Beginning of the End: The Battle of Amiens

The Battle of Amiens – article compiled by Captain (ret’d) Hamilton Slessor, RMR

The Gazette Aug 14, 1918, pg. 1

Westmount, Quebec – 01 August 2018: The article below was compiled by Captain (ret’d) Hamilton Slessor, and it summarizes what was truly the beginning of the end of the First World War, a battle in which the Canadians (and the RMR) played a significant role in breaking the German lines and forcing them to peace negotiations. The battle of Amiens was the start of the ‘Last 100 Days’ which ran until an armistice was completed between the warring parties on 11 November 1918. The actions of the commanders and soldiers of the day had a profound impact on not only the outcome of the war, but also on how future wars would be fought. This was the renewal of open warfare (out of the trenches), and close all-arms cooperation between infantry, cavalry (horses), artillery, engineers, and the hot new technologies of the day: tanks & planes. Please take a few minutes to read about the battle of Amiens below:


“August 8th, 1918, will live in history, for on that date Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig turned from the defensive and launched the first of a series of attacks, which halted only when the power of Germany had been shattered and Allied forces of occupation marched unopposed across the Rhine.  Writing of the August 8th engagement, which has been named “The Battle of Amiens,” General Ludendorff admits that, though the British possessed no great superiority, except in tanks, the German divisions between the Somme and the Luce were completely overwhelmed, their downfall causing consternation to the officers of the German Imperial Staff and forcing them to abandon hope of military victory.  “August 8th,” states the General, “was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.”[i]

PRELUDE TO THE OFFENSIVE: “On 24 July, the seventh day of the French counterattacks on the Marne, French General Foch conferred with the Allied Commanders-in-Chief.  The situation on the Western Front gave cause for satisfaction.  The German offensive east and west of Reims had been not only checked but turned from mere failure into costly defeat.  For the first time since March 1918 the Allies enjoyed an overall superiority in the West – and each month a quarter of a million more American troops were arriving.  The moment had come for the Allies to assume and retain the initiative by turning from the defensive to the offensive.” [ii]

The planned operations had several objectives.  The first was to continue the attacks then in progress. The second was to launch an attack from the Amiens region to remove the threat against certain railway lines, in particular the Paris to Amiens line, vital to the Allied efforts.

“General Foch issued his formal order for the Amiens operation on 28 July.  The offensive, which was to be ‘pushed as far as possible in the direction of Roye,’ was to be carried out by the British Fourth Army and the French First Army,”[iii]  both placed under command of Sir Douglas Haig.  The Fourth Army under General Henry Rawlinson consisting of the Australian Corps and the Third British Corps was to be reinforced by the addition of the Canadian Corps, then in reserve to the First Army.[iv]

Battle of Amiens, August 1918 – 60 pounder in action, CWM ARCHIVES / ARCHIVES DU MCG : Photo Archives O.3007

“On 21 July Sir Arthur Currie had been informed of the coming operation and notified that, for the occasion, the Canadian Corps would be attached to the Fourth British Army.  On July 29th the Canadian Divisional commanders were told of the plan, but warned that the information was confidential and not to be discussed even with the most trusted subordinate. To deceive the enemy, they were instructed to continue preparations for an attack on Orange Hill, east of Arras.” [v]

Rumours were spread that the Corps was soon to engage in a great battle in Flanders, and in support of this a number of Canadian battalions and supporting units were moved to the north taking up positions and conducting themselves in a manner certain to attract German notice. False moves were also made in daylight amid much noise, dust and bogus radio communication. There was also increased activity by the Royal Air Force flying about 200 planes in that area.

At the same time on the Amiens front where the intended attack was to take place, in early August the Allies tricked the Germans by appearing to weaken their front line so that German officers expected no assault. Troops moved to the front lines at night to fool the enemy. Secrecy was so important that the soldiers saw the warning “KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT” added to their service and pay book.

The offensive at Amiens was to be a surprise assault based on a combined arms approach to war.  In addition to cavalry and tactical airpower “the plan was to employ 1,386 field guns and howitzers, and 684 heavy guns… with a timetable which allowed 504 out of 530 German guns to be hit at ‘zero hour,’” [vi] while at the same time a creeping barrage preceded the infantry.  The plan also called for the use of 580 tanks of various classes including armoured cars.

Positions of combatant forces, day one of the battle of Amiens, 08 August 1918 [vii]

GETTING READY: “At 9 pm on August 3rd, 1918, the 14th battalion boarded busses at Fosseux and proceeded to Frévent where they boarded trains by 1 am on the morning of the 4th, being accommodated in the famous “40 hommes 8 chevaux” boxcars. No one knew where they were going, but all realized that action was imminent.  Lieut.-Col. Worrall carried sealed orders which he was instructed not to open until the train had started.”  The train trip proceeded all through the night and the following morning until 1 pm when they halted at Vieux-Rouen-sur-Bresle.  Here the men detrained, were fed a hot meal and then marched 10 km to Avesne arriving at 5:30 pm and were billeted for the night. [viii]

The next day, August 5th, battle equipment was checked and deficiencies made good. Then at 7 pm in accordance with instructions received during the afternoon, the battalion in full marching order formed up in Avesne and marched some distance where they again boarded busses and travelled throughout the night reaching a spot near Amiens at 5 o’clock in the morning of August 6th.   Debussing, the men then marched 12 km to the town of Boves which had been evacuated by the population, but was thronged with troops massing for the Amiens offensive.   After billeting here all day, late that night the battalion marched to a position just north of Gentelles.  Some shelling was encountered and a number of casualties were sustained before the battalion was distributed in reserve trenches.[ix]

“All day on August 7th the Royal Montreal Regiment lay in these reserve trenches keeping as quiet as possible and doing everything possible to escape observation.”   To maintain surprise, upon which success depended, field and heavy guns, though in position, did not fire even registering shots.  Aeroplanes strove to keep observers back without betraying that there was anything special to conceal, and the infantry ate rations cold lest the smoke of many fires should rouse the enemy to a sense of approaching danger.[x]

The Battle – Day One – August 8th

 At dusk on August 7th, the 14th Battalion took over positions for the attack from the 50th Australian Battalion, other units of the 3rd Brigade advancing simultaneously and preparing for action.  When assembly was complete the formation of the Brigade was as follows:- [xi]

On the Right                         – 16th Canadian Battalion

In the Centre                         – 13th Canadian Battalion

On the Left                           – 14th Canadian Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment)

In Centre Support                – 15th Canadian Battalion

In Right Support                  –   5th Canadian Battalion

Battle map of the Canadian Corps, Amiens 1918 [xii]

“At 4:20 am on the morning of August 8th, the attacking waves of the Canadian and Australian Divisions plunged forward to open the Battle of Amiens; and at the same instant the artillery of the French on the right roared in bombardment of the enemy line.  … A light ground mist prevailed, and this was soon thickened by the smoke of bursting shells, until sight was limited to a few dozen feet, or yards.”[xiii]

“Companies Nos. 2 and 3 of the 14th Bn. led the Royal Montreal attack with Nos. 1 and 4 Companies moving steadily forward in support.  On reaching the German front line, opposition was encountered, but this was feeble and was brushed aside by use of the bayonet.  Continuing, the advance swept to a point in front of Morgemont Wood, where it was checked by a nest of eight light machine guns, which had escaped aerial observation.  For a time these held back the Canadians who were hampered by a shortage of bombs, but just as the situation became serious tanks arrived and lurching forward crushed the nest out of existence.” [xiv]

Tanks advancing down Amien-Roye Road, August 1918 [xv]

Freed from intense fire, the Royal Montrealers pushed through Morgemont Wood and along its flanks, mopping up enemy strong points, dislodging concealed snipers and capturing prisoners.  On leaving the shelter of the wood, fire from a nest of heavy machine guns struck the leading waves of the attack causing heavy losses.  Lieut. E.G.Trevor Penny, MC, gathered a party of 14th Bn. men as well as a group from the 3rd Cdn. Bn. and led a charge to silence the German guns. Regrettably, Lieut. Penny, together with a number of his men fell dead before the German opposition was finally overcome.  Lieut Penny earned a posthumous Military Cross for his actions that day.   A pin once worn by Lieut. Penny is now worn on dress uniforms by the Senior Subaltern of the Regiment as a “mark of his office.”

Tanks were again called to assist in pushing the attack forward against stiff opposition.  After making their way along the German parapet firing their machine guns and crushing the parapet in several places the tanks then left.  The Germans, however, continued strong resistance, and the Royal Montrealers were forced to substitute a series of operations against the flanks instead of a frontal assault.   These flanking movements with enfilade fire opened on the Germans soon brought a white flag of surrender.  Forgetful of known Hun tactics, a number of our men advanced across the open to occupy the trench and accept the garrison’s surrender.  These individuals paid the penalty of their trust and were killed by treacherous rifle fire from the German line.   Angered by the death of their comrades, the men of the Royal Montreal Regiment resumed the attack and gave no quarter.

“Thirty minutes after the action began, Lieut.-Col. Worrall decided to follow the attack as visual signalling was impossible, telephone wires had been ripped up by the tanks.  Because runners were losing their way in the fog important messages were being delayed.  Accordingly the C.O. of the 14th moved his Headquarters to a point not far from the Green Line, beyond which troops of the 2nd Brigade were exploiting the initial success.”[xvi]   When consolidation of the Green Line was completed, the Regiment was able to consider the results of the day’s action.  Large numbers of prisoners had been captured and sent quickly to the rear so exact numbers were hard to determine.  It was easier to count the enemy weapons which had been captured.  The Battalion War Diary mentions that the trophies taken included ten field guns, forty-six machine guns and eight trench mortars.[xvii]

To offset the numbers of Germans killed or taken prisoner, and the equipment captured, the Regiment suffered casualties totalling 159, including 5 officers killed and 4 wounded, 13 other ranks killed, 103 wounded and 34 missing.   In addition to Lieut E.G.T.Penny, four other platoon commanders were killed – Lieuts. A.S. Baird, F.K. Neilson, MM.,  J.H. Davy, and W.A. Kirkconnell. [xviii]

Canadian troops clearing dug-outs during the Battle of Amiens, August, 1918. [xix]

Day Two – August 9th: When troops of the 2nd Brigade leap-frogged the 14th Battalion in the Green Line on Day One, the Royal Montrealers immediately re-organized in preparation for further action.  The night of August 8th passed without incident, but at 6:50 am on the morning of August 9th the Battalion received orders to advance in support of an attack being delivered by the 2nd Brigade.  The 14th was the only 3rd Brigade battalion to become engaged on this date. [xx]

At 7 am final instructions were received, and fifteen minutes later the Battalion moved off.  Forcing the pace, in view of the urgent nature of his mission, Lieut.-Col. Worrall led the Battalion along roads congested with traffic to 2nd Brigade Headquarters. There he was ordered to take up positions in support of the 8th Canadian Battalion which was preparing to attack.

Ordering the 14th Battalion to follow, Lieut.-Col. Worrall advanced, reconnoitered the positions assigned to him, and meeting the Battalion coming forward, directed the men to their places.  A section of the assembly trenches originally chosen was commanded by higher ground from where the enemy directed machine gun and artillery fire including gas shells.  Accordingly Worrall changed the plan to meet the conditions and assembled his men in a less hazardous spot, the disposition being completed just before 11:30 am.

Shortly after the Royal Montrealers had taken up position it was announced the 8th Battalion would attack at 1 pm with the 14th following in close support.  Warning of the attack seems to have reached the Germans and between 11:30 and “zero hour,” the assembly positions were heavily shelled, a number of men fell and serious losses were avoided by the narrowest of margins.

Sharp at 1 pm the 8th Battalion attack went in and the 14th simultaneously swung into position to support.  The move involved a flank advance through a small wood which was subjected to sustained fire.  The value of training carried out while in Army Reserves was demonstrated now with company, platoon and section leaders demonstrating marked ability leading their men through the wood to the desired point on the flank.  Leaving here the Battalion suffered heavily from machine guns hidden in another wood some distance forward. Once again skilful leadership solved the problem and the defending garrison were eventually subdued by the attackers’ manoeuvering on the flanks.  As a result many Germans were killed or wounded and over 50 taken prisoner.[xxi]

In the meantime the 8th Battalion had suffered heavily and needed support on their flanks.  Worrall sent forward No. 3 Coy. of the 14th with orders to support the 8th in every way possible.  Shortly after this the 14th Bn. reached its objective and began consolidating.  When Worrrall reached this spot he found 60 to 80 officerless men of the 8th preparing to receive a counter-attack seen massing in the distance.   Finding the point reached by the 8th Bn. men  unsuitable for defence Worrall consolidated them a short distance to the rear, and sent a runner back ordering the main body of the 14th to advance without delay.

By this time the enemy realized his counter-attack was not to progress unopposed. He, therefore, halted and pushed forward machine gun posts which inflicted losses on the men digging in.  Whippet tanks advanced in an effort to subdue the machine gun fire but had great difficulty in finding them in the fields of nearly ripe grain.  Despite two Whippets being disabled, the nests were silenced and consolidation proceeded.  In the meantime orders reached the 14th Bn. from 2nd Brigade Headquarters directing the 14th Bn. to relinquish the front line and withdraw 300 yards to the rear. [xxii]

A Canadian armoured car going into action. Battle of Amiens. August 1918. [xxiii]

During the night that followed the enemy attempted no further advance; instead he recalled his forward posts and retired. The 8th Battalion quickly realized his intention and pushed out patrols which established posts along the line of the battalion’s final objective.

In the fighting on August 9th officers and men of the 14th earned the commendation of their Commanding Officer for exemplary behavior.  Approximately 200 other ranks were casualties of whom more than 30 were killed. Two officers were killed and ten wounded.  The loss of so many at one time was a severe blow to the unit’s establishment.  Again, in addition to the casualties there was much material to be recovered from the field, both German and Canadian. [xxiv]

Day Three – August 10th: On August 10th, 1918, the Royal Montreal Regiment lay in a support position not far from Warvillers. [xxv]   Apart from giving their position as a map reference, and mentioning that the weather still continued to be fine and warm, the Battalion War Diary gives no further indication of the Battalion’s activities that day.[xxvi]

Day Four – August 11th: On the following day, the 11th, the Battalion, still weakened as a result of the fighting on the 8th and 9th, suffered a severe loss when Capt. J.C.K. Carson, MC., and Lieut. R.J. Allan. MC., MM., were killed by the same shell while reconnoitering an advanced position.   Capt. Carson had joined the Battalion in the fall of 1915.   Lieut. Allan had served in the ranks of the Regiment, was wounded in June 1915, won the Military Medal, was commissioned, and won the Military Cross.  With the death of these officers, the Battalion lost capable and experienced leaders.[xxvii]   By nightfall most of the offensive operations had ground to a halt.[xxviii]

Amiens battle area, 09 – 19 August 1918 [xxix]

After the Battle – August 12th: “Unaware of what the future held in store, the 14th Battalion moved back on August 12th to the Beaufort Area where the men occupied trenches 300 yards in advance of the Beaufort Village Road.” [xxx]

August 15th: “On August 15th the Adjutant, Capt. D. MacRitchie, issued Operation Order No. 237;  accordingly the Battalion moved forward at night to a position in the front line at Parvillers to relieve the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  This move was done without casualties.  Joining the 14th at this time were 193 new men reporting for duty from England to replace recent losses.[xxxi]

Two days earlier … “On August 13th Sir Arthur Currie issued a “Special Order” dealing with the action of the Canadian Corps at Amiens.  In it he says ‘The first stage of this Battle of Amiens is over, and one of the most successful operations conducted by the Allied Armies since the War began is now a matter of history.  The Canadian Corps has every right to feel more than proud of the part it played.’   On August 8th  ‘The Canadian Corps – to which was added the 3rd Cavalry Division, the 4th Tank Brigade, the 5th Squadron, R.A.F. – attacked on a front of 7,500 yards.  After a penetration of 22,000 yards the line tonight rests on a 10,000 yard frontage.  Sixteen German Divisions have been identified, of which four have been completely routed.  Nearly 150 guns have been captured, while over one thousand machine guns have fallen into our hands.  Ten thousand prisoners have passed through our cages and casualty clearing stations, a number greatly in excess of our total casualties.  … From the depths of a very full heart I wish to thank all Staffs and Services for their splendid support and co-operation and to congratulate you all on the wonderful success achieved.  Let us remember our gallant dead whose spirit shall ever be with us, inspiring us to nobler effort, and when the call again comes, be it soon or otherwise, I know the same measure of success will be yours.’” [xxxii]

In Summary: The Battle of Amiens effectively ended on 11 August.  It was Germany’s worst defeat since the start of the war.  It shook German faith in the outcome of the war and raised Allied morale.[xxxiii]

The battle was exceedingly costly. In their sector of the attack, the Canadians pushed the Germans back as many as 12 km, a huge achievement in a war often fought over metres. However, the Canadians suffered more than 11,800 casualties in total including 1,036 Canadians killed, 2,803 injured and 29 taken prisoner on August 8th alone. Overall more than 19,000 Allied soldiers were killed or injured, while the Germans lost more than 26,000 casualties. The Canadian Corps captured 5,033 prisoners and 161 guns. [xxxiv]

Previously, most Allied commanders had predicted the war would continue well into 1919 and possibly into 1920. Amiens proved that the German army, bending under the strain of four years of attritional warfare, was closer to defeat than anyone had predicted. [xxxv]

When “Ludendorff informed German Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German disaster at Amiens, the Kaiser replied, ‘We have reached the limits of our capacity. The war must be terminated.’   Indeed, Amiens sparked the Hundred Days campaign, the successful Allied push that would drive the Germans backwards until their ultimate defeat, and result in the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918.” [xxxvi]

*     *     *     *     *      

Victoria cross medal and ribbon. Photo credit: DND’s Directorate of History and Heritage

The Victoria Cross: It is worth noting that during the Battle of Amiens and the days immediately following no less than ten Victoria Crosses were earned by Canadians as follows:- [xxxvii]

On August 8th

  • Cpl H. G. B. Miner –  58th Battalion, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division
  • Pte J. B. Croak –  13th Battalion, 1st Canadian Infantry Division
  • Cpl H. J. Good –  13th Battalion, 1st Canadian Infantry Division
  • Lt J. E. Tait, M.C. – 78th Battalion, 4th Canadian Infantry Division

On August 9th

  • Lt Jean Brillant, M.C.,   –  22nd Battalion, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
  • Sgt R. L. Zengel, M.M., –   5th Battalion, 1st Canadian Infantry Division
  • Cpl F. G. Coppins –   8th Battalion, 1st Canadian Infantry Division
  • LCpl Alexander Brereton –   8th Battalion, 1st Canadian Infantry Division

On August 12th

  • Pte Thomas Dinesen –   42nd Battalion, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division

On August 16th

  • Sgt Robert Spall –  Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division

REFERENCES:

[i]    R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 216.
[ii]    Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, CD., Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, Duhamel, Queens Printer, Ottawa, 1962, pg. 386.   http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/his/docs/CEF_e.pdf
[iii]    Ibid. pg. 388
[iv]    Ibid.
[v]    Featherstonhaugh, pg. 217
[vi]    Hart, Peter, “1918: A Very British Victory:, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2008.  ISBN 978-0-297-84652-9. pg. 311
[vii]    Nicholson, pg. 392
[viii]    Featherstonhaugh, pg. 218
[ix]    Ibid
[x]  Ibid
[xi]   Ibid, pg. 219
[xii]   Nicholson, pg. 418
[xiii]   Featherstonhaugh, pg. 219
[xiv]   Ibid, pg. 219
[xv]   CWM Archives / Archives Du MCG : Photo Archives O.2973
[xvi]   Featherstonhaugh, pg. 221
[xvii]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, August 8,1918.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,
http://data2.archives.ca/e/e044/e001091231.jpg
[xviii]  Featherstonhaugh, pg. 221
[xix]  Library and Archives Canada/1964-114NPC
[xx]  Featherstonhaugh, pg. 222
[xxi]  Ibid. pp. 222-223
[xxii]  Ibid. pg. 224
[xxiii]  Library and Archives Canada/PA-003015
[xxiv]  Featherstonhaugh, pg. 224
[xxv]   Ibid. pg. 225
[xxvi]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, August 10,1918.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,
http://data2.archives.ca/e/e044/e001091232.jpg
[xxvii]  Featherstonhaugh, pg. 226
[xxviii]  Canadian War Museum:  “The Battle of Amiens.”
 https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/amiens/
[xxix]   Nicholson, pg. 409
[xxx]   Featherstonhaugh, pg. 227
[xxxi]   Ibid.
[xxxii]   Ibid. pg. 226
[xxxiii]   Canadian War Museum:  “The Battle of Amiens.”
 https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/amiens/
[xxxiv]  Historica Canada: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-amiens/
[xxxv]  Canadian War Museum:  “The Battle of Amiens.”
 https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/amiens/
[xxxvi]  Historica Canada: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-amiens/
[xxxvii]  Veteran’s Affairs Canada: “The Last Hundred Days - The Battle of Amiens.”   http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/last-hundred-days?filter=range&start=1

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