How the conflict that signalled the start of the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918 became known as the black day of the German army
Like so many battles on Western Front during the First World War, the fighting at Amiens in August 1918 began with the whistles and screams of shellfire, the ubiquitous barrage. But this typical opening gambit signalled the start of a very atypical undertaking for the British, one that was free from drawn-out trench warfare and accusations of lions being led by donkeys.
At the Somme in 1916, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) took 140 days to advance 6 miles, something it only managed after sustaining over 400,000 casualties. Within four hours of the first shells being fired at Amiens, the German lines had been overrun. By nightfall, some elements of the BEF had achieved an advance of 8 miles, and this time for a butcher’s bill of 9,000.
Imperial losses in these few hours were far more severe: 15,000 men killed or wounded and another 12,000 taken prisoner, which had the knock-on effect of shattering morale through the rest of the Kaiser’s army. It was because so many capitulated without resistance that Imperial general Erich Ludendorff would later name it the “black day” for the German army.
Amiens, some 75 miles north of Paris on the Somme River, was a natural focus for an Allied assault, being both the junction at which the French and British fronts met and a vital rail hub that had to be held; a hub, the Allied commanders were all too aware, that they had barely kept from German hands in the months before. The counteroffensive that followed was a masterwork of planning and execution: an ‘all arms’ assault along a 10-mile front involving not only men and artillery, but also cavalry, tanks and aircraft, all working in unison.
It began at 4.20am on 8 August, about an hour before dawn, when 2,000 howitzers and heavy artillery pieces thundered into life. This was the signal for 500 tanks to begin their ominous trundle into no man’s land, rolling through the thick morning mist on a compass bearing and swiftly followed by the three infantry corps of the BEF’s Fourth Army – the British on the left, Australians in the centre, Canadians on the right. Forty-five minutes later the French First Army would surge forward too, fighting on an adjacent front to the south of the BEF, an action now known as the battle of Montdidier.
“Every gun shot together and the thing was off,” wrote Canadian gunner Bertie Cox in a letter to his brother some days later. “I never heard anything like it in my life, neither has anyone else, as it was about the biggest show that has ever been staged on the Western Front.”
The Germans had not been expecting this onslaught. Men woke to the din of battle, but were unable to see it through the thick morning fog, now exacerbated by phosphorus grenades dropped by the RAF. As the shells and shrapnel hammered down, the Germans launched signal flares to call in counter artillery fire of their own, though little would be forthcoming. When the barrage died down, it was replaced with low rumble of engines growing louder and dark shapes coalescing from the gloom.
The reality was the Fourth Army had so much ordnance that it was able to simultaneously lay down a covering fire that neutralised the German batteries and deliver a creeping barrage, a shield of iron shards that was moved forward by 100 yards every couple of minutes. These twinned bombardments effectively pinned the Germans in their trenches without means of reply until the tanks were upon them, and for the most part they made short work of any razor wire or machine gun nests that had not already been obliterated. The pursuing infantry mopped up the rest.
The ensuing confusion, compounded by the fog, led scores to surrender without a fight, leaving only isolated pockets of stubborn resistance. The prisoners began to stream back to Cox’s position by the guns as early as 5am.
“We spent considerable part of the day checking them over; getting souvenirs and talking to those who could speak English,” wrote Cox of the POWs, who would soon be put to work as stretcher bearers. “They all seemed tickled to death to be taken prisoners. They said the attack was a complete surprise.”
That the Germans were so utterly wrong-footed was testament to the breath of deceptions employed in the run up to ‘zero hour’. The men of the Fourth Army had no idea where they were going or why, with an unsubtle note about preserving secrecy ‒ ‘Keep your mouth shut!’ ‒ posted in their pay books. Divisions were moved to the front by night, often on indirect and circuitous routes, with faked orders and wireless traffic used to fool the Germans into thinking the Canadians in particular were stationed in Belgium. The RAF even flew low sorties over the front to mask the roar of arriving tanks, which were then hidden beneath the branches and foliage.
The British, Australian and Canadian divisions reached their first objectives by 8.20am, just as the fog began to lift. From here the British would have a hard time of it and make little ground, but the tanks and cavalry in the Australian and Canadian sectors enjoyed such rapid progress that they soon found themselves outpacing the German’s ability to communicate the ongoing debacle. At Harbonnières, for instance, tank commander Henry Smeddle came upon an ammunition train breezily pulling into the local station “as if nothing was the matter”; he promptly blew it up. Another arrived bringing reinforcements who clearly didn’t know that the front was now on their doorstep, and in a moment Smeddle found himself with an entire train’s worth of prisoners.
By dusk, the Canadian and Australian Corps had secured most of their objectives. It wasn’t the end of the battle ‒ the fighting at Amiens would continue for another three days ‒ but from here on it was a case of diminishing returns. On the morning of the 9th, the British Fourth Army found itself spread thin. Men were tired, supply lines were stretched, tanks were breaking down, and the artillery pieces that had proved so effective the day before were now too far behind the front to be of use. Imperial troops were being rushed to the front to prevent the Allies roaming with impunity. Progress was slower too, as the battle moved away from the easy terrain surrounding Amiens and onto the shell-cratered mire of the 1916 Somme battlefield.
Perhaps then, the most important lesson the Allies learned from the four preceding years was not how to mask an assault, but when not to get bogged down in an attritional struggle. Sensing that the Fourth Army needed to regroup and refocus, BEF commander Douglas Haig halted the battle on 12 August, by which time the Germans had suffered 75,000 casualties, 30,000 of which were prisoners, the British 22,000 and the French 24,000.
Prior to Amiens, the prevailing mood among the Allies was that the war would last until 1920 ‒ or 1919 if they were feeling optimistic. But the stunning strategic success here seemed to galvanise the war effort. It was followed by a series of strikes across the Western Front, an uncoordinated campaign that we now know under the moniker of the Hundred Days Offensive, which would eventually take the Allies beyond the Hindenburg Line. Armistice was to come before Christmas, much earlier than anyone had dared to hope.
The British Fourth Army
The Fourth Army, formed under the command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson in February 1916, was one of five field armies posted to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. It was expressly created to fight at the battle of the Somme, with 11 divisions going over the top on the first day.
The formation was broken up for reinforcements during the third battle of Ypres in 1917. When it was reformed for the Amiens offensive in 1918 it gained two ‘dominion’ corps ‒ Canadian and Australian ‒ both of which had developed reputations as highly effective shock troops. It was for this reason that so much effort was put into masking soldier movements on the Western Front in July 1918. Had the Germans realised they were heading to the same region, it is likely they would have an anticipated an attack.
The best place to start when it comes to tracing ancestors who might have served on the Western Front is the National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk). Here you can search and view Medal Index Cards for nearly 5 million soldiers, and given that the majority of full service records were destroyed in the blitz in 1940 they are one of the best ways to confirm if a relative did serve in France. Remaining soldier service records may be part of collections WO 363 or WO 364, provided the individual concerned did not re-enlist during the Second World War. If you think your ancestor may have been killed in action, it is also worth checking out the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.org).
First published in Your Family History magazine