The Impact of Amiens 1918 Part II


8 August 1918 by Will Longstaff, showing German prisoners of war being led towards Amiens.


In that case Germany would be left with a bargaining chip in the French and Belgian territory that she still held. Prince Max sent a conciliatory reply to Wilson offering to introduce democratic government, but Wilson became ever stiffer in his demands as October wore on, demanding the abdication of the Kaiser and insisting that the armistice must be a surrender, with no question of any possible resumption of activities.

The fighting continued. Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff now believed that if they could show that the German Army could not be broken more favourable peace terms might be negotiated. And fight on the German Army did, but now it was very much a question of skilful rearguard actions, with their machine-gunners, as ever, playing a lead part. The Allies, however, were not to be denied. The Flanders offensive was renewed and the other British armies continued to push steadily forwards, as did the French. It was, however, in the American sector that German resistance was at its fiercest, helped considerably by the advantageous nature of the terrain to the defence. American progress at one point ground virtually to a halt, with Foch wanting to remove Pershing from command. But behind the German front line the situation was worsening by the day. Left wing agitators had infiltrated the ranks of the Army and Navy and discipline began to crumble, resulting in a naval mutiny. Eventually, as Turkey and then Austria-Hungary bowed out, armistice negotiations began in earnest. On 9 November Germany was proclaimed a republic and the next day the Kaiser fled across the border to neutral Holland. An armistice Agreement was eventually reached at 5 a.m. on 11 November. Shortly afterwards Canadian troops entered Mons, where for the BEF it had all first started 51 months earlier. Six hours later the guns fell silent.

That, in brief, is the story of the Hundred Days, although in fact it was only ninety-six. Yet, it was the opening day, 8 August, which really set the pattern for what was to follow. In the space of a few hours the British Fourth Army, assisted by the French First Army, demonstrated that tactics had been evolved which were as effective, if not more so, than the German stormtroop approach that had produced such crises in the Allied ranks during the spring and early summer. It was the culmination of what military historians have termed the ‘learning curve’. First was the ability to achieve complete surprise. In this context tribute must be paid to the high quality of staff work, something which has been so often lambasted, especially that of the British Army during 1914-18. That the complete Canadian Corps, the Cavalry Corps, two brigades of tanks and a large amount of extra artillery could be deployed from elsewhere in the British sector in such a short space of time, and without the Germans knowing about it, was an extraordinary achievement, although the part the RAF played in preventing German air reconnaissance from operating successfully over the lines cannot be ignored. It was highly efficient staff work which also ensured that all elements involved in the attack were in the right place for Zero Hour.

The attack itself also showed how much the understanding of the all arms battle had evolved. Artillery, tanks, armoured cars, machine guns, trench mortars, infantry, and airpower combined as never before. True, not everything worked as hoped, notably the co-operation between the cavalry and Whippet tanks, but this had not been tried before. Neither had the use of the Mark V Stars as armoured personnel carriers. The Germans tended to blame just the tanks for the disaster they suffered, but this was largely because they had so few themselves. In truth, no one weapon was dominant. The infantry showed that they were able to cope when their tanks were knocked out or did not appear. Indeed, the quality of low level infantry tactics in terms of fire and movement, especially those practised by the Australians, was most marked. The artillery was invaluable, but in contrast to the mistaken 1915-17 belief that it could win battles on its own, its growing flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing situations stood out. As for the air side, first fog, and then the rapid reaction by the German air force meant that it is very questionable whether the Allies had achieved anything more than air parity over the battlefield on the day itself. This makes the achievements on the ground during 8 August all the more impressive.

It is true that in one respect the British did copy the German tactic of infiltration. It was not, however, by specially trained infantry, but something much more appropriate to what was becoming an increasingly technological war. The Medium tanks and, even more especially, the sixteen Austin armoured cars of the 17th Battalion of the Tank Corps caused confusion in the German ranks out of all proportion to their numbers. What was not possible, given the speed of the Mark V tank and infantry on their feet, as well as the vulnerability of horsed cavalry to machine guns, was immediate exploitation of their success. There was another reason as well – communications. Fourth Army had done everything possible in its planning to ensure that communications worked, applying ‘belt and braces’. Every existing method – line, pigeon, wireless, air-ground, liaison officer, despatch riders (motor-cycle and mounted), heliograph, and the so often much used last resort, the runner – was employed, but the fog of war still reigned. Information still took too long to arrive at the relevant headquarters and this made it difficult to gauge the actual situation on the ground in a timely way.

The delay in the passage of information was one reason for the delay in Fourth Army organizing operations for the following day. The other was that everyone in authority was almost in a state of shock at what had been achieved, as Rawlinson’s chief of staff admitted. In their defence it is worth restating that this was the first major attack that the British Army had carried out since Cambrai in November 1917 and that had been carried out by the Third Army and not the Fourth. The ‘bite and hold’ policy which had evolved during 1915-17 in which a piece of ground was seized and then there was a pause while the artillery was moved forward to support the next phase had become somewhat inbred. There was also a deep respect for the fighting qualities of the German Army, especially its ability to mount immediate counter-attacks. This is why the Mark V Stars had been used to bring machine guns forward and No. 9 Squadron RAF to drop ammunition for them on the objective. The expectation was that the Germans would inevitably counter-attack before nightfall on 8 August and so consolidation was the priority, rather than immediately preparing to push on eastwards.

This is excusable, but when HQ Fourth Army had finally realized that the Germans were in trouble the orders issued were too loose in that they did not lay down a Zero Hour, but left it to the Canadian Corps, which was now to take the lead role, to decide. Currie allowed this flexibility to his subordinate formations and this impacted on the Australians and III Corps. In the end, virtually every brigade attacked at different times, indicating that corps and divisions were as surprised by the success as Fourth Army was. Few brigades were in the position to attack early, if nothing else because they were at a distance from their start lines. This gave the Germans a valuable breathing space and, although very shaken, they were able to shore up their defences to a degree. There was, too, the problem of tank availability. Battle casualties, mechanical breakdowns and crew exhaustion meant that the number of available tanks was sharply reduced. On 8 August 421 had gone into action, but only 143 were available on the following day. Seventy-nine were fit on 10 August, but only 38 on the last day of the attack. By this time, faced with traversing the old Somme battlefield against a now coherent German defence, it was clear that further progress could only come at the cost of heavy casualties, something which the commanders of 1918 were not prepared to countenance any more.

It was this that set the pattern for the rest of the Hundred Days, apart perhaps from the Americans during the Meuse-Argonne battle. Once an offensive had begun to run out of momentum the policy was to halt it and attack elsewhere. This also kept the Germans off balance in that they were never able to commit what reserves they still had to any particular sector. But the nature of the ground fighting had changed in another way. This was increasing decentralization. It did not apply so much to the Americans, who were still on a very steep learning curve, as to the French and the British, whose senior commanders were now so experienced that they could be allowed to operate on a very much looser rein than had been the case. It is a charge that has been levelled against Haig that he delegated operations too much to his army commanders. Yet, they too, and the corps and even the divisional commanders below them found that they could not exert tight control over events in this more open form of warfare, which was often a case of Allied advanced guards tussling with German rearguards and having to use their own initiative. Only when they reached a serious obstacle were higher commands able to take control once more. Otherwise it was more a question of merely giving guidance as to objectives and the shape of the battle.

Beginning with von Hindenburg in his 1919 memoirs, the Germans claimed that their army was not defeated in the field and the idea of the ‘stab in the back’ was eagerly seized on by the political right wing in Germany, if nothing else to combat the Communists, who came close at one point to taking over the country during the civil war that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice. The fact was that the German Army in the West was defeated in the field and this was the reason why Ludendorff, and von Hindenburg, wanted an armistice. That the terms were not in the end what they desired was because the German people had had enough and no longer had any belief that the Army could do anything to avert defeat. That 8 August 1918 was the day that the Allies won the war was because it opened the door to ultimate victory. From then onwards the Germans accepted that they could no longer win. It was, indeed, the ‘Black Day’, to quote Ludendorff, and a ‘Catastrophe’, as reflected in the title of the German official monograph on the battle. Amiens also provided a blueprint for land warfare in the future. Just over twenty years later, with infinitely better performing armoured vehicles, aircraft and radio communications, the same tactics would be replicated in the German Blitzkrieg which would so devastate Europe during the years 1939-41.

Leave a Reply