The Battle of Amiens, Aug 8 1918, was referred to as a “black day” for the German army.By July and August 1918, Australian forces on the Western Front were at their peak. They were seasoned, well-equipped soldiers with effective leaders at every level, supported by tanks, aircraft and especially artillery.
Improvements in technology allowed the big guns to deliver devastating barrages on enemy positions without warning, to create moving barrages behind which the infantry followed, and to strike distant German guns using the new technique of sound ranging.
Soldiers, given free rein, developed their own tactics, such as “peaceful penetration”, with small groups infiltrating German positions, taking prisoners and even seizing sections of territory, all without big attacks or significant casualties.
With success came growing confidence. Australian War Memorial senior historian Ashley Ekins said the soldiers began to realise they might actually survive. In the darkest days of 1917, few could have been so optimistic.
“Men know that providing they practise the skills and battle procedures they have learned and follow the plan, there is far better chance of survival,” he said.
“But it still must have seemed to many soldiers by late 1918 that this war was going to go on forever.
“No one knew the war was going to be over before the end of 1918.”
German forces appeared far from defeated. In March, the German offensive rolled over allied forces, seizing in hours and days territory fought over for months at stupendous cost in 1916 and 1917.
Though fought to a standstill and having been steadily pushed back, the Germans tried again with a major attack against the French on July 15, their final major offensive on the Western Front.
That was checked and French and US forces counter-attacked on July 18, leading into the famous “Hundred Days” in which successive allied attacks brought the war to an end.
The Battle of Amiens on August 8 was the opening act of the 100 days, with Australian troops in a leading role.
Following the success at Hamel on July 4, Australian commander Lieutenant General Sir John Monash proposed an attack east of the city of Amiens. Others were thinking along similar lines and British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig gave the go-ahead on July 19.
Because of Australian achievements at Hamel and subsequent operations, two Australian divisions would spearhead the attack, with British and Canadian divisions on each flank.
Amiens was akin to Hamel, though on a vastly larger scale – 2,000 guns, all 552 tanks of the British Tanks Corps, cavalry and aircraft, including the Australian Flying Corps No 3 Squadron.
At 4.20am on August 8, the guns opened fire and tanks and soldiers moved off into the morning fog along a 13.5-kilometre front.
Lumbering tanks crushed thick belts of barbed wire, allowing easy passage for following infantry. Working in co-operation with the soldiers, the tanks obliterated any German strong-points that had survived the artillery.
Progress was immediate and spectacular, with the Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions and Canadian Corps overrunning the German frontline by mid-morning.
To maintain momentum, the Australian 4th and 5th Divisions passed through the 2nd and 3rd Divisions – a difficult process performed flawlessly in the heat of battle – and pressed forward.
The British Corps on the left flank hadn’t maintained quite the same progress, with less experienced troops and facing more difficult terrain. But by the end of the day, all had reached their final objectives, the so-called Blue Line, advancing the front by 13 kilometres.
German forces had suffered a shattering blow, with 27,000 casualties, including 16,000 prisoners, half taken by the advancing Australians.
The Germans acknowledged this spectacular reverse.
General Erich Ludendorff famously described it as ‘the black day of the German army in this war”. The official German history described it as their greatest defeat since the start of the war.
General Henry Rawlinson, commander of the British Fourth Army, declared this as fine a feat of arms as any the war could produce, saying the Canadians had done splendidly and the Aussies even better.
On August 12, Monash was knighted by King George V in recognition of his achievements.
By WWI standards, casualties were modest for the result attained but were still substantial – around 9,000 including 2,000 Australian dead and wounded.
The offensive continued on ensuing days against stiffening resistance but didn’t match the success of August 8.
Only some 155 of more than 400 tanks remained serviceable and their crews were exhausted. Artillery and supply trains struggled to keep up with the advance.
Attacks were mounted hurriedly on limited information without the detailed planning of Hamel and Amiens and with limited or no tank or artillery support.
In little remembered actions at Lihons, Etinehem and Proyart, casualties were substantial. Official correspondent Charles Bean observed that these were a classic example of how not to follow up a great attack.