How Did the Allies Manage to Break Through the Trenches at Amiens?

Dan Snow

5 mins

09 Nov 2018

It was “the black day of the German Army in the history of this war,” wrote the commander of German troops on the Western Front, Erich von Ludendorff. “It put the decline of our fighting powers beyond all doubt,” he added.

On 8 August 1918 British, Commonwealth, American and French troops had smashed through enemy trenches just outside Amiens, driving many German troops to surrender.

Cavalry, armoured cars and light tanks had run amok deep behind enemy lines, returning mobility to a battlefield that had long been entrapped by the static defences of barbed wire, bunkers and trenches.

Amiens is a battle that marks the beginning, not just of the end of the First World War, but of a new era of modern warfare. The methods used by Allied troops at Amiens are closer to the tactics of battlefields today than they were to the fighting of just three years earlier in the opening battles of the war.

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Why Amiens?

Amiens was chosen by the Allies for the first big set piece attack of the summer of 1918. The German offensive of the spring had come close to dividing the British and French, decisively puncturing the Western Front, but it had failed.

The German army had sustained enormous losses and now had an even greater length of frontline to defend. At Amiens the conditions were thought suitable for tanks, and an attack there would push the Germans back from the city’s vital railway junction.

The Allies had learned a huge amount during the long and brutal battles of 1916 and 1917, these new tactics would be demonstrated by huge numbers of artillery pieces, tanks, planes and infantrymen that were assembled to give the Allies an overwhelming local advantage.

The city of Amiens photographed in May 1918.

A combined arms assault

Troops were secretly concentrated in the sector. The Canadian Corps, the British Empire’s best troops in the summer of 1918, were moved by night to the frontline. Radio operators were left in Flanders to convince the Germans that the offensive would come up there.

Nearly 600 armoured vehicles, almost the entire strength of the Armoured Corps, were moved up at the last moment, their rumble disguised by low flying aircraft. Unprecedented numbers of guns were brought in. They would not have to take their customary ranging shots, because they could now be registered silently.

Mathematical calculations about weather, range, barrel temperature and wear were made which meant that shells could be dropped straight on their target without a lot of practise shots, which alerted the enemy that lots of new guns were in the sector. The German artillery was pinpointed, and earmarked for destruction, by listening devices and aerial reconnaissance.

brit-18

A British Mark I field gun.

At 0420 the still of a quiet night was obliterated by a massive artillery bombardment. Gunner J.r. Armitage wrote, “All hell broke loose and we heard nothing more. The world was enveloped in sound and flame, and our ears just couldn’t cope.” Allied guns roared, sending shells screaming towards German lines.

Heavy guns pounded German artillery positions with high explosives and gas to suppress their ability to fire on allied troops as they moved forward. The lighter guns immediately fired a creeping barrage, a protective wall of fire and steel which moved forward at the same pace as the infantry. The moment the artillery opened up the infantry and tanks moved into no man’s land.

All hell broke loose and we heard nothing more. The world was enveloped in sound and flame, and our ears just couldn’t cope.

They walked at the pace of the creeping barrage, 100m every three minutes. If any German defenders managed to get themselves up onto the firing step or man their machine guns as soon as the barrage passed, the Allies could take them on with their own light machine guns, grenades and mortars, bypass them or call over a tank to help them out.

The attack of the Canadians and Australians in the centre went like clockwork. The Australians advanced 3,500m to their first objective at 0715, the Canadians arrived slightly later. Then fresh troops arrived to push to the next objective, between two and five kilometres away.

Tanks provide vital support

Some troops bragged that they did not really need the tanks, which broke down and they regarded as too slow. One Canadian battalion by contrast gave a glowing report. “It is very doubtful,” the war diary records, “if we would have been able to have gotten forward without considerable manoeuvring and reinforcements if it had not been for the timely intervention of a tank, which exterminated a series of machine gun nests which held up the whole battalion.”

Whippet tank

A British Whippet tank – their mobility was to prove a key factor in the rapid advance.

One Australian wrote, “Whenever we found ourselves in trouble we signalled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash!… another German post was blown to pieces.”

By midday the success of Canadian and Australian troops had torn a hole in the German defences and for the first time in years the cavalry were able to break through and exploit. Thousands of horses carried their riders deep behind the defending Germans, as light tanks called Whippets, and armoured cars sped alongside them.

The breakthrough

The tyranny of the trenches had been lifted. 12 armoured cars crashed into the village of La Flaque, they opened fire on a road choked with German transport. They poured bullets into carts, trucks and staff cars until their barrels glowed hot.

At Framerville British Whippet tanks surprised senior German officers as they had their lunch, and captured a crucial map of powerful German defences further north. One British Whippet, named Musical Box, went on a solo rampage, destroying German targets for hours, until it was finally knocked out. Its exploits turned it into a legend in armoured history.

At the end of the day the Canadians had advanced a staggering 8 miles, the furthest achieved to that point in the war by British Empire troops.

Australian troops had pushed 6 miles, while the French advance of 5 miles was also impressive.

8 August 1918 by Will Longstaff, showing German prisoners of war being led towards Amiens.

British troops to the north struggled across difficult terrain and made much less progress. Remarkably 18,000 Germans had been taken prisoner. It strongly suggested that many had lost the stomach to go on fighting, and this, more than anything else sent a dire warning to their commanders.

The German army was exhausted by its Spring Offensive and the huge strides forward in Allied offensive capabilities, demonstrated at Amiens meant that it was doubtful whether the Germans could go on. Ludendorff tendered his resignation.

Even in Austria it sent shockwaves through the high command. The unimaginable had occurred. The mighty German Army had just been badly beaten. It was the beginning of the end