168: The Hundred Days Offensive Pt. 2 - The Black Day


On August 8th the Allied attack at Amiens would begin, it would not be a good day for the German Army



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 168. Last episode we discussed the end of the German offensives and the beginning of the Allied counter attacks beginning with the Second Battle of the Marne. This episodes those attacks continue, this time with the Battle of Amiens. At Amiens, on August 8th troops from nearly all Allied countries, and the British Commonwealth, would participate. British, French, Australians, Canadian, and American divisions would all take part in an attack to the west of Amiens along the River Somme. The results would be staggering, a success on a scale unexpected even by General Haig who was known for his optimism about attacks. The result of Amiens would be the first true breaktrhough for the Allies for pretty much the entire war. Five German divisions would be shattered, and the advance would continue for almost 10 miles on the first day alone. Ludendorff would call this day, quite famously, “the black day of the history of the German Army in the war.” This episode will cover the preparations that led up to the beginning of the attack on August 8th and then the day itself, then next episode we will continue the story of the attack until the focus of Allied efforts shifted elsewhere on the front.

The planning for Amiens would begin on July 24th when Petain, Haig, and Pershing would once again meet with Foch. Foch would state that “The moment has come to abandon the general defensive attitude imposed upon us until now by our numerial inferiority and to pass to the offensive.” The decision to pass to the offensive would result in two different attacks, the first was at Amiens and the second at St. Mihiel on the American sector of the front. In both cases the goal was to secure rail lines that could be used to faciliate later efforts. Amiens had been an important objective of the earlier German attacks mostly due to how important the rail lines in and out of the city were to the British. They had not reached it, but they had been able to sever some rail lines that led to the east and south and the attack on August 8th sought to regain some of that lost territory. It is once again worth noting that this attack was not supposed to win the war, late summer 1918 was still at a point where everybody expected the war to continue in 1919, so this was all just setup for actions that might take place months later.

The main planning and execution for the attack was in the hands of General Rawlinson, Haig made it clear to Rawlinson that this attack was to be the primary effort on the British area of the front during the late summer months. There would be preparations made in other areas, but these were solely for the purpose of deception and trying to keep the true intentions of the British away from the Germans. Rawlinson was probably the most experienced British commander when it came to large offensives, he had been involved with many throughout the course of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. To begin the process of launching the attack Rawlinson would get together with the commander of the Australian Corps, General Birdwood, and his staff. Upon analysis of the situation the prospects for an attack seemed quite good, the defenses in this area of the front were weak, and there were few German reserves in the area. The British also had very good observation of the German positions which would make artillery spotting far more effective. Finally, the ground was very well suited for tank action, which by this point was an integral part of the British offensive plan. Rawlinson’s Chief of Staff Major General Montgomery would describe the geography of the area like this “the country was open and undulating; the hard soil, with chalk very near the surface, rended it particularly favorable for tanks and cavlary. The chances of a successful employment of these arms were further increased by the absence of shell craters by the dry weather of the preceding months.” There was one big change the Rawlinson believed necessary for the attack to be a success. In the initial planning the attack was only supposed to occur on the south side of the River Somme but Rawlinson and his staff concluded that this was be insufficient due to concern about the ability of the Germans to utilize some of the high ground on the north side of the river to direct artillery fire down on the troops to the south. This meant that troops would also have to be allocated for an attack on the northen side of the Somme. There would be a good number of troops available with the British 4th Army, joined by the Australian and Canadian Corps, being joined by the French First Army under the command of General Debeney. Haig had requested that Debeney and his troops coordinate closely with Rawlinson for the attack, and Foch was only too happy to oblige.

The primary goal for the Amien attack was an advance of about three and a half miles. This would put the Allies back in the former front lines to the East of Amiens that they had occupied before the Germans had retreated to the Hindenburg line and then they had reoccupied during the Spring offensives. There were several intermediate objectives outlined for the attack and they would play an important part in keeping the attack rolling, which we will discuss later. The most important of these would be the Green Line, which was the halfway mark of the attack and then the Red Line which designated the final objectives. The French would be attacking towards Moreuil on the right flank to guard against German counter attacks. Overall this meant that the attack would occur on a front of about 9 miles, or 14 kilometers.

While the Battle of Amiens is often thought of as a British attack the French would play a critical role. The first real meeting on the topic would take place between Debeney and Rawlisnon on July 28th. Five days earlier the French had launched an attack a few miles south of Moreiul and this attack had advanced two and a half kilometers in just a few hours. The goals had been to secure better positioning for the French artillery and then also to check the German defenses and their morale. Such a quick success put the French in a pretty good position for the attack in early August. During the meeting on July 28th the two commanders were able to agree on their areas of resposibility and many other details of the coming offensive. Cooperation seemed to be going very well even though Rawlinson never really wanted to work with the French. This was due a variety of reasons, none of which matter too much because Haig was adamant that the British had to attack with the French due to the lack of British reserves. And so, whether he liked it or not, Rawlinson had to work closely with Debeney, and they did quite well.

While many things were agreed upon by July 28th, a wrench would be thrown into the plan just a day later. On that date Foch wrote to Haig and said that while the French were doing pretty well, their attacks to the south, along the Marne, were running out of steam. It was therefore critical that the British not give the Germans time to properly regroup and that meant that Haig needed to move up the Amiens operation if at all possible. At the time it was scheduled for August 10th, but Foch wanted it moved forward at least a few days. August 10th had been chosen as the original date because Rawlinson believed that it was the soonest that his troops could be ready, but on July 29th he met with is commanders to determine if the date could be moved up to August 8th. After the discussion this move seemed possible and so it became the new date. An interesting part of the preparations for this attack was the emphasis on maintaining secrecy. Secrecy was considered so important that Foch decided that neither the British or French governments or war ministries should be told of the coming attack until the last possible moment. This is a huge change from attacks in previous years where they were often openly discussed by civilians behind the front. On August 3rd Foch made one final change to what he wanted from the Amiens attack, and I will let Charles Messenger explain with an excerpt from his excellent The Day We Won the War: Turning Point at Amiens 8th August 1918 “3 August, there was another high level conference between Foch and Haig. The French counter-attack on the Marne was continuing to drive back the Germans, who had now withdrawn to the east bank of the Vesle. Foch was certain that they were disintegrating and wanted to take advantage of this. He was concerned that the plan as it stood laid too much emphasis on consolidating the old Amiens outer defence line at the expense of exploiting initial success. He also said that he was considering involving the French Third Army to the south of Debeney as well. Haig assured him that the advance would continue to the Roye-Chaulnes line as soon as the reserves had been brought up. Two days later Haig saw Rawlinson, Debeney and Kavanagh and impressed on them Foch’s wish that exploitation should be more positive.”

The front upon which the attack would fall was held by the German Second Army under the command of General Marwitz. These troops had been heavily engaged in multiple actions over the course of the year which had recuded their numbers and this lack of manpower reduced not just the number of defenders in the trenches but almost more crucially it reduced the number of men available to work on the defenses. This problem was really just one of man hours, there was only so many sets of hands and so many days in which to improve the defenses that they were now occupying, and neither of these were available in enough quanity. This meant that their defenses would be quite weak, which was problematic since this one German army was about to be attacked by 12 French and 19 British divisions. The Germans would also have very little warning for the attack due to the lengths that the Allies went to to try and keep preparations secret, including not moving many of the troops to the front at all until August 7th.

9 of the divisions of the British fourth army were Canadian or Australian, with 4 Canadian and 5 Australian divisions joining in the attack. These divisions would be a very criticla part of the Amiens operation because both Corps were made up of some of the best toops available to the British army at this point, there was also a certain political dimension. In 1917 Lloyd George had setup the Imperial War Cabinet with the goal of making sure that the territories of the empire around the globe were invested in the war. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all had a place in the group in London. The troops from around the globe were also moved into their own Corps and Armies and made almost semi-independent, again a way to make sure that the Empire was involved in the war. These new Corps were then given a key role in the first large British attack of 1918. While the British were aware that these were some of their best troops, the Germans knew this as well and so deception was critical to making the Germans think that the Canadians and Australians were anywhere other than Amiens. For the Canadians this meant a pretty intricate set of deceptive maneuvers. Fake orders were created to make it looko like they were in Flanders, headquarters were relocated to teh area, well, fake headquarters anyway. There were even casualty clearing stations and other medical facilities, which always accompanied a large attack, setup behind the front in Flanders. A few reserve battalions were also sent north, just to add a nice cherry on top of the deception. All of this was just to preserve as much surprise as possible. Here is a cool little story from Thomas Dineson, a soldier of the 42nd Canadian Battalion who talks a bit about what it was like during the last day before the attack “All day long we rested in this pleasant spot - we even had permission to make a little fire here and there under a thickly branched tree and do a bit of cooking. The regular meals are good and plentiful, of course, but we never miss a chance of eating unlimited quantities of extra food. The last tin of baked beans was opened - there’s no reason to go into battle with a haversack heavier than was absolutely necessary! We washed and shaved carefully in order to look our best before Fritz … Our equipment was inspected for the last time: Gas-masks, rifles, ammunition, shaving kit, iron rations - everything was OK. Some of us were presented with an extra gift - mine was a big and heavy bag containing a dozen or so Mills bombs! Just before sunset we had to fall in for a final parade. Then supper - and at 10pm we were again fighting our way through the throng on the Amiens - Roye road”

Another important piece of the upcoming attack would be the tanks. There would be over 500 British tanks involved in the attack, with 70 French joining in as well. Most of the British tanks were of the Mark V variety, the newest and best tank available to the army, there were also a large number of Whippet tanks, which was the British version of the medium tank. A new, and intriguing usage of tanks was shown in the new supply tanks. These tanks were an attempt to solve one of the biggest problems experienced during earlier offensives, how could the attacks get supplies and ammunition forward after an attack hda begun. To try and solve this the tanks would have their weapons removed and instead they would carry a vast array of supplies, everything that the troops would need after moving forward. Rifle ammunition, Stokes mortars, grenades, water, shovels, picks, barbed wire, pickets for that wire, sandbags, rations, along with countless other items. This ability to move large quantities of supplies forward was critical to making sure that the troops that got forward could stay there and they would not be caught, as so many previous attacks had been, by counter attacks at a point where the attackers were low on ammunition and water.

The final piece of preparations, as always, was the artillery. The artillery fire at Amiens was a great example of how the British artillery had improved over the course of the war. At Amiens all of the improvements made over 4 years of conflict would come into play. The ability of the artillery to fire off the map being high on the list, even the ability of the British map makers to make maps accurate enough to fire from them represented a huge improvement. There was also meteorological information sent to the artillery every four hours to make sure they were as informed as possible. All of this meant that the British artillery were in a very different world than during earlier offensives. The plan was also better now. The artillery would begin firing about 200 yards ahead of the infantry they would then increase their range by 100 yards every 3 minutes. After the 11th lift they would decrease their speed to a lift every 4 minutes to make sure that the infantry could keep up. This was the complete opposite of attacks in 1916 and 1917 where the British creeping barrage had increased in speed as it advanced instead of decreasing like it would at Amiens. To accomplish this task there were giant piles of ammunition provided to each gun, every 18 pounder had 600 rounds, ever 4.5 inch howitzer had 500. When the bombardment started before 4:20AM on the 8th the power of the guns was impressive. It probably would have been very effective against the best german defenses, but that is not what it was hitting. Instead it was falling on weak defenses that the Germans had scratched together over the previous few months with limited manpower and materials. The German artillery was also hard hit, with 2/3 of the British heavy guns dedicated to firing on the German artillery. The British estimated that there were 500 German guns behind the front, and they would be heavily outnumbered even before the British started to fire on them. When the British and French guns all began firing the display was impressive, here is Gunner James Armitage of the 8th Australian Field Artillery Brigade to give his experience “On either side of us as far as we could see was a great wall of field guns - what the papers were to describe later as ‘a wall of guns, wheel to wheel, along the entire front’. Actually the guns were at 20 yard intervals but that was close enough. All guns were still in action and the sight of all this massed artillery right out in the open, without a spot of cover, was a sight to see.” One huge change from previous British attacks was the fact that there would be no long pre attack bombardment. Instead there would only be a quick counter-battery set of fire and then the artillery would immediately switch to the creeping barrage. This all tied into the incredible search for secrecy for the attack, because now the Germans would not have the warning of a bombardment that was lasting day after day.

The attack would begin at precisely 4:20AM on August 8th. Along most of the front they achieved an incredible amount of surprise, all things considered. The Allied attack would also be benefitted by a heavy mist, which was intensified by the liberal use of smoke shells. The British were still using the Cambrai model for artillery bombardment with a good portion of the artillery fire in the run up to an attack being devoted to providing a smoke screen. The infantry would also be accompanied by tanks, which providec close fire support. These tanks were ven more valuable due to the power of the artillery which meant that most of the German opposition came only from scattered German machine gun positions, some of which were well fortified. The tanks were important in these situations because the Mark V tanks were armored enough to be basically impervious to the German machine guns, which made them very valuable fire support vehicles.

The Australian commander, General Monash, would describe the last few minutes before the attack like this “In the black darkness, a hundred thousand infantry, deployed over 12 miles of front, are standing grimly, silently, expectantly, in readiness to advance, or are already crawling forward to get within 80 yards of the line on which the barrage will fall; all feel to make sure that their bayonets are firmly locked, or to set their steel helmets firmly on their heads; Company and Platoon commanders, their whistles ready to hand, are nervously glancing at their luminous watches, waiting for minute after minute to go by and giving a last look over their commands ensuring that their runners are by their sides, their observers alert, and that the officers detailed to control direction have their compasses set and ready.” While Monash’s viewpoint is valuable, he was far away from the front lines, but there were many other officers that were much closer to the fighting and they would have their own viewpoints on the situation. Here is 2nd Lieutenant Percy Smythe who would be in the 24th Australian Battalion “The atmosphere seems tensely charged with excitement tonight. Everybody is keenly interested about tomorrow’s great battle, and wondering how the tide will go. Optimism is running at a high pitch. This is the first time the Australians will have been given a fair open go with unlimited objectives. Usually they have been limited to an advance of a mile or two at the most, and the prisoners and booty captured were not worth the sacrifice of life entailed. Thank Heaven the days of close warfare have gone, and such slaughter-house battles as Pozières are a thing of the past.” Another officer would write about the final minutes before the attack by saying “At 10 minutes past 4, company commanders quietly passed the order: ‘Stand-to,’ and presently an equally quiet-voiced runner, looming-up silently out of the mist, would report his platoon ‘all present and correct’. Meanwhile, the tanks had crept forward to their allotted positions in front of the waiting infantry. 4.19 - Wristlet watches, previously synchronised, were raised to eye level, while the second hands ticked out that last fateful minute. Twenty seconds to go - 10, 5 - Zero!”

When the first troops went forward they were covered in a thick mist, which was of course quite helpful. The Canadians and Australians, who were in the lead, caught the Germans completely by surprise, with some German units not even really being able to react to what was happening. Lieutenant Albers of the 43rd Reserve Division would be in the line and his unit would soon find itself overrun. “Unfortunately our hand grenades had all been used; there was no longer time to operate the machine gun amid the chaos. Every man fired and defended himself as well as he could. But a new wave of English arrived in force, firing pistols and throwing hand greandes and killing or wounding many of my colleagues. Completely surrounded, shot at and bombed from all sides, with resistance no longer possible, the 20 men remaining from my company had to surrender.” The first set of objectives on the British area of the front would fall quite quickly, and behind those positions some of the attackers found a welcome sight, as one man would later recount “Except for the front line itself, the Hun seemed to have made very little in the way of organised defensive positions, beyond machine-gun posts, relying more on the ground itself . . . Ridges were strongly held, but on our approach were surrendered, the enemy either running away, or themselves surrendering.”

The British did not experience very much early resistance, and the situation was very similar on the French end of the front. Other than some machine gun fire they mostly just moved forward over empty terrain. They had started an hour later than the British, but for basically an entire hour they marched forward unopposed. Then they halted to allow their artillery to reposition, which took only about an hour, then the troops began to push forward again. During this time the British troops also reached their first objectives, the Green Line. Everything was going according to plan except for the fact that the tanks were still having some issues surviving on the battlefield. As an example, one Canadian division started the day with 34 tanks in support but by the time they reached their final objectives only 6 were still operational due to a combination of reliability problems and German actions. Even though many would not be running by the end of the day, they did at least serve their purpose of getting the troops past the strongest of the German defenses.

For the advance beyond the first set of objectives, the Green Line, the British had setup their troops so that the first two divisions of each corps would take this first objective and they would be followed by two more divisions that would then continue the advance forward. This meant that from about 8 to 830AM all along the front the divisions that had been pushing forward in the second wave began passing through those in front. For the Canadian and Australians this allowed their next efforts to begin at around 8:30. Jimmy Downing would be one of the soldiers in the units that would continue forward “Thereafter it was fairly plain sailing. Whenever we found ourselves in trouble, we signalled to the tanks,25 and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! As their little toy guns spoke and their little, pointed shells flew, another German post was blown to pieces. Punk-crash! A brick wall tottered and crumbled amid a cloud of red dust. We passed the place. The machine-gun and its crew were crushed and dead.”

By noon it was clear that the British attack had been a huge success. The troops had almost universally met their objectives for the day, the Australians had advanced 9 miles and the Canadians 4. They had also overran many regimental headquarters and they had taken thousands of prisoners which did nothing to help with German morale. Bertram Howard Cox was a British artilleryman who would see the aftermath of those Germans who had surrendered and were now coming back from the front “The thing that struck me as being most funny, was the way prisoners would dangle right along by themselves, no escort, to the prison cage about a mile away. If there were 30 or 40 together they would have an escort, but they mostly passed in twors or threes all alone.”

Earlier in the war there had been many attacks where the Allies had been successful early in the first day only to then be pushed back by German counter attacks, but here that did not happen. Instead, over the course of the afternoon the Allies consolidated their gains from the morning and they began to consider what their next steps would be. The offical German history would discuss the situation for the German troops at the end of the first day “As the sun set on the battlefield of the Second Army on the evening of 8 August the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact. The line holding divisions between the Avre and the Somme, which had been struck by the enemy attack, were almost completely annihilated. The troops in the front line north of the Somme had also suffered seriously, as had the reserve divisions thrown into the battle during the course of the day.” To put it bluntly, it had been a disaster, and things were only going to get worse. Back at German headquarters there were growing suggestions that the Germans should begin a wholesale retreat to shorten their lines. There were also continued reports of German troops refusing to follow orders, or even no longer attempting to stand and fight at all. This was not, and would never be, the majority opinion among German troops, but there were enough that it was clearly showing that the German army was in trouble. August 8th had truly been a Black Day for the German army, but the attack was not over. I hope you will join me next time as the Amiens attack continues.