169: The Hundred Days Offensive Pt. 3 - Onward from Amiens


After August 8th the attacks at Amiens would continue, and after attacks would be launched all along the front.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 169. Last episode we discussed the beginning of the attack at Amiens that was launched by the Allied forces on August 8th. On that day the attack had managed to advance as much as 10 miles into German territory, throwing the German army into a bit of chaos. Ludendorff would call it the Black Day of the German Army. We start our episode today on the evening of that day, August 8th. The Allies would have to determine how best to carry forward their attack and how best to capitalize on their previous success. We will cover the continuation of the attack at Amiens all the way until its conclusion. After the attack was halted around Amiens the Allies would broaden their front of attack and both to the north and the south they would launch attacks to try and take advantage of the victory at Amiens. Along the way there will be some things to discuss about the German situation, because things were starting to really get interesting on that side of the line, and not in a good way.

After the start of the offensive at Amiens the headline for the New York Times would read “HAIG BREAKS FOE’S LINE ON 25 MILE FRONT GAINS 7 MILES, TAKES 10,000 MEN, 100 GUNS, GERMAN MAN POWER VISIBLY ON THE WANE.” This was not a totally inaccurate assessment of the situation on August 8th. It was clear that the British were onto something, and so they started to plan for August 9th. By mid-day on the 8th Haig had been to visit Rawlinson and he would later recount what he told the 4th Army’s commander about the plan to move forward “I told Rawlinson . . . to continue to work on the orders alredy given, namely, to organise his left strongly; if opportunity offers, to advance it to the line Albert - Bray. With his left strongly held he will push his defensive front out to the line Chaulnes - Roye. Reconnaissance to be pushed forward to the Somme River, while his main effort is directed southeastwards on Roye to help the French. The cavalry should work on the outer flank of the infantry, and move to Chaulnes - Roye as soon as possible.” Orders would eventually be sent out to the divisions to accomplish these tasks, although there was a bit of a delay. Afterwards Rawlinson’s chief of staff would try to explain why there was this delay in the issuance of this orders, and it is a reason that I find a bit humorous ‘What actually happened was that everyone was so busy congratulating everyone else on their share in the victory that valuable time was lost in preparing for an advance next day.’ The orders did eventually get sent out, and they mostly just represented what Haig had spoken to Rawlinson about. They would require an advance of about 5 and a half miles. The advances would have to be largest by the Canadians, as opposed to the 8th where the Australians had the furthest to go. The path that the orders took to get down to the individual units was pretty standard, but the timing that they would arrive was important. In the evening of the 8th the divisional commanders would meet with the Corps Commanders and the general outline for the plan was communicated. Then over the next several hours the more detailed planning occurred, which meant that detailed orders did not get issued to some of the Canadian divisions until 5:30AM in the morning. This meant that the attack could not be launched at dawn like the British liked to do. There was an attempt to prepare the units for what was coming with them being told earlier that they would advancing down the Amiens to Royre road, but without more detailed information nothing could really happen. A similar situation occurred for the Australians. The plan for the Australians was similar to what they had done the day before, with the 1st and 5th division leading and then the 2nd passing through the 1st to continue forward. Orders would still not arrive until the early morning, and even then they contained the extra complication of needing to wait for the Canadians to begin and then also having some ambiguity on their final objectives since it was dependent on how the Canadian attack developed. While orders went out to the infantry they also went out to the Cavalry Corps which would move closer to the front. Rawlinson had two cavalry divisions at his disposal, with the 1st Cavalry Division working with the Australians and the 2nd Division working with the Canadians. It was hoped that these units, and their mobility, might prove useful in the coming attacks. To the south of the British the French also planned to continue their advance, and once again their primary goal would be to protect the right flank of the British advance, and so there objectives were in line with that goal. While the Allies were trying to figure out how to push things forward, the Germans were not idel. Things had been very poorly for them on the first day of the attack, but that did not mean that they were ready to throw in the towel. Over the night between the 8th and 9th six additional divisions had been moved into the front around Amiens, half would be positioned against the British and hald against the French. This meant that while the Allies still held the numerical advantage in manpower, their overall advantage would be much smaller.

The delay in gettings orders to the front line units and to the artillery meant that the attack resumed very late the next day. To make matters even worse, since there had been no plan for these movements when the attack began on the 8th it proved very difficult to coordinate the various units. Along the entire front of the attack there would be countless different start times, with all of the units going forward at different times.. Some of them woudl begin as early as late morning, and then they would sort of string out along most of the day. That did not mean that the attacks were all a failure, there were many successes. For example when the right side of the British front attacked around 4PM they were able to advance 5 kilometers, which was a good solid amount, but less than what was hoped. The French in the south also made good progress. In all of these cases the advances continued but the disorganization of the Allied attacks, and the German responsess with reserve units moving into the area, kept the advance from achieving the same successes as it had on the first day.

While all of the planning for August 9th had been rushed and had occurred to late the same mistake was not made for thhe 10th. Again the Australians would be going forward, but they received orders in time to be to start at 4AM. One problem that the Allies were starting to experience and something that they could not really resolve was troop exhaustion. Because the same units were being used for the attacks day after day they were not able to be fully relieved. Here is one soldier from the Australian 25th Battalion who would be writing about the situation late on August 9th. “We are feeling exhausted, annoyed and rebellious, for we have had practically no sleep since the night of the 7th, and have had very little food and water, and hard continuous fatigues. It would only need a determined leader, and quite a number would, without permission, leave the line and return to some spot where they could get some rest behind the line.” To put is shortly, the men in the units that had been on the front since the 7th were very tired. They had spent the previous days attacking, defending, and then preparing to attack again. These same levels of exhaustion were happening for the Germans as well, but they had been forced to bring in reserves. The situation was slightly alleviated on the Canadian sector of the front by the arrival of the British 32nd Division. These fresher troops would be joined by the Canadian 3rd Division in the attack on the 10th. The attack was planned to begin at 8AM but there was a serious danger of missing the deadline because the the 32nd Division was not informed of the plan until after 9PM on the 9th. It took every bit of organization muscle that the staff officers of the 32nd Division and the Canadian Corps possessed to get it into place and ready by 8AM. Even with this effort to get the infantry in place the attack stikk did not begin because the tanks that were supposed to assist the 32nd idivsion had not arrived. It would be two hours befor ethe tanks were ready, and the attack would begin, and again it would push the front forward, just like the previous days.

On the 11th the situation would be much the same, with orders being issues late on the 10th for the attack to continue. While the troops continued pushing forward, as would often happen during the day the commanders got together behind the front to discuss what would happen next. In this case Rawlinson, Debeney, and all of the high level commanders would meet with Haig arriving after they were together. In The Day We Won the War: Turning Point at Amiens 8th August 1918 Charles Messenger describes the crazy events that happened next “No sooner had his subordinate commanders gathered than the CIGS, Sir Henry Wilson, arrived, followed by Haig, who gave the assembled Australian audience a complimentary speech, praising Monash in particular. Then came Rawlinson followed by his other corps commanders, as well as Hugh Elles of the Tank Corps and Lionel Charlton the commander of VIII Brigade RAF. Haig insisted that Rawlinson’s conference not be delayed and he began by asking the view of his corps commanders on the present situation, but the flood of visitors had not ended. A short while later another three cars arrived with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, his finance minister, and Ferdinand Foch on board. Monash recalled: Of course there was no thought of serious work or discussion for some twenty minutes, while everybody was being presented to everybody else, and I was personally, naturally - with General Currie - the leading figure in the show, for everybody was highly complimentary and marvelled at the completeness of our success.” This is exactly what I would have expected to happen in a situation like this, especially in the midst of a bit of an Allied success. The overall conclusion of this meeting would be that the offensive should be paused after the attacks on the 11th. The troops needed to rest for a few days, but then it could hopefully resume on the 14th or 15th.

There were many reasons that the offensive was put on hiatus for a few days. One of these was that behind the allied front there was just a mass of confusion with troops, supplies, and artillery trying to move forward, back, and sideways all at the same time. The artillery was also becoming increasingly out of position since it could not keep up with the infantry as it continued to try and push forward. Both of these combined to make it seem like the German defenses were stiffening. The Germans were certainly doing a better job of defending by this stage in the offensive, but the weakening of the Allied offensive abilities was just as important as the Germans becoming stronger on the defense. There was also a bit of a geography problem, that good old Somme battlefield is once again coming back into our story. The Germans had pushed back across it during their spring offensives and now the Allies were coming back into it the other way. In that territory it would be difficult for the tanks and supplies to move forward, which was the same problem that the Germans had experienced.

In the four days of fighting at Amiens the Germans had suffered somewhere around 75,000 casualties, maybe a few less than that. Of these about 50,000 had been taken prisoner by the Allies, which is a pretty large percentage. Most of these prisoners were not taken on the first day, when the situation was the worst for te Germans but instead in the following days when theoretically the defense should have been more capable. Crown Prince Rupprecht wanted to continue to pull his troops back, but there was some resistance from Ludendorff and others at German high command. Colonel Lossberg, the leading German defensive theorist, again suggested that all of the German troops should be pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. There would be many discussions about these suggestions. But before anything was decided there was an attempt to determine what had caused their defeat at Amiens in the first place, which was an important step since it would drive later decisions. The first identified reason was that the troops were surprised by the usage of tanks on such a mass scale. The second was that they had very little in terms of defensive positions in which the troops could be placed. And third the available artillery had been completely inadequate for the task. Only one of these problems could be resolved by retreating to the Hindenburg Line, the others were just a matter of proper preparation. It was not enough to convince Ludendorff that a retreat was necessary, but we should probably talk about him for a moment.

It is pretty much from this date until he resigns in October that Ludendorff gets the greatest amount of criticism for his actions. I made a big deal last episode about him calling August 8th the Black Day of the German Army, but that was just part of his reaction, and really the calmest part of his reaction. To put it bluntly he would sort of panic during the 4 days of Amiens. One example of this is that he would constantly telephone senior officers, including Rupprecht’s headquarters. The Crown Prince would direct these calls to his Chief of Staff and he would later recall that he “remained unruffled by the continual telephone calls from Ludendorff, wanting to plan every move of the newly arrived battalions of the Alpine Corps, and just appeased Ludendorff by answering with a yes or by saying to him ‘We cannot yet predict how this will turn out, everything depends on how the situation developers.'” Constantly botherings his leaders did nothing to help the situation, and on August 8th Ludendorff offered Hindenburg his resignation, which was of course rejected. At the same time that he was basically panicing, he also refused to allow for a retreat like Lossberg was suggesting and this vascillation between despair and a faith in eventual victory would be a common piece of Ludendorff’s leadership for the rest of the war. In late August a physician would example the German Quartermaster General and he would report that Ludendorff was on the verge of a nervous breakdown due to overwork and exhaustion. He also reported that it was possible that the Gernal was on the edge of no longer being able to function properly.

After the Allies had stopped attacking at Amiens the military and political leadership of Germany met in Spa Belgium. During this meeting Hindenburg would say that the situation was ‘certainly serious, but that it must not be forgotten that we were still standing deep in the enemy’s country.’ Here again Ludendorff would have seemingly two different opinions about the situation, on one hand he would report that “I reviewed the military situation, the condition of the Army, the position of our Allies, and explained that it was no longer possible to force the enemy to sue for peace by an offensive.” That seems like a pretty good assessment of the situation, but when Hindenburg then suggested that maybe they should consider retreating to the Hindenburg Line Ludendorff refused, stating that it would be disastrous to give up so much territory voluntarily. There was also political representatives at thsi meeting, and one of them was the German Secretary of State Paul von Hintze, who had replaced Bethmann-Hollwewg. He would say that “the logical conclusion that peace negotiations were essential and that we should have to bring ourselves to take up a very conciliatory attitude.” All of the military leadership refused this idea, knowing that if negotations started after a huge Allied victory the peace terms would be very harsh. The only real outcome of these meetings was that Hintze was allowed to try and reach out of the Allies through the Queen of the Netherlands to see if peace might be an option.

I know that it has been quite awhile since we have discussed the events of the Italian Front, but a brief reminder of what had happened on that front over the course of the summer of 1918 is probably warranted. The Germans had pressed the Austrians to launch an attack against the Italians during the spring and summer and eventually this happened. It was led by our old friend Conrad von Hotzendorf, and while he was no longer overrall commander of the Austsrian Armies he was now a field commander, and he would command the troops on the river Piave. When the attack occurred it was a huge failure, and the Italians with some help from the British and French hit back hard. This attack essentially made the Austro-Hungarian army a dead man walking. When this was combined with the very problematic situation in the Balkans that we will discuss in a few episodes it forced the German calculations about the war to change. Germany’s allies were at their end of their ability to continue the fight, and that just put more pressure on Germany, and German troops on the Western Front, to do something that would give a good opportunity to begin negotiations.

The Allies were determined to not let this happen, and the process of pushing forward more attacks began even while Amiens was still underway. Foch was looking to expand the Allied efforts because he was afraid that if the pressure was lifted then the Germans would do exactly what the Germans were already discussing, retreat to the Hindenburg Line. If the Germans were able to do what they had done in early 1917, which was pull back along a wide front into the positions on the Hindenburg Line then they would be able to shorten their line, move troops into reserve, and maybe delay the end of the war. Because of these concerns Foch wanted the Amiens attack to continue and for attacks to begin in other places as well. He found almost universal resistance to this idea. In the Amiens sector all of the major commanders were concerned that they needed some time, which would result in the pause on August 12th. This decision was delieved by Haig to Foch, but Haig also had another plan. Instead of continuing the attack at Amiens where the Germans had rushed in reinforcements he instead wanted to attack to the north, with the Third ARmy. This represented a big shift for Allied strategy when compared to previous years. The best summary would simply be that the British and French were now trying to attack where the Germans were not, instead of spending months attacking the same spot where they already were. This new policy resulted in attacks to the north and south of Amiens and renewed efforts to the south at the Marne.

On August 21st the British would attack in what would be called the Battle of Albert, this attack would be launched by the Third Army under the command of General Byng. Here the British would attack in the early morning, much like at Amiens there would be no evidence presented to the Germans that an attack was about to be launched and instead the troops for the attack were moved up only the night before the attack and the artillery did not fire any long pre-attack bombardment. The result would be an advance of three miles, not a success like at Amiens, but good solid very real progress. A few days later they would attack again, and again more progress would be made, including the capture of an important railway. With the attacks by the Third Army successul the British attacks began or were continued along their entire area of responsibility. This included attacks in Arras, and attacks near the old Somme landmarks of Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval. Many of these efforts were led by the Canadians and Australians. Everytime they attacked it seemed to end in success and their stock rose higher, and Haig wanted to use them more. For the British army this time period was important. All of these attacks were still hard work, and they would be costly in terms of casualties, but at the same time there was a definitive feeling that what the British were doing was actually working now. The emphasis on accurate and powerful artillery fire, on small unit tactics and proper usage of fire and movement, all of them were starting to work. This was critical for an army that had, in reality, known very little but failure during three long years of war. In one of these attacks would be a British Private Turner, whose quote I include here because I think it does a good job of describing a feeling that I have used many other quotes to try and describe, and this is what it is like to be near the artillery fire that was happening along the front, ‘One writes of the thunder of gunfire, but in reality it is not like that at all. My other once asked me what it was like, and I answered that if you stood on the platform of any railway hunction as an express train roared though, and multiplied the sound by about 20 times, you would have a faily good idea what a barrage was like.”

On the 20th the French would attack between Soissons and Compiegne and they would advance 12 kilometers in two days. During these two days they would also capture over 30,000 German prisoners and the city of Noyon. Here they found themselves in the same problematic situation as the British only instead of the old Somme battlefield the problem was the destroyed strip of land that the Germans had abandoned in their retreat to the Hindenburg line in early 1917. One French officer would describe it as ‘full of shell holes, all the houses destroyed, ruins, nothing but ruins in the midst of which the steel skeletons of the refineries stretched their great bare arms up towards the sky.’ While these problems sslowed the French advance, they still pushed forward. By the end of August they continued their drive north from Soisson and Noyon and they almost made it to the River Somme. During these attacks the French suffered 100,000 casualties, but Foch believed that the sacrifice was worth it saying that ‘the enemy had lost all the gains he had made in the spring. He had lost heavily in men, munitions, and stores. most important of all, he had lost the initiative of operations he had lost his moral ascendancy’. Petain would even be kind of optimistic, stating that the French army ‘won the most complete success along its entire front, over-ran the whole of the center of resistance, which for a long time the enemy had been powerfully fortifying.’ Even though the Allies were having some successes, Foch continued to dream bigger and he hoped that the next set of attacks would take place from the English Channel all the way to the River Meuse. For these attacks the most important objective was the critical rail junction of Mezieres, and it would be the responsibility of the Americans, and effort we will begin to discuss next episode.

All that the German army could do against these continual hammer blows was to fend them off as best as they could, and also retreat. More retreats were ordered, this included a move into what was called the Winter Position on the Somme sector, these positions would not live up to their names. During August the Germany Army had suffered 228,000 casualties, and it had only received 130,000 replacements. So in a month they were 100,000 short on reinforcements, and this shortage as forced on units that were already weakened by a year of activity. Lossberg would note that many German divisions would soon have to be broken up and their men sent to other units, much like the British and French had to do in early 1918. More importantly that straight numbrers many officers began to officially report in August and September that the cohesion and fortitude of their troops was failling. Part of the problem was that the reserves continued to dwindle in numbers, and so those troops that were brought out of the line had to be kept closer so that they could rush to the front when needed. This kept them near the guns and limited the amount of rest that they could get, which just increased the amount of strain and fatigue that everyone was already feeling. This also left them well within range of Allied air attacks, which were becoming a constant nuisance especially as units tried to move around. On September 2nd the fateful step was taken to order the 17th Army to retreat to the Hindenburg Line, with other armies to follow over the coming days. This was it, the Hindenburg line, but there was a problem, the defenses were not as formidable as they had once been. Most of the construction of these fortifications had been done over 2 years before, and desperately needed attention. They had also been designed to defend against an enemy that was using very different tactics when compared with the Allies of 1918. The defenders were also not as physically capable, and this meant that there were many German leaders who believed that the line could not be held long. This would prove to be true, because before all of the German troops could even retreat to the defensive line it was already breached in the north by the Canadians who broke through the Drocourt-Queant section of the defenses. It had taken 5 days of attacking to make it through, and twice the amount of artillery that was used at Amiens, but they had broken through. At german headquarters discussions began about creating a new line of defenses well behind the Hindenburg positions, to be referred to as the Hermann line. German moarle was collapsing, and Allied morale was soaring. It was truly the beginning of the end.

already the hindenburg line was proving to be not quite the impregneble set of defenses that the Germans hoped. And if it could be breached, what then?