Amiens: the battle that broke the Germans
When the Allies launched an offensive at Amiens 100 years ago this month, they did so with such precision and power that enemy troops were soon surrendering in their thousands. Nick Lloyd describes a battle that shattered German morale, and asks, why is it not more celebrated today?
By the evening of 7 August 1918 everything was ready. As thousands of Allied troops shuffled into position and checked their final orders, a hush descended on the battlefield. It was an ominous silence, strange for ears used to the constant roar of the guns. And then at 4.20am, when it was still dark and the air saturated with thick fog, the barrage opened. “You could have read a newspaper whichever way you looked,” because of the reflection from the gunfire, wrote Private William Curtis of the 10th Canadian Battalion. It was a terrible spectacle, the air bright with the muzzle flashes of more than 2,000 guns unleashing hell on the German lines. The battle of Amiens – an Allied blow so devastating that it would send the German army spiralling towards ultimate defeat in the First World War – had begun.
A grave crisis
By the time Private Curtis and his comrades went over the top on that summer morning, the First World War had been raging for four long years. At least 9 million soldiers had been killed, with another 20 million wounded or unaccounted for across the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Five months earlier, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire) had signed a draconian peace treaty with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk that deprived Russia of almost 30 per cent of its prewar population and cemented Germany’s dominant position in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile, on the western front, fighting had been intense and continuous. On 21 March 1918, Germany had launched a series of massive offensives that would break apart the trench stalemate and usher in the gravest crisis for the Allies since the opening weeks of the war.
Despite stunning initial success, the German Spring Offensive failed to end the conflict. Although the German army gained ground and seemed poised to split the Allies apart, their strength began to fade as spring turned to summer. Heavy losses in their attacking divisions, problems with morale and having to operate at the end of long, vulnerable supply lines, slowed down the Germans and prevented them from exploiting their advances. And with every week they failed to win a decisive victory, more and more American soldiers poured into France, and more and more guns and ammunition were produced by the Allied powers.
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On 18 July, French and American divisions counter-attacked at the second battle of the Marne, regaining the initiative and sparking off a collapse in German morale as it became evident that their long-awaited ‘peace offensive’ had failed. The scene was now set for the final part of the war on the western front: the Hundred Days campaign, which would begin at the battle of Amiens.
For the Allied Generalissimo, General Ferdinand Foch, it was now essential to seize the opportunity presented by the victory at the Marne. At a meeting on 24 July, Foch urged his senior commanders – Sir Douglas Haig (commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force), General Philippe Pétain (commander-in-chief of the French army) and General John Pershing (commander of the American Expeditionary Force) – to continue to hit the Germans hard. The counter-attack on the Marne was a turning point that “must be exploited thoroughly on the field of battle”.
Foch was now planning to move onto the offensive to clear his lines and secure a series of key rail hubs. As a crucial link in the western front and the point where the British and French armies met, the most important of these was Amiens. Foch wanted to push the Germans back from the Amiens sector and deliver a crushing blow. Here the British and French could attack together and – as the ground consisted of open, rolling countryside with good, hard soil – would be doing so in conditions perfect for the use of massed tanks. Haig agreed to mount the operation and ordered General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to lead the attack. French troops under General Eugène Debeney’s First Army would also extend the attack to the south around the town of Montdidier.
Britain’s shock armies
Planning for the operation went ahead straight away and, within days, the outlines of what would become the battle of Amiens had been established. Rawlinson decided to use the Canadian and Australian Corps as the spearhead for the attack. Commanded by Sir Arthur Currie and John Monash respectively, these units had come to be regarded as the “shock armies of the British empire” and were led by soldiers of great experience and ability. Arthur Currie’s motto of ‘neglect nothing’ epitomised the attention to detail that he put into planning operations. Monash saw things in much the same way. His theory of war was quite simple: “How to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes.”
The impressive arsenal that Monash and Currie had at their disposal was the result of a long process of technological development and trial and error. By the summer of 1918 the Allied armies on the western front had absorbed the lessons of four years of war and developed a highly effective method of fighting. Not only could they deploy hundreds of aircraft (to observe the battlefield, interdict enemy units and drop supplies), they also relied upon a formidable range of artillery, almost unlimited shells and hundreds of tanks (both Mark V heavy tanks and lighter, quicker models such as the Medium Mark A and the brilliant Renault FT). Infantry platoons were also much more capable than before, with each section being a self-contained firebase, specialising in sniping or mortar fire, and machine guns or bombing. This allowed them to suppress enemy fire and continue the advance. They had come a long way from the Somme in 1916 when British infantry had been slaughtered trying to cross no man’s land.
The preparations for the attack were highly impressive. The British knew that, if Currie or Monash’s troops were brought up to the front, the German High Command would immediately suspect that an attack was imminent. So it was essential to mount a sophisticated deception plan. Canadian Corps headquarters was sent off to the north, around Mount Kemmel, where they produced extensive wireless traffic, which they knew would be picked up by the enemy. At the same time, thousands of Canadian troops began a long and sometimes winding route march to the Amiens sector. Troops and guns were moved at night; aircraft droned up and down the front to mask the noise of the tanks (430 of which would be used for the main attack); roads were lined with straw; and ropes were wrapped around the wheels of the guns (to dampen the sound). Meanwhile, a notice was pasted in each soldier’s pay book that read: “KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT… The success of the operations and the lives of your comrades depend upon your silence.”
The Allied obsession with secrecy extended to their deployment of the 2,000 guns, which had been brought up and registered on the German lines in the days before the attack. By 1918, both the British and French armies were employing state of the art gunnery techniques. Regular measurements for air pressure, temperature and wind velocity were being made, while each gun was carefully calibrated to ensure the best possible accuracy. This meant there was no need to fire large numbers of ranging shots (which would alert the enemy to what was going on), so the attack could gain the element of surprise.
8 August was a stunning blow. The Allies advanced between 6 and 8 miles, inflicting devastating losses
And so, when those guns opened up at 4.20am, signalling the start of the battle of Amiens, the effect on the German army was devastating. Opposite the British sector lay General von der Marwitz’s Second Army, which was understrength and only occupying a series of shallow trenches and dugouts. Although the extensive preparations on the other side of the line had not gone unnoticed, little was done about it and a sense of lethargy seemed to have taken hold of the defenders.
But the shock on the morning of 8 August was complete. “As soon as the enemy artillery fire began,” remembered Major Mende, commanding a German battalion dug in north of the Amiens-Roye road, “I rushed to the telephone to inform the regiment of the attack; but the loop was already shut down. Then I ran outside to see what was going on, but it was so foggy that I could only see two steps ahead of me.” He returned to his dugout and waited for news, but none arrived, only the sound of small arms fire that grew closer. Shortly afterwards a hand grenade flew into his headquarters and he ran out to be captured.
Masked by the thick fog, British, Canadian, Australian and French infantry left their trenches, following the creeping barrage, and watching the tanks roll forward. At first there was little resistance, only crowds of dazed, German soldiers, muttering “Kamerad!” and surrendering easily. “The thing that struck me as being most funny,” remembered one attacker, “was the way the prisoners would dangle right along by themselves, no escort, to the prison cage about a mile away… They nearly cleaned us out of cigarettes and emptied our water bottles.”
Not all German soldiers were so demoralised, and some machine-gun positions and gun batteries resisted, in places holding up the advance for several hours. But eventually they would be taken out: a burst of machine-gun fire or a flurry of rifle grenades to silence them and allow the advance to be resumed. “Our troops had been thoroughly practised in attacking strong points and machine-gun nests earlier in the summer,” noted one after-action report, “and the value of their training was exemplified in these operations.” By the time it got light, about 8am, the German defences had been overrun and the battlefield was a strange sight: long lines of Allied troops marching forward, while squadrons of cavalry trotted by, raising clouds of dust in the air, as they pushed further into the German lines.
“May God help us!”
The 8th of August was a stunning blow. The Allies advanced between 6 and 8 miles that day, seizing more than 400 guns and inflicting devastating losses upon the defenders. The German Second Army was shattered, sustaining more than 36,000 casualties, including 27,000 prisoners, and causing General von der Marwitz to write in his diary: “May God help us!” He put the disaster down to the effect of the tanks emerging from the fog and surprising his men, and called it “an evil weapon” that had no place in warfare. He had deployed his three reserve divisions, while calling for every available unit to march to the sound of the guns, but little could be done to prevent the collapse of his positions and the realisation that Germany had no answer to this kind of attack.
The advance continued the following day as the German defenders pulled back as quickly as they could. “It was like the old open warfare we used to read about,” remembered Colonel D Mason of the Third Canadian Battalion. “Officers commanding battalions would send forth at a gallop, get instructions to take some region and one to take another and it looked like a north-country lake scattered with islands…
Gradually, the Allies ran into more and more resistance. Because they had advanced so far, it took time to move up guns and bring supplies forward, while German reinforcements began to arrive on the battlefield by the second day. Tank losses had also crept up and, once the weather had cleared, German field guns were able to inflict significant losses on the slow moving Mark Vs. On 15 August, Haig called a halt to the offensive.
The advance from Amiens may have been stopped, but the implications of such a staggering blow were obvious. On 13 August, the German High Command held a top-secret meeting to discuss what had gone wrong. “The amount of booty which our enemy could publish to the world spoke a clearly language,” reported Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the chief of the General Staff. “If the enemy repeated these attacks with the same fury, in view of the present constitution of our army, there was at any rate some prospect of our powers of resistance being gradually paralysed.”
And the experience of Amiens would indeed be repeated. By 20 August, the Allies had launched offensives north and south of the Amiens battlefield (at Noyon and Bapaume). By the beginning of September, the German army on the western front was in full retreat. Although some German units continued to resist with determination, the fight had gone out of the rest of the army, and desertions began to spiral out of control. By 11 November it was all over.
Dr Nick Lloyd is reader in military and imperial history at King’s College London. His most recent book is Passchendaele: A New History (Viking, 2017).
Tommies, the drama series based on diary and eyewitness accounts of life in the trenches, is returning to BBC Radio 4 from 1 August.
Why don’t we celebrate Amiens?
The battle is widely forgotten today because it doesn’t adhere to the stereotype of Great War failures, argues Nick Lloyd
British popular memory of the First World War has been dominated by the grim, attritional struggles of 1916–17, with the Somme and Passchendaele epitomising the terrible carnage and ultimate futility of the war.
By contrast Amiens has been largely forgotten. It was a battle of much shorter duration and with many fewer casualties than the Somme and Passchendaele. It was also only one part of a series of major offensives (known as the Hundred Days) that brought the war on the western front to an end. These are perhaps some reasons why it has attracted much less attention from historians than other battles.
Crucially, however, Amiens did not fit in with the dire image of the war that many influential critics of British High Command – from David Lloyd George and the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart to Joan Littlewood (creator of Oh, What a Lovely War!) – wanted to portray. For them, the First World War was an unrelieved disaster, and the role that British commanders played in failing to learn lessons was a fundamental aspect of the war. They saw no reason to analyse Amiens in any detail.
Amiens was, in many respects, a model battle of positional warfare. It showed that the stalemate of trench warfare was now over and also illustrated the degree to which a combination of infantry and artillery, plus armoured vehicles and air power, had reshaped the nature of warfare and brought about the return of manoeuvre to the battlefield. It devastated German morale and revealed to the German High Command that they had no answer to the kinds of tactics and the awe-inspiring mass that Allied armies could now deploy on the western front. It showed, all too clearly, that the war had to be ended. Amiens, therefore, was not just a forgotten battle; it was an inconvenient one too.