Much has been written about the Battle of Amiens in recent days. It was the beginning of what is now called “the Hundred Days Offensive” and generally regarded as the opening battle of the last phase of the Great War, in which the Allies finally seized the initiative from a German Army exhausted by months of effort in their “once and for all” attempt to push the Allies back to the sea.
In the words of a contemporary British diarist on the Western front:
“The four years’ war of attrition, culminating in the finally abortive attempts of Ludendorff to break down the Allies resistance in the spring of 1918, had made the time ripe for our own great counter-offensives to succeed at last. What was never possible in 1915, 191 or 1917 was achieved in 1918. It seemed a miracle, and so in a sense it was. For how could it be expected that when the morale of the wonderfully organised German war-machine became so reduced, after five years, our men’s spirits should remain so high, and that they could, after five years, attack, attack and go on attacking all through a long, hot summer, against a tremendous artillery? All this took place on the same old festering battle-ground, whose deadly history and horribly contorted appearance made it a most sinister and forbidding spectacle. But now the courage and endurance of the defenders had sunk far below the heights of those years when the earlier battles made the names of the battle-grounds famous for all time. Fricourt, High Wood, Combles, Trones Wood and Sailly Saissel, we were to know all those dreadful names again and later see that sheet-anchor of the German line, the Aubers Ridge, abandoned.” Major Philip Pilditch, RFA.
The German Army had launched Operation Michael on 21st March 1918, following its peace treaty with the new communist government in Russia which had allowed large number of German troops to be transferred to the Western Front. The initial phase of the German attack was aimed at the right of the British Army but failed to achieve the critical overall break-through. Their second attack was intended to capture Amiens, an important railway junction just south of the River Somme; it was also foiled and the British line had stabilised by the end of April. Subsequent German assaults on other parts of the Allied line up to the middle of July were similarly repulsed, and by the end of that month they realised that their temporary superiority in numbers of troops and artillery had all but vanished.
The Allies, who had been steadily reinforcing their line in response to the German pressure, now realized it was time to turn the tables on the enemy, so Marshal Foch asked General Haig to start the process by implementing a previously-planned counter-attack to the east of Amiens. This would head east with a bit of south in it, along the route of the Somme River, with British forces to the north and Australian and Canadians largely to the South.
There was a need to move fast as the Germans were known to be pulling back from the salient they had captured and the intent was not for the British just to capture ground but to destroy the German Army as well. The original intention was to attack on the 10th August, but this was brought forward to the 8th as the Germans had started to pull troops out of the line following a divisional raid of theirs on the 6th.
The attack was initially supposed to be a British effort alone, but French pride demanded that their First Army, to the right and south of the British line, should take part. This threw up a major tactical problem for the British. Relying upon surprise and the use of massed tanks, they did not want the French to warn the Germans of the impending assault by subjecting the German lines to the usual preliminary heavy artillery barrage. Eventually the two forces agreed to a compromise whereby the French start-time was delayed till some 45 minutes after the British 4th Army had left their positions.
The initial attacks were to be made by the Canadian and Australians who were to fight side-by-side for the first time. They both had a reputation for toughness and the use of local initiative and were reckoned to be ideally suited to the new style of assault. The artillery was to provide support at Zero hour, with almost all the 530 known German arty pieces already targeted by counter-battery fire, their positions having been systematically plotted using the latest sound-ranging and aerial-surveillance methods. A creeping barrage was provided in front of the infantry – but only once they had departed their own lines and were onto the enemy positions.
Almost 600 tanks were deployed. These included Whippet light tanks and the Mark V*, an extended Mk.V with a troop carrying compartment, as well as unarmed tanks loaded with combat-supplies to replen the forward infantry in order to maintain the momentum of the advance.
Secrecy had been the order of the day. Troop movements had been carried out at night and decoy moves to neighbouring sectors made during the day. The Germans thought in the days before, and indeed on the morning of the attack, that the main effort was to be near Albert to the north of Amiens, and, for some time after the infantry began the assault at 0420hr in the mist, did not respond with anything like a co-ordinated defensive fire-plan.
The first wave of seven divisions, two British, two Australian and three Canadian, with a few American forces to the north, quickly took their objectives and the second wave passed through them prior to the third, breakout-phase which was intended to be carried out by tanks with mounted infantry. This was actually completed by the continued advance of the infantry on foot which managed to break through the enemy lines entirely. Cavalry followed and, supported by the RAF and mobile armoured car troops, managed initially to keep the Germans on the move and prevented them from rallying and forming a new defensive line.
To the south of the Somme River, a gap some 15 miles wide had been created in the German line. To the north of the river the going had not been so easy and they had had far fewer tanks in support; they had achieved their Phase 1 objectives but were held thereafter.
By the 10th August the attackers had torn a hole some eight to ten miles deep in the German positions before they ran out of supporting tanks and had moved beyond the range of their artillery. In fact, within a matter of a few days, there were only six serviceable tanks out of the 600-plus that had started the operation.
For their part, the Germans had experienced the first signs of total defeat, which seemed to have permeated complete units as they retreated, or in some cases, simply surrendered wholesale. Attempts to get them to turn and stand were ignored and troops moving up to reinforce the line were greeted with jeers and told to turn back. Local commanders had in some cases, for the first time, lost control. The experience so shook the senior German command that the 8th August was described as “The black day of the German Army”.
In hindsight it was certainly the beginning of the end of the Great War. However, although many see it as a time of spectacular Allied advances, it was not all easy going. Other sectors of the German line held and their artillery was as effective as ever. To the north of Amiens, Pilditch, with his battery of 18pdr field guns, was detached to support troops attacking east through Albert. During the week of the 21st to 28th August he wrote about the various artillery bombardments in support of the attacking infantry. On the 21st, for example:
“Our barrage fire lasted for four solid hours, during which time I was walking up and down behind the guns or sitting in a gun-pit all the time, and at the end felt deafened and very tired. In this time our battery must had fired some three thousand shells. The total by the army must run into millions.”
(For their trouble, the Germans shelled the British guns with gas – though not of the lethal type on this occasion.)
Two days later the advance began in earnest with reports of the Germans having abandoned their forward defensive position. However, they still subjected the advancing Allies to heavy barrages – albeit with lighter guns which were presumably being used to cover their withdrawal. Familiar names started to re-appear on tactical maps and Pilditch wrote about riding though the remains Albert once again. Having regarded it as a “home from home, twenty miles behind the front in 1917”, it was now:
“A beastly sight, dead horses and dead men all over the place, inextricably mixed up with the wreckage…..the cathedral a heap of bricks, with the bronze Madonna fallen from the spire at last…..Smell and ruination, putrefaction and death. One has to turn the head to avoid sights that make one sick.”
The advance soon started to pick up speed and, for the artillery, it was a problem of moving guns forward fast enough to be able to fire ahead of the infantry, while at the same time actually knowing where they were. The fact that the British were now entering ground they had known so well only a year or so previously made things a lot easier for gunner liaison officers. Names like Mametz Wood, Caterpillar Valley etc. were etched in the minds of many and a quick reference to a battalion having reached the “corner of Fricourt Farm” or an order to move a battery to Becourt Chateau needed little further explanation.
At one point, Pilditch wrote, “For four hours we had no news of the forward battalions till the Infantry Brigade Major buckled on a revolver and made a forward reconnaissance by himself and found out what was going on.” That evening, “a general attack on Montauban (where our old Brigade HQ was for a month in 1916) was ordered.”
“This attack was one of the most intensely anxious and worrying episodes of the war for me. Both our Brigades and Heavies were ordered to fire in support on Montauban at 4.50p.m. Orders went out at about 4 o’clock but at three minutes to zero, when we were expecting to hear the first salvos at any minute, Infantry Brigade got the news by runner that one of their battalions had themselves entered Montauban! Then followed a perfectly agonising five minutes on the telephone, trying to get the guns stopped, and as the message had to go to two Brigades and thence to a dozen batteries, let alone the Heavies, who could only be got via D.A. HQ., it was a marvel that they were ever stopped……The fire stopped after a few dozen shells had gone over………That’s one weakness of combined “open” and “siege” warfare. The infantry were going by the former and the artillery by the latter method. Each Battery ought to have had an observer well forward behind the infantry.”
As the advance continued, the British began to suffer more casualties from German guns. In many cases this was because the need to keep moving meant that they did not have enough time to dig themselves adequate cover. Perhaps in others because they were walking over some of the most heavily fought-over areas that still contained huge numbers of casualties buried not far below the surface. The idea of either digging in, or indeed, of occupying some of the old dug-outs which still contained the dead, was too much for even some hardened soldiers.
Some were appalled at the way in which the lessons of the recent past were seemingly forgotten as infantry were thrown into frontal attacks against defended woods. Casualties started to mount again and echelon troops started to encounter the all-too familiar sight of files of wounded men trying to make their way to the rear.
In the support arms, chaos occasionally reigned as overlapping areas of responsibility meant that HQ Staffs directed many gun batteries or ammunition wagon-trains to the same spot. In one small valley behind Vaux Wood, Pilditch was trying to lay out the gun lines for his battery when another from 82nd Bde turned up and “stole” part of his patch. As he tried to shift his own guns out of the way, “more and more Batteries began to come in and settle down all over the place amongst the barbed wire and shell holes, where there was only room for one, or at most, two Batteries. Then the Bosche, seeing all this to-do, began plastering the wretched place with heavy stuff and how dozens of us weren’t killed, I don’t know. “
Both infantry and gunners were in fact subjected to some of the heaviest shelling ever experienced in the whole violent War. The Germans were no doubt firing off ammunition dumps that they were finding increasingly difficult to move to the rear. However, there seems to be no indication that they were actually running short of equipment beyond the usual local problems that all armies encounter. As the Allied infantry and gunners advanced, they noted that some of the equipment overrun was of the most modern type which had clearly only been deployed very recently. It was not a good sign and, as we shall see in future articles, the last act of the Great War would claim many lives on both sides of the rapidly eroding line.
Amiens might well have been the beginning of the end – but the German Army had no intention of simply handing the victor’s laurels to the Allies and quietly going home.
Do you have family diaries that describe the events of the last 100 days ? If you do, would you like to send extracts to The Military Times so we can publish them as part of our tribute to those who laboured on all fronts in the Great War ? It might be an account of life at the Front, or at home in the UK in the last months of the War. We just need a statement that you have the right to allow us to publish the words. We will not re-print large amounts of text, but select interesting extracts to tell the story of what it must have felt like to be so close to the end – and yet perhaps not even realise that the guns were about to fall silent. (Or you can use the comments section to send in words written by people in the War) Ed.