CUSTODIANS OF THE KINGS MESSENGER COLLECTION
THIS ARTICLE EXPLAINES THE EVENTS OF MAJOR A. A. GORDON DURING THE SIEGE OF ANTWERP IN 1914
In August 1914 Major Archibald Alexander Gordon was asked to raise funding for Belgian Refugees, because he already was involved in a similar project that was funding the Waterloo memorial in Belgium. The fun raising became a huge success and Major Gordon accompanied the deliveries to Antwerp in person, getting much appreciation from the Belgian Government.
MAJOR A. A. GORDON' REPORT
Report regarding the last days at Antwerp, and the Retreat therefrom, as requested by the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill)
Tuesday, 6th October 1914
As Orderly Officer to Colonel Seely we visited, under heavy fire, the advanced trenches in front of Hove and as far as Linth, and induced a retreating Belgian bettalion to take cover and open fire on the enemy. We then visited three batteries of artillery at Veldicant, the visits being apparently highly appreciated both by the Belgian officers and men. We also visited the entrenched British forts inside the Route Militaire, the gunners therein giving us a most hearty welcome. The roads in every direction were filled with endless mass of poor refugees, making even foot traffic almost impossible.
Wednesday, 7th October 1914
Early in this morning Colonel G.T.M. Bridges had asked me to take service with the British troops, as I could do nothing further for the refugees, and ordered me to purchase comforts for the British troops. I collected cigarettes, tobacco, chocolate, and small tins of potted meat sufficient to go round 10,000 men. These were conveyed during the afternoon to the Headquarters at Vieux-Dieu, and early that evening were distributed throughout the trenches. Later in the forenoon we revisited several forts along the Route Militaire. At nine o'clock on the same evening we motored to the advanced trenches beyond Vieux-Dieu, occupied by British troops, and proceeded thereafter to the British Headquarters, situated in a château almost midway between the Porte de Malines and Vieux-Dieu. We returned to the Hotel St. Antoine, Antwerp, shortly after half-past eleven, and there learnt that a most gracious mesage of encouragement to the British troops at Antwerp had been received from Hist Majesty, King George. This as at once transmitted to Headquarters, and aroused great enthusiasm not only amongst the high officials comprising the Belgian Staff but in all ranks.
At 11.15 P.M., while sitting with Colonels Seely and Bridges in the empty St Antoine, the first shell burst. It was thought that it had pierced the hotel roof. This was not the case, as it fel in the Place Verte close by. Thereafter the bombardment continued whitout intermission.
Colonel - Later General - Jack Seely
Colonel - later Lt. Gen. -
George Tom Molesworth Bridges
HOTEL ST. ANTOINE - ANTWERPEN
Belgian General Victor Deguise
I loaded the car with boxes of ammunition I retrieved from the evacuated trenches, and then turned on the red tail light and proceeded slowly towards Vieux-Dieu, the troops being protected by advance and rear guards. Where the Route Militaire cuts the Route de Malines the troops were halted and two cyclist Marines were sent back with orders for the few who had been left firing in the trenches to retire on the main body, all points right and left having been previously guarded. It was intended to retire the Maxims, but this was found impracticable, and they had to left behind after being rendered useless.
When all units had assembled at the junction of the above roads some were sent to Antwerp via the Route Militaire, to proceed across the Scheldt by the Pont de Bourght, and join the other troops near the Tête de Flandre. The car, with tail light burning, led the major portion of the troops via the Route de Malines, until we met the Royal Marines where they had been left. The whole body, with advance and rear guards, proceeded towards Antwerp, entering by the Porte de Malines. The City appeared to bein full blaze, although probably not more than 150 houses were burning, and it was noticed that several of those were situated close to houses flying the Red Cross flag. The oil tanks were also alight, and the ships in port had been scuttled. Upon entering the City the difficulties of proceeding through the streets bursting in every direction only one fel in close proximity to the troops. Windows were shattered in every direction and the streets littered with glass, while more of the tramway overhead wires fell, and on two occasions curled round the gear of Colonel Seely's car, compelling me to get down and release the coils. (I was luckily able to catch one wire as it was falling, with only one cut between the finger and thumb.) It was here that a male and female spy were encountered by me, andby direction of Colonel Seely were handed over to a naval guard. They were later entrusted to the Belgian Authorities.
The Place de Meir was eventually reached, and as the route then was very open and under continual shell-fire it was decided to try and pass through the narrow street in which was situated the Hotel St. Antoine, and leading directly to the Pont de Flandre, as best known to me. This was, however, found impracticable, as several houses were ablaze and the passage impossible. By the help of a stray passar-by another route was found, and the Pont de Flandre reached. The last units of the Belgian Army appeared to be leaving the bridges as the British troops stepped thereon to make the passage, which was quickly effected; the Tète de Flandre was thereafter reached, where all units joined. They the proceeded to Zwyndrecht, where a halft of nearly one hour was made, and as much refreshment as possible was purchased and dealt out to the troops.
The plan was to proceed to St. Nicolas instead of halting for the night at Beveren-Waes. On reaching the latter point a message was brought of a rumour that 10,000 German troops from Termonde were marching on St Nicolas. It was then decided to halt all the troops and send Colonel Seely and myself by car to St Nicolas to investigate. No German troops were seen, but colour was given to the reports by the numbers of refugees fleeing as if from St. Nicolas.
On arrival at St. Nicolas the town seemed deserted, but on proceeding to the railway station it was found to be open, and much courtesy was shown by both the station-master and the director of telegrams and telephones. We proceeded to get into communication with General Sir Henry Rawlinson, and while doing so he (Colonel Seely) was called up by General Paris at Beveren-Waes and was answered by me. General Paris's message was to the effect that he had heard a rumour that 10,000 German troops were marching from Tamise, which discounted the Termonde rumour and accounted for the flight eastwards of refugees. Telephonic communication was effected as far as possible with both Termonde and Tamise, the result being that nothing was known of German troops proceeding north from Termonde although it was said that they had passed through Tamise. No trains weere found ready at St Nicolas, and it was stated that none could be prepared whithin short notice. We returned by car to the main body, and after consultation it was decided to march to St Gilles-Waes and join the only railway route available there for Bruges. THis march was led by Belgian guides and proved a most arduous and difficult one, as the route was by side tracks and over rough and sandy ground.
MAJOR GENERAL SIR ARCHIBALD PARIS
THE S.S. INVICTA
Thursday, 8th October 1914
At 12.30 A.M. we again motored out to the British Headquarters, around which the shells were falling very thickly and continued to do so. Antwerp was reached shortly after 2 A.M., when we went to the Civil Governor's residence, where I had been residing during the autumn, and the Governor had asked me to invite Colonel Seely. At this time few inhabitants were to be seen in the principal streets, but many refugees crept along the pavement taking protection from the houses. The bombardment continued whitout intermission. I stood by the Governor's telephone all night. Shortly after seven o'clock we proceeded to visit General Deguise and the Belgian Headquarters, and there learnt that the position of the British Headquarters had become untenable and was being moved close to that of the Belgian Headquarters at 22 Rampart Kipdorp. Thereafter we proceeded to the Hotel St Antoine, but found absolutely deserted, and then returned again to the Belgian Headquarters, where we met all the Belgian and British Headquarters' s Staffs. It was decided then that the defence should continue at all costs until certain forts fell, which would make any further defence useless. Shrapnel shells were now bursting in every direction, and General Deguise decided to remove the Belgian Headquarters to the Pilotage on the Scheldt. For convenience' sake the British Headquarters had to follow shortly afterwards.
While outside the Porte de Malines a shrapnel crumpled up one of the wheels of Colonel Seely's car and his servant at once proceeded, with remarkable coolness, to fix on the spare wheel, while six shells were dropped not far from his side during the operation. This occurred after a second visit to the forts. Ten wagons and motor omnibuses containing ammunition etc., reported themselves to the old British Headquarters at Kipdorp shortly after ten o'clock, and General Paris ordered me to convoy these to a place of safety near the Pilotage, and thereafter, as I knew Antwerp well, to proceed along the Quays up the Scheldt and try to find some motor buses, and take three or four for the evacuation of the British and Belgian wounded from the British Field Hospital. I commandeered a Flemish motor wagoner to convoy the ammunition as directed, and then, after an hour and a half's search, found three motor buses and led them into Antwerp, which was absolutely deserted, while various of the best houses were blazing and being shelled. Bombs were being dropped by both Zeppelins and aeroplanes, but appeared to do little damage.
About four o'clock a Council of Was was held at the Pilotage and full arrangements explained in the eventuality of a retreat; in fact large barges had been requisitioned to convey the troops across the Scheldt should the passage by the Pont de Bourght and the Pont de Flandre (both temporary bridges of boats) be rendered useless by shell-fire. Just as the Council was terminating, an artillery officer come in to report that Forts One and Two (?) had been silenced and the defence rendered untenable. General Deguise then said: "C'est fini", and the preparations for the retirement of the Army at once commenced.
Colonel Seely and I procedeed in his private motor car (the one to which the spare wheel had been fixed under shell-fire a few hours earlier - the crumpled wheel of which is now at Apsley House) to the Telephone Office, then situated in a cellar near the original Telephone Office, and spoke to London Authorities.
About half-past five we re-entered the car and proceeded through the heart of Antwerp, shrapnel bursting in every direction, the streets being in many places which also brought down many of the telegraph wires and overhead electric tramway steel ropes, necessitated the use of the motor lamps.
We proceeded through the Porte de Malines and passed the former British Headquarters evacueted that morning, continuing till we encountered the Royal Marines, forming a line of reserves to the east of the high road. These were instructed to fall in and take cover and await our return with the troops in the advanced trenches. On reaching the latter, some 450 yards beyond Vieux-Dieu , on the road to Malines, Colonel Seely instructed the officer in command (Captain Compbell, R.N.) nearest the high road to order the retirement of the Naval Division troops entrenched towards the east, and then proceeded to give instructions to those in the trenche of the est of the Malines road. He further instructed the officer in command to leave a small body of ratings in the trenches to keep up a rifle fire until the majority of those entrenched had been led to a place of comparative safety in the rear. The various officers were asked to repeat the instructions, in order to ascertain that hte latter were clearly understood, and the retirement was effected in the most perfect order and without the slightest evidence that any relief was being felt through the order to retire. In fact the feelings of the troops appaeared rahter to show regret.
DETAIL OF THE BRIDGE OVER THE SCHELDT.
THE STATION OF ST. NICOLAS
Friday, 9th October 1914
St Gilles-Waes was reached at 7 A.M. and meagre refreshment procured for the troops, who were quickly entrained. Various motors proceeded back towards Beveren-Waes to pick up stragglers, and five heavily laden trains disptached. The station authorities intimated that it was doubtful if the trains would reach their destination. When it appeared that all stragglers had been collected, General Paris orderd me to go by motorcar a mile or so back only, to take a last look down the road leading to Beveren-Waes, when a body of some seventy men were discovered marching quickly towards St Gilles-Waes. These were hurried forward, and they declared that there were no stragglers left in their rear. Time was very precious or I would have proceeded farther back. It may be here mentioned that te long march was conducted in what appeared to be the most perfect manner and without the slightest grumbling on the part of a single man, notwithstanding that all had been a long time in the trenches and under a most terrifying shell-fire, and without recent refreshment or almost any comforts on the long march.
In the last train which left, many refugees were allowed in by the station authorities so as to fill up empty carriages. A great mistake. General Paris, Colonel Seely, and Aide-de-Campe (Mr. Greenwood) and myself waited at the station of St Gillis-Waes for fully half an hour alfter the last troops had gone, and then proceeded by motor car towards Bruges, calling at one or two railway stations en route to inquire if the line was intact. The information secured was satisfactory. Bruges was reached at 2 P.M. and a stop of one hour made, when the pary proceeded to Ostend, returning to Bruges the same evening, when full inquiries were made as to the troops from St Gilles-Waes.
Saturday, 10th October 1914
At 2.45 A.M. Colonel Seely instructed me to telephone to the British Headquarters at Ostend, giving the hours when the trains would reach there. These details were acknowledged as received half an hour later.
At 7 o'clock Colonel Seely directed me to proceed to the railway station at Bruges and see that his (Colonel Seely's) arrangements of the previous evening had been carried out. There had been rumours that some men were missing, but from other sources it was said that these were proceeding by train into Bruges. The troops which had arrived in Bruges the previous night had been housed and well fed. We learnt later that it was part of the First Brigade that was said to be missing and could not be accounted for.
We proceeded to Ostend that evening, and then learnt that information had been received from Holland that the missing body had crossed the Dutch frontier and had been interned. During the late evening we proceeded back to Bruges to make further inquiries, and on our return Colonel Seely consulted with me. A civilian friend of mine agreed at once to proceed by motor car to the point where it was believed the British unit had crossed the frontier, with suggestions that he might cross the latter and ascertain word of the whereabouts of the missing men.
Sunday, 11th October 1914
At 5 A.M. the said friend left for the Dutch Frontier, but had not returned by 6 P.M., nor had he telephoned any information to me from Eccloo as we arranged. At that hour Colonel Seely proceeded eastwards, but at 8 o'clock the above friend returned and submitted the following report: That he had made the Dutch frontier at the exact place crossed by the British troops, and he there learned, through the kindness of a friendly Burgomaster, that twenty-four hours previously they had crossed the Dutch frontier and had been taken to a port on the Scheldt, and from there by steamer to Fort Bath on the north bank of the Scheldt, where they were interned along with a thousand Belgian troops, while 100 German troops who had crossed the Dutch frontier slightly later than the previous Belgian-British troops had been conveyed to Flushing. The Burgomaster added that had the above friend come sme twelve hours earlier it would have been possible to have secured the release, and the re-crossing into Belgian territory, of all the British troops of the First Brigade and their Belgian allies !
Colonel Seely returned to Ostend at 10.30 P.M., when I submitted the above report to him. It was rumoured in Ostend that the missing troops, while proceeding by train to Bruges, had come to a portion of the line which had been cut. They were forced to leave the train, and had a "brush" with the enemy, and were driven over the Dutch frontier, but could have regained Belgian territory.
Monday, 12th October 1914
A Taube aeroplane flew over Ostend at 8 o'clock to-day throwing several bombs, while at 12.50 P.M., as I was leaving for England on board the S.S. "Invicta" conveying refugees to Dover, an Albatross Taube appeared some 6,000 feet above the vessel and discharged two bombs, one of which I distinctly saw burst on what was believed to be the Naval Aviation Ground. Two British biplanes appeared to be unsuccesfully chasing the Albatross Taube.
I reached London at 7 o'clock, and under instructions proceeded to the Admiralty, where the First Lord was good enough to receive me and asked me to make out and submit the report as herein drawn up. I regret that this memorandum must appear most imperfect, but it was impossible to refer to my diary of the time under review, and moreover my marked maps were to-night left by request in the hands of the First Lord, and so I am unable to refer to them for various points which might have been made more intelligible. Further, the First Lord requested that his memorandum should be in his hands early next morning, necessitating all-night work after a week during which I had had very little sleep at all !
It may be of interest to add that the gifted food stores of the Belgian Relief Fund were all distributed amongst the suffering refugees in and ouside Antwerp by the afternoon of Wednesday the 7th October, and thus none feel into the hands of the enemy.
In conclusion I would beg to be allowed to testify to the splendid morale of the British troops and their power of endurance under novel and most trying circumstances.
I leave it to Colonel Seely to state the condition of the Belgian troops, although I myself knew it well.
I would further add that the casualties throughout appear to be very small as I visited the various hospitals, in which both the Belgian and British troops seemed to have every attention, the British nurses refusing to leave with the British wounded unless they could at the same time convey Belgian wounded. A large number of casualties were caused by the bursting of shrapnel shell on the Route de Malines during the conveyance of foodstuff to the Naval Division. The casualties which actually occurred in the trenches were, it is understood, very few, and not a single casualty occured in the retirement on the night of Thursday, 8th October - a fact which is difficult to believe considering the condition of the streets and the extraordinary number of shells which were continually bursting in every direction.
(Signed) A. A. GORDON
12th October 1914.
SOURCE: 'CULLED FROM A DIARY' - A. A. GORDON - 1939
THE STATION OF ST. GILLIS WAES