Right: RMLI getting supplies at Antwerp – from the Manchester Guardian
(public domain image)The heroic and tenacious Belgian Army was no match for the much more numerous and better-equipped Germans who were pouring across their border and even with this limited British support their position was soon collapsing. General Deguise, the Belgian commander, concerned that the British Royal Naval Division would be trapped in Antwerp, informed the British government that British withdrawal was urgent. Deguise sent out the order to withdraw to both the Belgian 2nd Division and the Royal Naval Division. The order successfully reached the Belgian 2nd Division, which set off on a 30-mile march and arrived to rejoin the main Belgian Field Army at Salzaete on 9 October. The order to withdraw was sent from the Royal Naval Division commander, General Paris, by three separate officers, one to each of his three British brigades — Marine, 1st and 2nd Brigades. Three battalions of the Marine Brigade and 2nd Naval Brigade received their order successfully and they began to pull back. However, a mistake was made in the delivery of the message to the 1st Naval Brigade and the rearguard, McNeill’s Portsmouth Battalion of the Marine Brigade, the Drake Battalion alone getting the message. The other three battalions of the brigade and the Portsmouth Battalion (Marine Brigade) were left with no orders to move and all were unaware of developments until much later.The three battalions of the British Marine Brigade, the four battalions of the 2nd Naval Brigade and the Drake Battalion from 1st Brigade managed to cross the Schelde (Scheldt) River and reached Zwyndrecht. General Paris, the divisional commander, was incorrectly informed that all three brigades were fully present and so the force continued onward to St. Nicolas, and as there were no trains waiting for them there, they pushed on for a further six miles to entrain at St. Gilles Waes. From dawn on 9 October the first troops arrived at the waiting trains and eventually all the men of the Marine Brigade, 2nd Naval Brigade and the Drake Battalion were sent on their way to Ostend. It was only then that the three battalions of the 1st Brigade and the Marine rearguard Portsmouth Battalion were discovered to be missing. Prime Minister Asquith despaired and confided to his secret love Venetia Stanley that ‘a battalion of Marines had disappeared and are still unaccounted for.’ (Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.273.). Such was the chaos in which Private Hugh McNeill found himself.These ‘forgotten’ units managed to cross the Schelde River on barges – bridges had by then been destroyed - and reached the rendezvous point at Zwyndrecht, but the division had already left to go to the trains at St. Gilles Waes. The brigade commander, Commodore Henderson, followed them and a train was arranged for these new arrivals. However, the Germans were by then attacking Moerbeke further along the railway line and Commodore Henderson made a decision: he decided to march his men across the Dutch frontier, which lay three miles to the north. These 1,400 men were interned in neutral Holland for the rest of the war.
McNeill and the rearguard British battalion of the Marine Brigade, the Portsmouth Battalion, did reach St. Gilles Waes but on hearing there were no trains there they marched on to the next station, picking up stragglers of the 1st Naval Brigade en route. These British troops got on a train at Kemseke, a train which was also packed with refugees. However, near Moerbeke the locomotive was derailed by a German shell, causing panic amongst the civilians. McNeill and his Portsmouth Battalion comrades made an attack against the Germans at the village. In the engagement that followed, there were many casualties on both sides and some marines were captured, but a party of 90 men under Major French, a party that included McNeill, got safely away after a 35-mile forced march to the Belgian village of Eecloo. Major-General A. Paris, C. B., Commanding Royal Naval Division writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty later explained what happened thus: ‘at Moerbeke the line was cut, the engine derailed, and the enemy opened fire. There was considerable confusion. It was dark and the agitation of the refugees made it difficult to pass any orders. However, the battalion behaved admirably, and succeeded in fighting its way through, but with a loss in missing of more than half its number.’ McNeill survived the experience.
Hugh McNeill was serving during part of the chaotic withdrawal, from the 10th September 1914 until the 17th October 1914, with a Royal Naval Air Service’s Armoured Cars unit and ‘served in the armoured motor car in charge of Commander Samson’ (Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 2 May 1915), the actual car of the famous Commander Charles Rumney Samson RN. This must have been as exciting as it was terrifying.
The remarkable Samson had been appointed Officer Commanding the Eastchurch (Mobile) Squadron, later renamed No. 3 Squadron RNAS. He took the Eastchurch RNAS Squadron to France, where its aircraft supported Allied ground forces along the French and Belgian frontiers. However, since he had too few aircraft for his tasks, Samson had his men patrol on land in the privately owned cars some had brought with them. The first patrol comprised two cars, nine men, and one machine gun. Samson soon acquired two better RNAS cars, a Mercedes and a Rolls-Royce, both properly armoured. Other vehicles, sporting improvised but serviceable armour, followed. Aggressive patrolling by Samson's improvised force in the area between Dunkirk and Antwerp did much to prevent German cavalry divisions from carrying out effective reconnaissance, and with the help of Belgian Post Office employees who used the intact telephone system to report German troop movements, he was able to range deeply into German occupied territory. Closer to Dunkirk, Samson's force assisted Allied units retreating before the Germans by using the mobility and machine guns of his armoured car unit to exploit open flanks, cover retreats, and race German forces to important areas.
During a period of furlough in Ballymena following his wounding, and in the interview with Hugh McNeill that was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in May 1915 and already referred to, he spoke to confirm what Samson was doing and to speak highly of his courage and daring-do. He confirmed that it was largely due to Samson and his armoured cars 'that wandering bands of Uhlans (German heavy cavalry) are now seldom seen'. He said that 'on one occasion, whilst on a trip with Commander Samson, about 20 Uhlans were killed outright, and then the armoured motor car retreated, having previously left a number of men in ambush. The Germans, who followed, fell into the trap, and had to retire with heavy losses, whilst the motor car returned and rendered further damage.' On another occasion he said Samson 'surprised a party of 168 Uhlans who were having tea together in a small village. Their meal was suddenly disturbed by the advent of the armoured motor car, which inflicted great loss on the enemy.' He thought 'the Germans had come greatly to dread Commander Samson and his gallant men'.
On Saturday, 10 October 1914 Antwerp surrendered and the Royal Naval Division returned to England on the 11th. It had been an unavoidably disorderly and chaotic withdrawal, as was noted in the division’s magazine later: “Many of the bridges had been destroyed; the roads were crowded with thousands of refugees with their cattle and with the few possessions which they were able to rescue piled on carts and hand-barrows, straggling in a frightened mob, making it nearly impossible for troops to maintain their formation; the men of the division had been constantly on the move for nearly a week and were worn out with fatigue and thirst.”
About 900 men had been captured by the Germans and approximately 1400 men of the 1st Naval Brigade had crossed the border into Holland to be interned for the war’s duration. Churchill’s role in the shambles was criticised in some circles, and the Prime Minister, then Herbert Asquith, was told by his son Arthur, then serving with the Royal Naval Division, that Churchill had patched together a force in which three-quarters of the men were, he claimed rather unfairly, ‘a callow crowd of the rawest recruits, most of whom had never fired off a rifle, while none of them had ever handled an entrenching tool’. They had, and in spite of what Arthur Asquith had later told his father, performed magnificently. Churchill and others claimed success. Sir J. D. P. French, Field-Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty and said, ‘Although the results did not include the actual saving of the fortress, the action of the force under General Paris certainly delayed the enemy for a considerable time, and assisted the Belgian Army to be withdrawn in a condition to enable it to reorganize and refit, and regain its value as a fighting force. The destruction of war material and ammunition - which, but for the intervention of this force, would have proved of great value to the enemy - was thus able to be carried out.
The assistance which the Belgian Army has rendered throughout the subsequent course of the operations on the canal and the Yeser (Yser) river has been a valuable asset to the allied cause, and such help must be regarded as an outcome of the intervention of General Paris's force. I am further of opinion that the moral effect produced on the minds of the Belgian Army by this necessarily desperate attempt to bring them succour, before it was too late, has been of great value to their use and efficiency as a fighting force.’
Even Churchill’s personal visit to Antwerp and his role there for a short time is now seen as more than a vainglorious nonsense. Rickard (Rickard, J, Third Battle of Antwerp, 1-10 October 1914, published 21 Aug 2007) says, ‘Often criticised as a foolhardy gesture, Churchill’s presence in Antwerp probably helped prolong the defence by a crucial couple of days, during which the main British and French armies moved closer to the coast in the last days of the Race to the Sea.’
Hugh McNeill experience of the vicious and fast-moving maelstrom of combat was undeniably traumatic. He saw his friend, Private Deane of London, probably PO/10349 Private C E Deane, RMLI, killed in action on the 4 October 1914, his 'head blown off' by a German shell, he served alongside Samson in bold sorties against the Germans, and Hugh was himself wounded by shrapnel in the left leg and right knee at some point during the withdrawal.