Australians & Canadians spearhead ‘The Black Day of the German Army’

imagesir-john-monashFor the start of the great Amiens 1918 offensive Lieutenant-General Monash’s (photograph right) Australian Corps lined up on an 8km frontage with its left boundary on the river Somme and its right the railway line to the east of Villers-Bretonneux.  To their right was Lt-Gen Currie’s Canadian Corps with the British and French supporting on the two flanks. The infantry brigades started their approach at different times, with the units of the Australian 2nd & 3rd Divisions destined for the first objective passing through those of the 4th & 5th Divisions that were detailed for the second and third objectives. At 3am with the forward attacking units now in position a heavy mist covered the ground and with the approaching dawn it was difficult to see more than 20 yards.

Map AmiensAt 4.20am on the 8th August 1918 the main 2,000 British guns as well as those of Debeney’s First French Army farther south started almost as a single crash. As Bean recalled nearly every man lit a cigarette as all along the line the companies of the attacking brigades rose and moved forward. Leading the way were the scouts or ‘beaters’ pointing out hostile posts to the tank crews, followed by the main body of the leading battalions. On the Australian 2nd Division right the 7th Brigade ran into some unexpected effective wire entanglement when nearing Card Copse just to the north of Marcelcave, with concentrated German machine gun at this point. The 28th Battalion, with 2nd Lieutenant Gaby, VC, and 26th Battalion on the far right found gaps and with the arrival of the tanks all resistance was ended. Assistance was then given to the Canadians on their right that were encountering resistance in Marcelcave south of the Amiens AIF 8th Augrailway line. To the north the 17th and 18th Battalions of the 5th Brigade passed on either side of Warfusee before entering the village from the north and south, bombing cellars and routing German headquarters out of their dugouts. To the left and on the Australian 3rd Division front the 9th Brigade took Accroche Wood and the 11th Brigade advanced on the southern side of the Somme. With the fog hanging thick the attackers were often on the Germans before they realised and many surrendered without a shot being fired. The 42nd Battalion advancing along the southern edge of the River Somme had to struggle through mud, weed and undergrowth but the scattered German posts could only fire blindly and were easily captured.

Amiens MkV tankThroughout this opening phase there was hardly any stubborn resistance, with the fog helping to conceal the advance, and where the tanks appeared most of the Germans were terrified. As for the German artillery it had been so smothered by the British counter-batteries and by the fog that its reply was negligible and caused only minor loss, chiefly to the leap-frogging 4th & 5th Divisions. The advance was the most bloodless ever made the Australian infantry in a great battle – one Company of the 42nd Battalion had no casualties. At 8am the mist lifted like a curtain, and looking from the high ground north of the Somme both British and Germans on the hills could observe the first units digging in and the leap-frogging battalions, the artillery, tanks and cavalry all moving forward across open countryside as the breakthrough had been achieved.

Amiens - E02926At 8.20am, simultaneously with the Canadians to the south, the Australian 4th & 5th Divisions moved through as phase two to the Red Line began. This time the infantry would not have the support of the creeping barrage but would have the tanks leading the way plus a number of field artillery brigades (photograph right) which had come forward. To the right of the Australians the Canadians were facing stiffer resistance as they were faced by the German 117th Division, a completely fresh and one of the most battle-worthy division in the German Army, plus utilising the defensive obstacles provided by the villages of Wiencourt and Guillaucourt. By far the most difficult task on the Australian front fell to the 4th Brigade on the far left by the Somme river as the British 58th Division had difficulty in clearing the flank on the Chipilly Spur high ground north of the river and German guns were able to pour fire down onto the advancing Australians, tanks and the artillery being brought forward. Ferocious short range artillery duels ensued, but the German guns could not be supressed. Of its four battalions it was the 16th Battalion tasked with taking the final objective that had the toughest task.

Amiens-10As the infantry readied itself for the third phase to the old Amiens Line, British Armoured Cars and Whippet Light Tanks (photograph left) along with the Cavalry were seen ahead causing havoc in what was now the German headquarters and transport area, often catching the enemy unaware until machine guns opened up. Including in the capture was the 11 inch railway gun (photograph below showing the war trophy now at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra). Except on the northern and southernmost flanks on the Australian Corps front, the furthermost planned objective had been reached by 1.30pm and by 3pm news was coming in to Monash that the Canadians and the French to the south were about to do the same.

Amiens Gun 1Much has been written about the success of the battle down to the integration between the various fighting elements. However the experience of the great majority of the troops throughout the day was that not only aeroplanes, tanks, armoured cars, cavalry, artillery and machine-guns working in unison, but so too the pioneer parties remaking the roads or helping the artillery over the trenches, engineers building bridges, fixing wells, providing sign-posts, the transport with working materials, and the quartermasters with food and drink all came up precisely when needed.

Amiens POWs - P02527.004The Australian Corps took over 7,000 prisoners, the Canadians took some 6,000 prisoners and the French 3,500 (photograph left of German Prisoners of War). Total German losses were estimated at 30,000 and over 300 guns were also captured that day, whereas the British, Australian (2,000) and Canadian were around 9,000 for the gain on average of 11kms across the front. General Ludendorff attributed the Allies success on this ‘the black day (der Schwarz Tag) of the German Army in the Great War’ to the failure of the German soldier’s morale. Six or seven divisions had been completely broken, with bodies of men surrendering to singles troopers, and retiring troops shouting ‘you’re prolonging the war’ at the reserves that went through them. Many German regimental historians explain the Allies success as due to tanks, but by far the biggest factor was surprise plus another was the mist. Another major difference between this and previous battles was the ability to exploit success behind the enemy lines before reserves could be brought up by for the first time the effective use of the cavalry and the motorised armoured cars.

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