Fort 2 Wommelgem - Antwerp

Commemoration of the Centenary of the Siege of Antwerp


Re-enactors

I attended the centenary commemoration of the Siege of Antwerp at Fort 2 Wommelgem in Belgium over the weekend of 11 and 12 October 2014 as a member of The Bluejackets.

The event was attended by groups of re-enactors from various countries - often portraying combatants from a different country than their own (such as a Dutch group representing the Gordon Highlanders).

The Bluejackets portrayed Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Brigade. I was in the uniform of a marine of the Royal Navy Light Infantry.
On Saturday the weather was poor, with heavy rain until mid-afternoon.  Most of the day was spent sheltering and displaying drill to the few members of public who visited during periods of lighter rain.

The Siege of Antwerp was an engagement between the German and the Belgian, British and French armies around the fortified city of Antwerp during World War I.

German troops besieged a garrison of Belgian fortress troops, the Belgian field army and the British Royal Naval Division in the Antwerp area, after the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914. The city, which was ringed by forts known as the National Redoubt, was besieged to the south and east by German forces. The Belgian forces in Antwerp conducted three sorties in late September and early October, which interrupted German plans to send troops to France, where reinforcements were needed to counter the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force ("BEF")

From 29 September 1914 the Germans used heavy artillery and overcame the forts in the 3rd sector of the National redoubt. The Belgium army, under heavy pressure, withdrew to the Nete-Line. It was clear that Antwerp would fall within a few days.

In early October 1914 King Albert decided that the field army would retreat as soon as possible through the west corridor to of the Waasland.

When news of this reached Britain the British Government sent Winston Churchill to Antwerp to ask the Belgian Government to hold the National redoubt for a few more days.  This was agreed on condition that the British sent the Royal Naval Division as reinforcements.

It was agreed that after 3 days the Belgian Government would re-evaluate the situation and, if necessary, evacuate Antwerp.  The three days were required for the British and French to block the entrance to the Channel ports against German attack.

The Royal Naval Division was, at the time, one of the few reserves that could be deployed. It did not have any artillery or field ambulances, and did not have combat experience.

The Royal Naval Division consisted of two Naval Brigades and one Marine Brigade - a total of between 20 000 and 30 000 men from the reserve of the Royal Navy.

The two Naval Brigades were still undergoing training in Britain, and the Marine Brigade was in France to defend Dunkirk - it was equipped with new equipment and uniforms after the Ostend action in late August 1914.  It consisted of 2600 men.

The Royal Marine Brigade received orders to leave for Antwerp in the early hours of 3 October, and left Dunkirk by train at 8:30am, and arrived at Mortsel at 11:00 pm.

Early in the morning of 4 October the Royal Marine Brigade, along with the 7th Line Regiment and the 1st Regiment Carabiniers de Forteresse relieve the 21st Line Regiment in the trenches of Kleine Nete, in a semi-circle around Lier.

The 7th Line and Chatham, Portsmouth and Deal Battalions of the RMLI take over the front line, each with a local reserve. Portsmouth Battalion, the machine guns of the RNAS and the 1st Carabiniers de Forteresse are the reserve force.

In the morning of 4 October the Germans attack to try to take the Nete bridges.

The forward company of the Plymouth Battalion is attacked, to which the Marines respond with machine gun fire, inflicting over 200 casualties on the Germans who retreat.  Later in the day the Germans bring in field artillery and fire on the British positions at point-blank range.  At the same time the forward company of Chatham Battalion is attacked by artillery and rifles, taking casualties.

In the afternoon the Belgian HQ reports that Fort Kessel has been evacuated - half the Portsmouth Battalion moves forward to the trenches.

During the night the Germans position artillery on the Nete dyke, resulting in the British advance positions being taken under direct fire.  The companies retreat to the actual front line 800m further south.

In the early morning of the 5 October the Germans cross the Nete at Lachenenhof and take the positions of the 7th Line Regiment. At around 4:30pm a counter-attack by the 7th Line Regiment with the 2ns Chasseurs a pied and parts of the Portsmouth Battalion retakes the positions.

The 1st and 2nd Naval Brigades arrive at Antwerp by train and General Paris is appointed as commander of the entire Naval Division.

During the early morning of 6 October the Germans again attempt to cross the Nete at Lachenenhof.  They take the villages of Boomlaar and Holst.  The Belgian troops retake Boomlaar at around 8:00am, but were forced back to the west of Donk by the Germans. As a result of this this the entire west flank of the RM Brigade is exposed.

The Brigade's positions are kept under heavy fire all day, killing and injuring several Marines.

In late afternoon the position worsens as the Germans cross the Nete at Emblem - threatening the left flank of the Brigade.  At sunset the Brigade retires to a new defensive position between Vremde and Boshoek - a position to be reinforced by the 1st and 2nd Naval Brigade.

The Naval Brigades were alerted at 5:15am on 4 October by the band playing in the camp.  Within a couple of hours they are ready to leave for Dover by train, arriving in the early afternoon where they spend the day loading ships. The first ships leave Dover at 9:00pm, bound for Dunkirk.

the ships arrive at Dunkirk in the morning of 5 October. After unloading the first trains leave for Antwerp at 7:00pm.

At 5:00am. on 6 October the first trains carrying the Benbow and Hawke Battalions of the 1st Naval Brigade arrive in Antwerp, with trains of the 2nd Naval Battalion arriving form 7:30 onwards.

The 2nd Naval Brigade went to Antwerpen-Kiel, while the 1st Naval Brigade went to trenches between Fort 3 and Fort 4 (between Borsbeek and Mortsel) where they were ordered torebuild the trenches - this was after being sent to a country road on the outskirts of Antwerp which was very close to the German lines.

At about noon the 2nd Naval Brigade moved to Mortsel Oude God, and in the afternoon Anso Battalion took up position in the trenches at Wilrijk at 3:30pm.

By nightfall the 1st Naval Brigade had occupied the intermediate line between Hove and Vremde, taking up position to the right of the Royal Marine Brigade between Hove and Anterpsesteenweg. The retreating RM brigade took up position from the Antwerpsesteenweg over Boshoek to Vremde with the Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Deal Battalions.

On October 7 the Belgian Government decided to withdraw the Field Army to the west  The Fortress troops and the 2nd Army Division, along with the Royal Naval Division stay in Antwerp as a rear guard.

At 2:30pm on 7 October the order is given by General Paris for the division to go back to the old fort line.  The 1st Naval Brigade take up positions north of the Mechelsesteenweg from Redoubt VII (Mortsel) to Fort 2 (Wommelgem).  The 2nd Naval Brigade occupies positions from Redoubt VII (Mortsel) to Fort 6 (Wilrijk), and later the Nelso Battalion extends the line through the Schoonselhol to Redoubt XVI and the South Battery on the bank of the Scheldt in Hemiksem.  Benbow Battalion was the reserve fo the 1st Naval Brigade and Nelson Battalion was the reserve for the 2nd Naval Battalion.

On 7 October the situation changes drastically when the Germans, after heavy fighting, form a bridgehead ove the Scheldt at Schoonaarde.  During the night they build a pontoon bridgeand their reserves threaten the rail link from Ghent to Antwerp.

In the early hours of 8 October General Paris was told that Forts 1, 2 and 4 had succumbed to the Germans - this was inaccurate.  There was sporadic gunfire on the front, although there was continuous artillery bombardment of Antwerp and Fort 5 (Edegem) - the Belgian troops abandoning their positions in late afternoon.

At 5:00pm the decision was taken to retreat the Royal Naval Division, together with the 2nd Army Division.  The orders were sent out to 1st and 2nd Naval Divisions and the Marine Brigade at 5:30pm.  Due to mistakes most of the 1st Naval Brigade did not receive them until around 9:00pm.

At 7:00 Portsmouth Battalion gets orders to act as rear guard for the 1st Naval Brigade, and Plymouth Battalion has the same role for the 2nd Nval Battalion.

At 6:45pm Howe Battalion is ordered to withdraw, and meet up with the 2nd Naval Brigade and retreat.  They leave Ostend on 11 October at 2:00am aboard the SS Eddystone, arriving in Dover later that day.

The 1st Naval Brigade get the order to withdraw at 9:00pm., and Benbow Battalion at Fort 4 recieve it at midnight.  The 1st Naval Brigade have to pull out via Mechelsepoort through the centre of Antwerp ant try to use the Northern boat bridge.  They get lost on route, and when they arrive at the bridge it has already been destroyed. They continue to the Southern bridge and several Battalions are able to cross the Scheldt there.

They continue on, and arrive at Sind-Gillis-Waas where they are told that the corridor of the Waasland has been cut off by the Germans.  They continue north towards De Klinge, arriving at 6:30pm on 9 October.

They discuss the possibilty of crossing into Dutch territory, believing (mistakenly) that the maritime law of having 24 hours in which to leave Dutch territory applied.

On crossing the border in the early morning of 10 October 1914 the 1442 sailors and 37 officers of Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood Battalions are immediately disarmed and spend the rest of the war in an internment camp at Groningen.

Portsmouth Battalion, the rear-guard, take a different route and eventually arrive at Ostend.

Ist Royal Naval Brigade:

  • 1st (Drake)
  • 2nd (Benbow)
  • 3rd (Hawke)
  • 4th (Collingwood

2nd Royal Naval Brigade:

  • 5th (Nelson)
  • 6th (Howe)
  • 7th (Hood)
  • 8th (Anson)

Royal Marine Brigade:

  • 9th RMLI (Chatham)
  • 10th RMLI (Portsmouth)
  • 11th RMLI (Plymouth)
  • 12th RMA (Deal)

Losses:

  • 53 - Killed or missing
  • 138 Wounded
  • 936 Prisoner of War
  • 1479 Internees in Holland
The Fort has a gallery exhibiting artillery and shells from the Great War period.
 

The museum also has exhibits related to WW2, including a display connected to V1 and V2 missiles (Antwerp was a major target for these weapons).

On Saturday we were given a tour of the Fort by the curator, and were able to view exhibitions not normally open to the public.

The group explored the Fort, including the trenches.

Any idea what the Chief Petty Officer is doing?

Hint: It may have something to do with moles!

The Bluejackets, portraying Hawke Battalion, placed a rememberance cross near the gun emplacement where Hawke Battalion fought in October 2014.
During our stay the Fort was visited by some members of the Royal Naval Reserve HMS Wildfire, based in London.  They were a part of Hawke Section.

During our visit we stayed in a nearby Bed and Breakfast - de frimethe (http://www.defrimethe.be/) at Vremde.

Although close to Antwerp the accommodation was located in a rural area.

Battle information sourced from a document produced by Niko Van Kerckhoven, WFA Belgium.