The first defensive lines
In 1859, the construction of the “Great Wall”, the so-called “Brialmont Fortresses”, named after their spiritual father, general engineer Henri Alexis Brialmont, started. They consisted of an earthen wall on a brick base with a wide moat in front. This first fortress belt had to defend the city of Antwerp (port) and consisted of 8 fortresses. Antwerp functioned as a national reduit, the place where the king and the top of the army could entrench themselves in case of a hostile invasion.
At the end of the 19th century, the first belt of fortresses was outdated. By Act of 6 June 1906, the De Smet de Naeyer government planned to build a new series of fortresses as the outer belt of defence, the so-called main defence line. The construction of this second ring of fortresses around Antwerp consisted of the implantation of 11 new fortresses in concrete and the modernisation of the existing fortresses and entrenchments. They were situated in a 95 km wide arc around Antwerp, at about 20 km from the city.
Originally, the fortress of Breendonk, a fortress of the 2nd order with caponnières (four spurs at the corners of the fortress on which artillery pieces were mounted), was built as a fortress of the Belgian army.
The fortress at Willebroek (Breendonk) was to be the southernmost fortress in this new belt. The construction site chosen for the fortress is located in the so-called “Schalkland”, south of the Dendermondsesteenweg (Mechelen-Dendermonde). Despite the fact that the grounds, on which the new building was to be erected, were almost completely situated on the territory of the municipality of Breendonk, it was officially named “Fort van Willebroeck”. Count Buisseret de Blanenghien, the then mayor of Breendonk, officially lodged a complaint against this. The Royal Decree of 12 January 1907 therefore renamed the fortress the “Fort van Breendonck”.
The fort is located in “Klein-Brabant”, less than 25 kilometres from the centre of Brussels and 19 kilometres from Antwerp.
The spelling of the name of the village of Breendonk has evolved over time. In the XIIIth century, the village was called “BREEDENDONCK”, which means “broad swamp”. The spelling then changed to BREENDONCK and after the fusion of the municipalities on 1 January 1977 it definitively became “BREENDONK”.
Breendonk and the Antwerp fortress belt
At the beginning of the 20th century, the need arose to build a new military ring of defence to protect the city of Antwerp and its port, as well as the “National Redoubt” (to which Antwerp was proclaimed in 1859, much to the displeasure of its inhabitants). Several proposals succeeded each other, among others coming from General Alexis de Brialmont. Eventually, they lead to the approval of the law on the “plan for the defence of Antwerp and the development of its port facilities”, published in the Belgian Official Journal of 29 April 1906.
There are different types of fortresses. According to the military jargon of the time, one speaks of 1st and 2nd order forts, with attached or detached caponnieres, … .
Breendonk is a fort of the second order with attached caponiers. On the western side, you will find the Fort of Liezele at a distance of 4 km and on the eastern side you will reach the Fort of Walem after 8 km. Between Breendonk and Liezele lies the redoubt Letterheide, while Breendonk and Walem are separated by a flood plain.
The construction of the fortress was only started in 1909. The cost at that time was estimated at 177,000 francs (today € 116,500,000).
The fortress wa built in unreinforced concrete. Approximately 41,000 m³ of concrete was used at a cost of 719,385 francs (equivalent to € 473,760,000 today).
In total, the Breendonk Fortress would require an investment of approximately 2,200,000 francs (today, € 1,450,000).
Once the construction was complete, a moat was dug around the fortress, with an average depth of 3.75 metres and an initial width of almost 50 metres. The concrete structures were covered with the excavated soil mass to hide the fortress from enemy view and protect it from direct fire.
Dimensions of the Fortress :
Maximum width : about 260 m.
Maximum length : approximately 106 m.
Maximum height of earth: 9,75 m.
Average width of the moat: 40 to 50 m.
Average depth of moat: 3,75 m.
Surface area: 15 hectares 90 acres and 8 centiares
The fortress is equipped with various types of cannons and howitzers; 33 in all.
Two 150 mm Cockerill guns, model 1909, under the dome, in the centre. These cannons can fire a 39-kilo shell over a distance of 8,400 metres. They are protected by a steel dome, 22 cm thick, which weighs almost 55 tons.
Two 120 mm Cockerill howitzers, model 1909, which can fire 20 kg shells over a distance of 6,400 m.
Four 75 mm Cockerill guns, model 1906, under turret, capable of firing 5.5 kg shells over a distance of 6,000 m.
Seventeen 57 mm rapid-fire guns complete the armament for close protection.
In addition to these south-facing and thus opposed to a potential enemy cannons and howitzers, there are 8 other flanking pieces of artillery, which are located in the so-called “traditore” battery. They are aimed towards the neighbouring fortress to come to their aid if necessary. There are four 75 mm and four 120 mm pieces on a 1909 model baffle.
This artillery should be able to keep the enemy at a distance from Antwerp, but already at the time of installation, the armament was outdated. In 1914, the Germans could shell the Belgian fortresses to their heart’s content while they themselves remained out of range of our artillery with their heavy artillery of 305 mm or even 420 mm…
A 15 cm turret cost at that time – without the guns – 290,000 francs (to clarify: a day’s pay for a worker at that time amounted to 1 to 3 francs).
There is no anti-aircraft guns, which is normal for that time.
In wartime, the garrison of the fortress comprised about 330 soldiers, mainly infantrymen (80 in peacetime). They had to defend the entrance to the fortress and were therefore posted on the roofs of the fortress, protected by the high earthen walls.
They had twelve dormitories (12 x 5.5 metres), two kitchens (soldiers and officers), a bakery, cachot (3), a shower room and separate toilets for the soldiers and the officers and non-commissioned officers.
In July 1914, when war broke out, the fortress – like the neighbouring fortresses – was unfinished.
In order to clear the field of vision of the artillerymen at the fortress, on 9 August 1914, Colonel Van Weyenberghe demolished some 200 houses in the municipality of Willebroek (Westdijk, Palingstraat, Oude Dendermondsesteenweg, Steenweg op Tisselt).
The German army invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914. Since the initial aim was to reach Paris as quickly as possible, the German advance went entirely southwards and was limited to securing Antwerp.
It was not until 9 September 1914 that the German Grand Headquarters gave General von Beseler the order to take Antwerp: the siege artillery had been freed up by the fall of Namur and Maubeuge. For this purpose, the General had at his disposal 120,000 men and a large and powerful artillery: 420 mm cannons, Austrian Skoda mortars of 305 mm, 305 mm howitzers, 210 mm mortars, …
The fortress could withstand the French 220 mm mortar fire, but not the impacts of German 305 or 420 mm mortars.
On 28 September the German army bombarded the Antwerp fortresses for the first time.
Fortress Breendonk was first shelled on 1 October. Since a breach was made by the fall of Sint-Katelijne-Waver and Lier, Breendonk was surrounded along the east side.
On 1, 6 and 8 October, the Fortress of Breendonk received a total of 563 projectiles from Austrian 305 mm mortars, as well as shells fired by artillery that was 8 to 9 km out of range.
On 8 October, the fort underwent a very heavy bombardment. It rained 305 mm shells and one of them landed in a chimney and exploded between two dormitories. The commander of the fortress, Commander Weyns, was very seriously injured and died not much later. The fortress surrendered, while the surrendered of Antwerp was already being prepared; on 10 October the city officially surrenders. The municipality of Willebroek is occupied by the German troops from that moment on.
It was understandable that the survivors were proud of this heroic defence, the memory of which they wanted to keep alive by erecting a bronze plaque to the left of the poterne in 1926. (Secondary gate in a fort or fortress).
The interwar period
After the end of the war in 1918, the Belgian army occasionally used the fortress to house soldiers. In the run-up to a new war, the army determined that the fortresses in the defensive belt around Antwerp could no longer be adapted to the requirements of modern warfare. The army chose Breendonk as the possible location for the king and his Headquarters in case of an invasion of the country.
The Second World War
On 10 May 1940 at 8.30 a.m. King Leopold III, commander-in-chief of the army, arrived in Breendonk. It was from here that the King addressed the country. He also received the commanders of the Seventh French Army and of the British Army, who were deployed on the right and left flank of the Belgian army respectively. Among them was General Bilotte, who was the commander of Army Group North to which the Belgian army had been attached since 12 May.
On 16 May, General Billotte gave the order to abandon the Antwerp-Namur line of defence because the situation had become untenable due to the breakthrough at Sedan. Around midnight the first elements of the General Staff left the fortress. On 17 May, the entire Headquarters were moved to the surroundings of Ghent.