Centenary of the Battle of Amiens
‘For the first time in the history of this Corps, all five Australian Divisions will tomorrow engage in the largest and most important battle operation ever undertaken by the Corps. They will be supported by exceptionally powerful artillery and by tanks and aeroplanes on a scale never previously attempted.’ This was the message from Lieutenant General Monash to all members of the Australian Corps on 7 August 1918. He urged every member of the Australian Corps to rise to the occasion.
The diary of Gunner J.R. Armitage reflects the tension as he lay in readiness for the attack ‘It was utterly still. Vehicles made no sound on the marshy ground …The silence played on our nerves a bit. As we got our guns into position you could hear drivers whispering to their horses and men muttering curses under their breath, and still the silence persisted, broken only by the whine of a stray rifle bullet or a long-range shell passing high overhead … we could feel that hundreds of men were doing the same thing – preparing for the heaviest barrage ever launched.’
The element of surprise had been maintained throughout the build-up across the entire front and the German forces did not realise that the Allied numbers were on the rise, nor were they expecting an attack at Amiens. At 4.20am on 8 August 1918, under cover of a dense fog, the assembled Allied forces launched a massive counter-offensive involving twenty divisions. Setting out from positions south of the River Somme and east of Villers-Brettonneux and Le Hamel, the Australian troops quickly accomplished their objectives.
The spearhead for the first phase of the battle, the Australian and the Canadian Corps’, advanced quickly in a line of tanks and infantry and it was reported that some German officers and soldiers were apprehended while eating their breakfast. By 7.30am the German front line had been completely broken and their field artillery overrun with no capacity to launch a counter offensive. A gap of 24 kms had been put into the German lines south of the Somme by the end of the first day. The Allies had captured 17,000 prisoners and 330 guns. Of particular significance was the capture of the Amiens gun, a 28cm German railway gun, by the Australian 31st Battalion, 5th Division near Harbonnieres, which was eventually returned to Australia and is now on display outdoors at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Amiens was one of the major battles where tanks were successfully deployed in supporting the infantry. It incorporated an all-arms co-ordinated attack, bringing together artillery, tanks, infantry and aircraft similar to the more clinical Hamel operation Monash had orchestrated on 4 July. The major combat lasted until 12 August and saw 44,000 soldiers lost from the Allied side and 75,000 from the German side, including 50,000 prisoners.
The high cost of the battle is reflected in the diary of Private L.C. Neal of the 30th Battalion.
“Major Wells was just in the doorway when a shell came along. It blew us all right down in the dugout and I heard Major Wells groan and cry ‘Oh My God’ and heard his throat gurgling with his blood. I was wounded at the same time so could not go to assist him, but sang out to some others who were not hurt to go to him.”
The diary entry refers to Major John Clarence Wells, a surgeon captain from Adelaide who was mortally wounded on 9 August 1918. Major Wells died on 10 August 1918 and is buried in the Vignacourt British Cemetery at Picardie, France, where a large proportion of Australians make up the total 584 World War I burials.
The Battle of Amiens was a severe blow to German morale. Commander General Erich Ludendorff famously described the first day of the battle as ‘the black day of the German Army’ and later acknowledged that this was the moment when many German commanders knew that the war could no longer be won. In contrast, it was the battle that reinforced Monash’s renown as a tactician, added to the high reputation of the Australians he commanded and marked the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive, the first of a series of Allied victories which would ultimately see an end to World War I.
C.E.W. Bean (1937) Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1923
John Monash, War Letters of General Monash, Angus & Robertson, Sydney,1934
Robert Kearney and Sharon Cleary, Valour &Violets – South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2018
Roland Perry, Monash The Outsider Who Won a War, Random House Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney, 2004