Tanks at Amiens 1918 II




British Lieutenant C B Arnold in Freiburg prison camp, taken several weeks after he was captured in August 1918. He was commanding Whippet tank number 344, named Musical Box, during the Amiens offensive in August 1918 and attacked German positions for 9 hours. Musical Box was eventually destroyed when cornered and set ablaze with artillery fire. Arnold was taken prisoner. His hair is still singed in this picture, and he has wound stripes on his right arm.

On the extreme left wing, the III Corps advance north of the Somme failed after reaching the first objective, one reason being a local attack by the Germans on the previous day which had seriously hampered preparations. But south of the Somme, a considerable victory had been achieved. A gap of more than 11 miles wide and up to seven miles deep had been made in the German lines, presenting a great opportunity for exploitation. This was the moment for the Cavalry Corps and the Whippet tank battalions to push forward with the utmost speed. They did in fact move up to the third objective, passing Robertson’s tank on the way.

“Streaming up the long southern track they came, headed by a regiment of Lancers. As far as the eye could reach there were trotting columns of horses while in the middle track, batteries of horse and field artillery were arriving at a gallop. A cloud of dust on the northern track heralded the Whippets, 40 of them, moving almost as fast as the artillery and going hell for leather for the next objective. The whole spectacle was one which none of us had ever expected to see in France and one we would never forget.”

But having reached that point the cavalry stopped and waited. They had received no orders to advance from their headquarters which were again well to the rear. Also it became apparent that the idea of placing the Whippet tanks under the cavalry was not a success. When there was no fire, the cavalry could easily outstrip the tanks in speed. But it only needed a few surviving enemy machine guns to bring the cavalry to a complete halt, where they would have to wait for the tanks. The tanks could of course have continued forward but they were tied to the cavalry. The following comment appeared in the Weekly Tank Notes issued by Tank Corps HQ.

“By noon on the 8th August, great confusion was developing behind the enemy’s lines and by this time the Whippets should have been operating five to ten miles in advance of the infantry, accentuating this demoralization. As it was, being tied down to support the cavalry, they were a long way behind the infantry advance, the reason being that, as cavalry cannot make themselves invisible on the battlefield by throwing themselves flat on the ground as infantry can, they had to retire either to a flank or to the rear to avoid being exterminated by machine gun fire.”

The activities of a few individual Whippets which did push ahead were highly successful, showing what could have been done if all had been allowed a free reign to operate behind the enemy lines. The dramatic performance of one Whippet in particular, Musical Box, became a legend in the Tank Corps. Commanded by Lieutenant C. B. Arnold, with Driver Carney and Gunner Ribbans making up the crew this tank caused havoc amongst the enemy by penetrating nearly eight miles into the German lines, far ahead of the infantry and cavalry. It was one of 16 Whippets of B Company, 6th Battalion, which had advanced across country at zero hour towards the eastern outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. There they passed through the British front line, where Australian infantry were advancing behind the heavy Mark V tanks, and headed due east along the Amiens-Ham railway line. The story was graphically told by Lieutenant Arnold.

“After proceeding 2,000 yards in this direction I found myself to be the leading machine, owing to the others having become ditched, etc. To my immediate front I could see more Mark V tanks being followed very closely by Australian infantry. About this time (some two hours after zero) we came under direct shell fire from a four-gun field battery, of which I could see the flashes, between Abancourt and Bayonvillers. Two Mark V tanks, 150 yards on my right, were knocked out. I saw cloud of smoke coming out of these machines and the crews evacuate them. The infantry following the heavy machines were suffering casualties from this battery.”

Although close enough to the guns for the sound of each shot to be heard inside the cab, over the noise of the engine, Musical Box was not hit. Carney drove it behind the shelter of a belt of trees running alongside a road, then swept round and headed straight for the battery from the rear.

“On observing our appearance”, Arnold wrote, “the gunners, some 30 in number, abandoned their guns and tried to get away. Gunner Ribbans and I accounted for the whole lot. I cruised forward, making a detour to the left, and shot a number of the enemy who appeared to be demoralised and were moving about the country in all directions. This detour brought me back to the railway siding NNW of Guillaucourt. I could now see other Whippets coming up and a few Mark Vs also. The Australian infantry, who followed magnificently, had now passed through the battery position which we had accounted for and were lying in a sunken road about 400 yards past the battery and slightly to the left of it. I got out of my machine and went to an Australian lieutenant and asked if he wanted any help. Whilst talking to him, he received a bullet which struck the metal shoulder title, a piece of the bullet casing entering his shoulder. While he was being dressed, Major Rycroft on horseback and Lieutenant Waterhouse and Captain Strachan of B Company, 6th Battalion, arrived and received confirmation from the Australian officer of our having knocked out the field battery.”

Arnold then set off again, heading east, and after a while came upon two cavalry patrols of about a dozen men each. The first was under fire from a party of German soldiers in a field of corn which had inflicted a number of casualties. Musical Box surged forward, machine guns firing, and quickly put the enemy to flight. Several were killed before the remainder escaped out of sight into the corn. Shortly afterwards, Arnold saw the second patrol, swords drawn and pursuing six of the enemy.

“The leading horse was so tired that he was not gaining appreciably on the rearmost Hun. Some of the leading fugitives turned about and fired at the cavalryman, when his sword was stretched out and practically touching the back of the last Hun. Horse and rider were brought down on the left of the road. The remainder of the cavalrymen deployed to the right, coming in close under the railway embankment where they dismounted and came under fire from the enemy, who had now taken up a position on the railway bridge and were firing over the parapet, inflicting one or two casualties. I ran the machine up until we had a clear view of the bridge and killed four of the enemy with one long burst, the other two running across the bridge and so down the opposite slope out of sight.

“On our left I could see, about three quarters of a mile away, a train on fire being towed by an engine. I proceeded farther east still parallel to the railway, and approached carefully a small valley marked on my map as containing Boche hutments. As I entered the valley (between Bayonvillers and Harbonnieres) at right angles, many enemy were visible packing kits and others retiring. On our opening fire on the nearest, many others appeared from huts, making for the end of the valley, their object being to get over the embankment and so out of sight. We accounted for many of these. I cruised round, Ribbans went into one of the huts and returned, and we counted about 60 dead and wounded. There were evidences of shell fire amongst the huts, but we certainly accounted for most of the casualties counted there. I turned left from the railway and cruised across country, as lines of enemy infantry could be seen retiring. We fired at these many times at ranges of 200 to 600 yards. These targets were fleeting, owing to the enemy getting down into the corn when fired on. In spite of this, many casualties must have been inflicted as we cruised up and down for at least an hour. I did not see any more of our troops or machines after leaving the cavalry patrols already referred to.”

It was by no means all plain sailing for the little Whippet. Being the only tank to get through to such a distance, far ahead of the others and the slowly advancing infantry, it was subjected to continual machine gun fire. Petrol was streaming down the sides and into the interior from riddled tins on the roof, carried for refuelling purposes on order from a distant High Command. (In his report, Arnold begged to suggest that petrol cans should no longer be carried on the outside of machines.) Petrol was running all over the inside of the cab and the fumes, combined with intense bullet splash and the great heat after being in action by this time for nearly ten hours, made it necessary for the crew to breathe through the mouthpiece of their box respirators without actually wearing them.

In every direction, the crew of Musical Box could see great quantities of motor and horse transport and long columns of infantry, all taking part in the great German withdrawal which was to mark the beginning of the end of the war. The tank forged in amongst them, firing sometimes at almost point blank range and inflicting heavy casualties. Its sudden appearance caused panic and confusion and for a while there was little return fire. But such a situation could not last for long. Realising that Musical Box was not part of an attacking group of tanks but only a single marauder—and one which by reaching the eastern side of the Harbonnières-Rosières road went beyond the farthest Allied objective for that day—the Germans rallied. Turning towards a small copse where many horses and men were gathered, the Whippet met the most intense rifle and machine gun fire imaginable from all sides.

“When at all possible we returned the fire, until the left hand revolver port cover was shot away. I withdrew the forward gun, locked the mounting and held the body of the gun against the hole. Petrol was still running down the inside of the back door. Fumes and heat combined were very bad. We were still moving forward and I was shouting to Driver Carney to turn about as it was impossible to continue the action, when two heavy concussions closely followed one another and the cab burst into flames. (The result of a direct hit by a field gun.)

“Carney and Ribbans got to the door and collapsed. I was almost overcome but managed to get the door open and fell out on to the ground and was able to drag out the other two men. Burning petrol was running on the ground where we were lying. The fresh air revived us and we all got up and made a short rush to get away from the burning petrol. We were all on fire. In this rush Carney was shot in the stomach and killed. We rolled over and over to try to extinguish the flames. I saw numbers of the enemy approaching from all round. The first arrival came for me with a rifle and bayonet. I got hold of this and the point of the bayonet entered my right forearm. The second man struck at my head with the butt end of his rifle, hit my shoulder and neck, and knocked me down. When I came to, there were dozens all round me and anyone who could reach me did so and I was well kicked; they were furious.”

The fate of Arnold and Ribbans hung by a thread. After being viciously beaten they were taken away and stood by themselves about twenty yards clear of the crowd while an argument ensued as to whether they should be killed or taken prisoner. Eventually the latter view prevailed. The two men were marched away, given the first food they had eaten since 8.30 the previous night (it was now 3.30pm), and after treatment of their wounds were sent to prison camps. It was only after Arnold’s release at the end of the war, when he was awarded the DSO, that the full story of this remarkable exploit became known.

Further demoralisation of the enemy was achieved by the exploits of 16 armoured cars of the 17th Battalion, Tank Corps, led by Lieutenant-Colonel E. J. Carter. These vehicles had been towed over the trench lines by tanks and proceeded to dash eastwards along the main St Quentin road. They shot up and killed a column of horse transport and many lorries, then blocked another road by knocking out a number of steam wagons. Two cars under Lieutenant E. Rollings charged into the village of Framerville and shot up the German advanced Corps HQ, then captured many documents including the complete defence scheme of the 20 mile stretch of the Hindenburg Line from Oise to Bellicourt which proved to be of immense value in later attacks.

By the end of the day, it was apparent that a sweeping success had been achieved. The British line had advanced over six miles while five German divisions between the Avre and the Somme were almost completely annihilated. The German Official monograph stated:

“When darkness had sunk on the 8th August over the battlefield of the Second Army, the heaviest defeat suffered by the German Army since the beginning of the war had become an accomplished fact. The total losses of the units employed in the Second Army sector can be put down as from 650 to 700 officers and 26,000 to 27,000 men. More than 400 guns and an enormous quantity of machine guns, mortars and other war material were lost…. More than two thirds of the total German losses was due to prisoners. Almost everywhere it was evident that German soldiers had surrendered to the enemy or thrown away rifles and equipment, abandoned trench mortars, machine guns and guns, and sought safety in flight,”

The Canadians lost 3,868 casualties, of whom 1,038 were killed, while the Australians lost only 652 (83 killed), making it the cheapest victory of the war as far as the infantry were concerned. The Cavalry lost about 1,000 horses, but the heaviest price was paid by the Tank Corps who had made the success possible. Out of the 415 tanks which went into battle, 109 were knocked out by German guns and so many others were ditched or had mechanical breakdowns that only 143 were available to continue the fight the next day. Casualties totalled 79 killed, 396 wounded, and 34 missing.

Tanks had led the advance on almost every sector and had captured, single-handed sometimes, large numbers of prisoners. But their greatest achievement was in sharply reducing the number of Allied infantry casualties. A graphic illustration of this was provided in the battle report of an anonymous officer.

“Three days after the opening of the attack there was to be seen on the slopes of the valley of the Luce a notice board stating that a certain field was reserved as a British cemetery. This was the usual practice and necessary to good organisation. A cemetery was selected in each sector before a battle was to begin, in the same way as water pipes were provided and other administrative arrangements made. This particular cemetery was one of the finest ever seen. It was also empty. Not a single grave. Across it were the tracks made by tanks three days previously when this patch of ground had been in the forefront of the battle.

“The relationship between those tracks and the emptiness of the cemetery was very close. The tank is a saviour of flesh and blood, which lets the enemy spend his fury in destroying metal instead of human life. In one action at Loupart Wood, sufficient machine gun fire was directed against a tank which would have wiped out an entire infantry division had it been directed against men instead of steel.”

More could have been achieved on the first day of the battle had the British not stuck so rigidly to their original plan and allowed the Whippet tanks to exploit the success. As it was, the Germans brought up reinforcements and resistance stiffened as the impetus of the attack diminished. This was only too apparent on August 10th when the Cavalry Corps had a sudden inspired vision of making a breakthrough. The 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions were ordered forward, together with most of the remaining Whippet tanks. Both the cavalry and tanks suffered disastrous losses. By the following day, when the attack was suspended, only 38 tanks, including both light and heavy, were fit for action. The percentage of their losses had increased significantly as their numbers decreased, as did those of the infantry who lost over 22,000 by the end of the battle, exceeding the number of prisoners taken. The depth of the advance had by then reached ten miles, on a front extended a further 25 miles after an attack by the French First Army which, without the support of tanks, lost 24,000 men for the capture of 11,000 prisoners.

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