This article looks at the course of the Battle of Amiens. Read about the extensive preparation for this pivotal battle here.
All the planning and preparation for the Battle of Amiens culminated at 4:20am on the 8th August 1918. This was Zero Hour, and when it came the crews of 2000 guns of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) opened fire on the unsuspecting Germans.
Their targets varied. Most of the heavy guns fired on German artillery positions, of which 504 out of 530 had been identified. Destroying these, or at least forcing their crews to take cover, would mean German frontline positions would have no artillery support to resist the attackers. Other guns, along with lighter field artillery, would fire a creeping barrage to protect and support the infantry as they advanced.
A ‘creeper’ was a wall or wave of exploding shells several hundred yards deep that moved forwards slowly, at a rate it was hoped the infantry would be able to keep up with. There needed to be as short a time as possible between the barrage on a German position ending and the infantry reaching it. Infantry were trained to ‘hug’ the barrage, to the point that taking some casualties from being too close to your own shells was seen as preferable to hanging too far back and giving the Germans time to recover.
Unlike earlier in the war, the barrage wasn’t intended to destroy enemy positions (by now this was accepted as both impossible and unnecessary). Instead the aim was to force the Germans undercover, and blind and disorient them whilst the infantry advanced, vulnerable, across open ground. It was the infantry’s job to capture the defences and kill or capture the Germans manning them.
For the Australian infantry at Amiens, the barrage would begin 200 yards in front of them and ‘lift’ forwards 100 yards at a time, with each lift at 3 minute intervals. This, it was hoped, would be long enough for the men to cover the ground and deal with any German resistance they encountered. Both High Explosive and Shrapnel shells were used, along with some smoke shells to help conceal the attackers.
The 8th August
The attack came as a complete surprise to the Germans. At a higher level commanders had no idea it was coming, and indeed didn’t even know the Canadians had moved into the Amiens sector. The mist, darkness and smoke concealed the actual attack from soldiers on the ground.
In the centre, the Australian Corps advanced across good ground, with artillery, airpower and tank support. Surprise and the heavy barrage overwhelmed most German soldiers, and few put up much resistance. The Green Line was reached by 7:15.
After a pause fresh Australian units pushed on to the Red Line, again meeting very little resistance. After 2 hours, by 10:30, this had been captured as well. What defences there were could be dealt with either by tanks, or by the firepower and skill of the infantry. Some units reached the Blue Line, but the northernmost Australian forces were slowed by German artillery fire from their left flank.
This fire came about because the British units to their north had been slowed. III Corps was assigned to advance north of the Somme River. This was a much harder job and not intended as the main thrust of the attack.
III Corps faced heavy German resistance in terrain that suited the defender well. An early, hard fight for Malard Wood put the British well behind schedule. Once it was captured, by around 9:00, the British faced the high ground of the Chipilly Spur, which was again strongly defended. German artillery in this area therefore survived and was able to fire on the Australians to the south.
III Corps faced a stronger and more determined enemy than the Australians and Canadians. On top of this it was a numerically smaller force and its soldiers were generally less experienced, they also had far fewer tanks in support. They hadn’t attained all their objectives, but this wasn’t going to derail the plan.
At the southern end of the battlefield the Canadian Corps had a harder time than the Australians, but still attained most of their objectives. They faced stiffer German resistance and more artillery than their Australian comrades, but again, through close cooperation with the tanks and a high level of skill amongst the infantry, strong defences such as the village of Marcelcave were overcome. The Canadians reached the Green Line slightly behind schedule, at around 7:45.
As with the Australians, fresh Canadian units then pushed on to the Red Line. The 1st and 2nd Divisions reached it by around 12:30. The 3rd Division, on the southern edge of the Canadian sector, had the hardest time. They had to advance through marshland on the banks of the River Luce towards a well defended plateau. This they did, reaching the Green Line later than their comrades at around 8:30, then pushing on to the Red Line. Although most Canadian units had reached the Blue Line by the end of the day an area in front of 3rd Division, around Le Quesnel, remained in German hands.
French forces had attacked to the south of the Canadians, with the aim of securing their flank. Although they didn’t reach all their objectives, they did inflict heavy losses and helped secure the Canadian advance – ensuring they didn’t suffer from flanking fire in the way the Australians had.
As well as the infantry units, the BEF had assigned forces for exploitation. There were Cavalry units, two battalions of Whippet tanks and the 17th Battalion of the Tank Corps, equipped with Austin Armoured Cars. These all had one thing in common – they could move faster than a walking infantryman. They were intended to get ahead of the infantry as early as possible and use their speed to push on past the Blue Line.
The unexpected appearance of cavalry and tanks in the German rear areas caused panic and confusion, and they were generally able to reach their objectives. The Cavalry captured positions, often through mounted charges, then held them until the infantry were able to reach them. They captured up to 3000 prisoners and many artillery pieces. The 8th August was perhaps the most successful day of the war for the BEF’s cavalry.
The 9th -11th August
The 8th August had been a stunning success. Commanders wanted to push on and exploit it, so made plans for further attacks.
The original plans for the 9th August had the Canadians as the focus, and had their attack being led by the fresh 32nd Division, not the tired units that had fought on the 8th. At the last minute the 32nd was held back, which caused confusion and disrupted Canadian planning and the timing of their attack.
Many of the attacks over these three days were on a smaller scale and poorly coordinated with those launched by other units. They also benefitted from far less tank, air and artillery support than on the 8th. Understandably, they achieved far less.
To make matters worse, German reinforcements were beginning to arrive, stiffening their resistance and further slowing the BEF’s advance. Despite all this, however, the BEF was able to push forward on average 3 miles on the 9th, still significant progress.
The 10th and 11th saw a further loss of momentum. German resistance was increasing still further, the British, Canadian and Australian troops were exhausted, tank support was minimal as more and more machines were lost or broke down (just 38 were used on the 11th, as against 430 on the 8th), and the artillery struggled to locate and fire on new German positions. The BEF and the French were still able to advance, but it was clear that continuing would lead to higher and higher casualties and less and less progress.
Rather than keep the attack going commanders called a halt after the 11th. The original plan was to resume the attack on the 15th, but in the end this didn’t happen. The Battle of Amiens was over.
Amiens was a stunning victory. Around 9,000 Germans were killed or seriously wounded on the 8th alone, and around 30,000 German soldiers were captured across the entire battle along with up to 500 guns. The BEF lost around 22,000 casualties, 4,000 of whom were killed, with French losses around the same. As well as the physical losses, this battle also affected German morale. In particular the effect on their commander Erich Ludendorff was severe, Amiens convinced him that the Germans could not win the war.
Amiens was the first battle of the Hundred Days Offensive, which saw large attacks up and down the Western Front by British and Commonwealth, French, Belgian and American forces. Rather than keep attacking in one location, leading to diminishing returns, the strategy became one of a constant series of shorter duration battles, exploiting Allied superiority in material, transport and administration to quickly move forces and supplies up and down the front faster than the Germans could react.