Western Front

The Beginning Of The End Of WWI – Amiens, 1918

Western Front

“Keep your mouth shut!”

That was the less-than-subtle notice pasted into the pay books of British soldiers in the run-up to the offensive near the French town of Amiens that would start on August 8, 1918.

The remainder of the quote makes it quite clear just how important discretion was:

“The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk. When you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to strangers. And keep your mouth shut, especially in public places. Do not be inquisitive about what other units are doing. If you hear or see anything, keep it to yourself. The success of the operations and the lives of your comrades depend on your silence.” 

That was the official line, anyway. Elsewhere though, a certain level of visible activity was advantageous.

That’s because the main architect of the Amiens assault, Fourth Army Commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was aiming to create a diversion.

He dispatched two Canadian battalions (around 1,500 to 2,000 men) north to Mount Kemmel, in Flanders, the main stomping ground for the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) the previous year.

Fake airfields were also set up there, as were casualty clearing stations, a common haunt for enemy spies and therefore an attractive target for any that were present.

Meanwhile, further subterfuge was employed near the real battle area - a brigade of Australians (three battalions) were placed in adjacent French lines, giving the impression that BEF preparations were defensive in nature. 

And French civilians in the town of Amiens itself were essentially instructed by their government to kindly clear off so that spies in the actual battle area would have no one to hide amongst. 

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Amiens, circled, shown near the front line of the Western Front in 1918, with other assaults that year in the dotted areas (image from ‘Amiens 1918’ by Alistair McCluskey © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Next came the biggest logistical challenge – how to get the bulk of the Allied kit and personnel into position.

Here, the very strength of the force might be its undoing because its immense size and considerable all-arms support didn’t exactly go together with being inconspicuous. 

In all, there were around 30 Allied divisions, two-thirds of them British Empire and one-third French, going up against about half as many German units.

A British division at this point contained around 15,000 men, including artillery support, whilst German divisions were a little smaller.

The Germans were in turn supported by about 2,000 aircraft and over 500 tanks. 

The deployment of the latter is laid out by Gregory Blaxland in ‘Amiens 1918: Victory From Disaster’.

To the north of the battle area, the Australian and Canadian Corps (each corps normally contained a few divisions each), backed up by other divisions from the British Second Army, “were each to employ four divisions… Each of these two corps were allotted a brigade of four battalions of tanks, consisting of 108 Mark Vs, thirty-six Mark V Stars (a longer tank capable of crossing wider obstacles and carrying infantry Lewis-gun teams) and twenty-four carrying tanks, the much appreciated servants either of the infantry or fighting tanks; the total therefore being 168 tanks per corps.”

Carrying tanks were the brainchild of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, the commander of the Australian Corps. According to the series ‘Tony Robinson’s World War 1 in 3D’, they could do the work of 1,200 soldiers in hauling vital supplies like ammunition onto and through the battlefield.

There was, as well, a huge number of artillery pieces. Again, using the northern-most British forces as an example, Blaxland lays out just how liberally these were distributed:

“The Australian and Canadian Corps also had a combined allotment of 490 guns, ranging from 8-inch howitzers to 60-pounder guns, in addition to the standard forty-eight guns with each division; bringing their total to 922.” 

There were also thousands of horses going into battle with the Cavalry Corps and a number of novelty items - a battalion of armoured cars and a group of motorised machine gunners and cyclists that were to assist the French on the Amiens-Roye road, the southern boundary between the British and French forces.

The road between Amiens and Roye today, which formed the division between British forces in the north and French in the south when they started the offensive

After four years of stagnant trench warfare, the Allies must have been keen to unleash much of this on the Germans. And, because of quiet and discipline within the ranks and intelligent preparations (the noise of the aircraft was used to mask that of the tanks), the Allies were able to get into position almost entirely unnoticed:

“In Major-General Montomery, his Chief of General Staff, and Major-General H. C. Holman, his administrative chief, Rawlinson had two zealots for detailed planning, and they proved themselves equal to the gigantic task of feeding the loads of almost 300 special trains filled with troops, guns and ammunition, together with endless road convoys, into their battle positions without detection.”

As one might expect, the cover of darkness was used to maximum advantage:

“Practically all movements were made at night and delayed as long as possible to reduce to the minimum the time spent in assembly areas. The last nights had therefore been the busiest, straining to the limit the traffic capacity of the three routes available to the Australians and Canadians. As noise reducers, roads were strewn with sand or straw and wheels were wound with rope or sacking, and it was successfully impressed on every man that he had a part to play as important as that of the planners, a part demanding wariness and patience.”

However, none of this could have come to pass without a certain degree of luck. 

A German raid on British lines before August 8 netted 200 prisoners.

Yet, amazingly, the Germans didn’t twig that something serious was afoot. This was despite the fact that they must have observed the build-up of artillery shells in and around the British lines, and despite the sector they raided now being occupied by two battalions when it had formerly been held by only one.

The weather also came to bat for Britain, with heavy mist enveloping the battlefield on the morning of the assault.

In the end, it all worked to terrific effect. The normally astute Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff told his troops just half a week before the attack:

“I am under the impression that, in many quarters, the possibility of an enemy offensive is viewed with a certain degree of apprehension. There is nothing to justify this apprehension, provided our troops are vigilant and do their duty.”

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'Amiens, the key to the west' by Arthur Streeton depicts the battlefield at the time of the attack (image: Australian War Memorial ART12436)

Perhaps it was recent history that made Ludendorff overconfident. It had been the Germans, after all, who’d reintroduced mobility to the battlefield after almost four years.

In the spring of 1918, with extra units transferred from the Eastern Front after the withdrawal of Russia from the war in 1917, the Germans had launched Operation Michael.

Punching 40 miles deep into Allied territory and breaking through French and British lines in the process, the offensive was followed by a series of lunges over the next few months.

The Germans got within 60 miles of Paris, shelling the city with the truly gargantuan Paris Gun, but they eventually stopped on the north bank of the Marne river, the same place they’d been halted in 1914.

This led to a series of counter-offensives, some of which involved American troops.

In fact, Americans were at the tip of the French spear that attacked the Germans at the Marne on July 17, 1918. One such American soldier was interviewed by the BBC when the broadcaster made its 50-year-anniversary series ‘The Great War’ in 1964:

“Really we started out recklessly, like a holiday it was, like, because we didn’t know, we didn’t see any dead people yet, no one was killed yet. So we started out, we followed the barrage and the first Germans we saw dead were in the first line. We leapfrogged that line, we followed – our barrage continued, we followed it – to the second line of German trenches.  There too a lot of Germans were killed by our barrage and there wasn’t much opposition (for) the first half hour or so.”

But overconfidence caused the Americans serious problems, as the series notes:

“These July battles were America’s awakening to the harsh truths of the war. American losses had been heavy as their high-spirited but inexperienced soldiers stormed into the attack.”

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A US Marine patrol clashes with a German patrol at Belleau Wood, one of the actions that occurred near the Marne in June 1918 (image from ‘Chateau Wood & Thierry’ by David Bonk © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

As we now know, the final lunge at the Marne was actually an attempt by the Germans to divert Allied forces southwards so that another strike could occur in Flanders against the British.

But Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch didn’t take the bait. 

As for the British, BEF commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who summed up the condition of his army before Amiens:

“Two months of comparative quiet worked a great change in the condition of the British armies. The drafts sent out from England had been largely absorbed, many of the reinforcements from other fronts had arrived, and the number of our effective infantry divisions had risen from 45 to 52. In artillery, we were stronger than we’d ever been. The British Army was ready to take the offensive.”

The British may have grown in strength but there was a trade-off between having fresh troops and those with experience. As Gregory Blaxland points out: 

“Few battalions had more than two or three officers with experience of an offensive—and like as not it had been a hideous one gained in the sludge around Poelcapelle (Passchendaele) or on the shell-tossed wastes so near to their present location by the Somme. The majority of the men were young and raw, with some rough knowledge of battlecraft gleaned from being plunged straight into the line. In the rush for reinforcements many had joined battalions that had no connection whatever with their parent regiments, in violation of a system that had once been conscientiously maintained. The 7th Bluffs (East Kent Regiment) of 18 Division, for instance, had received a large draft of North Countrymen, most of them miners.”

Yet in a way, Haig had been right about how relatively smoothly these new troops had been incorporated:

“Yet the system was strong enough to withstand such shocks. Battalions, and divisions too, had their traditions and their individual forms of aspirit de corps, and ‘foreigners’ quickly became as proud of ‘our mob’ as the veteran who had won the same cap badge all his service. Such were the intangible threads of loyalty that sustained these divisions from buffeting to buffeting.”

On the night of August 7/8, veteran and rookie alike sneaked into position, following white tape outlines that guided their assembly. Then:

“At 4.20 a.m., as the faintest glimmer in the east signalled the approach of dawn, the sky was lit as by sheet lightning to a distance of six miles on either side of Amiens and the missiles from 3,532 British and French guns [of which 1,500 were medium or heavy] screeched into the German positions to announce the start of what was to be named by the British the Battle of Amiens and more dramatically tagged by Ludendorff the Black Day of the German Army.”

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The Allied advance (blue arrows); Amiens is just off to the left & Roye is circled – the road between them was the boundary between the French and British (image from ‘Amiens 1918’ by Alistair McCluskey © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In the northern portion of the battle zone, seven British divisions (including two Australian and three Canadian) marched into action against six German divisions. 

Because of the mist, the attack had the effect of “(blinding) the German gunners and made the noise and sudden apparition of the lurching, belching monsters more terrifying than would otherwise have been the case”.

Unaware also of the intense build-up of artillery, the Germans were stunned by the enormity of the bombardment, which hit everything – troops, guns and even headquarters they had thought were hidden.

By this point, British gunners could locate enemy batteries using sound ranging and flash spotting. These utilised muzzle flash from distant enemy guns or the sounds given off by them. Scientific instruments could then use this data to glean the exact position the need for trial-and-error shooting followed by aerial observation and communication followed by recalibration of shots.

Now instead, guns already precisely calibrated on ranges could simply deliver a shell to exact map coordinates already plotted based on this sound ranging, or flash spotting, information.

As well as striking specific targets, the artillery also provided a protective screen for the troops. This would lift at pre-arranged times – a creeping barrage, as it was known:

“The Australians… had the easiest passage. Their assault waves crept up so close behind the barrage that they were through the wire (which had in most places been shredded by explosive shells) and upon their foe the moment it lifted. Every three minutes the process was repeated, with the line of shell bursts, straight and even across the well-cropped plateau, dropping back a hundred yards and a fresh wave of cheering men rushing in at once, closely attended by their rumbling, lumbering tanks, looming out of the mist like ghosts.”

But the battle was still no walk over. At least one tank commander, Lieutenant C B Arnold, who was in a Whippet (a small three-man vehicle), ran into serious trouble.

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A Whippet tank (image: Jonnyc429)

His machine caught fire and one of his crew was killed. He, and the remaining man, bolted from the blazing hulk and had to roll on the ground to put out the fires on themselves. 

Things got worse when the Germans caught up with them, with Arnold getting a bayonet in the arm before being “knocked out by a rifle butt and jerked back to consciousness again by multiple, brutal blows from the boots of raving Huns”.

Whole units were also running into problems – 18 Division found themselves running back over already trampled cornfields when the Germans they were attacking rallied and forced them to retreat, whilst some of the Canadians found themselves confronting the terrain – including awkwardly zigging trench lines and the Luce stream which put a swampy marsh across their line of advance. 

The French also experienced issues – Haig found General Debeney “almost in tears because three battalions of this Colonial Infantry had bolted before a German machine-gun.”

There was also at least one incident of a German artillery gun, or rather a 5.9-inch howitzer, striking an Allied tank as it rolled out of the mist. The shot took place 15 yards away and the resulting blast killed both crews – those in the tank and those manning the howitzer.

This was a horrible way to have died, and one German battery commander described the horrific scene that confronted him and his comrades when they pelted a British tank with shells at Cambrai in 1917:

"Oh Lord, a column of fire was bursting out of the monster. Two of our men ran to the tank, and when they returned, they described the half-burned bodies of the crew."

Blaxland says that at least 100 British tanks must have been taken out by German artillery and anti-tank rifles that day.

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German soldiers around Amiens prepare to blow off tank tracks with clusters of grenades, a technique used a Cambrai the previous year (image from ‘Amiens 1918’ by Alistair McCluskey © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

And even when things were going well, there was always the trouble of the generals hearing about it:

“For news of the progress of his men (Australian Corps commander) Monash had to rely on the pigeons that came homing back to their bus-lofts from the forward headquarters, on reports dropped with streamers from reconnaissance aircraft—an effective system once (but not until) the mist had lifted—or on news from staff officers who ventured forth on horseback or motor-bike.

"It was a slow process building up information in this manner—lamp signal, the quickest means, could of course not yet be used—but the columns of prisoners marching back, often with no escort but wounded in need of their assistance, and the remarkable scarcity of hostile shelling conveyed a reassuring message.”

Cavalry meanwhile rushed beyond the first German lines, whisking their riders off to the next line of trenches. They promptly dismounted and occupied them.

Blaxland also relates that:

“Elsewhere large numbers of Germans were to be seen drifting back. The cavalrymen merely sped them on their way with bullets and laughed at the vain efforts made by German officers to bring their men back.”

In many ways the end of the war was beginning to mirror the beginning, with the return of cavalry tactics – though of course, there was the potential for even more casualties now:

“In the centre of the Canadian front the 7th Dragoon Guards fought a furious battle in the wood beyond Cayeux. Many of their horses were felled by machine-gun fire, but by combining mounted and dismounted tactics the regiment hacked their way through the wood, cursing the Whippets—which could scarcely keep pace with a man across country, far less a horse—for not being there to help them but emerging triumphant with twelve machine-guns and a battery of guns yielded to their sabres.”

Further south though, Canadian cavalry had been held up:

“The 4th Canadian Division arrived and deployed thirty Mark V Star tanks, each containing three detachments of infantry Lewis-gunners who sat in the most stifling part of the interior and had no cause to enjoy this early experiment in the armoured conveyance of troops. These long, slow, cumbersome tanks chugged forward well ahead of the infantry, as conspicuous as battleships at sea. Nine of them soon ablaze, hit by cleverly camouflaged guns guarding the approach to Le Quesnel, and eleven others were disabled in other parts.”

But overall the battle was a huge success for the Allies, they had advanced a considerable distance and an official German statement said:

“As the sun set on August 8th on the battlefield the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact.”

It referred to five entire divisions being nearly entirely annihilated. 

The ‘nearly’ qualifier was only applied because one battalion out of every three hadn’t been entirely overwhelmed. This is because the Germans placed two battalions in more forward trenches and one in reserve. These first two in every three were simply overwhelmed by onrushing Allied troops when the creeping barrage lifted.

Many officers and reinforcements in those remaining battalions who tried to keep the battle going were pilloried by some of their comrades as ‘Blacklegs’ for prolonging the conflict.

650 to 700 officers were lost on August 8, as were 27,000 other ranks (excluding those who were only lightly wounded and could return to action reasonably quickly) and over 400 artillery pieces. Most of those casualties were prisoners – 15,750 in all that day.

For the entire battle, which lasted several more days, in ‘100 Days to Victory’, Saul David gives a figure of 75,000 for the number of German losses, 50,000 of whom were taken as prisoners. The Allies suffered 44,000 losses.

The RAF also paid a heavy price. British pilots were sent to bomb the bridges across the Somme Canal so that the Germans would be isolated, less able to escape or be reinforced. 

The Germans countered with as many planes as they could get their hands on, including the famous (or infamous) Richtofen squadron, now led by Captain Hermann Goering – the result was “more enemy planes than had ever been seen, among them the new Fokker D.VII, which had a speed of 125 m.p.h. and a great rate of climb.”

44 RAF planes were shot down and another 52 irreparably damaged.

But Ludendorff wasn’t focused on the relative success of his air force when he said:

“August 8th was the Black Day of the German Army in the history of this war. This is the worst experience that I had to go through... Everything that I had feared had here (Amiens), in one place, become a reality. Our war machine was no longer efficient. The 8th August put the decline of our fighting power beyond all doubt. The war must be ended.”

By contrast, Haig said in his diary that “(the) situation had developed more favourably… than (he)… had dared even to hope. The enemy were completely surprised”.

Though Blaxland gives most of the credit to Rawlinson for superior work in cooperation and coordination and a “flare for making newcomers happy members of his team” – a talent that enabled the RAF, Tanks Corps, Cavalry Corps and Royal Artillery to work together so well in supporting the infantry.

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German POWs being escorted along the Villers Bretonneux-Amiens Road by Australian soldiers – the shadow of the unknown Australian photographer is in the foreground

Yet we must also examine the larger situation and try to understand the state of the average German soldier, and whether it was this, rather than superior Allied generalship, that won the day.

The great hope of winning the conflict outright before the Americans had arrived in significant numbers was clearly dashed by this point. Might this have been a significant factor in the surrender of so many Germans during this later stage of the war? This is one argument related in ‘The Pity of War’ by Niall Ferguson:

"The most commonly offered explanation is that the failure of Ludendorff's spring offensive, after its initial success, finally convinced a large number of soldiers that the war could not be won."

Ferguson himself says that "probably it was the idea of ever-increasing American reinforcements... which contributed to the collapse of German morale". 

And beyond the immediate military situation, food shortages caused by the Allied blockade were causing serious problems both at home and in the trenches, resulting in trying periods such as ‘the turnip winter’.

If many of the German rank and file were chastising their officers for ‘keeping the war going’, things must have been getting incredibly desperate. Gregory Blaxland makes this observation about the state of things before the battle: 

“…there was no enthusiasm left in the ranks of the German Army, although it was still held together by a sullen streak of pride. While there were desertions in the front line and acts of mutiny in rear areas, the ordinary loyal German revealed his disillusion—perhaps too his lack of nourishment—in a strangely uncharacteristic, almost nonchalant, indolence. At staff level maps would be displayed showing elaborate fortifications, but all too often the work had been ordered and not carried out, and no one troubled to see that it was done. In the trenches, as the Australians had discovered, corpses lay unburied and latrine arrangements were ignored. A change had come over the once industrious Hun.”

To be sure, war wariness was hitting both sides. The Russian population had revolted, the French poilu had mutinied in 1917, refusing to take part in any more costly assaults; and the BBC’s ‘The Great War’ series features letters that show British morale hit a severe low in the last year of the war, during Ludendorff's offensive:

"There are a good many out here like myself, fed up and don't care a damn which side wins."

Another British soldier was even angry at those on the home front for keeping the war going:

"I'm surprised to hear you've joined the Women's Land Army. Do you realise Maggie, you're helping to prolong the war?"

This begs the question as to whether Allan Mallinson is correct in his assertion that a largely defensive strategy would have worked better for the Allies. Instead of exhausting their own troops in costly attacks, perhaps it would have been more fruitful for Britain and France to wait for the Germans to lose the war in peripheral theatres; to tire fighting the Russians (as they did in World War II); to exhaust themselves launching their own attacks, as they did at Verdun and in early 1918; and to gradually run out of food and supplies.

In ‘Too Important for the Generals’, Mallinson suggests that the Allies should have used the time between late 1914 and mid-1918 to hold the line whilst preparing themselves - building up men, material and superior military technology, as well as the doctrine and training to maximise its lethality. In this counterfactual scenario, the Allies could have had the success at Amiens and beyond without having sustained mass casualties at the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917 and in other campaigns. A case, in other words, of simply waiting for the technological, material, doctrinal and manpower scales to tip against the Germans, as they eventually did in 1944. 

The other side of the argument is that it was precisely the costly lessons of 1914, 15, 16 and 17 that facilitated the eventual breakthroughs in 1918. As the BBC’s ‘The Great War’ put it:

“Was this the reward, at last, of patient years of endeavour? Was this what Vimy might have been? What Messines should have been? What Cambrai could have been?”

No doubt historians will go on debating these topics but, as Tony Robison sums it up, whatever the contentiousness of the battles waged before it…

“The stunning success at Amiens was soon followed by a campaign of lightning-fast attacks targeted where the German line was weakest. The city of Albert was recaptured; on the 29th of August Noyon was taken by the French, followed by Arras and Bapaume until finally the Germans were pushed back to the Hindenburg Line.”

For the Allies, breaking through that would be the next big challenge.

For more on the battle and its place within the greater context of the last year of the war, read Gregory Blaxland’s ‘Amiens 1918: Victory From Disaster’ from Pen and Sword.

For an illustrated account of the battle read ‘Amiens 1918: The Black Day of the German Army’ by Alistair McCluskey, look at ‘Chateau Thierry & Belleau Wood 1918: America’s Baptism of Fire on the Marne’ by David Bonk for more on proceeding battles, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history titles.

For other analyses of the war, look at '100 Days to Victory', ‘The Pity of War’ and ‘Too Important for the Generals’.

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