Amiens: Aug 1918
The battle of Amiens was the first act in what became known as the Last Hundred Days, and the opening day of the battle was to be the “Black Day of the German Army.”
Field Marshal Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, had selected the ground in front of Amiens for an Allied offensive as early as May 1918; this sector was vital to securing the railway line running from Paris to points north. Initially planned for a June start, German attacks on the Marne river postponed this offensive until early August.
German defences were weak – they themselves had only overrun the area in March, and they had not had time to construct concrete fortifications or deep trench systems and belts of wire emplacements. Both time and surprise were seen as vital factors to success. Marshal Foch, the Allied supreme commander, and Field Marshal Haig, agreed that the Canadians and Australians – “colonial storm troops” – would bear the main burden of the upcoming attack, and that secrecy would be a prime consideration in the planning. General Currie, the Canadian corps commander, was not advised of his role until 16 July, giving him only three weeks to prepare, and battalion, brigade and even his division commanders were kept out in the dark until 29 July, just a day before the corps was tasked to move south.
Not wishing to signal an imminent attack, as the arrival on the front of the Canadians adjacent to the Australians surely would, elaborate deception measures were taken in order to give the impression to the Germans that the lines were being thinned instead of being prepared for an attack. Canadian officers on reconnaissance missions dressed in Australian uniform, and at Kemmel Hill in Flanders, the 27th Battalion and 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles staged a trench raid, leaving equipment and insignia in their wake to be identified as Canadian. Canadian Corps wireless messages were sent to establish a presence in the area, as well as two casualty clearing stations. In the meantime, 100,000 Canadians, with 20,000 horses and 1,000 guns moved as discretely as possible between 30 July and 3 August to a concentration area south of Amiens, with three of the four divisions crowding into a wood just two by three kilometres in area.
Not permitted to establish their own supply dumps, the Canadian Corps struggled to move seven thousand tons of shells for their artillery and 10 million rounds of small-arms ammunition from distant British dumps before the start of the offensive; some units had to scavenge for grenades and rifle bullets from French units before Zero Hour despite Herculean efforts by Canadian service corps units.1
The main attack, by five Australian and four Canadian divisions, scheduled for 8 August, was to go in without a preliminary bombardment. French attacks also planned for that day were being conducted with a preparatory barrage. For the Canadians and Australians, a rolling barrage would start at Zero Hour, with tanks crashing through the enemy’s front lines, as had been done at Cambrai. Three objective phase lines were marked out; the German front line (Green Line), the reserve and gun lines (Red Line), and a final line far to the enemy’s rear (Blue Dotted Line). The artillery planned elaborate counter-bombardment measures to prevent German artillery from hindering the attack.
There would be no preliminary bombardment, for two reasons. One was that the 106 fuse, introduced in early 1917, was now available in substantial quantities. The 106 fuse ensured consistent wire-cutting by causing shells to explode on contact; previously, they would detonate either high above the wire or far below the ground, which required a deluge of shells for a prolonged period to make sure that gaps were cut for the infantry at zero hour. The second reason to dispense with preliminary bombardment was the presence of tanks – 324 Mark V heavy tanks and 96 Medium Mark A “Whippets.” With a road speed of 4.6 miles per hour, the Mark V weighed more than thirty tons and carried a crew of seven who manned six machine-guns (the so-called “female” tank) or four machine-guns and two light guns (the “male” version). The Whippet’s top speed was 8.3 miles per hour, but it was equipped only with light machine guns. The Mark V’s would lead the attack, crushing barbed wire entanglements and smashing strongpoints, while the Whippets would go into action with the Cavalry Corps during the exploitation phase of the battle.2
Each of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were scheduled to attack with a single brigade up, a second brigade to move into the line as the front widened, and a third brigade in reserve. The 4th Division remained in Corps reserve with the cavalry, earmarked to leapfrog ahead once the advance passed the Luce river upon the 1st and 3rd Divisions reaching the second phase line. The three assault divisions had a battalion of 42 Mark V tanks assigned to each, with a fourth battalion of 36 tanks assigned to the 4th Division. Two battalions of lighter Whippet tanks were to accompany the cavalry.
And, more than any other battle yet fought, Amiens involved air power. Each of the corps had a squadron of two-seaters allocated to it for reconnaissance patrols and artillery observations duties. These corps squadrons were protected by eight single-seater fighter squadrons, some of which would engage in close ground support when circumstances permitted.3
The planning has been described as “an astonishing departure from the methods of the Somme and Passchendaele” for its reliance on surprise. Not only was there no preparatory bombardment, but “in fact, the heavy artillery (also) fired without registration).”4 Hopes were instead pinned on the tanks. In all, the 4th Army under Rawlinson amounted to 420 tanks, 9 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, and 2,070 guns. Facing them were ten under-strength German divisions in the line, with four in reserve on a 14-mile front.5
After midnight on 8 August, two Canadian-flown Handley-Page bombers began low-level flights over the front, using their engine noise to mask the sound of tanks moving up to the front. Zero Hour was set for 04:20 a.m.
At 4:20 a.m., the world seemed to explode. The barrage overhead lit up the dark sky. “You could’ve read a newspaper whichever way you looked – reflection from the gun fire,” recalled Private William Curtis, who professed amazement at the amount of artillery assembled for this operation. “We had to step over the wheels of the guns, between the hubs, to get forward.”6
The Canadian official history described the opening of the battle in these words:
The night of 7-8 August was fine with no moon. There was a tense air of expectancy as the troops earmarked for the assault moved up under cover of darkness to their assembly area. On the Canadian Corps right the 3rd Division relieved an Australian brigade at 2:00 a.m.; it was four o’clock, only twenty minutes from zero, before the last of General Lipsett’s attacking units were in position. By that time a thick ground mist had begun to form in the valleys, blotting out visibility even after the sun had risen. The supporting tanks began to move for ward at twelve minutes before zero from positions one thousand yards behind the front. To drown the hum of their engines – running as quietly as possible in second gear – the artillery maintained a normal harassing fire, and a large bombing plane droned noisily up and down above the forward trenches. Exactly at 4:20 the barrage opened with the thunder of more than nine hundred guns and immediately the assaulting infantry pressed forward. In the Luce valley, where the mist was especially heavy, the Canadians were hard put to it to keep pace and direction. The enemy’s barrage came down within a few minutes of zero, but thanks to the excellent counter-battery work of the British guns the German fire was generally erratic and not particularly damaging.
The 1st and 2nd Divisions were each attacking on a single brigade frontage, using a fresh brigade at successive lines of advance, but because the River Luce split the 3rd Division’s front General Lipsett employed two brigades in the initial phase. He crowded three battalions of the 9th Brigade and a company of the 5th Tank Battalion into the narrow bridgehead south of the river about Hourges, while on his left flank the 8th Brigade assaulted with a single battalion up.
The leading battalions advanced well deployed so as to reduce the number of casualties from the enemy’s fire. In general each was disposed in five waves at intervals of one hundred yards. Skirmishers in the foremost wave of two lines, thirty yards apart, helped guide the tanks. The next three waves consisted of well dispersed section columns in single file; and carrying parties brought up the rear. The infantry found themselves less heavily burdened than in former operations, for to meet the requirements of a prolonged yet rapid advance General Rawlinson’s staff had devised a modified “fighting order”* which eliminated some unnecessary weight and distributed the rest more evenly.7
The three Canadian divisions faced little opposition to the first assaults, as they went in through heavy mist. While the tanks performed less than admirably, many becoming lost, bogged (notably at the Luce river crossings in the south) or else broke down with mechanical problems, the infantry were able to overcome scattered resistance or simply bypass them to secure the Green Line by 08:20 a.m. and push fresh brigades onto the next objective.
As the fog began lifting in mid-morning, resistance began to stiffen, especially from enemy machine-gun crews. Four Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for actions during the Battle of Amiens, all for engaging enemy machine guns.
In the centre of the Canadian Corps, the 1st Division was charged with fighting through the wooded area north of the Luce River and advancing beyond Hangard Wood, through a narrowing frontage towards the Outer Amiens Defence Line past the town of Caix. The final phase of the operation would require the division to negotiate the steep, tree-lined Luce valley.
The initial attacks were initiated by the 3rd Brigade; from north to south the 14th Battalion, 13th Battalion and 16th Battalion attacked through the dense mist, and here, too, tank-infantry co-operation was extremely poor, though the attackers were well-hidden from German view and enemy fire was much reduced in effectiveness.
Disregarding threats from flank and rear, the Canadians pushed quickly ahead. Small detachments which became involved in local actions left the mopping up for succeeding waves. So rapid was the advance that the 3rd and 5th Battalions, which theoretically were not involved in this stage of the attack, found themselves committed in sharp encounters with parties of Germans that had been by-passed. Twenty-five hundred yards from the start line fighting developed all along the trenches which formed the enemy’s main line of resistance in front of his artillery positions. It was here that Private J.B. Croak earned the first of two Victoria Crosses won that day by members of the 13th Battalion. Having attacked and captured a machine-gun nest single-handed, Croak, though badly wounded, later charged another German strongpoint and with the aid of other members of his platoon silenced three machine-guns, bayoneting or capturing their crews. Wounded a second time, he died just after the last resistance was overcome. Equally courageous was Corporal H.J. Good, of the 13th, in disposing of three machine-guns and their crews, and then with the assistance of three comrades, assaulting and capturing German battery of 5.9-inch guns and their entire crews.
Beyond Aubercourt, where the division entered the Luce Valley, the speed of the advance quickened, for with the lifting of the fog the 3rd Brigade was able to get forward its supporting tanks (of the 4th Tank Battalion) to deal with troublesome enemy machine-guns. In a quarry on the river bank east of the village a party from the 16th Battalion aided by a tank flushed the regimental commander and headquarters staff of the 157th Regiment (117th Division). The battalion crossed the Luce, and abreast of the 13th and 14th reached the Green Line by 8:15 a.m. Almost immediately the attacking battalions of Brig.-Gen. Griesbach’s 1st Brigade leapfrogged the 3rd Brigade units and were on their way to the Red Line.
In this second stage the advance of all three battalions followed the same pattern. On several occasions they were held up by the fire of German machine-guns advantageously sited on the high ridges or concealed in the small woods that interspersed the grain fields. Before their tanks caught up, the infantry had only the support of their own Lewis guns in dealing with these. Canadian casualties were light, most of the losses coming from German artillery fire. By eleven o’clock the 2nd Battalion, south of the Luce, had reached its objective and established outposts on the high ground east of Cayeux. In the centre the 4th Battalion, advancing astride the river bed, cleared Cayeux without meeting much opposition; while on the Brigade left the 3rd Battalion, having run into trouble in the deep ravines that entered the Luce valley from the north, made good its portion of the Red Line by 11:30.11
The 2nd Brigade then passed through, advancing on a narrower front with just two battalions forward, each with two companies forward. The 7th Battalion had been delayed by the absence of bridges over the Luce River and a stream of cavalry traffic barring the way, and had to come up through the 1st Brigade’s right wing an hour and a half behind schedule. While organized enemy resistance had collapsed, isolated machine gunners and snipers still occupied the assault troops as the bulk of the Germans retreated. By 1:30 p.m., the 10th Battalion, on the north side of the river, managed to attack through Caix and seized its final objectives in the Amiens Outer Line, being joined by the 7th Battalion at 2:30 p.m.12
The battalion history, Gallant Canadians, notes that the Luce River itself posed no obstacle to manoeuvre, though the valley was flanked by tree-clad ravines. The fog had already started to lift by the time the 10th stepped off at 6:20 a.m. and moved to its jumping off point for the attack at about 11:00 a.m., though sources vary on the actual time. The 2nd Field Brigade, tasked as fire support, could not keep up with the infantry’s rapid advance to that point, and the 10th was obliged to assault without artillery support. When some guns tried to fire at extreme range, their shells landed among the leading men of the 10th, wounding the company commander of “B” Company, Captain Edward Milne, who was later awarded the Military Cross for continuing despite his injuries. The 10th also had to attack with an exposed flank, as the 31st (Alberta) Battalion of the 2nd Division was nowhere in sight. “C” Company was required to send troops into the area of the 31st in order to quiet German machine guns; Captain Jack Mitchell, their Officer Commanding, and two of his platoon commanders, were also awarded the Military Cross for actions that day, which included the capture of sixty Germans and five machine guns.
“B” and “C” Companies bypassed Caix while “A” and “D” assaulted the village, with its 16th Century church and high-walled lanes, finding just occasional snipers in the mostly deserted place. Possession of Caix allowed the 7th Battalion to cross the Luce and secure the 10th Battalions right flank as the 10th settled on the objective – the Blue Dotted Line – at 1:15 p.m.
The first unit of the Canadian Corps to reach this objective was in fact the 10th Battalion. The Amiens Outer Line, which had been built by the British earlier in the war, and then captured by the Germans earlier in 1918, in fact represented the Blue Dotted Line. German defenders during this new battle at Amiens had put up a stronger fight from sunken roads and the remaining trenches, but the part of the 1st Canadian Division was now over, its objectives secure.13
German losses had been very great. Thanks to the good work done by the heavy artillery supporting the Canadian attack, many troops of the 117th Division had been pinned in their shelters until overrun. Resting battalions, thrown in piecemeal, had suffered heavily in attempting to stand and even more severely in the subsequent retreat. Examination after the battle showed that the neutralization of German bakeries had been very effective. The Canadians captured many batteries that had not fired a shot, although there were some cases of German gun crews being credited with firing until the last round before they deliberately destroyed their pieces. According to official German sources the 117th Division was virtually wiped out. In an effort to bolster resistance opposite the centre of the Canadian front, the German Second Army was thrusting in the 119th Division, borrowed, like the 1st Reserve Division, from the neighbouring Eighteenth Army. Farther north the exhausted 109th Division, which… had been relieved by the 117th only a short time before, on the morning of the 8th, was rushed forward from corps reserve to Harbonnières, and thrown into action opposite the Canadian left. It was evening before the 119th Division arrived, but by 8:40 p.m. it could report having plugged the last gap in the Second Army’s front, in the area Caix-Beaucourt.14
Results – 8 August
On the left of the Corps’ flank, the Australians were on the majority of their objectives by early afternoon; British failures north of the Somme made for difficult going in the north of their sector. The 3rd British Corps had suffered during the German offensives in March 1918, and shortages of officers and NCOs with experience were telling, exacerbated by recent heavy fighting on August 6th and 7th. The 3rd Corps also had to contend with extremely difficult terrain, and by day’s end had only advanced a short distance past its first objectives, leaving the 4th Australian Division to also withdraw from its final objectives.
More far-reaching in its effect than the setbacks on the Fourth army’s flanks was the failure to employ the cavalry to exploit the general success. Because of difficulties in transmitting orders* and an apparent reluctance by Cavalry Corps Headquarters to act without instruction from the Fourth Army a great opportunity was lost. Fighting ahead of the
infantry in the final phases, by early afternoon of 8 August the cavalry had (except, on the extreme right, east of Le Quesnel) gained a footing in the Amiens Outer Defence Line across the whole of the Canadian Corps front. But there the advance had stopped. In the meantime, at 12:30 General Rawlinson’s Major General, General Staff had sent instructions to the G.O.C. Cavalry Corps that the cavalry should not halt at the Blue Dotted Line, but push on eastward towards the general line Chaulnés-Roye. But it was 4:15 p.m. before such orders, relayed by Cavalry Corps Headquarters, reached the frequently moving headquarters of the 1st Cavalry Division. Attempts in the late afternoon to push patrols towards Chaulnes failed, for the Germans had dug in strongly along the line Rosières-Vrély, some two thousand yards east of the Blue Dotted Line. The 3rd Cavalry Division, as we have seen, had been checked in front of Le Quesnel. The 7th Cavalry Brigade on the divisional left, however, reached the Dotted Blue Line before three o’clock; but an attempt by the 2nd Cavalry Division to pass through and push on eastward failed. At 5:20 p.m. General Kavanagh ordered his 3rd Division to hold on to the line it had reached until the infantry came up.
Although the day’s operations by the Fourth Army and the French First Army had attained somewhat less than complete success, the enemy had suffered its greatest defeat since the beginning of the war. From north of the Somme to south of Moreuil the German line had been thrown back as much as eight miles in the Canadian sector and up to seven on the Australian front. On the flanks the French had advanced a maximum of five miles, and the British two. The cost of all these gains had been remarkably light. The Fourth Army’s casualties were approximately 8800, exclusive of tank and air losses. Canadian casualties totalled 3868-1036 killed, 2803 wounded, and 29 taken prisoner.
The enemy admitted that his forward divisions between the Avre and the Somme had been “nearly completely annihilated”, while his troops north of the Somme had “suffered severely”. Official German figures gave the Second Army’s casualties as “650 to 700 officers and 26,000 to 27,000 other ranks…. More than two-thirds of the total loss had surrendered as prisoners.” Allied forces had destroyed or seized more than 400 guns, many trench mortars and “a huge number of machine-guns”. The Canadian Corps was credited with capturing 5033 prisoners and 161 guns.15
Another historian summed it up succinctly:
In just over fourteen hours the Canadian Corps had thrust forward by twelve kilometres, and the Australians by nearly as much. In the process nearly two German divisions had been obliterated. The Canadians alone took over 5000 prisoners-of-war in that brief time. General Ludendorf(f) later called this the “black day of the German Army in the history of this war.” And while the German Army was still far from being defeated in the field, the morale of its high command had suffered an irreparable blow; they were now convinced that they would lose the war!16
The Battle of Amiens was the last time that the Canadian Corps fought as an all-volunteer force; reinforcements arriving at the front began to include conscripts, the politically controversial solution to manpower problems in the CEF.
As always during the First World War, railways permitted the defender to reinforce his failing front much faster than the attacker could widen and deepen any gap that he might create. Another ten divisions would arrive by midnight on the 11th, despite efforts by the (Royal Air Force) to destroy the Somme bridges and thus isolate the battlefield. Then too, the advance had reached the edge of the 1916 Somme battlefield, with mazes of old trenches and barbed wire.
The fighting continued until 19 August, but after the 10th it involved mainly small, albeit often sharp and bitter actions to straighten the line and to clear some of the old trenches that the Germans had fortified and were attempting to hold.
Amiens was a great tactical victory. The Canadian Corps had advanced 22 kilometres on a front of 10 thousand metres, and had captured nearly 9000 prisoners. These gains had cost nearly 12 thousand casualties, but this time at least there had been real purpose, and very substantial results. This battle changed the course of the war; it brought the end in sight! And, as the London Times wrote in August 1918, ‘”…it was chiefly a Canadian battle.”17
On August 14th the Corps was ordered to move to the Arras sector as part of the First Army, though in fact they did not move until the 16th. Amiens had been costly for the Germans, and if conscription was a political crisis for Canada, the Germans too had their manpower problems, in the form of 75,000 new casualties. They had to break up divisions to reinforce others. The German leadership finally began to believe the war could be lost – and started negotiating through neutral organizations.
|1. Marteinson, John. We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army (Ovale Publications, Montreal, PQ, 1992) ISBN 2894290438 p.190|
|2. Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 (The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990) ISBN 0-9694616-0-7|
|3. Marteinson, Ibid|
|4. Goodspeed, D.J. The Armed Forces of Canada, 1867-1967: A Century of Achievement (Queen’s Printer, Ottawa, ON, 1967) p.58|
|6. Dancocks, Ibid, p.172|
|7. Nicholson, Gerald Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Candian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Duhamel, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 1964)|
|9. Marteinson, Ibid, p.192|
|10. Ibid, p.193|
|11. Nicholson, Ibid|
|13. Dancocks, Ibid, p.176|
|14. Nicholson, Ibid|
|17. Marteinson, Ibid, p.194|