Hans von Beseler was a German General and staff officer who is best known for his role in the siege of Antwerp. Born in Greifswald, on the coast north of Berlin, he entered the Prussian army in 1868, fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. He rose steadily in the German Army, and became deputy chief of the General Staff in 1899, under the famous Alfred von Schlieffen.
When von Schlieffen retired, Beseler was one of the leading candidates for the post of chief of the General Staff, which eventually went to Helmuth von Moltke. Beseler was appointed inspector general of fortresses, engineers and sappers, a role that that he held until his retirement in 1910. In 1907 he had been promoted to general of infantry.
On 2 August 1914 Beseler was appointed commander of the III Reserve Corps, part of General von Kluck’s First Army, at the extreme right of the German advance into Belgium. As the Germans advances, the Belgian army retreated into Antwerp, and on 17 September Beseler was given the task of capturing the fortress.
The rest of September was spent in preparation. The heavy guns used at Liège and Namur were sent to Antwerp, and on1 October the heavy bombardment began. By 3 October the Germans had blasted a hole in the outer line of forts and advanced towards the next line. The defence of Antwerp nearly collapsed at that point, but was propped up for two more days by the arrival of a small number of British troops, who gave some hope of further reinforcement.
Beseler continued with his methodical plan. On 5 October the second and final line of modern forts was breached, and on the next day King Albert of Belgium ordered the evacuation of the city. Antwerp surrendered on 10 October. Beseler was awarded the Pour le mérite for his achievement.
The III Reserve Corps followed the Belgians to the Yser, taking part in the battle of the Yser during November, before being sent east to join the Ninth Army. There Beseler would take part in a second great siege, at Novo-Georgievsk (10-20 August 1915), during the campaign that followed the German breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow. Using some of the same siege guns as at Antwerp, Beseler concentrated on a small number of forts on the north eastern segment of the defences and created a breach through which the German infantry was able to advance. The fort surrendered on 20 August.
This success marked the end of Beseler’s purely military career, for on 24 August Beseler was appointed as the German governor general of Poland, based at Warsaw. The post-war reaction to his period of rule would suggest that he was reasonably impartial – the Poles found him too Prussia, the Germans too pro-Polish. He was in favour of reviving Congress Poland. This was the version of Poland created at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and had been a semi-autonomous region within the Russian Empire, theoretically ruled by the Tsar as King of Poland as a constitutional monarchy. The original Congress Poland had only lasted until 1831, and was then replaced by direct Russian rule. The only difference in Beseler’s plan was the substitution of the Kaiser for the Tsar.
This idea was put into practise on 5 November 1916. The new Kingdom of Poland attracted some notable supports, amongst them Józef Piłsudski, who served as minister of war until his arrest in the summer of 1917. Independence would come at the end of the war, but Poland was expected to play her part in the war. Ludendorff saw the new Poland as a recruitment ground, but very few Polish troops came forward, and after the arrest of Pilsudski, the idea collapsed.
On 12 November 1918, at the end of the war, Beseler fled from Poland. He was later criticised by right-wing groups for leaving his troops without a formal farewell, although a more valid criticism might be that he left then unarmed and in the middle of a hostile population. In the event the German garrison of Warsaw was peacefully evacuated and Beseler was cleared of all charges by a mock trial called as his request. By 1918 the sixty eight year old Beseler was seriously ill. He died at Neubabelsberg on 20 December 1921.