The Battle of Amiens began on August 8th 1918. The Allied offensive marked the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive that led to the surrender of the German forces on the Western Front. At the Battle of Amiens the full range of new technologies combined with adapted tactics to great effect.
The Battle of Amiens lasted just three days, incredibly short for the First World War. Yet it was a highly significant three days. The attack caught the Germans totally by surprise. Forces from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, under the command of Sir Henry Rawlinson were accompanied by French forces. On the first day alone the assault advanced some 8 miles, captured 470 artillery pieces and inflicted 270000 casualties upon the Germans.
Amiens marked a turning point. Victories had been won in the past. Land had been captured. Casualties had been inflicted, and suffered. On those counts, Amiens seems little different. Yet it was quickly identified as being different by Generals on both sides. Paul von Hindenburg famously said of the first day:
“August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war… Our war machine was no longer efficient”
Paul von Hindenburg
Why was Amiens different?
Amiens was different because of the nature of the German loss. 12000 men surrendered. Much of the captured machinery and artillery was intact. Previously, weapons and stores had at least been damaged to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Men had fought, rather than surrendering. The will of the German forces appeared to have been broken. General Ludendorff certainly thought so, it was after the first day of Amiens that he began to press home the idea of agreeing peace terms.
Tactics and forces at the Battle of Amiens
In the months prior to the Battle of Amiens the Germans had been on the offensive. Having defeated the Russians they had moved troops to the Western Front. With a numerical advantage they had launched the Spring Offensive. This had been aimed at breaking the Allies resolve before troops from the United States arrived in large numbers. This advance had come to a halt in July 1918.
At Amiens the forces gathered by the Allies numbered 100000 men, 3352 artillery pieces, 600 armoured vehicles and over 2000 aircraft. The German defenders were outnumbered. The forces on the lines at Amiens numbered 37000. They had in the region of 350 aircraft, no armoured vehicles and 530 artillery pieces.
Tactics proved significant. Numerical superiority on the Western Front had counted for nothing in previous campaigns. The defensive strengths of trench systems had rendered frontal attacks and large bombardments ineffective. The preparatory bombardment, as best illustrated at the Somme in 1916, not only had failed to penetrate into bunkers but had also given days or weeks notice of the impending assault.
At the Battle of Amiens there was no such preliminary bombardment. Instead, a creeping barrage was used. Allied artillery was now capable of much more accurate fire. It was directed at targets in the front lines and just in front of advancing troops, a ‘creeping barrage‘ ahead as the tanks and infantry advanced.
In earlier encounters the infantry had struggled to cut through barbed wire. Here, the tanks were able to do the job. The Germans had been unable to prevent armoured vehicles advancing and so the benefit of a barbed wire line were lost. German artillery was hampered from the air, as were machine gunners. Air supremacy allowed a combined operation by the Allies that saw targets at the front line, in reserve trenches and the supporting artillery being engaged at the same time.
Technological advances on the Battlefield
Amiens saw the use of some new technologies. Though these were limited and there was a continued need for older methods, they had a positive impact on the way that the battle could be coordinated. Most significant was the use of radio to the artillery. Gunners were receiving accurate information about the advance. They were being given targets. They knew where to attack and when to do it for greatest effect.
Not all communication was this advanced though. Armoured vehicles had no such use of radio, relying on pigeons to relay news to headquarters and runners to bring new orders.
Armoured cars were used to good effect at Amiens. Much faster than tanks, these reached 30mph, they could engage German reinforcements and have the speed to evade any counter measures.
The role of Cavalry
At the start of the war Cavalry had been held in high esteem. Then the usefulness of the cavalry as an offensive unit had diminished as trench warfare made charges suicidal. At the Battle of Amiens though, Cavalry was deployed. It was also very successful. For all the changes in tactics and new technologies there was still a role for mobile horse based units. The British 7th Dragoon Guards made a successful attack on Cayeux Wood, capturing 12 machine guns and prisoners. The 5th Dragoons at Harbonnieres captured a troop train, taking 1000 Germans prisoner. Though still quite limited in their uses in a modernising battlefield, these examples show that the mobility of horses can and did remain useful.
The Battle of Amiens lasted just three days. German losses were high. The Allies did not attempt to advance any further at Amiens. The strategy at the time was to inflict maximum damage and then move forces to another sector, to repeat the damage again there. This was a strategy based on knowing that superiority of numbers would soon be on the Allied side and that the Germans were suffering from food shortages. Other assaults were launched in quick succession as part of the Hundred Days Offensive that led to victory on the Western Front. Amiens is hugely significant for changing the views of the German High Command and its impact on morale for both sides. It illustrated that the British on the Western Front were capable of inflicting damage. For Empire forces involved in the battle it was another step towards their full recognition as effective fighting forces in their own right.