The Battle of Amiens was a master-stroke by the Allies, and is one of the few offensives that can truly be claimed as a British victory. It was an operation that brought together all that the leaders had learned in the course of the Great War, and saw them use the weapons at their disposal, new and old, in harmony to achieve a common objective. The attack took place over a small front of seven miles, so it could burst out with a ferocity far more difficult to combat than a more spread out offensive. By now the leaders had also recognised the importance of the element of surprise in battle; even more crucially, they had learned to acknowledge when that element was lost, and halt the attack at that point to prevent lives from being lost needlessly.
The plan was put together by Field Marshall Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France, and General Henry ‘The Fox’ Rawlinson, Commander of the Fourth Army. ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin explains that the huge offensive was to see 12 divisions of Rawlinson’s Army, with the help of the French First Army, go up against the German Second and Eighteenth Armies with the help of 600 tanks, 2,000 guns (twice as many as the number available to the Germans) and 1,900 aircraft (to Germany’s 365). The aim? To secure the outer Amiens Defence Line six miles ahead on the first day, then the western edge of the old Somme battlefields six miles beyond again.
The attack would be spearheaded by Australian Corps under Lieutenant General Richard Butler on the left and the Canadian Corps under Lieutenant General Arthur Currie on the right, with the First French Army under General Marie-Eugène Debeney attacking from even further to the right (and setting off 45 minutes after the Fourth Army) and Rawlinson’s Third Corps on the far left. The full strength of the Tank Corps, consisting of nine heavy Battalions of Mark Vs and Mark V*s and two Battalions of Whippets, would be committed to back the infantry up.
The element of surprise was the priority in the planning. The Canadians were at Arras at the time the idea was conceived, and, according to H Essame’s ‘The Battle for Europe 1918’, were set to be brought in only at the last possible moment. Meanwhile, wireless activity would increase near Saint-Pol and one or two tanks would be sent to raise dust and show themselves, to make the enemy think the Canadians were around that area rather than on the move, heading south. John Maitland Salmond, Marshal of the RAF, proposed that some of his aircraft conduct a medium bombing attack in the hours before the main offensive, not big enough to be seen as a pre-attack softener but loud enough to drown out the noise of the tanks moving forward. He also suggested that they fly over the lines of the First and Fifth British Armies in the days before the 8th, to make the enemy believe there might be an attack near Ypres. He proposed bombing German airfields at first light, to press home the Allied advantage in the air by slowing German retaliation, and then attacking German reserves de-training in the area. There would be no preliminary barrage to warn the Germans of the offensive; instead, the infantry would advance behind a creeping barrage. All movements prior the attack would be made while it was still dark, and the assaulting battalions would not be informed about their involvement until three days ahead, so that any men taken prisoner couldn’t give away the plan.
The secrecy worked. The German Army had only just finished fighting the Second Battle of the Marne against Ferdinand Foch and the French Fourth Army on 6th August 1918, and Ludendorff was tired and in need of a rest, so he was caught off-balance. 100,000 Allied infantry were in place when zero hour struck at 4.20am, and 1,000 guns began firing (2/3 of the available artillery was held back to deal with German counter-attacks). Under cover of the resulting dust and noise, the Fourth Army moved off immediately; the French remained behind to conduct a preliminary barrage of their front line, and set off later.
The Australians worked well with the tanks, staying behind to let them crush the wire between them and the German positions, then moving in to clean up remaining defenders. They had a relatively easy time of it, as many of the surprised enemy troops surrendered without a fight. Those that didn’t were overwhelmed by the determination of the Australian troops. It only took until 11am for them to reach their first objective, the commune of Harbonnières. On the way, they had taken a healthy crop of prisoners and guns, as well as a German Army pay office. The Canadians had a bit of a tougher time, meeting with heavy machine gun fire, but also pushed forward bravely and reached the objective. The cavalry divisions supporting the Australian and Canadian troops, meanwhile, made excellent progress. Despite some difficulties coordinating with the Whippet tanks (the cavalry were faster than the tanks while there was no opposition, then found themselves unprotected and under fire until the tanks could catch up), the cavalry stormed ahead of the infantry to the Somme Battlefields, and could have got much further, had the order to do so reached them before the opposition had time to regroup.
The French Army and Third Corps, meanwhile, met with less success. The First Army, having set off late, found that their preliminary barrage did not make up for the loss of surprise. They made comparatively slow progress, only reaching their objective, Mézières, at 3.00pm while the Canadians had reached it at 10.30, and then only meeting up with the Canadians at dusk. They also failed to send their cavalry to support the British horses when called upon to do so, perhaps because of confusion in the orders, perhaps because they were simply unable to force their way through the opposition. Third Corps had the least easy time, since the German troops they were facing had launched an offensive of their own just weeks earlier; they were therefore fully expecting a retaliation, and were the only Germans not taken by surprise. The lie of the ground didn’t help, being very sloped, and there was only one tank battalion assigned to this Corps; still, they too reached their first objective by the end of the day, though they covered far less ground.
During the day the Allies had managed to take 16,000 prisoners between them, and had advanced eight miles overall, through a 12-mile gap in the German front. However, the Germans quickly regrouped, and through the night and over the next two days, nine divisions of reinforcements turned up. By the second day only about 1/3 of the British tanks remained, with the rest having broken down or been disabled by machine gun fire. More German planes turned up, so the skies were no longer an Allied playground, and although more prisoners and guns were taken, advances dwindled and the troops were tiring. The French Army made good progress, but only because the Eighteenth Army cut its losses and withdrew a little way. On the 11th August Ludendorff, crushed by his losses, offered his resignation; it was not accepted, but there was no denying that the German army had suffered in this battle. 24 German divisions had been pummelled by 13 Infantry divisions and three Cavalry ones, and while the British had sustained 22,000 casualties (the French losses aren’t certain), ‘The Western Front Companion’ estimates that the Germans sustained 74,000 casualties, 47,000 as prisoners, and lost 600-700 guns.
This victory might have turned to defeat if the Allies had been carried away by their gains and continued the offensive, since the German army was now back to strength, and holding a relatively impenetrable area that was not suitable for deploying tanks over. Haig weighed up his options and suspended operation, realising that any gains he was likely to achieve by persisting would now be outweighed by casualties, since the element of surprise was lost. It is probable that his decision saved many lives on both sides.
The greatest Allied gains in the offensive were psychological ones. For a start, the fact that the victory was for once untainted by large losses restored the British Army’s faith in their commanders. Meanwhile, even Ludendorff had lost confidence in himself, so how could his troops not follow suit? The Germans had been tired and flagging before the battle, and the swift and resounding nature of their defeat totally broke their spirits. Many of the prisoners taken had broken into cheers when taken by the Allies, relieved to be out of the fighting, while other units had panicked and surrendered without a fight. The Germans had merely suspected before that perhaps they might lose the war; now they knew they would, and they were devastated. The end was coming.