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The Battle of Amiens 

8 – 11 AUGUST 1918

In the First World War, the Battle of Amiens was a surprise all arms attack by Allied forces which resulted in an advance of almost twelve miles. 

It ended the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front but more importantly left the German Army demoralised and on the defensive. 

The battle was the first of a series of Allied attacks known as the Hundred Days Offensive, which culminated with the signing of the Armistice on the 11 November 1918. 

Spring Offensive 


In March 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had formally ended Russia’s participation in the Great War enabling Germany to redeploy thousands of men to the Western Front. 

America had entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917 and the German High Command were keen to exploit this temporary numerical advantage and win the war before the Americans could arrive in strength. 

On the 21 March the German Army launched Operation Michael, the first in a series of spring offensives.  

Completely overwhelmed, General Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army was forced into a retreat, sustaining losses second only to those of the opening day of the Somme in July 1916. 

A further offensive in Flanders saw the Germans take back Messines and nearly all of the ground that had been fought so hard for during the Third Battle of Ypres the previous year. 

While the initial phases of the attacks were characterised by stunning breakthroughs of the Allied line, the spring offensives were costly in both men and materiel and ultimately few strategic gains were made. 

On the 15 July the Germans launched their Friedensturm or Peace Offensive which ended in failure when they were overwhelmed by a huge French led counterattack. 

The Second Battle of the Marne, as it became known, was the last German offensive of the war and it had proved to the Allied forces that the German Army could be beaten.

The Plan of Attack 


The Spring Offensive had left the German Army overstretched and their men drained and war-weary. 

Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces on the Western Front, was keen to take advantage of the situation and to capitalise on their success at the Marne. 

Foch proposed a series of small-scale surprise attacks that would be delivered in rapid succession to keep the German Army on the defensive and leave them with no time to re-group. 

These attacks would improve the Allies strategic position in readiness for a decisive blow, which at this time was thought most likely to take place in 1919.
  
The first of these attacks, which began what was later termed the Hundred Day’s Offensive, was to secure the Paris-Amiens railway. 

General Henry Rawlinson had already submitted plans for a Fourth Army attack on Amiens to Field Marshal Douglas Haig. 

Foch agreed to the plan but insisted on the involvement of the French First Army.

The main attack would come from all five divisions of Lieutenant General John Monash’s Australian Corps and the four divisions of the Canadian Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Arthur Currie. 

North of the River Somme III Corps would protect the Australian left flank, while the French First Army would protect the Canadians on their right flank. 

The French infantry would advance forty-five minutes after the Canadians.
 
The infantry accompanied by Mark V tanks, were to cross No Man’s Land behind a creeping barrage of artillery shells. 

Over 500 tanks were put at Rawlinson’s disposal.  

Used en masse they were an effective weapon and provided valuable protection for the infantry. 

There was to be no pause once the first objectives had been reached.

Instead a further wave of men would move up and aided by cavalry, armoured cars and light Whippet tanks the advance would continue to the final day’s objective.  

The RAF would provide strong air support.

The success of the attack relied on completely surprising the German defenders. 

There was to be no preliminary artillery bombardment of the German lines before Zero Hour to alert them to the forthcoming attack. 

Instead other methods such as sound ranging and aerial photographs would be used for the silent registration of the guns. Of Fourth Army’s 2 034 guns, two thirds would be used in this counter battery work. The remainder would provide the creeping barrage.  

The French First Army had a further 1 606 guns which would bombard the German defences for forty-five minutes after Zero Hour to compensate for their lack of heavy tank support.

Secrecy was vital to maintaining the element of surprise and extensive precautions were taken to hide the build-up of men and materiel for the forthcoming offensive. Men and supplies moved at night over roads covered with straw to muffle the sound. 

The RAF kept the Germans from flying behind the British lines and their planes were also used to disguise the noise of the tanks engines. 

Knowledge of the offensive was kept secret for as long as feasibly possible from those involved, while the men had the notice “keep your mouth shut” put in their pay books.
  
When the Canadian Corps withdrew from Arras to move to Amiens it was widely circulated that they were heading for Ypres. 

As a further diversionary tactic two battalions were sent as an alleged advance party and even fake wireless transmissions were broadcast to make the Germans think the Canadians, who had a reputation as elite troops, were readying for an attack in Flanders.
 

Zero Hour 


At 4.20am on Thursday 8 August the artillery opened fire.  

Aided by thick fog, tanks and infantry in single lines advanced across No Man’s Land behind a protective barrage of shells. 

Taken by surprise the German front line was quickly over run.  

The counter-battery work had been a success and many gun emplacements had been put out of action leaving the German infantry largely without artillery support.  

Although machine gun fire still took a heavy toll.

In the centre the Canadians and Australians had made rapid progress, achieving most of their objectives by early afternoon. 

Thousands of German soldiers had surrendered, many without a fight. However, despite facing little resistance the cavalry did not press on beyond the final day’s objective and fully exploit the breakthrough.

Things went less well for III Corps to the north of the river. 

The Germans had carried out a raid here on the 6 August. They were on alert for any reprisals and had shelled 36th Brigade with mustard gas as they moved up to the line. III Corps had the most difficult terrain to cover and their infantry had been allotted far fewer tanks.  

They did reach the first objectives but the Germans had fallen back to take up a strong defensive position on Chipilly Spur, holding up III Corps advance and leaving the Australian left flank vulnerable. 

The progress of the French on the right of the line was also slower than hoped and the RAF had been unsuccessful in their attempt to knock out the bridges crossing the Somme.

By the evening over 15 000 German soldiers had been taken prisoner and over 400 guns captured. 

The Canadian Corps had advanced some eight miles and there was now a fifteen mile gap in the German line south of the River Somme. 

The Attack Continues


Foch was adamant that the attack must continue. But now the element of surprise had gone and eight German divisions had arrived to strengthen their defence.

The tanks vulnerability to artillery fire and mechanical breakdown meant that more than half were now out of action.  

Messages had to be delivered by hand as the advance had outdistanced their lines of telecommunications. 

The Official History described the ninth of August as “a day of wasted opportunities”. 

The Allied attacks were disorganised, uncoordinated and hampered by poor communications and a lack of artillery support. Some gains were made. 

The French took Montdidier and the Canadians captured another three miles of ground, but it was still less than hoped for and casualties were rising.

By the 10 August the Germans had taken up a strong defensive position as they were now afforded the protection of the old Somme front line. 

Furthermore the terrain of the former battlefield was unsuitable for cavalry and the few remaining tanks. 

German resistance was increasing and they were sufficiently organised to launch counter attacks on the 10 and 11 of August. Casualty rates were climbing for increasingly fewer gains and the men were exhausted. 

General Rawlinson and his Corps commanders were of the opinion that the attack should be halted, at least until they could properly prepare for a coordinated attack. 

The Amiens offensive ended on the 11 August after Rawlinson convinced Field Marshal Haig not to resume the attack.

The Beginning of the End


The Allies had sustained casualties of some 46 000 men but in a war where gains were usually measured in yards, they had succeeded in advancing the line almost twelve miles. 

They had broken the stalemate of trench warfare and put the Germans on the defensive. 

The Battle of Amiens is most significant for the damage it did to the morale of the German Army. 

They may have suffered as many as 75 000 casualties, but it was the almost 30 000 Germans who became prisoners of war which most concerned the German High Command. 

General Erich Ludendorff later referred to the 8 August as “the black day of the German Army”. 

The war-weariness and lack of morale amongst the German soldiers had begun after the failure of the Spring Offensive and their defeat on the Marne. 

At Amiens there had been a breakdown in discipline and many of the German prisoners had surrendered without a fight. 

The German Army had lost its fighting spirit and its commanders had lost faith in their ability to gain a decisive victory. 

When Ludendorff presented this assessment to Kaiser Wilhelm II on the 10 August, the Kaiser responded that with their effectiveness gone “the war must be ended”.


SOURCES
  • Amiens 1918, James McWilliams and R. James Steel, The History Press, 2016
  • The Last Battle, Peter Hart, Profile Books, 2018
  • With Our Backs To The Wall, David Stevenson, Penguin Books 2011
  • www.cwgc.org
  • www.iwm.org.uk