Can the Belgians Hold?

In the East, Austrians at Breaking Point.

Special to The Great War Project

(5-6 October) The battle for the key strategic Belgian city of Antwerp thunders on and it’s taking a terrible toll. The British fear if Antwerp falls, it will permit the Germans to mount an invasion of Britain itself.

Belgian artillery unit resisting German onslaught, Antwerp, October 1914.

Belgian artillery unit resisting German onslaught, Antwerp, October 1914.

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, arrives in Antwerp a couple of days earlier, with a message from Lord Kitchener, the British minister for war, that the Belgians must hold the line in Antwerp.

Some 22,000 fresh British troops are on their way to Antwerp on ships crossing the English Channel, reports the historian Martin Gilbert. Kitchener telegraphs Churchill on this day a century ago that “it is most necessary that the Belgians should not give way before the forces now on the sea arrive for their support.”

Some 8,000 British troops are already in Antwerp, defending the fortress lines surrounding the city and boosting to some degree the mood of the residents of Antwerp.

But it’s not yet enough. The German artillery barrages are relentless.

According to Gilbert, an Australian woman in Antwerp, Louise Mack, is keeping a diary, and on this October 5th she describes the British troops there this way:

“Haggard, hollow-eyed, exhausted, craving the rest they may not have, these glorious heroes revive as if by magic under the knowledge that other troops are coming to help theirs in this gargantuan struggle for Antwerp.”

Gilbert reports that the knowledge that thousands more British troops are on their way gives Miss Mack a false sense that the situation in Antwerp is improving. Mack writes: “the Germans appear to be pushed further and further back.”

This is an illusion, according to Gilbert.

The fresh troops do reach the Belgian coast, but then the British hesitate sending them to Antwerp.

Still on these days the Belgians and the British hold the line even as the German bombardment intensifies. How long can the defenders of Antwerp hold the city?

Also on October 5th a century ago, “the first air combat took place above France,” reports Gilbert, “when two French aviators shot down a German plane, whose crew of two was killed.”

Bodies of the dead, Eastern Front, World War One, date uncertain

Bodies of the dead, Eastern Front, World War One, date uncertain

On the Eastern Front, Vienna seems to have reached the breaking point, writes historian Geoffrey Wawro. Austrian forces twice are beaten in Serbia. Several other Austrian offensives fail. The Austrians lose so many men in the province of Galicia (present day Poland and Ukraine) that “burial parties could not keep up, and the corpses were simply stacked like firewood, where they swelled, rotted, and burst.”

“It was clear that the whole army, reduced by half a million troops, was hanging by a thread.”

One Austrian diplomat writes: “Russia’s massive superiority in troop numbers has become the dominating factor in this war.”

The German high command is dumbstruck. Germany never planned for this state of affairs.