Churchill Myth and Reality: Antwerp. Shocking Folly?

Churchill Myth and Reality: Antwerp. Shocking Folly?

Churchill’s role in the defense of Antwerp, in Octo­ber 1914, has been called one of his “char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly pirat­i­cal” adven­tures. An emi­nent his­to­ri­an described it as “a shock­ing fol­ly by a min­is­ter who abused his pow­ers and betrayed his respon­si­bil­i­ties. It is aston­ish­ing that [his] cab­i­net col­leagues so read­i­ly for­gave him for a lapse of judg­ment that would have destroyed most men’s careers.”1

 As the Ger­mans closed in around Antwerp, Max Hast­ings writes, Churchill “assem­bled a hotch­potch of Roy­al Marines and sur­plus naval per­son­nel… his own pri­vate army.” Then he “aban­doned his post at the Admi­ral­ty.” Then he “had him­self appoint­ed Britain’s plenipo­ten­tiary to the belea­guered fortress.”2

The Royal Naval Division

Before the war, Churchill had opposed con­scrip­tion (“the draft”). He soon changed his mind. What con­tri­bu­tion could the Admi­ral­ty make? Churchill won­dered. His eye fell upon a sur­plus of 20-30,000 Roy­al Navy reservists not need­ed aboard ships.

Churchill orga­nized them into one marine and two naval brigades for oper­a­tions on land.3 With the addi­tion of the two naval brigades—and with cab­i­net approval—the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion was found­ed on August 16th. “Its men regard­ed Churchill as their patron,” Mar­tin Gilbert wrote. “Lat­er, in action, when things went well they called them­selves ‘Churchill’s Pets.’ When things went bad­ly they were known as ‘Churchill’s Inno­cent Vic­tims.’”4

The Sec­re­tary of State for War, Lord Kitch­en­er, approved set­ting up the Divi­sion. Polit­i­cal asso­ciates besieged Churchill to make places for their rel­a­tives. The Con­ser­v­a­tive leader Andrew Bonar Law wrote on behalf of his two nephews; iron­i­cal­ly, Bonar Law and oth­ers like him were lat­er Churchill’s lead­ing critics.

The RND first saw action at Ostend, where two bat­tal­ions of marines land­ed tem­porar­i­ly to secure the city dur­ing the Allied retreat. It is true, as lat­er crit­ics said, that naval per­son­nel were not ide­al for shore oper­a­tions. But Kitch­en­er and Churchill nev­er visu­al­ized RND per­son­nel as first-line troops. They thought of them as tem­po­rary expe­di­ents when reg­u­lar troops were unavailable.

Decision to Defend Antwerp

Churchill’s “pirat­i­cal” deci­sion to defend Antwerp was actu­al­ly that of the cab­i­net. As Churchill had pre­dict­ed,5 the Ger­mans had made rapid advances in the open­ing weeks of the war. They secured Brus­sels, Belgium’s cap­i­tal, and by the end of Sep­tem­ber 1914 were threat­en­ing Antwerp, one of its last lines of defense. The Bel­gians informed their allies that Antwerp would have to sur­ren­der by 3 Octo­ber. The British said: not so fast.

Lord Kitchener—backed by the cabinet—emphasized the impor­tance of hold­ing Antwerp as long as pos­si­ble. This would enable the trans­fer of troops and equip­ment to safer ports far­ther south on the Chan­nel coast. Antwerp posed a bar­ri­er to the enemy’s advance. Kitch­en­er feared that if the Ger­mans reached Calais, they might be able to launch an inva­sion of Britain. Churchill sup­port­ed him, and one of the Admiralty’s prime duties was to keep the Chan­nel ports open. The cab­i­net agreed that “the more troops [the Ger­mans] would be forced to divert to the siege…the more coast­line would remain in Allied hands.”6

For­eign Min­is­ter Lord Grey cit­ed a moral imper­a­tive to aid “brave lit­tle Bel­gium.” He told the Bel­gians that a “fur­ther effort” should be made at Antwerp. He promised that Britain would dis­patch troops.

Send in the Marines

Pend­ing their arrival, Kitch­en­er, at Churchill’s sug­ges­tion, decid­ed to send the RND marine brigade, which was already in Dunkirk, return­ing from Ostend. Mean­while the French gov­ern­ment, in emer­gency ses­sion at Bor­deaux, promised to send two ter­ri­to­r­i­al (reserve) divi­sions, com­plete with artillery and cav­al­ry, “with the short­est delay pos­si­ble.” The French also promised to launch an offen­sive toward Lille that would press the Ger­mans from anoth­er direc­tion. Some ques­tioned the effec­tive­ness of ter­ri­to­ri­als in a fight for the city—yet the Ger­mans were using the same type of troops in more sub­stan­tial num­bers (60,000).7

Kitch­en­er wished to deploy reg­u­lar army troops at Antwerp, but he need­ed infor­ma­tion on the sit­u­a­tion, which appeared vague at best. On Octo­ber 2nd he noticed that Churchill was en route to Dunkirk to eval­u­ate the marine brigade and con­sult with the British com­man­der, Sir John French. Kitch­en­er stopped Churchill’s train and returned it to Lon­don, where they met, along with Lord Grey and the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Bat­ten­berg. They decid­ed to re-route Churchill to Antwerp, where he might report the exact sit­u­a­tion. Churchill did not, there­fore, “have him­self appointed.”

Nor did Churchill “aban­don his post.” He left Bat­ten­berg in charge at the Admi­ral­ty, under direc­tion of Prime Min­is­ter H.H. Asquith, before he set off. Asquith and Kitch­en­er anx­ious­ly await­ed Churchill’s report, Asquith with gus­to: “I don’t know how flu­ent he is in French, but if he was able to do him­self jus­tice in a for­eign tongue, the Belges will have lis­tened to a dis­course the like of which they have nev­er heard before.”8

“Churchill’s Private Army”

Churchill did not pre­fer the “hotch­potch col­lec­tions of naval per­son­nel,” includ­ing recruits, that showed up at Antwerp. Kitch­en­er had planned to send a “sub­stan­tial” Antwerp relief force under the com­mand of Sir Hen­ry Rawl­in­son to take over the defense. They could not be sent imme­di­ate­ly, so Kitch­en­er accept­ed Churchill’s sug­ges­tion of the marine brigade, sup­ple­ment­ed by two naval brigades from the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion: Churchill’s so-called “pri­vate army.”

Prime Min­is­ter Asquith knew the truth. He had explained to the King that in the present emer­gency, there were no oth­er troops avail­able to sup­port Antwerp’s defense. Asquith also knew that

on Octo­ber 4, in his telegram to Kitch­en­er, Churchill had explic­it­ly request­ed the Naval Brigades to be sent, “minus recruits“; all sub­se­quent arrange­ments for the despatch of the brigades had been made at the Admi­ral­ty by Prince Louis…. The recruits could eas­i­ly have been held back had Prince Louis or Asquith desired. When, on Octo­ber 5, Churchill found that the brigades had come with their recruits, and were about to be exposed to the full weight of a Ger­man assault, he had giv­en imme­di­ate orders for them to take up a less exposed, defen­sive posi­tion. (Empha­sis added.)9

These facts were not made pub­lic at the time. Ever since, there have been ven­omous accounts of Churchill’s actions.

“Mon dieu! La Trinité?”

WSC at Antwerp: “Moi, je suis un frère aîné de la Trinité.”

Churchill arrived in Antwerp at mid-day on 3 Octo­ber, wear­ing the uni­form of an Elder Broth­er of Trin­i­ty House  (Britain’s light­house ser­vice had hon­ored him with this title in 1911). It was dis­tin­guished by a naval cap with badge and pea jack­et. A Bel­gian offi­cer asked what this get-up sig­ni­fied. Churchill replied, in his lame French: “Moi, je suis un frère aîné de la Trinité.” The dumb­found­ed Bel­gian exclaimed: “Mon Dieu! La Trinité?”10 He had under­stood Churchill to have pro­claimed him­self divine. The sto­ry would not be lost on crit­ics who believed Churchill thought of him­self in pre­cise­ly that way.

An eye-wit­ness described the scene as Churchill drove out to inspect the defenses:

It was a chilly day and he [had changed into] a long black over­coat with broad astrakhan col­lar and his usu­al black top hat, and swung his sil­ver-topped walk­ing stick. In his cus­tom­ary man­ner, he com­plete­ly ignored the ene­my fire from how­itzers, rifles and machine guns and aston­ished the Bel­gian troops by tak­ing com­plete charge of the sit­u­a­tion, crit­i­ciz­ing the sit­ing of guns and trench­es and empha­siz­ing his points by wav­ing his stick or thump­ing the ground with it.

He then climbed back into his car, wait­ing impa­tient­ly to be dri­ven to the next sec­tion of the front line. Lat­er, when the rein­forc­ing Roy­al Marines arrived and were set­tled in, Win­ston came along to inspect them, dressed suit­ably for this more mar­itime occa­sion. He was “enveloped in a cloak, and on his head wore a yachtsman’s cap,” observed an accom­pa­ny­ing jour­nal­ist. “He was tran­quil­ly smok­ing a large cig­ar and look­ing at the progress of the bat­tle under a rain of shrap­nel which I can only call fear­ful.’”11

The Outcome

By 5 Octo­ber nei­ther the promised French or British troops, nor the des­ig­nat­ed com­man­der, Gen­er­al Rawl­in­son, had shown up. There was no on-scene leader, save Churchill.

In what seemed to him an emer­gency, Churchill offered to resign from the Admi­ral­ty to con­duct the defense of the city. Asquith saw this unchar­i­ta­bly. The Prime Min­is­ter, who should have had Churchill’s back, remarked pri­vate­ly: “Win­ston is an ex-Lieu­tenant of Hus­sars, and would if his pro­pos­al had been accept­ed, have been in com­mand of two dis­tin­guished Major Gen­er­als, not to men­tion Brigadiers, Colonels etc: while the Navy were only con­tribut­ing its lit­tle brigades.”12

Lieu­tenant of Hus­sars he may have been. But among Asquith’s cab­i­net, Churchill had had more first-line mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence than any­one else, and had thought more about the busi­ness than his col­leagues. Asquith didn’t both­er to add, Mar­tin Gilbert not­ed, “that those ‘lit­tle brigades,’ whose role he min­i­mized, were in fact the only British forces at that moment avail­able for imme­di­ate despatch to Antwerp, and that one of them, the marine brigade, con­sti­tut­ed at the time the only British force engaged in the city’s defense.”13

Betrayal and Incompetence

To Churchill’s face, Asquith was charm itself. He need­ed him. When would he return? The answer proved to be: when Rawl­in­son got to Antwerp. The Gen­er­al final­ly showed up late on the 6th, hav­ing tak­en three times as long to arrive as Churchill had. Iron­i­cal­ly, Rawl­in­son left Antwerp short­ly after Churchill, decid­ing that fur­ther defense was futile.

In the absence of promised French or British rein­force­ments the com­mand­ing offi­cer, Major-Gen­er­al Archibald Paris, had only “hotch­potch” British defend­ers. Churchill had ordered him to con­tin­ue the defense for as long as pos­si­ble and to be ready to cross to the west bank rather than par­tic­i­pate in a sur­ren­der. Gen­er­al Paris con­duct­ed a gal­lant defense for three more days. Antwerp for­mal­ly sur­ren­dered on 10 Octo­ber.14

The Reaction

“Antwerp Blun­der” in “Winston’s Bag,” David Low in “The Star,” 21 Jan­u­ary 1920.

The First Lord returned home believ­ing he had slowed the Ger­man advance and pre­vent­ed the ene­my from turn­ing the Allied flank. Instead of a wel­come, he faced an uproar. Typ­i­cal was the edi­to­r­i­al by H.A. Gwynne of the Morn­ing Post, iron­i­cal­ly a news­pa­per that had once laud­ed his con­tri­bu­tions as a war cor­re­spon­dent. The gov­ern­ment, Gwynne wrote, needed

to keep a tight hand upon their impul­sive col­league [and] see that no more mis­chief of the sort is done…. The attempt to relieve Antwerp by a small force of Marines and Naval Vol­un­teers was a cost­ly blun­der, for which Mr. W. Churchill [is] respon­si­ble…. It is not right or prop­er that Mr. Churchill should use his posi­tion as Civ­il Lord to press his tac­ti­cal and strate­gi­cal fan­cies upon unwill­ing experts….”15

The Reality

But facts are stub­born things, and facts say oth­er­wise. In no case did Churchill advance “strate­gi­cal fan­cies upon unwill­ing experts.” In no case did he deploy troops with­out approval of the cab­i­net and the respon­si­ble min­is­ter, Lord Kitch­en­er. The object was not the relief of Antwerp. The object was to delay and harass the ene­my, fore­stalling a greater disaster.

The Roy­al Naval Divi­sion brigades were clos­est and eas­i­est to trans­port, and acquit­ted them­selves well, with only fifty-sev­en deaths out of 8000. Kitch­en­er and Rawl­in­son (in a fore­taste of Gal­lipoli) had daw­dled and failed to deliv­er. The French (in a fore­taste of 1940) had failed utter­ly. Asquith, Kitch­en­er and the Admi­ral­ty sent only recruits. Churchill had rec­om­mend­ed against them.

King Albert Weighs In

As a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, Churchill could not reply to all this. He received no pub­lic defense from Asquith or Kitch­en­er. Belat­ed­ly, the King of the Bel­gians revealed the truth. In a let­ter to Gen­er­al Paris in March 1918, which he lat­er dic­tat­ed as a mem­o­ran­dum, King Albert wrote:

You are wrong in con­sid­er­ing the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion Expe­di­tion as a for­lorn hope. In my opin­ion it ren­dered great ser­vice to us and those who dep­re­cate it sim­ply do not under­stand the his­to­ry of the War in its ear­ly days. Only one man of all your peo­ple had the pre­vi­sion of what the loss of Antwerp would entail and that man was Mr. Churchill….

Delay­ing an ene­my is often of far greater ser­vice than the defeat of the ene­my, and in the case of Antwerp the delay the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion caused to the ene­my was of ines­timable ser­vice to us. These three days allowed the French and British Armies to move North West. Oth­er­wise our whole army might have been cap­tured and the North­ern French Ports secured by the enemy.

More­over, the advent of the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion inspired our troops, and owing to your arrival, and hold­ing out for three days, great quan­ti­ties of sup­plies were enabled to be destroyed. You kept a large army employed, and I repeat the Roy­al Naval Divi­sion ren­dered a ser­vice we shall nev­er for­get.15

This article is Chapter 11 in…

…my new book, Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty: What He Actu­al­ly Did and Said, avail­able at a $15 dis­count from the Hills­dale Col­lege Book­store. Also avail­able in print and Kin­dle edi­tions from Amazon.


1. Max Hast­ings, Cat­a­stro­phe 1914: Europe Goes to War (New York: Ran­dom House, 2013, Vin­tage Books paper­back 2014), 446–55.

2. Ibid.

3. “The British Army 1914–1918,” www.1914–1918. net/63div.htm, accessed 14 March 2016.

4. Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 3, The Chal­lenge of War 1914-1916 (Hills­dale Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2008), 48.

5. See Win­ston S. Churchill, “Mil­i­tary Aspects of the Con­ti­nen­tal Prob­lem,” in The World Cri­sis 1911–1914 (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1923), 60–64.

6. Gilbert, Chal­lenge of War, 104.

7. Ibid.

8. H.H. Asquith, Mem­o­ries and Reflec­tions, two vols. (Boston: Lit­tle Brown, 1928)  II 41.

9. Gilbert, Chal­lenge of War, 131.

10. Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self (New York: Pub­lic Affairs, 2008), 524.

11. Richard Hough, Win­ston and Clemen­tine (Lon­don: Ban­tam, 1990), 288.

12. Hen­ry Pelling, Win­ston Churchill, 1974. Revised and extend­ed soft­bound edi­tion. (Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Edi­tions, 1999), 184.

13. Gilbert, Chal­lenge of War, 113–14.

14. J.E. Edmonds, Mil­i­tary Oper­a­tions France and Bel­gium, 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August–October 1914. His­to­ry of the Great War Based on Offi­cial Doc­u­ments by direc­tion of the His­tor­i­cal Sec­tion of the Com­mit­tee of Impe­r­i­al Defence I, 2nd ed. (Lon­don: Macmil­lan, 1926), 46–48.

15. H.A. Gwynne, “The Antwerp Blun­der,” Morn­ing Post, Lon­don, 13 Octo­ber 1914, in Gilbert, Chal­lenge of War, 125–26.

16. Ibid., 125.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.