Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Battle of Amiens Opens

 8 August 1918: Amiens

Canadian Soldiers on the Attack, 8 August 1918

The origin of the Battle of Amiens was the German failure to capture Amiens during Operation Michael, the first of the German Kaiserschlacht offensives, which ended on 5 April 1918. The German Second Army under General Georg von der Marwitz (1856–1929) was left holding an overstretched salient to the east of the city. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (1861–1928), commanding the British Army on the Western Front, began plans for a counterattack by his Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson (1864–1925) in May. The French and Americans meanwhile halted and drove back the last German offensive in the Second Battle of the Marne 15 July–6 August 1918. The overall Allied plan on the Western Front, announced by Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929) as Allied generalissimo, was for a general offensive (bataille générale) of repeated and relatively shallow attacks on different parts of the German line, allowing the Germans no time for recovery. At this stage, Foch and most other senior Allied figures expected the war to last well into 1919.

The Battle of Amiens

Under conditions of great secrecy, Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was almost doubled in strength to 14 infantry divisions, made up of British III Corps, the Canadian Corps, the Australian Corps, plus an American division in reserve, together with most of the Tank Corps and the Cavalry Corps. The British had over 2,000 artillery pieces, together with 342 of the latest Mark V and Mark V* heavy tanks to break through the German defenses, 120 supply tanks, and 72 of the new faster, lightly armored Medium A “Whippet” tanks for exploitation. To the south of British Fourth Army, the French First Army under General Marie Eugène Debeney (1864–1943) was placed under Haig’s command to play a supporting role in the battle, with its XXXI Corps and IX Corps attacking alongside the Canadians. The attack was also supported by over 1,900 British and French aircraft. The German Second Army under Marwitz had ten weak divisions (plus four in reserve) on a front of about 30 kilometers facing the British and French, with at most 530 guns and 365 aircraft. Even this disparity does not fully convey Allied superiority in numbers, equipment, and morale over the Germans by this stage of the war.

Support Tanks Moving Up

The British attack began in the fog at 4:20 a.m. on Thursday 8 August 1918 led by a creeping (or rolling) artillery barrage with no preliminary bombardment, achieving complete surprise. Lacking strong tank support, the French attacked at 5:05 a.m. after a short bombardment. The Allied attack broke through to capture the German first defensive lines by 7:30 a.m. In the center Whippet tanks, armored cars and cavalry then advanced at high speed to seize critical points on what was designated the Amiens Outer Defense Line, with more infantry divisions following up to join them. By mid-afternoon, the Canadian Corps and Australian Corps in the center had advanced almost 12 kilometers on a front of 22 kilometers. In other sectors the offensive did not fully succeed. A surprise small-scale German attack on 6 August had disrupted British III Corps plans, and its attack was stopped short of the difficult Chilpilly Spur. American troops of the 33rd Division would be called in to assist the British 58th Division in capturing Chipilly. The French First Army also captured its first objectives but then made only limited progress. 

The advance also suffered from the new problem of coordinating a mechanized breakthrough; co-operation between the tanks and cavalry failed, and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) focused on attacking bridges in the German rear rather than tactically supporting the attack. The British continued their attack the next day with the Canadian Corps gaining another five kilometers. This brought British Fourth Army’s advance onto the wasteland of the old 1916 Somme battlefield, while eight German divisions were arriving to reinforce the defense. The French First Army captured Montdidier on 10 August. The fighting continued until 12 August with little further Allied gains, by which time losses and mechanical failures had reduced the British tank strength to six working tanks. With the Germans holding a new line in front of Noyon and Peronne, Field Marshal Haig closed the battle down and began preparing for another attack farther north.


German Dead in the Field

Famously, General Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) in his memoirs described 8 August 1918 as “The black day of the German Army (Der schwarze Tag des deutschen Heeres) in the history of this war." Chiefly this was because of the impact of the Allied breakthrough on German morale, with the recognition that the last German offensives a month earlier, widely known as the Friedensturm, had failed to defeat the Allies. The German High Command accepted shortly after the Battle of Amiens that it had lost the war on the Western Front, something that was not apparent to most opposing Allied commanders until early October. Disputed casualty figures for both sides suggest 20,000 British and 24,000 French casualties for the battle, about 30,000 German surrenders, and estimates of total German losses as high as 75,000. In retrospect, Amiens became for the British the decisive battle that began the “Hundred Days” campaign of successful attacks leading to victory on the Western Front. In terms of technology and the art of war, Amiens made a very strong contrast with the methods with which the Battle of the Frontiers exactly four years earlier had been fought by all sides. The contrast between the Fourth Army’s performance under Rawlinson at Amiens with the performance of the same commander and army at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 also showed the considerable improvements made in tactics, technology, staff work, and leadership at all levels by the British Army since 1916, and the extent of its superiority over the German Army by 1918.

Source:  1914-1918 Online
Contributor: Stephen Badsey, University of Wolverhampton

1 comment:

  1. Once again, we have a good description of the battle which leaves out the tactical novelties,, mostly introduced by Sir John Monash, the general one seldom finds mentioned in books by the British. His battle of Hamel, July 4, was a sort of rehearsal for Amiens. For the first time, the infantry trained with and controlled the tanks, which had previously been considered a branch of the cavalry. For the first time, aircraft paradropped ammunition to the advancing troops. Cooperation between aircraft and motorcyclists cut message transmission time to ten minutes. Monash was a meticulous planner who compared a battle to symphony: every instrument has to do its job at the proper time. The infantry was supposed to occupy the last German trench at H-hourplus 90 minutes. It took them 93 minutes, but the supply tanks (which replaced 1200men with loads on their backs) provided them a hot meal when they got there (another first) and then took the wounded back under armor, saving a lot of stretcher bearers. Steps to assure secrecy and deception were remarkable. For example, the Germans had been deceived into thinking they were attacked with gas, and about half of the 1500 prisoners refused to remove their masks, even though the diggers weren't wearing masks. About 1000 Americans participated, in defiance of orders by Pershing and Haig -- 134 American casualties, mostly walking wounded.

    After Hamel, Monash had a major role in planning Amiens. The SNAFU at Chipilly Spur was the result of Haig changing Monash's plan. Another Monashism: any plan is better than no plan. The success of the morning of 8 August ( casualties were only about 1% ) left Haig without a plan and confusion reigned beyond the blue line when Foch and Haig insisted the attack continue. Haig had conserved his corps of cavalry and urged them forward. A troop of cavalry drew their sabers and charged a pair of machine guns. One trooper made it within 100 yards of the guns: 43 men, 112 horses killed. In contrast, 12 Austin armored cars accomplished more than the whole cavalry corps with negligible casualties. One car was disabled but pushed back to the Aussie lines by German prisoners. Both Rommel and Guderian, in WW2, gave Monash credit for inventing the blitzkrieg.