History Today Subscription offer.

The Battle of Amiens

How a resounding British victory convinced the German military leaders that they had lost the First World War. 

Amiens, the key to the west by Arthur Streeton, 1918.At one side of the half-finished, pale grey, concrete railway station at Amiens, a wide and seedy road runs past the barracks, past rows of shabby houses and cafes, a Renaissance church, petrol pumps and poky shops, to the outskirts of the town, where the cobbles end, the road forks, and a sign reads “St. Quentin.” From this point the Roman Road springs seventy kilometres in a straight line across country to that town.

In 1918 the axis of the British advance which persuaded Germany’s war-lords that they had lost the First World War lay along this road. You can draw it with a ruler on a map. At first it runs parallel to the marshy, tree-lined valley of the River Somme about a mile away; then the Somme begins its looping north-eastern course, while the road continues due east, past the dense, bright-green saplings of the Bois l’Abbé to Villers Bretonneux.

“Abbéy Wood” and Villers Bretonneux were the furthest points reached in the central German offensive which began on March 21st, 1918. The object of this massive attack was to split the British and French armies apart at their junction in front of Amiens, forcing the British to fall back northward to cover the Channel ports, and the French to wheel southward to cover Paris.

Although it achieved the destruction of the British Fifth Army as a by-product, the German Army never succeeded in this main purpose. Its best opportunity came during the first few days of its furious forty-mile advance, when the British and French Commanders-in-Chief were each struggling with their separate and abundant problems. It was Field-Marshal Haig who saw the paramount danger first; it was on his initiative that General Foch was appointed to the Allied Supreme Command on March 26th. From that moment it was certain that German strategy would be countered, but there remained the possibility that tactical advantages would give them the victory they sought.

In the fluid conditions of the Somme front, with the Allies intermixed, and the British units dangerously weak and tired, German chances were still good. They made their attempt on April 24th; the capture of Villers Bretonneux broke through the last defences of Amiens, and as the Germans poured over the ridge that gave them a view into the city, and swarmed into the covered approaches provided by the Bois l’Abbé, it seemed that at last this vital hinge would break.

But two relatively fresh Australian brigades arrived in the nick of time, and counter-attacked with their characteristic ferocity. The third anniversary of Anzac Day saw the Australians back in possession of the wood and Villers Bretonneux. For a short time an uneasy, unstable quiet descended on this sector.

Hindsight is a dangerous asset. At a distance of forty years the events of 1918 have an evident rhythm, a logical sequence that was by no means perceptible at the time to the men whose duty was to shape them. It is easy for us to say: “The Germans attacked; they failed. The Allies attacked; they won.” But within those bald statements lay a maze of contradictory signs. The two months that followed the securing of Amiens resemble a change in the weather at sea. On the surface the waves remained violent and dangerous, but the swell of the deeps was finding its equilibrium.

During this May and June the Germans swung their forces south against the French and once more reached the Marne. For a year the moral condition of the French Army had been the most disturbing feature of the Allied position in the West. Once again the spectre was raised of a French collapse; once again there was a flight from Paris; Government securities and archives were removed. But Clemenceau and his Government stayed, breathing defiance.

A second German attack made less headway than the first, yet there were still reserves enough for further blows either against the French or against the British in Flanders. The Germans nowhere relinquished their posture of attack; contrary to their practice ever since 1914, they did not heavily fortify the ground they won. In front of Amiens they dug in lightly as though about to spring again. Even the most ardent optimists among the Allies were planning the campaigns of 1919; the Americans were talking of having a hundred divisions in the field in that year. Meanwhile, the initiative was still firmly in German hands.

It was an interview pregnant beyond their knowledge that took place on May 17th between Field-Marshal Haig and General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the British Fourth Army in the Amiens sector, at the latter’s headquarters. “I told Rawlinson,” Haig recorded in his diary, “to begin studying in conjunction with General Debeney (commander of the French First Army) the question of an attack eastwards from Villers Bretonneux in combination with an attack from the French front South of Roye. I gave him details of the scheme.”

Almost three months were to elapse before this seemingly wildly sanguine plan could be put into operation. They were three turbulent months during which the omens of the future became more clear. Already, before the last great German attack was delivered, an essential preliminary to the plan concocted between Haig and Rawlinson was carried out. This was the Battle of Hamel, and it will serve as a convenient occasion for considering some individuals and a formation of singularly individual character.

First, let us consider General Rawlinson. This tall, jocular, genial, quick-witted man., whose private pleasure was to dabble—with more success than the word implies—in watercolours, belonged to a small group of Regular Officers who, in the happy days of parties, polo and peaceful distraction before the Boer War, had chosen to take their profession seriously. He had become a pupil and protege both of Lord Roberts and of Kitchener. He was a close friend of Henry Wilson, who was the main architect of the military Entente, and responsible for the British War Plan of 1914-“Rawly is a fox,” said his contemporaries who had learnt to respect him at manoeuvres.

A “humbug,” Haig once unkindly called him, distrusting his association with Wilson, the most plausible talker that the British Army has ever known. But Rawlinson, whatever else he may have been, was a man who learned from experience, and without doubt the worst experience that he had ever passed through was the murderous First Battle of the Somme in 1916, with its 415,000 British casualties. Rawlinson was prepared to go to great lengths not to have another Somme.

Into Rawlinson’s orbit, in April 1918, had come the newly-formed Australian Army Corps. Although Australia had five divisions in the field as well as the Light Horse Division in Palestine, compared with Canada’s four, it was not until November 1917 that they were formed into a single Corps, like the troops of their sister-Dominion, and not until August 8th, 1918, that they all fought together. The Australian Corps was a phenomenon. Gloomily Haig recorded, in February 1918, before the great battles of the year began:

“We have had to separate the Australians into Convalescent Camps of their own, because they were giving so much trouble when along with our men and put such revolutionary ideas into their heads.”

A few days later, with even deeper disapprobation, he noted that there were nine per thousand Australians in the prisons of the British Expeditionary Force, as compared with 1.6 per thousand of other Commonwealth troops, and one per thousand of United Kingdom troops. It was always a question whether British Provost Marshals or the enemy disliked the Australians most. But their own commander, Sir John Monash, looking back on an astounding sequence of Australian victories in 1918, observed: “Very much and very stupid comment has been made upon the discipline of the Australian soldier.

That was because the very conception and purpose of discipline have been misunderstood. It is, after all, only a means to an end, and that end is the power to secure coordinated action among a large number of individuals for the achievement of a definite purpose. It does not mean lip-service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs, nor a suppression of individuality... the Australian Army is a proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline.” Rawlinson, at any rate, was delighted with the Australians and proud to have them in his Army.

There remains the man who commanded this boisterous, competent, successful force. If his Corps was a phenomenon, Sir John Monash was an enigma. An engineer in civil life, a Jew, a “Saturday-afternoon soldier,” he had little in common with even the most intelligent and flexible British generals. Nor had he the qualities which might be supposed essential for commanding the tough Australians—human warmth and the flair for leadership.

Indeed, these attributes belonged far more to his predecessor, Sir William Birdwood, who, although an Englishman, captured the affections of the Anzacs completely. And yet after the war it was being said that had it continued only a little longer Monash might have been Commander-in-Chief of the whole B.E.F. What was his secret? In a word, it was brainpower.

He was the most thoughtful, most careful, most scientific of all the British commanders in that war; indeed, it is hard to think of any foreign general who surpassed him in these qualities. It was a war in which the infantry of all armies became martyrs as much as soldiers; the symbol of the war is the suffering infantryman. Monash’s views of the role of the infantry contain, probably, the fullest reason for his success and for the total confidence that his men placed in him:

“I had formed the theory that the true role of the infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, nor to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, nor to impale itself on hostile bayonets, nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements... but on the contrary to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward; to march resolutely, regardless of the din and tumult of battle, to the appointed goal, and there to hold and defend the territory gained; and to gather in the form of prisoners, guns and stores, the fruits of victory.”

This doctrine expresses the exact opposite of the common experience of the First World War. But Monash translated it into reality on July 4th, 1918, with his attack at Hamel, which bit off an essential slice of the German salient between Villers Bretonneux and the Somme, to give the British elbow-room for future advances. The prisoners alone taken by the Australians were double their own total casualties. Tanks and infantry for the first time co-operated absolutely, and with absolute success. In ninety-three minutes of fighting, it became obvious that the Germans in front of Amiens were ripe for a crushing blow, and that this was the manner in which it should be delivered.

British G.H.Q. were impressed enough to circulate the Australian battle plan as a staff brochure. It became the blueprint of the great push later; it would still have repaid study in 1940. It was the enemy, however, who delivered the next attack—Ludendorff’s final throw. It fell once again on the French at Rheims, but this time the German advance was small and firmly held.

Four days later, on July 18th, the French counter-attacked, and the enemy had to give up his awkward salient at Soissons. Ludendorff could still speak of launching further offensives, and mentioned Amiens as their objective. But the British Fourth Army was now well advanced with its preparations, and Ludendorff was never able  to give effect to these intentions, nor, indeed, to harbour them again.

If ever a battle was won before it began, it was this Battle of Amiens, on August 8th, 1918. In the minds of General Rawlinson, his staff and his Corps commanders, one thing was quite clear: there must be a complete surprise of the enemy. For months before the First Battle of the Somme in 1916 the preparations for it had been entirely visible; roads, light railways, encampments, horse lines, dumps, battery positions were fully exposed to the enemy’s view. The bombardment, lasting ten days, gave final warning.

The result was a massacre of the attackers—60,000 British soldiers fell on the first day alone. There was to be no repetition of this. But in the rolling empty uplands of the Somme plateaux, almost devoid of cover, it was very difficult to effect concealment. Yet it was done. Only the strictest and most essential minimum of officers were let into the secret of the battle. The troops were exhorted by every means to say nothing, even to each other, of anything they might see.

“Keep Your Mouth Shut” was the most frequent legend on signposts throughout the sector. No movement whatever was permitted in the daytime, nor any unusual activity. Some units were detailed to allow themselves to be seen marching away from the front. Aircraft patrolled incessantly to make sure that nothing untoward was being revealed.

By these means Rawlinson was able to assemble over 2,000 pieces of artillery, over 900 aircraft, and 534 tanks, of which 414 were fighting vehicles, in the space of one month, under the enemy’s noses, to support his infantry. He was able to bring in and conceal a Cavalry Corps of three divisions—the most glaring giveaway of all, if it had been observed. But his tour-de-force was the introduction, on his right flank, of an entirely fresh Army Corps—the Canadians.

It was a well-established fact that when either the Australians or the Canadians appeared in a sector trouble was brewing. This was particularly true of the Canadians because of their Government’s rigid insistence that their divisions should never be separated. It was, therefore, necessary not only to hide completely the presence of this Corps, 100,000 strong, which would have to be in the front-line at zero hour, but also to hide the fact that it was no longer in the sector, far to the North, where the Germans would already have identified it.

A whole complex of deceptions, including the passing of a stream of bogus wireless signals suggesting an attack in that area, and the deliberate display of a small Canadian rearguard, ensured that the enemy was taken completely by surprise. It is a shallow notion that the generals of the First World War were incompetent blunderers without imagination. Imagination worked overtime in the Fourth Army.

Yet it must be added that without two devices that had been brought to an increasing pitch of efficiency during the previous eighteen months this type of battle could scarcely have been fought. These were the calibration of guns, which made it possible for artillery to fire by mathematics, without having to expose itself by registering, and the tanks, which made long bombardments unnecessary.

So the Fourth Army aligned itself for battle, the Canadians on the right between Villers Bretonneux and the Noyon road, next to the French First Army, which was to move forward forty-five minutes after the launching of the British attack; the Australians in the centre, between Villers Bretonneux and the Somme; the British III Corps between the Somme and the Ancre. The early morning mist, which had favoured the Germans on March 21st, changed sides with a vengeance.

On August 8th it was so dense in some parts of the front, particularly beside the marshes of the Somme, that visibility was down to ten yards. The British barrage was abrupt, stunning and exact. Close behind it, through the smoke and fog, rolled the tanks and the extended infantry; and for once, after all the breakdowns, all the disappointments, all the Aisnes, Verduns, Sommes, Passchendaeles, for once there is little more to add. In just over six hours the Canadian Corps had advanced nearly eight miles and taken all its objectives except on the extreme right where the French were not abreast of them.

The Australians had been successful everywhere except at the extremities of their flanks, where the Canadians and British fell behind. Only the British III Corps, much weaker than the other two, and hampered in its preparations by an enemy spoiling attack two days earlier, had failed to gain its objectives. The French advance was leisurely but deep.

There were setbacks certainly. When the mists cleared, dogged German gunners picked off many tanks at close range on the bare skylines; machine-gunners fought with their usual obstinacy; the Chipilly spur, thrusting its steep, rugged promontory across the course of the Somme into the Australian left, became a serious menace when the British 58th Division failed to take it. But over the great part of these wide, rolling downs, the scene as the sun burst through was unmistakably a scene of victory.

Cavalry advanced in brigades; field artillery limbered up and dashed forward; mounted staff officers raced to and fro; prisoners streamed back; supports swarmed up; there was practically no German gun-fire. Along the Roman Road, where the kilometres flick past the motorist today, armoured cars sped along, penetrating deep into the German positions, shooting up transport, capturing a Corps staff at their midday meal. The Cavalry captured a train.

By noon the Canadians had taken over 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns at a cost of 3,500 to themselves; the Australians had taken nearly 8,000 prisoners and 173 guns, and their losses were less than 3,000. The total German losses for the day, on their own estimate, were between 26,000 and 27,000. Their official account says:

“As the sun set on the 8th August on the battlefield the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact.”

The Battle of Amiens continued for three more days. Every day the Allies advanced further, more prisoners were taken, more German divisions were ruined, but the rate of advance was never the same again. The spectacular triumph could not be repeated. Hindsight tells us that more might have been accomplished had the relatively unscathed assaulting forces pressed further on the first day, before the German supports arrived. General Monash has recorded that he wished to go on, and his Australians were certainly well able to do so.

But General Rawlinson, lacking the advantage of hindsight, and knowing the capacity of the Germans for counter-attacks, such as that which had turned the victory of Cambrai into disaster, insisted on consolidating after every advance. For once caution was wrong. But who, in the context of that war in which unfounded optimism killed so many men, can altogether blame him? When his Army reached the hideous obstacle of the old Somme battle-zone, with its wasteland of old trenches

and wire and shell-holes, Rawlinson insisted that the battle should be called off, in spite of the urgent representations of Foch. He even went so far as to ask Haig: “Who commands the British Army, you, or Foch?” Haig accepted Rawlinson’s view and switched his next effort north to the Third Army Front, beginning his deliberate enlargement of the attack until every British Army was involved, while the French extended it southward, so that nowhere did the enemy have a chance to recover until the Armistice.

August 8th was the day of destiny. It was, wrote Ludendorff, “the black day of the German Army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through...” For his soldiers it was even more dire. The moral collapse of the German Army now became evident. One reserve unit, going up, was greeted by shouts of, “What do you war-prolongers want? If the enemy were only on the Rhine—the war would then be over.”

Another was told: “We thought that we had set the thing going, now you asses are corking up the hole again.” There would still be obstinate resistance from machine-gunners, artillery and corps d’elite, but the old fighting spirit of the German infantry, which had achieved so much and borne so much, was broken. On August nth the Kaiser attended a meeting of the higher Army leaders. Ludendorff offered to resign, but the offer was not accepted.

The Kaiser, however, was moved to say, “I see that we must strike a balance. We have nearly reached the limit of our powers of resistance. The war must be ended.” “Thus,” comments the British Official Historian, “the collapse of Germany began not in the Navy, not in the Homeland, not in any of the sideshows, but on the Western Front in consequence of defeat in the field.”

The Battle of August 8th was a triumph of the planning and method perfected by Monash and the Australian Corps; of the co-ordination and cunning of Rawlinson; of the valour and efficiency of the British artillery and tanks; and of the courage, initiative and dash of the infantry of the two Dominions, revelling in the war of movement that had come at last.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X