8th August, 1918, by Septimus Power
Maps depicting the advance of the Allied line.
Amiens marks a true turning point on the Western Front. On 8 August 1918 the Australian and Canadian Corps of Fourth Army attacked German positions east of the city. To the north, British III Corps acted as a flank-guard, while a French Corps served a similar function to the south. The attack was planned as an essentially limited operation, a larger scale version of Hamel (although Haig had pushed for more distant objectives during the planning stage), and it achieved complete surprise. The attackers advanced up to eight miles, the longest single advance achieved on the Western Front in one day. Fourth Army’s casualties amounted to 9,000 – heavy enough in terms of human misery but amazingly light given the magnitude of the military achievement. The Germans lost about 27,000 men (including 12,000 prisoners) and 450 guns. Impressive as these statistics are, they do not tell the whole story. Amiens was truly a watershed battle.
The first clue to the decisiveness of the battle lies in the number and nature of the German losses. These losses were particularly significant because the loss of substantial numbers of prisoners and, especially, guns is usually the mark of a major defeat. This need not have been immediately terminal for the Germans – it had not proved so for the British on 21 March 1918 – except for one fact. Amiens not only struck a crushing blow against the troops of German Second and Eighteenth Armies: it had a similar impact on the morale of Erich Ludendorff. Shortly after the war, Ludendorff wrote that ‘August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through … August 8th made things clear for both army Commands, both for the German and for that of the enemy.’
‘Having gambled recklessly and often ineptly with the fortunes of the German empire for two years’, Ludendorff decided that ‘it was suddenly time to leave the game’. Ludendorff had clearly suffered an enormous psychological shock, perhaps even a nervous breakdown. He offered his resignation to the Kaiser, who rejected it, while agreeing with Ludendorff that ‘the war must be terminated’. Ludendorff’s collapse contrasts sharply with the ample mental reserves on which Haig and Foch were able to draw at the darkest moments of the German spring offensives. Although pessimism ebbed and flowed in German High Command for the remainder of the war, at best they believed that they could hold out for some sort of compromise peace. They recognised that an outright, crushing victory over the Allies was no longer a realistic possibility. Millennia ago, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu emphasised the importance of deception and psychological warfare in achieving victory. By judiciously combining this approach with a thoroughly Clausewitzian belief in applying overwhelming combat power, in August 1918 Haig achieved what for early twenty-first-century military leaders has become the glittering prize: psychological dominance over the enemy commander.
How sophisticated the BEF had become by the middle of 1918 is shown by the odyssey of the Canadian Corps. At this time it was the strongest and freshest formation in the BEF. Based around Arras, its sudden appearance on the Amiens front would be a clear indication to the Germans that a major offensive was about to take place. As a result, an elaborate security and deception plan was put into operation, which included two Canadian battalions being left in the north to simulate the presence of the entire Corps by the use of false radio traffic. Immediately prior to the battle, aircraft flying up and down the front masked the noise of tanks moving up to the start line. By such means, and the advances in artillery techniques first demonstrated at Cambrai, an element of surprise was achieved. The Australian 57th Battalion was certainly taken in. ‘A few officers and NCOs went to the front line to view the ground,’ reported an Australian infantryman. ‘The returned round-eyed with wonder. The woods on the right were full of Canadians. Canadians? We thought they were at Arras’. More importantly, a map prepared for Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group, dated 8 a.m. on 8 August, shows that Germans also believed that the Canadian Corps were still concentrated around Arras. Surprise was complete.
This had several important consequences. The German positions about to be attacked were weak, held by understrength divisions of no more than about 4,000 infantry, about 37,000 men in all. With no inkling that they were about to be attacked, there was little enthusiasm for speeding up the desultory strengthening of their positions, let alone the creation of new ones in the rear. Neither did the Germans reinforce this sector. The complacency of the German commanders rendered the psychological impact of the BEF’s assault all the more impressive. Above all, surprise denied most of the defenders the opportunity to fight back in an effective fashion. The first the German troops knew about the attack was when, at 4.20 a.m., masses of infantry came into view and the world exploded about them.
Out of 1,236 guns and 700,000 shells available to the BEF, 700 artillery pieces fired 350,000 shells during the Amiens battle. Perhaps even more remarkable than the number available was the accuracy of their fire. No less than 504 out of 530 German guns had been identified before the attack. The Royal Artillery had 450 heavy guns available for counter-battery work, each with sufficient ammunition to fire four rounds every minute for four hours. The British gunners killed or drove off their German counterparts, leaving the guns to be captured by the advancing infantry. Deprived of artillery support, the German infantry were at a huge disadvantage when faced by tanks and Dominion infantry, largely untouched by enemy artillery fire, debouching from the early morning mist. ‘Whenever we found ourselves in trouble,’ an Australian infantryman recorded, ‘we signalled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! … another German post was blown to pieces.’ Some of the defenders stood and fought and were overrun. Many did not.
German problems certainly played a role in the Allied victory; many positions were weak and formations understrength, and the morale and tactics of many of the defenders were poor. The skill and high morale of the attacking Dominion infantry was another important factor, as was the overwhelming advantage in numbers. Canadian divisions rivalled those of the Americans in size. Whereas British and Australian divisions disposed of about 7,000 infantrymen, the four Canadian formations fielded at least 12,000 bayonets each, giving Fourth Army an infantry strength of around 100,000 (as against 37,000 German troops). Other factors, such the efficiency of the BEF’s logistic support, and the domination of the air by the RAF and the French air arm (albeit at heavy cost), were also important. However, Prior and Wilson are surely correct in emphasising that it was the BEF’s weapons system that was the battle winner: ‘the Germans, however parlous their circumstances, were defeated by superior firepower tactics, which even their best troops could not withstand.’
It is important to give credit to the BEF, and not just the Canadian and Australian Corps, for the effective use of this weapons system. Until the 1990s, writing on Amiens often emphasised one or other of the Dominion Corps while giving scant credit to other units. This approach is misleading and ignores the nature of a weapons system. The infantry were important, but so were the guns, the vast majority of which were operated by British soldiers, as were all of the tanks. The Canadian and Australian infantry were undoubtedly elite, but as we shall see, part of the significance of the BEF’s way of battle lay in the fact that it enabled even average infantry to achieve feats that would have seemed miraculous only a year before.