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The battle of Amiens, 8 August-3 September 1918, is often seen as the turning point on the Western Front (First World War). The first half of the year had been dominated by German offensives, starting with the second battle of the Somme (21 March-4 April 1918), which had driven the British back almost to the outskirts of Amiens, creating a massive salient in the Allied lines.
The Allied counterattack began during the second battle of the Marne (15 July-5 August 1918). This saw the failure of the final German offensive and a Franco-American counterattack (Aisne-Marne Offensive, 18 July-5 August) that pushed the Germans out of the Château-Thierry salient. On 24 July, while this battle was going on, the Allied commanders-in-chiefs met at Bombon to decide what to do next. The general assumption was that the war would continue into 1919, but Foch planned a series of counterattacks for 1918. The initial aim was to push the Germans out of three awkward salients, at St. Mihiel, Château-Thierry and Amiens. If theses attacks went well, then a general offensive would follow.
The British contribution to this plan was the battle of Amiens. Even before the meeting at Bombon, Haig had directed General Rawlinson, in command of the Fourth Army around Amiens, to prepare for an attack on the salient. Rawlinson developed a plan for a tank battle. Rawlinson had a multi-national army, with American, Australian, Canadian and British divisions. He was given 530 British and 70 French tanks, of which 96 were supply tanks, 22 gun carriers and 420 fighting tank, including 324 Mark Vs. For the purposes of the Amiens attack Haig was also given control of the French First Army (Debeny), to the right of the British position. Eight French divisions would take part in the attack at Amiens.
The key to Rawlinson’s plan was surprise. He was planning a ten division attack against a 10 mile front (with the Canadians and Australians making up the majority of the infantry). It was essential that the Germans did not suspect what was coming – a well timed German counter-bombardment could have inflicted crippling casualties on the British attack. Accordingly, Rawlinson planned to attack without any preliminary artillery bombardment. The attack would begin with the tanks, supported by infantry and protected by a creeping barrage. The artillery would open fire at the same time as the tank advance. To the right the French First Army was short of tanks. In order to preserve the surprise, the French would begin an artillery bombardment at the same time as the British attack, and then follow up with their infantry 45 minutes later.
The German line was defended by twenty tired divisions from the Eighteenth Army (von Hutier) and Second Army (Marwitz). In the four months since they had captured the salient, the Germans had created a strong defensive system. According to Ludendorff, “the divisional fronts were narrow, artillery was plentiful, and the trench system was organised in depth. All experience gained on the 18th July had been acted upon”.
The attack began on 8 August. In the first few hours of the battle six German divisions collapsed. Entire units began to surrender. Ludendorff called 8 August the “Black Day of the German Army”. By the end of the day the Allied had advanced nine miles over the entire ten mile front. 16,000 prisoners were taken during the first day.
The first phase of the battle ended on 11 August. The Germans had retreated to the lines they had held before the first battle of the Somme. Haig felt that these lines were too strong to attack without a proper artillery bombardment – the old Somme battlefield was a wasteland of shell craters unsuited to tank warfare.
Instead, Haig launched a second attack further north, using the Third Army (Byng) and part of the First Army (Horne). The purpose of this attack, known as the battle of Bapaume, was to force the Germans back to the line of the Somme. This attack began on 21 August. After seeing off a German counterattack on 22 August, the British advance forced the Germans to retreat to the Somme. The attack expanded to include the First and Fourth Armies, while the French continued their own attack further south.
On 26 August the Germans held a new line running along the Somme south from Péronne, then across open country to Noyon on the Oise. On 29 August the New Zealanders capture Bapaume, in the centre of this line. The Australians made the next breakthrough, fighting their way across the Somme on the night of 30-31 August and capturing Péronne. Finally, on 2 September the Canadian Corps, fighting with the First Army, broke through the Drocourt-Quéant switch, south east of Arras. These breakthroughs forced the Germans to abandon the line of the Somme and retreat all the way to the Hindenburg Line.
The unexpected extent of the British and Commonwealth armies’ successes at Amiens and Bapaume encouraged Foch to plan a massive triple offensive for the end of September, with the intention of breaking the Hindenburg Line and forcing the Germans out of France (Meuse-Argonne offensive, battle of Flanders and battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin).
The Germans suffered very heavy losses during the battle of Amiens. The British and French captured 33,000 prisoners and inflicted between 50,000 and 70,000 casualties on the Germans. The British lost 22,000 men, the French 20,000. The great triple offensive would achieve its main aim, and trigger the eventual German collapse, but at much higher cost.
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