Remembering the battle of Amiens

The battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918 and lasted three days, was a victory for the Allies against German forces and marked the beginning of the end of the First World War. Why, then, is the battle almost unknown to the general public today? Here, Gervase Philips explores the successful campaign and the tactics used, and considers why Amiens has faded from public memory…

Allied soldiers with captured prisoners of war after the battle of Amiens during the First World War, 1918. (Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

On 8 August 1918, British, Australian and Canadian troops under the command of Sir Henry Rawlinson, and French troops under the command of General Marie-Eugène Debeney, launched a surprise offensive directed against a German salient bulging threateningly towards the city of Amiens, on the old Somme battlefield. The attack was a complete success. The Allied troops advanced eight miles in one day, inflicting 27,000 casualties on the Germans and capturing 450 artillery pieces.

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The price, as was always the case on the western front, was high, with 9,000 of the British Empire troops fighting that day killed or wounded. Yet, compared to the losses experienced in earlier offensives (British forces suffered 57,470 casualties – including 19,240 fatalities – on the first day of the Somme two years earlier) and bearing in mind the damage inflicted upon the enemy, Amiens seemed like an unprecedented victory.

Photograph of the Wounded British Soldiers at the Battle of the Somme. Dated 1916. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Certainly, the Germans thought so. The German official history of the battle, written after the war, commented that “as the sun set… on the battlefield the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact”. Similarly, General Erich Ludendorff, who, alongside Paul von Hindenburg, exercised supreme command over their armies, wrote that “August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war… Our war machine was no longer efficient”.

It was not simply the heavy casualties or the extent of lost ground that caused Ludendorff such consternation, but the manner of the defeat: upwards of 12,000 German soldiers had surrendered and many gun batteries had fallen intact into Allied hands. Grimly, Ludendorff concluded that “the 8th August put the decline of [our] fighting power beyond all doubt and in such a situation as regards reserves, I had no hope of finding a strategic expedient whereby to turn the situation to our advantage…” Thus, after Amiens, Ludendorff’s faith in the German military was shaken and he began to argue that the war had to be terminated.

A decisive battle?

In that sense Amiens was a turning point in the First World War, but we should be wary of considering it a “decisive battle”. Modern wars are not won by single engagements. Amiens was part of a sequence of operations, often referred to as “the 100 Days”, that saw the Allies bring the long, grinding, bloody attrition of four years of trench warfare to an ultimately victorious conclusion. It demonstrated not only the decline in German military capacity but the growing superiority – material, tactical and technological – of Allied arms.

German prisoners traipse past Allied anti-aircraft positions near Méricourt-l'Abbé, August 1918. The battle of Amiens fired the starting-gun on a succession of Allied triumphs on the western front that would end in ultimate victory on 11 November. (Photo by Alamy)

In late 1917, following the Russian Revolution, Germany had transferred large numbers of troops from the eastern to the western front. By spring 1918 they had achieved a numerical superiority, amassing 192 divisions against a total of 156 Allied divisions. They had then launched a series of massive offensives against the British and French, in the hope of winning the war before significant numbers of American troops arrived in Europe. Yet they had failed. Losses on both sides had been staggering, but the Germans were running out of reserves. For the Allies, however, the Americans were on their way. On 18 July, just a few weeks before Amiens, the Allied counter-offensives had opened, with a successful Franco-American attack at Soissons. Thereafter the odds began to tilt decisively in the Allies’ favour. At Amiens the following month, the Allied attacking force consisted of around 100,000 men, supported by 3,352 artillery pieces; more than 2,000 aircraft and around 600 tanks and armoured cars. Against this, the German defenders numbered only 37,000 with around 530 artillery guns and 365 aircraft.

Tactics, tanks and weapons

Yet such material superiority was not enough to ensure the success of an attack across an open no man’s land, against experienced troops who were entrenched and protected by barbed wire and supported by machine guns and artillery. At Amiens, the Allied troops demonstrated how much had been learned during the preceding terrible years of combat. The artillery could now fire sudden, devastating and accurate bombardments without the lengthy “preliminary registration” of targets by shooting, which had previously prevented any hope of achieving surprise.

The crew of SMS King in its home port following the battle of the Skagerrak, June 1916. (Photo by A Renard/ullstein image via Getty Images)

The gunners could also fire protective “barrages” – walls of fire that could even “creep” forward, sheltering infantrymen as they advanced. The position of enemy guns was plotted by sound location, and many were neutralised by counter-battery fire before the infantry left their trenches. The infantry themselves now fought in small, tactically flexible formations, platoons or even squads of a handful of men. Supported by their automatic Lewis guns and light mortars, the riflemen and “bombers” (those armed with grenades) would probe for “soft spots” in the enemy defences, working their way around and behind centres of resistance before bringing flanking fire to bear.

Barbed wire entanglements, machine gun nests and fortified positions could all be engaged by the tanks that lumbered in close support of the foot soldiers and saved countless lives as they did so. Overhead, the Royal Air Force flew dangerous close support missions, shooting up batteries and strongpoints and helping the infantry and armour onto their objectives. The battle of Amiens was a demonstration of what effective “combined arms” tactics could achieve and thus has been portrayed as a blueprint for modern mechanised warfare.

British 40th Division tanks transporting captured German guns from the battle of Cambrai. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

It is perhaps worth noting, however, that the technology of the battle was a mixture of the ‘tried and trusted’ and the innovative. Many infantry formations still depended upon carrier pigeons as they advanced, to relay messages calling for artillery support or requesting reinforcements, back to their commanders. Some other troops, however, particularly artillery men, now had continuous wave wireless (radio) sets – these were still bulky and delicate, but were just about practical as a means of establishing reliable two-way communications as troops advanced beyond their telephone lines.

The mechanised formations were not the only highly mobile formations on the battlefield, for the attacking forces also included British and Canadian cavalry. The 7th Dragoon Guards charged German positions at Cayeux Wood, capturing an artillery battery, 12 machine guns and almost 100 prisoners. Meanwhile, the 5th Dragoon Guards captured a troop train and almost 1,000 prisoners near Harbonnieres. Close co-operation between the armour and the horse-mobile formations proved difficult, but both arms demonstrated their utility. The tanks were a mixture of heavy Mk V’s, which were slow but heavily armed and capable of crossing trenches, and lighter ‘cavalry’ tanks called Whippets, which were capable of an impressive 8mph and designed to exploit a breakthrough.

One Whippet, ‘Musical Box’, commanded by Lieutenant CB Arnold, had rampaged behind German lines for nine hours before being disabled and its crew captured – the driver was killed by the Germans. Less well-known, but pointing equally to the potential of armour, were the exploits of the British armoured cars of the 17th Battalion Tank Corps, and the French armoured cars used in their drive towards Montdidier. Travelling at speeds of up to 30mph, these raced through German positions, shooting up batteries and disrupting troop columns attempting to reinforce their beleaguered front line.

Canadian soldiers at the battle of Amiens. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Canadian soldiers at the battle of Amiens. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

We should note, though, that whatever the potential of such vehicles, there was no possibility of a ‘blitzkrieg’ [lightning war] against Berlin in 1918. The tanks and armoured cars were too unreliable and too vulnerable. By 11 August, 688 tanks had been committed to action but 480 of these had been recovered by the Tank Corps salvage units, too damaged to fight on. The air force too suffered heavy losses. At midday on 8 August, they had switched targets to attack bridges behind the German lines. This made them vulnerable both to heavy ground fire and fierce resistance from the outnumbered German fighters, whose pilots the British official history recorded, “fought generally with a reckless courage to take toll of the bombers…”Some 45 RAF aircraft were shot down and 52 were so badly damaged they could not be salvaged.

For all its significance, Amiens was an operation with only limited immediate objectives, characteristic of the “bite and hold” approach that the British had adopted in 1917. Under this approach, instead of trying to achieve a breakthrough which could then be exploited in a battle of manoeuvre, the aim of an attack was instead to cause the enemy heavy casualties and then defeat their counter-attack. The attack would then be shut down and the resources switched to a new attack elsewhere, throwing the enemy off balance.

General Sir Douglas Haig (left) and Sir Henry Rawlinson are largely to blame for the failure of the battle of the Somme, says historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. (Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

Casualties

The attack at Amiens was sustained only until 11 August, when it became clear that it was losing momentum. British empire casualties had by then reached 22,000; the French lost 24,232. Germans casualties, however, may have been as many as 75,000, of whom 29,873 were prisoners. After a brief pause to regather strength, offensive operations were resumed on 21 August and would not cease until the Armistice of 11 November. Amiens thus marked the beginning of the end.

Today the battle of Amiens is almost unknown to the general public. As the British debated how to commemorate the war in 1919–20, it became clear that there was little taste for triumphalism or celebration of victories. Instead, they placed a cenotaph (‘empty tomb’) at the heart of their annual ceremony of remembrance and mourned their fallen.

By the 1930s, a profound sense of disillusionment began to characterise British memory of the First World War, evident, for example, in the popularity of war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It was the grim, costly, and seemingly purposeless offensive battles of 1915–17 that most powerfully symbolised this sense of the conflict’s futility, for they had robbed so many families of their loved ones. And so the campaigns associated with the greatest losses – Gallipoli (1915–16), the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) – inevitably came to dominate that culture of remembrance, and the memory of the victories of 1918 slipped quietly away.

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Gervase Phillips, principal lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University, is an expert on the First World War and has extensive media experience of discussing its infamous battles, including most recently the battle of Passchendaele.