrians finally recognize the importance of the fortresses, they rush 27,000 workers there to build out its defenses. They lay 650 miles of barbed wire, dig 31 miles of trenches, among other key fortifications.
On these days, the Russians continue the siege. The Austrians are weakening. But the Russians have their own supply problems. Their forces in Galicia are too large for their supply lines. “It was characteristic of the war on the Eastern Front,” writes Hastings, “that logistics halted each side’s advances in turn. The Russian and Austrian commissariats were alike feeble, and the descent of autumn rain churned unmetalled roads into quagmires.”
“The Russians had much larger armies in Galicia than they could properly supply, in a region of few railways.
“Everything was short save men.”