The great German offensives of the spring and summer of 1918, launched in the hope of a decisive victory before the build up of American forces tilted the odds against them, had succeeded in gaining some ground. But, just as the Allies had learned from such bitter experience before them, the impetus of their attacks ran down because of lack of mobility and transportation. After being stopped short of Amiens by the British, they turned their attention farther to the south, against the French. On July 15th they launched their last big attack, on either side of Rheims. The French front line was only lightly held and swung back, enabling the Germans to make their nearest advance to Paris. Then three days later the French, in the only mass assault by tanks that they made during the war, using over 200 medium heavy and 150 light tanks, counter attacked the enemy’s exposed flank. The Germans fell back four miles across the Marne before they managed to reform their line. But now they found themselves in a dangerously exposed salient, facing the British to the north from Ypres to Amiens, the French in the centre as far as the River Aisne, and the Americans from the Aisne to Verdun. The Allies began to plan for a major offensive in September which, by attacking at the southern and northern ends of the line while the French kept up a steady pressure in the centre, would encircle the entire German army. It was a reasonable strategy. But victory was to come about in a different way.
Although the German advance towards Amiens had been halted and Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux retaken, Haig was concerned that the enemy still held the important railways east of Amiens which linked through the French lines with Paris. When at a conference towards the end of July the Allied Commander-in-Chief, General Foch, asked the British, French and American Armies to undertake a series of limited local offensives, Haig put forward the idea of an operation east and south-east of Amiens to disengage the town and the vital railway link. This meant an advance to a maximum of seven miles on the Albert to Montdidier front, held mainly by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. The plan was agreed by Foch, while the French and American armies were given the role of freeing other strategic railways farther to the south and east. But these attacks would depend largely on the progress made by the British, whose offensive was the most important and considered more likely to achieve the best results. If successful, the advance could be continued in a second attack towards the St Quentin-Cambrai line and the elaborate Hindenburg defences which had briefly been broken at the Battle of Cambrai the year before. Twenty miles behind the Hindenburg Line lay the great railway centre of Maubeuge which was the key position to the whole German system of lateral communication, the only means of supplying and maintaining the German forces on the Champagne front to the south. If the British could penetrate that far, those forces would be completely cut off from the German armies operating in Flanders. In such an event it was tentatively suggested that the French and American armies could attack in a converging direction towards Mezières, part of the same railway system. But this was looking very far ahead and for the moment, plans for such exploitation were only vaguely sketched. The disengagement of Amiens was the immediate objective. August 8th was the date selected for the attack. Although no one realised it at the time, that day was to mark the turning point of the entire war.
The British Fourth Army at this time consisted of thirteen infantry divisions, including the Canadian and Australian Corps, and three divisions of the Cavalry Corps which contained all but five of the 28 regular cavalry regiments. Opposing them on the German front were six divisions of the German Second Army under General von der Marwitz, with another six divisions held in reserve within a three hour march of the final Allied objective, a line of villages running across the Santerre plain from Mericourt on the south bank of the Somme to Hangest, a mile to the south of the Amiens to Roye road. The frontage of the British attack was ten miles while in a subsidiary operation, two divisions of the French First Army were to attack in the general direction of Roye. But the most important part of the British plan was that the attack should be spearheaded by tanks. The success of the Battle of Hamel and that of the French on July 18th prompted the idea, only now on a much larger scale. The whole available strength of the Tank Corps had been concentrated on the Fourth Army sector of the front and all were to be used. Nine heavy battalions, 324 Mark V fighting tanks, would lead the attack while two light battalions, 96 Whippets, were to exploit any breakthrough with the Cavalry Corps. A further 42 tanks were held in mechanical reserve, 120 used as supply tanks, and 22 as gun-carriers, making a grand total of 604, the largest number ever gathered together in any one place.
The main assault was to be made south of the Somme by the Australian Corps to the left and the Canadian Corps to the right, allotted respectively the V Tank Brigade with the 17th Armoured Car Battalion and the IV Tank Brigade. Their objectives extended to about four miles into the German defences. Then the Cavalry Corps, with the Whippets of the III Tank Brigade under its command, was to pass through and take the remaining two to three miles as far as the former French front line which they were to hold until relieved by the infantry of the two assault corps. Meanwhile, the Fourth Army’s III Corps was to make a more limited advance north of the Somme, standing firm around Albert. For this purpose they were allotted the 10th Battalion of the II Tank Brigade, its only remaining unit since the other battalions had been temporarily moved across to help with the main attack. On the right of the front, the French XXXI Corps had a similar task to outflank the Montdidier defences, only without the aid of tanks.
Since their advance across the Santerre plain in March the Germans had not had time to prepare much of a trench system that was likely to impede either the tanks or the infantry. Therefore the British attack was to be made on the Cambrai pattern, without a preliminary artillery bombardment but under the protection of a creeping barrage. The heavy Mark Y and Mark V Star tanks, strung out along the front of the attack, were to lead the infantry into action and then fight individually in an infantry support role since even by that time no effective communication between tanks in battle had been devised. Zero hour was fixed for 4.20am on August 8th, an hour before sunrise. The whole plan depended on the utmost secrecy for any previous warning would have made it a simple matter for General von der Marwitz to scotch the offensive by pulling back the main body of his men and then counter attacking when the impetus of the British attack had run down, just as the French Fourth Army had done on July 15th. But secrecy was not easy to achieve considering the vast amount of men and equipment that had to be brought up to the front in preparation for the attack. There was little scope for concealment in the area of open ground east of Amiens, under direct observation from the German-held hills south of the Luce, where the Australian and Canadian Corps were to make the main attack on an eight mile front. Each Corps was to employ four divisions, with one division each held in reserve further back. They had a combined allotment of nearly 1,000 guns, ranging from 8in howitzers to 60pdrs. In addition each corps was allocated a brigade of four battalions of heavy tanks, consisting of 144 fighting tanks and 24 carrying tanks, making a total of 336 tanks, while the Australians also had a battalion of armoured cars. The Cavalry Corps not only had to bring up 23 mounted regiments but was also responsible for two battalions of Whippet tanks, with 48 in each. This great mass of men, horses, guns, tanks and ammunition had to be concentrated into an area of a few square miles.
As complete concealment was out of the question, Rawlinson and Haig devised an elaborate bluff to give the impression that an attack in Flanders was imminent. Indications were given that the Canadian Corps had been transferred to the Second Army for that purpose, and to aid the deception, two Canadian battalions were actually put into line on the Kemmel front where such an attack might have been expected. The RAF contributed by increasing their flying activities over Kemmel and constructing dummy airfields. Meanwhile, a second part of the bluff was to move an Australian brigade to take over the four miles of trenches held by the French south of Villers-Bretonneux. This accounted for the presence of the Australians in the sector and appeared to be a defensive measure designed to assist the French while they concentrated for an attack in the Marne area. A rumour was also put around to explain the appearance of the Canadians in Amiens, that they were later to relieve the Australians.
German Intelligence was duly deceived and suspected no more than front line skirmishing. But as the time for the great attack drew nearer, it was the arrival of the tanks which caused the biggest threat to secrecy. During the three nights beforehand they were moved up in easy stages, either camouflaged or hiding out in woods by day. German aircraft were so harried by the RAF that they could not reconnoitre behind the British front. But at night, even though they moved as quietly as possible in low gear, there was no way of preventing the noise made by so many tanks. This was reported on several occasions by German troops holding the front line, but the German High Command ridiculed such nervousness, having become indifferent to tank alarms after so many previous cries of ‘wolf, wolf’ which had proved unfounded.
By the morning of August 7th, the main assault force had been assembled within two or three miles of the enemy lines. The eight infantry divisions were well hidden in trenches, the Australians in those specially dug for the purpose east of Amiens while the Canadians had moved into the lines vacated by the French. The tanks had been moved into woods and ruined farm buildings, the noise of their final approach hidden by Handley Page bombers of the RAF whose raids were synchronised with the tank movements. Villers-Bretonneux on the eve of battle seemed strangely quiet and deserted. General Sir John Monash, commanding the Australian Corps, had forbidden forward reconnaissance by his officers, insisting that they rely on air photographs. But the scene was deceptive. As Monash later wrote, after inspecting the forward area: “It was only when the explosion of a stray enemy shell would cause hundreds of heads to peer out from trenches, gun-pits and underground shelters, that one became aware that the whole country was really packed thick with a teeming population carefully hidden away.”
Late in the afternoon, one of these stray shells nearly ruined the whole operation. It happened to land on a carrying tank laden with petrol which was hidden in an orchard north of Villers-Bretonneux. The resulting blaze brought a deluge of shells which destroyed fourteen more tanks and set fire to a large quantity of petrol and ammunition. This might well have indicated the presence of tanks to the Germans but it was too late to do anything about it, other than to bring up replacement stores. The German gunners, after congratulating themselves, did pass on a report as to their suspicions but it was ignored by their senior commanders who had convinced themselves that the Allies were not planning an attack in this sector.
The night of August 7–8th was damp and still. It was now time for the cavalry to move up, passing through Amiens on roads strewn with sand to muffle the sound of the horses’ hooves. With them came the Whippet tanks. Meanwhile the advance infantry patrols crept out of their trenches to cover the forming up of the main assault groups in no-man’s land, ten phalanxes of them spread across ten miles of frontage. Shortly after 2am a single Handley Page bomber took off and began to fly up and down the line, the drone of its engines disguising the noise made by the tanks as they lumbered from their hiding places towards the front. A thick blanket of mist had drifted up the river valley which, coupled with the darkness, made it impossible to see further than a few yards. Several tanks lost their way. At 4.20am, as a glimmer in the eastern sky signalled the approach of dawn, the whole front was suddenly lit as by sheet lightning when the blast of 3,500 British and French guns heralded the start of the Battle of Amiens.
The scene was described by Lieutenant J. Robertson, commanding the Mark V tank Oblivis Caris of 14th Battalion, attached to the Canadian Corps 2nd Division. He wrote in his diary:
“We left our position at Villers-Bretonneux at 4.10 in order to be up with the infantry when our barrage opened up ten minutes later. Just as we reached the top of the ridge there was a terrific crash outside my bus and the port gunners staggered back. I didn’t get time to worry about them for simultaneously a fierce barrage broke on the ridge. My first thought was that the enemy had been informed of the attack and I sort of wondered who would get my rum ration. We were through the muck in two minutes however, only to find ourselves lost in a curtain of mist. No sign of that tail lamp (from the tank ahead) that was to lead us so carefully. No sign of anything but a blank wall of fog and only the humming of twenty engines to indicate the presence of other tanks. Straight ahead was the best course and straight ahead we went. A confused impression of crossing a trench, then a shellhole filled with men.
“Then the lid came off. I had heard some of the record barrages on the Somme and the ‘Hippodrome Orchestra’, but never anything like that. Way beyond above the mist we could see the vivid flash of bursting shrapnel. Half a minute later, Jerry started firing off what must have been every Very light in stock, sufficient to tell us he must have been completely surprised.”
All around them, other tanks and small groups of infantry were also lost in the dense mist, now thickened by the smoke of battle. But most of them were able to grope their way in the right direction so that the advance, although disjointed, continued to make progress. For the defenders, there was something even more terrifying in being able to hear but not see the tanks lumbering forward until it was too late and they were right on top of them.
As the mist began to clear, a more ordered advance was achieved.
“Somewhere about 5.15 our great chance came,” continued Robertson. “We had at last found touch with the main advance and came across a company of Canadians taking cover from strong machine gun fire from a harvested field. Almost as we got there one of them gave the SOS. We didn’t wait to ask questions but passed through the infantry and in two minutes found ourselves right among the Boche. One lot tried to beat it for a wood but Gunner McKellars, to his huge delight, got them all. We reached a trench crowded with Jerries and all our guns got right busy. The effect of case shot in a crowded trench isn’t pretty.
“All this time some machine gun had been beating a devil’s tattoo on the old bus. We located the trouble and dealt with it. I looked at my watch and saw to my surprise it was only 5.45. We seemed to have lived years in those 20 minutes. However, I had to reach my first objective at 6.23 so I gave the infantry the all clear and steered northeast where I had a vague idea Marcelcave lay.”
Unknown to Robertson another of his battalion’s tanks, commanded by Lieutenant C. R. Percy-Eade, had just minutes before performed a remarkable feat in this village. Heavy enemy machine gun fire had been holding up the advance of the Canadian infantry. On being told this, Percy-Eade attacked the village single handed with his tank and knocked out six machine gun positions, then tackled a battery and put the gunners to flight. By the time Robertson arrived, the infantry were already mopping up and there was nothing for him to do. He decided to head back to his company’s rallying point, west of Marcelcave. And then occurred, as he put it, “one of those delightful interludes which amuse everyone except those taking part”.
“I took the main road as the most direct. A Hun balloon evidently spotted us and before we had gone fifty yards there was a whistle and a roar a few yards behind. Half a minute later the road in front of us went up in a cloud of smoke. The Jerry gunner had got us ‘bracketed’, which meant that the next shot would land between the first two. But a kink in his brain made him forget we were moving. His next shot did land in the middle of the bracket, but we had travelled 100 yards in the meantime. The gunner did the same thing four times, at which point the observer in the balloon must have died of apoplexy.
“On arrival at the rallying point, I ordered my crew into the fresh air. Steven, who had driven the approach, had been lying unconscious during the action but he revived a little when we got him out. The Canadians who had been attached as observers had spent most of the time being violently sick and collapsed completely when we dragged them out.”
Everywhere along the front of attack the forward defenders were taken completely by surprise and quickly overrun. The first objective was about miles deep, the second a further three miles in the centre but only just over one mile on the wings, and then would come an exploiting advance to the third objective, eight miles from the starting line in the centre and six miles on the wings.
The Canadian Corps, advancing on a front of three divisions, secured the second objective by 11am. It had not been without losses to the tanks however. On the extreme right the 5th Battalion had a difficult obstacle in crossing the marshy stream of the Luce, where eight tanks became ditched and another seven were knocked out at close range by enemy field guns. A further 11 were lost by the time the second objective was gained, leaving only eight still in action. In the centre, 11 of the 4th Battalion tanks remained. On the left, the pace quickened as the mist cleared and 16 tanks of the 14th Battalion reached the second objective. Shortly after midday the 4th Canadian Division, led by 30 Mark V Star tanks of the 1st Battalion which were six feet longer than the Mark V and used for carrying infantry Lewis gun teams, passed through the line to advance on the third objective. Nine out of the ten tanks of A Company were knocked out by a German battery and others were lost in fierce fighting until eventually 11 tanks rallied at the objective. Over 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns had been taken in the advance by the Canadians, at a cost of only 3,500 casualties.
The advance by the Australians, delivered by two divisions, was even more spectacular. The third objective was reached by about 11 am, a pace so fast that the two reserve divisions following up the attack arrived there before the remaining tanks of the 5th Tank Brigade. This was just as well since most of the crews were unconscious from fumes and carbon monoxide poisoning. The Australians captured 8,000 prisoners and 173 guns at the remarkably small cost of only 650 casualties.