In the spring of 1918, the German Army launched the Kaiser’s Offensive which broke through the British Fifth Army and pushed it back by some fifty kilometres. When that assault eventually petered out at the town of Villers-Bretonneux to the east of Amiens, the Germans launched major assaults to the west of Lille at Givenchy and Festubert in the Battles of the Lys. Messines, Armentieres, Merville, Bailleul and Meteren were captured in fighting to the north. Mont Sherpenberg was held. German attention then switched to the French sector along the Chemin des Dames. So began the Third Battle of the Aisne. The American Third Division helped the French contain the attack after four British divisions sent to the supposedly ‘quiet’ French sector to rest and recuperate received another mauling to follow their heavy losses during the fighting in March and April.
By the 20th of July, General Erich von Ludendorff realised that his five separate offensives had gained some ground but at the cost of his decreasing human resources. The highly-trained assault soldiers (including Ernst Junger, the Pour La Merite author of ‘Storm of Steel’and ‘Copse 125′), the best troops in his Command, were dead or seriously wounded. The divisions released from Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were spent, only the machine-gunners remained an elite force. At the cost of some 750,000 casualties, the defensive capacity of his now-exhausted armies had been worn out.
On the 4th of July, in front of the town of Villers-Bretonneux, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash had planned an all-arms assault by the 4th Division of his Australian Corps on the German lines at le Hamel. Despite some rancour, following the debacle with British tanks at Bullecourt in 1917, 60 Mark V tanks and 12 supply tanks drove forward to assist the Corps’ attack. Eight American companies, which had disguised themselves in Australian uniforms to escape General Pershing’s wrath, attacked with them. 111 machine-guns laid down a ‘beaten zone’ barrage in support of the artillery bombardment and aeroplanes parachuted in over 100,000 rounds of ammunition to resupply the Australian machine-gunners. A stunning victory was achieved in just 93 minutes! The methodology was to be used again on a large scale five weeks later on the 8th of August.
On the 29th of July the Australians launched a large raid at Morlancourt. This had the unfortunate effect of stimulating a German reprisal raid by an elite assault division which damaged the 18th and 58th British Divisions on the 6th of August. The effect of this was in fact harmful to the Australians two days later who became exposed to enfilading fire from the Chipilly Spur.
From June 1918, some 500 tanks a months were reaching the Western Front. In August both the French and the British had 1,500 each. By November the French were using over 2,000 – mostly the light Renault tanks, whereas the British had the heavy Mark V and V* tanks as their main assault tanks and the light Whippet tanks and armoured cars to pursue the retreating enemy driven out of their trenches.
The Battle of Amiens
The 8th of August 1918 was the day Ludendorff in his memoirs described as ‘the black day of the German Army in the war’. General Sir Henry Rawlinson planned with Lieutenant-General Monash, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie and General Debeney that the BEF Fourth Army and the French First Army assault the German lines in front of and to the south of Villers-Bretonneux. In support of the attacking Australian, British, and Canadian infantry were to be some 800 British aeroplanes, 420 fighting tanks of which 324 were the new Mark V heavy tanks, 96 of the faster but smaller new Whippet ‘chaser’ tanks, 96 supply tanks (converted from the now-obsolete Mark IV fighting tanks), 22 gun carriers (used instead as supply tanks where previously they were employed in carrying field guns forward from their main firing-line so that they could support infantry which had advanced beyond the protection of the firing-line) and 6 Austin armoured cars. The French forces were covered by some 1,000 aeroplanes but were without tank support.
The intensive barrage allied to the early morning mist surprised the Germans and the Australians and Canadians were soon on their objectives. The Mark V tanks proved irresistable in crushing the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements, whilst the Whippet tanks destroyed German troops and gun batteries caught in the open, with the exploits of the Whippet tank ‘Musical Box’ becoming famous. Three of the heavy tanks, each towing two of the armoured cars, were able to release them beyond the German trenches and these cars drove forward to Proyart and Framerville-Raincourt creating chaos in the rear areas where previously the Germans had thought they were safe. At Framerville-Rainecourt, not only did they create havoc without one shot being fired against them, but in honour of the 5th Australian Division to which they were attached they nailed the Australian flag to the German general’s front door.
However, the Chipilly Spur, a high ridge dominating the northern bank of the Somme on the left of the Australians, proved to be a strong obstacle to the 58th (London) and 18th Divisions throughout that day. Meantime the French on the right of the Canadians advanced slowly not having tanks to clear the barbed wire barriers and the machine-gun nests.
The German losses of most of their frontline troops, either killed or taken prisoner, and many guns on the ‘black day’ for the German Army reflected the application of the lessons of the battle of Hamel on a large scale. Careful co-ordination of all the available fighting techniques and machinery was the basis of the all-arms assaults. The aeroplanes were used to straff with machine-gun fire the German trenches and to bomb more distant targets, 284 tons being dropped in the fortnight before the battle – compared to 50 tons during the Battle of the Somme. The artillery bombardment, using many huge cannons with their silent registration, predicted fire and counter-battery fire, was able to destroy German cannons which would otherwise have been targeted at the advancing BEF and French troops. The creeping barrage gave protection to these troops from German machine-guns firing from their front line trenches. The 3-inch Stokes mortars gave close-range ‘artillery’ support under the control of the local infantry commanders. Hand grenades were used to burst apart machine-gun nests and trenches manned by resisting German riflemen. Mobile Lewis light machine-guns gave covering fire to riflemen moving to within grenade-throwing range of the German machine-gun nests. Vickers medium machine-guns provided bombardments of bullets on enemy trenches.
Mobile heavy tanks added shell and machine-gun fire to their trench-crossing and barbed wire crushing capabilities. Whippet tanks and armoured cars gave mobility behind the trench systems to surprise and outrun enemy trains, troop units, wagons and even cavalry. Indeed the 6 armoured cars proved themselves in this action to be worth more than a cavalry division. Supply tanks allowed the rapid movement forward of rifle and machine-gun cartridges, cannon shells, petrol and water, and all the other equipment voraciously needed by an agggressively advancing army. At the battle of Hamel in July, four carrier tanks had brought forward the supplies which it was later calculated would have required the use of 1,250 human bearers. Better communications including using continuous wave wireless meant that artillery spotters were able to identify individual targets needing attention from the artillery to make easier the infantry assaults. They also allowed unit commanders to more speedily modify their objectives having assessed the changing situations as some units advanced more rapidly than expected, others experienced delays outside their control – as when the Australians found themselves being enfiladed from their left because of the failure to capture the Chipilly Spur on the 8th.
Four years previously, on the Aisne, rifle and pistol bullets together with the bayonet and the light mainly shrapnel-firing 18-pounder gun were the main offensive weapons available. By 1918, new and developed mechnical, scientific (counter-battery sound-ranging equipment, continuous wave wireless and aerial photography, for example) and chemical (smoke and gas shells, for example) devices had added an arsenal of new and effective weapons to those of 1914.
The nex day the 58th Division, with the remnants of the 131st American Infantry Regiment, finally cleared Chipilly Spur allowing the Australians to resume their advance. During the next two days the advance continued but more slowly against the stiffening German resistance as they poured in their reserves. The loss of most tanks to enemy action and mechanical problems meant that their support was temporarily ended. Of the 420 tanks beginning the battle on the 8th, 145 were servicable on the 9th, 85 on the 10th, 38 on the 11th, and only 5 on the 12th! Sir Douglas Haig then switched his attention to General Byng’s Third Army for an attack towards Albert and Bapaume.
The Battle of Amiens was over but the Advance to Victory had begun. During the next 94 days, a long series of victories marked the final ‘One Hundred Days’. All along the Western Front, the Allied units bit into the German trench systems, attacking different sectors on different days so that the Germans could not use their railway networks fast enough to rush up reinforcements to replace their lost units. This was based on the concept of attacking a sensitive spot then shifting the blow rapidly to the flanks in order to create a state of flux which gave the military advantage to the attacking troops.
The Australians seized the formidable Mont-St Quentin position, using rifle grenades whilst being covered by Lewis machine-guns (they had two or three in each platoon), to destroy the German machine-gun nests. Then the Canadians conquered the Drocourt-Queant Switch trench system to the east of Arras. The Americans suffered severe casualties at Bony but continued to push through the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt ably supported by the Australians. The British 46th (Midland) Division crossed the St. Quentin Canal and captured the important Riqueval Bridge. Thereafter the Allied troops pursued the Germans retreating across open country who were no longer able to rely on the trench defences of the now left-behind Western Front.
To the south the revitalised French armies forced their way north-east whilst the American Army under General George Pershing drove through the Argonne Forest, west of Verdun, towards Sedan having gained a spectacular victory at St. Mihiel due south of Verdun. The Belgium forces between Ypres and the North Sea recaptured large areas of their country whilst the British First and Second Armies on their right recaptured Lille on their way to Mons, halting on the 11th of November close to where the BEF had begun fighting four years before.
But these One Hundred Days were not a stroll behind a retreating enemy. The German machine-gunners in particular continued to fight heroically, prefering to die than surrender. Many thousands of Allied troops were killed during assaults on hills and over canals even during the last ten days of fighting. The civilian cemetery at Ors contains the small British Communal Cemetery with its possibly the highest concentration of military heroes. Amongst the sixty graves lie two winners of the Victoria Cross (2nd Lieutenant James Kirk and Lieutenant Colonel James Marshall) and Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC.
1. Why was le Hamel a pilot study for the Battle of Amiens?
2. How were the various resources available exploited before and during the battle?
3. Explain the advances in warfare technology made between the First Battle of the Aisne and the Battle of Amiens.
4. What competitive advantage did all-arms co-ordination bring to attacking enemy trench systems?
5. What strategic planning was done to ensure the Germans could not recover from reverses on any sectors?
Exploring the Battlefield
To the east of the massive Australian national memorial north of Villers-Bretonneux, twelve kilometres to the east of the city of Amiens, is the small village of le Hamel with its recently built hilltop memorial to the Australian victory there on the 4th of July 1918. Eastwards lies flat country which was ideal for charging heavy and light tanks, with the armoured cars raiding the fourteen kilometres to Proyart and Framerville-Rainecourt. Above the valley, on the other side of the river Somme, is the Chipilly Spur. At its base commemorating the 58th (London) Division’s capture of the Spur is the emotive staue of an artilleryman comforting his wounded horse.
Besides this statue and the Australian memorials, there is little to show of those four days in August 1918. Perhaps this is a continuing reflection of the British wish to brood over the deaths of the civilian warriors on the first day of the Somme rather than to commemorate the ultimate defeat of a magnificent army created over during years since the Prussian disaster at Jena-Auerstadt. As Professor Bond (1991) pithily wrote of many populist British Great War authors, ‘…they succumb to the tyrannical hold which July 1916 is now beginning to exert on British First World War studies…’. The contrasts to this attitude are seen on the hilltop close to le Hamel where the Australians remember their victory of the 4th of July 1918, and particularly on Vimy Ridge where Canadian students come during the summer months to serve as guides in celebration of their countrymen who captured that infamous ridge on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.