Australian War Memorial Tour of the Western Front 2007
Amiens and the Amiens Cathedral.
Amiens is a city and commune in the north of France, 120 km north of Paris. It is the préfecture (capital city) of Somme département. It is considered the Picarde capital of France. Amiens Cathedral (a World Heritage Site) is the tallest of the large 'classic' Gothic churches of the 13th century and is the largest in France of its kind. After a fire destroyed the former cathedral, the new nave was begun in 1220 - and finished in 1247. Amiens Cathedral is notable for the coherence of its plan, the beauty of its three-tier interior elevation, the particularly fine display of sculptures on the principal facade and in the south transept, and the labyrinth, and other inlays of its floor. It is described as the "Parthenon of Gothic architecture," and by John Ruskin as "Gothic, clear of Roman tradition and of Arabian taint, Gothic pure, authoritative, unsurpassable, and unaccusable."
The Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918, was the opening phase of the Allied offensive later known as the Hundred Days Offensive that ultimately led to the end of World War I. Allied forces advanced over seven miles on the first day, one of the greatest advances of the war. The battle is also notable for its effects on both sides' morale and the large number of surrendering German forces. This led Erich Ludendorff to famously describe the first day of the battle as "the black day of the German Army." Amiens was one of the first major battles involving armoured warfare and marked the end of trench warfare on the Western Front; fighting becoming mobile once again until the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
The battle began in dense fog at 4:20 AM on 8 August 1918. Under Rawlinson's Fourth Army, the British III Corps attacked north of the Somme, the Australian Corps to the south of the river and the Canadian Corps to the south of the Australians. The French 1st Army under General Debeney opened its preliminary bombardment at the same time, and began its advance 45 minutes later, supported by a battalion of 72 Whippet tanks. Although German forces were on the alert, this was largely in anticipation of possible retaliation for their incursion on the 6th and not because they had learned of the preplanned Allied attack. Although the two forces were within 500 yards of one another, gas bombardment was very low, as the bulk of the Allied presence was unknown to the Germans. The attack was so unexpected that German forces only began to return fire after five minutes, and even then at the positions where the Allied forces had assembled at the start of the battle and had long since left.
In the first phase, seven divisions attacked: the British 18th (Eastern) and 58th (2/1st London), the Australian 2nd and 3rd, and the Canadian 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The Canadian and Australian attackers were supported by eight battalions of the Royal Tank Corps, with a paper strength of 216 Mark V and 72 Mark V tanks, with 48 unarmed tanks used as supply-carrying tractors. Parts of the American 33rd Division supported the British attackers north of the Somme.
Amiens the Key to the West
by Arthur Streeton
Painted while Streeton was an Australian official war artist during the First World War. The French city of Amiens was a critical British base that was an original objective of the German Spring Offensive. The painting depicts the view to the east, overlooking the city, with gunfire on the horizon. Australian and British troops halted the German advance east of Amiens at Villers-Bretonneux.
Australian War Memorial catalogue number ART12436
The attackers captured the first German position, advancing about 4000 yards by about 7:30 AM. In the centre, supporting units following the leading divisions attacked the second objective a further two miles distant. Australian units reached their first objectives by 7:10 AM, and by 8:20 AM, the Australian 4th and 5th and the Canadian 4th divisions passed through the initial hole in the German line. The third phase of the attack was assigned to infantry-carrying Mark V tanks. However, the infantry was able to carry out this final step unaided. The Allies penetrated well to the rear of the German defences and cavalry now continued the advance, one brigade in the Australian sector and two cavalry divisions in the Canadian sector. RAF and armoured car fire kept the retreating Germans from rallying.
The Canadian and Australian forces in the center advanced quickly, pushing the line 3 miles forward from its starting point by 11 AM. The speed of their advance was such that a party of officers and some divisional staff eating breakfast were captured. A gap 15 miles long was punched in the German line south of the Somme by the end of the day. There was less success north of the river, where the British III Corps had only a single tank battalion in support, the terrain was rougher and the German incursion of the 6th had disrupted some of the preparations. Although the attackers gained their first objectives, they were held up short of the Chipilly spur, a steep wooded ridge.
The British Fourth Army took 13,000 prisoners while the French bagged a further 3,000. Total German losses were estimated to be 30,000 on 8 August. The Fourth Army's casualties, British, Australian and Canadian infantry, were approximately 8800, exclusive of tank and air losses and their French allies.
German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg noted the Allies use of surprise and that Allied destruction of German lines of communication had hampered potential German counter-attacks by isolating command positions. The German general Erich Ludendorff described the first day of Amiens as "the black day of the German Army", not because of the ground lost to the advancing Allies, but because the morale of the German troops had sunk to the point where large numbers of troops began to capitulate. Five German divisions had effectively been engulfed. Allied forces pushed, on average, seven miles into enemy territory by the end of the day. The Canadians gained 8 miles, Australians 7, British 2 and the French 5 miles.
The Battle of Amiens was a major turning point in the tempo of the war. The Germans had started the offensive with the Schlieffen Plan before the war devolved into trench warfare, the Race to the Sea slowed movement on the Western Front, and the German Spring Offensive earlier that year had once again given Germany the offensive edge on the Western Front. Armoured support helped the Allies tear a hole through trench lines, weakening once impregnable trench positions. The British Third army with no armored support had almost no effect on the line while the Fourth with less than a thousand tanks broke deep into German territory, for example. Australian commander John Monash was knighted by King George V in the days following the battle.
British war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted Amiens' effect on the war's tempo, saying on 27 August that "the enemy...is on the defensive" and "the initiative of attack is so completely in our hands that we are able to strike him at many different places." Gibbs also credits Amiens with a shift in troop morale, saying "the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly" and that "there is a change also in the enemy's mind. They no longer have even a dim hope of victory on this western front. All they hope for now is to defend themselves long enough to gain peace by negotiation."
8th August, 1918 by Will Longstaff (1879–1953), Australian official war artist.
Depicts a scene during the Battle of Amiens. The view is towards the west, looking back towards Amiens. A column of German prisoners of war being led into captivity. Meanwhile horse-drawn artillery are advancing to the east.
Australian War Memorial catalogue number ART03022
Rue des Trois Cailloux, Amiens
Extract from, Realities of War - Philip Gibbs, Hutchinson & Co. 1938.
The Street of the Three Pebbles [la Rue des Trois Cailloux] had been tramped up and down for two years by the British Armies on the Somme. I was never tired of watching those crowds and getting into the midst of them, and studying their types. All the types of English manhood came down this street, and some of their faces showed the strain and agony of war, especially towards the end of the Somme battles after four months or more of slaughter. I • saw boys with a kind of hunted look in their eyes; and Death was the hunter. They stared into shop windows in a dazed way, or strode along with packs on their backs> looking neither to the right or to the left, and white, haggard faces, as expressionless as masks.
Down to the Rue des Trois Cailloux, up and down, up and down, went English, and Scottish, and Irish, and Welsh, and Canadian, and Australian, and New Zealand fighting-men. In the winter they wore their trench-coats all splashed and caked up to their shoulders with the white, chalky mud of the Somme battle-fields, and their top-boots and puttees were plastered with this mud, and their faces were smeared with it after a lorry drive or a tramp down from the line. The rain beat with a metallic tattoo on their steel hats. Their packs were all sodden.
Australians slouched up the Street of the Three Pebbles with a grim look under their wide-brimmed hats, having come down from Pozieres, where it was always hell in the days of the Somme fighting. I liked the look of them, dusty up to the eyes in summer, muddy up to their ears in winter - these gipsy fellows, scornful of discipline for discipline's sake, but desperate fighters, as simple as children in their ways of thought and speech (except for frightful oaths), and looking at life, this life of war, and this life in Amiens, with frank curious eyes and a kind of humorous contempt for death, and disease, and English Tommies, and French girls, and 'the whole damned show', as they called it. They had no conceit of themselves in a little vain way, but they reckoned themselves the only fighting men, simply, and without boasting. They were as hard as steel, and finely tempered. Among them were boys of a more delicate fibre, and sensitive, if one might judge by their clear-cut features and wistful eyes. They had money to spend beyond the dreams of our poor Tommy. Six shillings and sixpence a day (sic) and remittances from home. So they pushed open the doors of any restaurant in Amiens and sat down to table next to English officers, not abashed, and ordered anything that pleased their taste, and wine in plenty.