Following the fall of the forts at Liege in Belgium on 16 August 1914, King Albert I ordered a withdrawal of Belgium's remaining 65,000 troops to Antwerp, another fortress city (along with Namur).
Together with 80,000 garrison troops, Antwerp's ring of 48 outer and inner forts presented formidable opposition to von Kluck's German First Amy's flank. Von Kluck had chosen to bypass Antwerp in the Germany army's advance through Belgium and into France. Nevertheless, the presence of so many troops at its flank presented a constant threat.
This danger transpired into sorties conducted from the forts on 24-25 August and 9 September, designed by the Belgians to distract the Germans from their attack upon the British and French at the Battles of Mons and Charleroi. Effective to a degree, von Kluck was obliged to detach four divisions solely to face attacks from Antwerp. Following the attack on 9 September however the German High Command, led by the German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in Berlin, determined to capture the Antwerp forts.
German General von Boseler was given the task of capturing Antwerp. Assigned a force of five divisions of mostly reserve forces and 173 guns, artillery bombardment began firing upon the outer south-east forts on 28 September. As at Liege and at Namur, the use of heavy guns such as the powerful Big Bertha (a 420mm siege howitzer), effectively put the forts out of commission.
The British Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, viewed with great disquiet the siege of Antwerp, fearful that once the city and its forts had been captured the German forces would quickly move towards the channel ports, possibly threatening Britain itself.
Consequently the British, led by Asquith, Kitchener (the Minister for War), Grey (the Foreign Secretary) and Churchill (the First Lord of the Admiralty), decided on 1 October to re-deploy a division of troops originally intended for the British Expeditionary Force led by Sir John French.
On 2 October the Germans succeeded in penetrating two of the city's forts. Churchill was sent to Antwerp to provide a first-hand report on the situation there. Leaving London that night he spent three days in trenches and fortifications around the city. He reported to Kitchener on 4 October that Belgian resistance was weakening with morale low.
Receiving a request from the Belgian government for more assistance, the British dispatched a further 6,000 Royal Navy troops, 2,000 on 4 October and 4,000 on the following day. The original division of 22,000 troops were also en route for Ostend.
Landing at Ostend on 6 October the British naval forces were too late; the Belgian government relocated from Antwerp to Ostend the same day, with the city itself evacuated the following day under heavy artillery bombardment, formerly surrendered by its Military Governor, General Victor Deguise to the Germans on 10 October.
The division of British troops at Ostend had not in any event moved towards Antwerp upon hearing that the French government had declined to add relieving forces of their own. Nevertheless, British intervention had prolonged the defence of Antwerp for perhaps five days, giving the British valuable time for the deployment of troops in Flanders.
German forces continued to occupy Antwerp until its liberation in late 1918. Most Belgian and Allied forces had however managed to escape the city west along the coast, subsequently taking part in the defence at Ypres in mid-October.
Click here to view of map charting the progress of the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914.