The Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918, was the opening phase of the Allied offensive later known as the Hundred Days Offensive that ultimately led to the end of World War I. Allied forces advanced over seven miles on the first day, one of the greatest advances of the war. The battle is also notable for its effects on both sides' morale and the large number of surrendering German forces. This led Erich Ludendorff to describe the first day of the battle as "the black day of the German Army." Amiens was one of the first major battles involving armoured warfare and marked the end of trench warfare on the Western Front; fighting becoming mobile once again until the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
At the end of the Marne-Rheims offensive, Allied commander Maréchal Ferdinand Foch ordered a counteroffensive which led to the Second Battle of the Marne. The Germans, recognising their untenable position, withdrew from the Marne to the north. Foch now tried to move the Allies back onto the offensive.
The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, already had plans in place for an attack near Amiens. When the British retreat had ended in April, the headquarters of British Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson had taken over the front astride the Somme. North of the river were British III Corps under Lieutenant General Richard Butler, while south of the river were the Australian Corps under Sir John Monash. (On 30 May, all the Australian infantry divisions were united under the Corps HQ, for the first time on the Western Front). The Australians had mounted a number of local counter-attacks which both revealed the suitability of the open and firm terrain south of the Somme for a larger offensive and also established and refined the methods which were to be used.
Rawlinson had submitted Monash's proposals to Haig in July and Haig had forwarded them to Foch. At a meeting on 24 July Foch agreed to the plan but insisted that the French First Army, which held the front to the south of the British Fourth Army, should participate. Rawlinson had opposed this as his and Monash's plans depended on the large-scale use of tanks to achieve surprise and make preliminary bombardment unnecessary. The French First Army lacked tanks and would be forced to bombard the German positions before the infantry advance began, thus removing the element of surprise. Eventually, it was agreed that the French would participate, but not launch their attack until 45 minutes after Fourth Army. It was also agreed to advance the proposed date of the attack from 10 August to 8 August, to strike the Germans before they had completed their withdrawal from the Marne salient.
Rawlinson had already finalised his plans in discussion with his Corps commanders (Butler, Monash, Sir Arthur Currie of the Canadian Corps and Lieutenant General Charles Kavanagh of the Cavalry Corps) on 21 July. The final plan for Fourth Army involved 1,386 guns and howitzers, making up 27 medium artillery brigades and 13 heavy batteries, in addition to the infantry divisions' artillery. There were also to be 580 tanks.
The tactical methods had been tested by the Australians in a local counter-attack at the Battle of Hamel on 4 July. The German defenders of Hamel were deeply dug in, and their position commanded a very wide field of fire. Similar positions had resisted capture for two months in the Battle of the Somme. The Australians had used surprise rather than weight at Hamel. The artillery had opened fire only at the moment the infantry and tanks advanced, and the Germans were rapidly overrun.
A key factor in the final plan was secrecy. There was to be no pre-battle bombardment, only artillery fire immediately prior to the advance of Australian, Canadian, and British forces. The fire plan for Fourth Army's artillery was devised by Monash's senior artillery officer, Major General C.E.D. Budworth. Advances in artillery techniques and aerial photographic reconnaissance made it possible to dispense with "ranging shots" to ensure accurate fire. Budworth had produced a timetable which allowed every single German position to be hit at "zero hour", while a creeping barrage preceded the infantry. This method was similar to the Feuerwalze which the Germans themselves had used in their Spring Offensive, but its effectiveness was increased by the surprise achieved.
On a larger scale, the Allies had successfully moved the Canadian Corps of four infantry divisions to Amiens without them being detected by the Germans. A detachment from the Corps of two infantry battalions, a wireless unit and a casualty clearing station had been sent to the front near Ypres to bluff the Germans that the entire Corps was moving north to Flanders. The Corps was not fully in position until 7 August. To maintain secrecy, the Allies commanders pasted the notice "Keep Your Mouth Shut" into orders issued to the men, and never used the actual word "offensive".
The German front east of Amiens was held by their Second Army under General Georg von der Marwitz, with six divisions in line (and two facing the French 1st Army). There were only two divisions in immediate reserve. There was some concern among the Allies on 6 August when the German 27th Division actually attacked north of the Somme on part of the front on which the Allies planned to attack two days later. The German division (a specially selected and trained Stosstruppen formation) penetrated roughly into the one-and-a-half mile front. This attack was made in retaliation for the repeated Australian trench raids south of the Somme which had gained many prisoners and affected the morale of the "Trench" divisions the Germans had stationed there. The German division moved somewhat back to its original position on the morning of 7 August, but the movement still required changes to the Allied plan.
The battle began in dense fog at 4:20 AM on 8 August 1918. Under Rawlinson's Fourth Army, the British III Corps attacked north of the Somme, the Australian Corps to the south of the river in the centre of Fourth Army's front, and the Canadian Corps to the south of the Australians. The French 1st Army under General Debeney opened its preliminary bombardment at the same time, and began its advance 45 minutes later, supported by a battalion of 72 Whippet tanks. Although German forces were on the alert, this was largely in anticipation of possible retaliation for their incursion on the 6th and not because they had learned of the preplanned Allied attack. Although the two forces were within of one another, gas bombardment was very low, as the bulk of the Allied presence was unknown to the Germans. The attack was so unexpected that German forces only began to return fire after five minutes, and even then at the positions where the Allied forces had assembled at the start of the battle and had long since left.
In the first phase, seven divisions attacked: the British 18th (Eastern) and 58th (2/1st London), the Australian 2nd and 3rd, and the Canadian 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The Canadian and Australian attackers were supported by eight battalions of the Royal Tank Corps, with a paper strength of 216 Mark V and 72 Mark V*, with 48 unarmed tanks used as supply-carrying tractors. Parts of the American 33rd Division supported the British attackers north of the Somme.
The attackers captured the first German position, advancing about by about 7:30 AM. In the centre, supporting units following the leading divisions attacked the second objective a further two miles (3 km) distant. Australian units reached their first objectives by 7:10 AM, and by 8:20 AM, the Australian 4th and 5th and the Canadian 4th divisions passed through the initial hole in the German line. The third phase of the attack was assigned to infantry-carrying Mark V* tanks. However, the infantry was able to carry out this final step unaided. The Allies penetrated well to the rear of the German defences and cavalry now continued the advance, one brigade in the Australian sector and two cavalry divisions in the Canadian sector. RAF and armoured car fire kept the retreating Germans from rallying.
The Canadian and Australian forces in the center advanced quickly, pushing the line forward from its starting point by 11 AM. The speed of their advance was such that a party of officers and some divisional staff that were eating breakfast were captured. A gap long was punched in the German line south of the Somme by the end of the day. There was less success north of the river, where the British III Corps had only a single tank battalion in support, the terrain was rougher and the German incursion of the 6th had disrupted some of the preparations. Although the attackers gained their first objectives, they were held up short of the Chipilly spur, a steep wooded ridge.
The British Fourth Army took 13,000 prisoners while the French captured a further 3,000. Total German losses were estimated to be 30,000 on 8 August. The Fourth Army's casualties, British, Australian and Canadian infantry, were approximately 8,800, exclusive of tank and air losses and their French allies.
German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg noted the Allies' use of surprise and that Allied destruction of German lines of communication had hampered potential German counter-attacks by isolating command positions. The German general Erich Ludendorff described the first day of Amiens as Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres ("the black day of the German Army"), not because of the ground lost to the advancing Allies, but because the morale of the German troops had sunk to the point where large numbers of troops began to capitulate. Five German divisions had effectively been engulfed. Allied forces pushed, on average, seven miles (11 km) into enemy territory by the end of the day. The Canadians gained , Australians , British , and the French .
On 10 August, there were signs that the Germans were pulling out of the salient from Operation Michael. According to official reports, the Allies had captured nearly 50,000 prisoners and 500 guns by 27 August. Even with the lessened armour the British drove into German positions by 13 August.
The Battle of Amiens was a major turning point in the tempo of the war. The Germans had started the offensive with the Schlieffen Plan before the war devolved into trench warfare, the Race to the Sea slowed movement on the Western Front, and the German Spring Offensive earlier that year had once again given Germany the offensive edge on the Western Front. Armoured support helped the Allies tear a hole through trench lines, weakening once impregnable trench positions. The British Third army with no armored support had almost no effect on the line while the Fourth with less than a thousand tanks broke deep into German territory, for example. Australian commander John Monash was knighted by King George V in the days following the battle.
British war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted Amiens' effect on the war's tempo, saying on 27 August that "the enemy...is on the defensive" and "the initiative of attack is so completely in our hands that we are able to strike him at many different places." Gibbs also credits Amiens with a shift in troop morale, saying "the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly" and that "there is a change also in the enemy's mind. They no longer have even a dim hope of victory on this western front. All they hope for now is to defend themselves long enough to gain peace by negotiation."
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