4 World War One Myths Challenged by the Battle of Amiens

Cassie Pope

3 mins

08 Aug 2018

The Battle of Amiens marked the beginning of the end of World War One and was a stunning success for the Allies. So why don’t we hear more about it?

Could it be that this short, four-day clash, resulting in relatively low casualty figures and ending with an Allied advance of eight miles, is overlooked because it doesn’t sit comfortably within our long-established perceptions of the First World War?

Whether this is true or not, the Battle of Amiens certainly undermines some of the most common misconceptions about the war of 1914-18. Here are four it challenges.

1. The British Army was incapable of change

World War One was an entirely new kind of conflict, and one that the British Army of 1914 was not designed to fight. The scale of the armies and fronts involved, the unprecedented destructive power of the weaponry, and the emergence of new technologies all posed unique challenges.

Tank legend David Fletcher MBE, historian of armoured warfare, and David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, Bovington, discuss the First World War development of the tank. Why and how was the tank designed? How did it evolve over the course of the war? And what attributes were required of a Tank Man?Watch Now

Yet over the course of four years, the British Army adapted and innovated at a startling pace. New weapons transformed infantry tactics. Developments to artillery resulted in targets being hit with pinpoint accuracy. And the emerging technologies of air power and armour were harnessed and moulded into effective fighting forces.

The Battle of Amiens demonstrated how far the British Army had come. A combination of deception and a short bombardment meant the Germans were caught by surprise by the opening attack. Allied counter battery fire, guided by aerial reconnaissance, stripped away German artillery support. This enabled Allied infantry and tanks to press deep into German lines, capturing guns and men in their wake.

Artillery tactics improved beyond all recognition over the course of World War One. By 1918, Allied forces were utilising aerial reconnaissance and specially developed ranging techniques to achieve incredible accuracy. Almost all German batteries at the Battle of Amiens were identified and targeted by Allied artillery.

In a remarkably short period of time, the British Army had evolved from a small professional force into an effective mass army, capable of combining arms in coordinated modern weapons systems that foreshadowed the most successful battles of World War Two.

2. Allied forces consisted of “lions led by donkeys”

We’re all familiar with the popular depiction of the generals in World War One: bungling toffs who blithely threw hard working Tommies into the hell of No Man’s Land in their thousands for no discernible purpose.

In 1914, the generals were confronted with a conflict the like of which they had never known before. Not all were up the mark. But others demonstrated a great capacity for adaptation.

Indeed, the Battle of Amiens, and the subsequent success of the Hundred Days Offensive, can largely be attributed to the man often cast as the chief butcher of the British Army – Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

It’s true that Haig oversaw unimaginable bloodshed in the battles of 1916 and 1917. Yet in 1918, the impact of these attritional struggles took its toll on the German Army as their reserves dwindled.

Gary Sheffield - Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and a specialist on Britain at war 1914-45 - discusses the controversial figure of Douglas Haig.Listen Now

Meanwhile, Haig championed the introduction of new technologies such as tanks and air power and pushed for improved training and new tactics; credit for the transformation of the British Army into the modern fighting force that took to the field at Amiens belongs to the field marshal.

3. Even minute gains always resulted in huge death tolls

Casualties in the Battle of Amiens were relatively low. Allied casualties numbered in the region of 40,000, while German casualties were around 75,000 – 50,000 of which were prisoners. These less newsworthy sums may account for Amiens’ lowly ranking in the hierarchy of World War One battles.

When we mark the anniversary of a First World War battle, we often focus mostly on the casualty figures. To an extent, rightly so. But this emphasis on death, coupled with the enduring concept of “the lost generation”, leads to an overestimation of the war’s death toll.

The total death toll among soldiers from the UK was around 11.5 per cent. A not insignificant figure, certainly, but far from a lost generation. In fact, a soldier had been more likely to die in the Crimean War than in World War One.

4. The Allies lost all of the battles

British soldiers transport a wounded colleague on a wheeled stretcher along the La Boisselle to Amiens road during the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916.

The Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli. Allied defeats and disappointments dominate the popular understanding of World War One. They do so because a battlefield strewn with the bodies of tens of thousands of dead and dying troops, seemingly sacrificed for nothing, fits the pervasive narrative of a futile war. The victories of 1918 are too often overlooked.

Indeed, the First World War actually culminated in one of the most successful campaigns in British military history. The eventual German collapse was the result of any number of factors but the external pressure exerted by the sustained Allied offensive on the Western Front cannot be underestimated.

Historian Richard van Emden, explains why we should give more attention to 1918 when studying the First World War. How close did Germany come to winning the war in early 1918 and how did the soldiers feel who faced their final onslaught?Listen Now

Further reading: 

Snow, Dan (February 2014) Viewpoint: 10 Big Myths About World War One Debunked. BBC. Retrieved August 2018