- James Houser
August 8, 1918 - The Battle of Amiens, the "Black Day of the German Army"
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
August 8, 1918. After four years, the tide is finally about to turn on the Western Front. Behind a hurricane artillery bombardment east of Amiens in northern France, and backed by air and armored support the Australian and Canadian Corps go over the top to attack the German lines – and the Germans CRACK. Erich Ludendorff will call it “the black day of the German Army.” World War I’s final campaign has begun. Welcome to the birth of modern warfare.
As much as I have burdened my friends, coworkers and loved ones for years with too much information about the First World War, I remain convinced that it is the most important event of the last two centuries. More change happened in a shorter time between 1914 and 1918 in the political, economic, social, and cultural realm than has happened before or since – but change was most visible, very obviously, in the military sphere. And now I will gush about that. Because what today’s post is really about is less the Battle of Amiens itself, and more what it represented – a complete sea change in the way wars and battles were fought at the end of World War I compared to when it began.
The armies of 1914 still looked like the armies of the Napoleonic era in many respects. The French cavalry still had breastplates and big hats, swinging their swords as they charged. (The armies of World War I used WAY more cavalry than film or popular memory remember.) The German armies marched to war with their spiked helmets. The army supply train of every nation still utilized vast numbers of horses to cart their ammunition and artillery across the landscapes of Europe. The infantry fought in mass formations – not shoulder to shoulder, but still in great swarms closely controlled by their officers. Tanks didn’t exist, airplanes could be counted in the dozens and were only used for surveillance, and tactics still focused on the bayonet and the courage of the mass attack. Late American Civil War tactics were literally more modern than the early battles of the First World War.
By 1918, only four years later, everything was different. Armored vehicles, poison gas, attack aircraft and the necessities of trench warfare had inflicted a steep learning curve – and a dreadful cost – on the armies of the Western Front. The British, French, Germans, and eventually Americans had to learn, and learn fast. In the process, they created modern warfare. Combat and war in 1918 looked and felt closer to Desert Storm than to the Battle of the Marne in 1914, only a few years before. The importance of battle planning and staff work, the emphasis on air-ground and infantry-armor cooperation, advanced infantry tactics, and fire superiority were all arts that had been learned in four terrible years of combat. I’m going to examine each of these.
First, let’s talk about artillery. As flashy as the planes and tanks and gas are, artillery was the great killer of both world wars, inflicting more combat casualties than any other weapon system. The First World War began with most armies using artillery in the direct-fire role, positioned in the front line and aiming directly at their targets. Very soon, though, the rise of trench warfare made indirect fire essential. Artillery had to coordinate with aircraft to spot targets, and sound detection was used to locate enemy batteries. The Western Front encouraged fast learning, and artillery preparation soon became the key to any successful attack in trench warfare. When artillery tactics were faulty, as they were for the British on the first day at the Somme, the results could be disastrous; when artillery was spot-on, like with the German attacks of 1918, it could be a game-changer.
This required immense preparation, stockpiling of ammunition, and synchronization with frontline units to deliver the combination of artillery bombardment and infantry assault that could win a battle in the nightmarish puzzle of the Western Front. Successful use of artillery was a long and painful learning process, but by 1918 the great artillery officers were like conductors of a symphony of death. Before 1914, artillery was secondary to the infantry and cavalry in the contest. By 1918, it was a necessity.
Infantry fighting had changed almost as rapidly as artillery tactics. The infantryman of 1914 wore a pristine uniform and a soft cap, carried a rifle with a long bayonet, and relied not on fire superiority or flanking tactics but on the mass attack to gain victory, usually in a dense formation advancing in the open. By 1918, of course, that was all gone, having vanished in the blaze of machine guns, massed artillery and barbed wire. The infantryman of 1918 fought with light machine guns and submachine guns, wore a helmet and sometimes body armor, carried grenades and a gas mask, and moved carefully across the battlefield. Rather than regiments or even companies being the main combat unit, the 10-man squad had turned into the organism of war. The battlefield was much bigger, and the unit was much smaller – making the 1918 battlefield a much lonelier and hellish existence, separated from humanity by fire and machine. By 1917, the Germans had developed advanced infantry infiltration tactics, and the British and French had absorbed the same lessons by 1918.
Crossing no-man’s-land was another major problem. The British and French, since they spent most of 1915 to 1917 on the offensive, were the ones to develop a solution to this particular issue – the tank. The first tanks (which I will talk about more on September 15 because I love tanks) were lumbering maintenance nightmares with low speed, poor engines and a setup that would make an engineer weep. They were better than nothing, though, and when used in the right situation they could ruin the enemy’s day. The importance of tank-infantry cooperation was well-learned by 1918, especially by the British, who were using hundreds of tanks in single battles. The Germans never developed a significant tank arm of their own in the First World War – ironic considering how famous German tanks were in the Second. The tank, though, restored mobility to the battlefield and redefined the concept of combined ground arms to a war that was the last hurrah of cavalry. Before 1914, mobility in combat meant hooves, boots, and occasionally rails; in 1918, mobility in war meant tracks, gasoline and tires.
War, of course, had also entered the third dimension by now. Even if a handful of earlier wars had seen the use of balloons or a handful of airplanes, the First World War saw air forces graduate from artillery observation to ground attack, air-to-air combat, and even strategic bombing. World War I was the first air war – the first war to see the bombing of cities, planes strafing troops and dropping bombs, and large numbers of aircraft contesting the airspace. Before 1914, the most a pilot could do against another pilot was shoot at him with a pistol. By 1918, swarms of planes dotted the sky, and generals born in the era of the American Civil War understood and accepted the need to dominate the sky.
With all these new weapons and the increasing complexity of combat, the armies of the First World War had to learn how to plan and coordinate battles on a scale that had never been done before. The stabilization of the front line on the Western Front called for intensive amounts of fire planning, control, and synchronization that had been beyond the abilities of Napoleon or Robert E. Lee. Modern technology certainly played a part, but it was the introduction of synchronization, phasing, unit boundaries and objective-based attacks planned by large staff organizations and passed down to subordinate commanders that really marks the First World War out. For my active duty readers, the entire “operations” portion of military planning was basically nonexistent before 1914. By 1918, it looks a lot like it does today.
So we return to Amiens.
In 1918, German General Erich Ludendorff had launched a hail-mary gamble to win World War I on the Western Front before the Americans could arrive in force. From March to July 1918, massive German attacks had pulverized the Allied lines in Flanders and northern France, driving deep wedges into the Western Front but ultimately failing in their objective to knock either Britain or France out of the war. This “Kaiserschlacht” – Kaiser’s battle, also called the Ludendorff Offensives – inflicted enormous casualties on both sides. Ultimately, though, the German Army’s morale was getting close to the breaking point. Four years of terrible war with little to show for it had caused the breakdown of the German political system, economy and society behind the lines, no matter how well the Army fought. The German soldier was just about burned out by August 1918 – and coincidentally, August 1918 was when the Allies were finally ready to win this thing.
Of all the advances in warfare I described above, it was the British and Commonwealth armies that had come the farthest and demonstrated the most adaptability in integrating them all into a superb combat machine. The best of the generals to learn the new way of war was, of all things, an Australian. Sir John Monash was a civil engineer and a German Jewish immigrant, called by one historian “the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War.” It was John Monash, more than anyone else, who honed and developed the bag of tools that he would use to crack the terrible, bloody puzzle that was the Western Front.
The first German attack of 1918 had been in the old sector of the Somme, and it had driven the British lines back over the ground that took the Tommies so much blood to conquer in 1916. The German attack had stalled out near the key French transport hub of Amiens, and they still held lines near that city in an enormous bulge. When the Western Allies decided to counterattack, they decided that Amiens would be the place, but first they wanted to test the efficacy of their new abilities and tactics. They selected Sir John Monash and his Australian Corps – the shock troops of the Western Front – to carry out the test run.
Monash and his ANZACs comprised the largest corps on the Western Front, five Australian and one American divisions. He ran the test run for the new combined-arms tactics on July 4, 1918 at Le Hamel on a small patch of frontline near Amiens. Dubbed “Monash’s Masterpiece” by a later historian, the small but brilliant attack achieved its objectives in 93 minutes. This local success brought Monash to the attention of Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander on the Western Front, who gave him the lion’s share of planning responsibility for the great offensive set to begin in August.
To put this in perspective – for four years, soldiers on the Western Front had been told, and told, and told by their generals and officers that THIS attack was going to win the war, and had always been disappointed. In August 1918, though, the Allies planned the attack that would begin the last phase of World War I. They assembled 32 divisions in the Amiens area, 9 of which were from the Australian and Canadian Corps, which everyone acknowledged were the best infantry on the Western Front. 10 British, 12 French and 1 American division rounded out the force. Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Army would take overall command, and the attack was prepared in utmost secrecy.
To achieve total surprise, the normal days-long artillery bombardment would be turned into a short, devastating barrage of over 2000 artillery pieces. Monash supervised the preparation of the fire plan, which would hit all the German artillery positions less than an hour before the infantry attacked. The advance would be accompanied by 580 tanks of various shapes and sizes, overflown by 1100 French and 800 British aircraft, and the infantry was carefully trained and educated as to their objectives and movements. It would be the most intensively and carefully planned battle in human history.
On August 8, 1918, the battle began under cover of dense fog at 4:20 AM. Across about 40 miles, the French, British, American, Australian and Canadian troops emerged from their trenches, carefully sliced through the wire, and sprinted towards the German positions as artillery opened up behind them. Tanks roared from their hiding places and biplanes droned in from the skies, plastering the surprised and beleaguered Germans even as their trenches were saturated with artillery.
The attackers captured the first German position in three hours, advancing almost 2.3 miles by 7am. Within hours they had carried the second objective as well, the Australian and Canadian Corps crashing through the German lines like the Kool-Aid Man in those old commercials. They advanced so fast that a group of German officers were captured in a rear command post eating breakfast. The Americans performed wonderfully as well, capturing the tough objective of Chilpilly Ridge to take pressure off the Australians.
All across the battlefield, the Allies surged like a tidal wave over the German defense system. Tanks, artillery, infantry and aircraft operated in the first truly combined-arms attack of the modern age, overcoming the machine guns and barbed wire that had stymied them since the beginning of the war. The Allies advanced seven miles on the first day of the Battle of Amiens – which doesn’t seem like much, but was a truly bewildering distance by First World War standards. They had punched a hole almost 40 miles wide in the German defensive line, and continued on for days. The most telling consequence of the battle, though, was the capture of 16,000 prisoners – which did not just exemplify the superiority of the new battle system, but demonstrated that the German Army was on the verge of collapse.
Indeed, it was this that caused General Ludendorff to call August 8 at Amiens the “Black Day of the German Army” – not because of the ground lost or a decisive defeat, but because the morale of the Germans had sunk to the point where large-scale surrenders occurred for the first time in the war. He remembered that retreating Germans insulted and yelled at their officers for forcing them to fight, and that soldiers would surrender in the hope of getting better rations than they received from their own government.
The Battle of Amiens was the true turning point of World War I. From the very beginning of the conflict – the German invasion of Belgium – it had been the German Army that set the pace and tempo of the war, from the first blitz into France, to its tenacious defense of the Western Front trenches, and with its attacks of 1918. Now, though, the shoe was on the other foot. The Germans were on the defensive, and the Allies were on a roll. August 8, 1918 marked the beginning of the “Hundred Days” – the grand Allied offensive that would continue until Armistice Day.
Amiens, August 8, 1918: not just the beginning of modern warfare, but the beginning of the end of the first modern war.