(A 60 pounder gun in action during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.)
We’re now in the final days of the centenary of the Great War and today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens. The day is well known as the day that
General Erich Ludendorff referred to as the“Black day of the German army in this war”. Now Ludendorff’s pessimism rose and fell like the tide and his hopes for a negotiated peace, if not a total victory, lasted into October of 1918 so his statement should be viewed with a little caution. What it is though, is a recognition that the German army had little answer to the hammer blows from the Entente armies.
Three weeks before the Battle of Amiens the French,Americans, Italians and British launched an counter offensive on the Marne after the last German offensive stalled. The Second Battle of the Marne, as it came to be known, had pushed back the Germans to their starting position and then beyond. The primarily French offensive was a model of combined arms warfare and was the culmination of four years of French battlefield education. It involved over 2000 guns of varying calibre and around 350 tanks, as well as upwards of 50 infantry divisions and considerable air support. The offensive was as much of a success as Amiens would be and resulted in over 100,000 German casualties and 30,000 German prisoners taken.
(British and French troops with a Renault FT-17 tank in the Bois de Reims during the Battle of Tardenois, 24 July 1918.)
This is the background against which we should look at Amiens. Not as the lone British battle that turned the tide of the war, but as one powerful blow in a pattern of blows, designed to keep the German army off balance.
Amiens, and Second Marne for that matter, demonstrated a different and ultimately successful way of war. German strategy in 1918 was determined by two things. The need to strike a decisive blow before American troops arrived on the battlefield in numbers and before the home front collapsed from the blockade. The German offensives in the first half of 1918 demonstrated their operational and strategic thinking. It was breakthrough thinking. In much the same way Haig is lambasted for being a ‘cavalry thruster’ at heart, the German army planned on winning the war with a strategic breakthrough. Their methods were surprise and infiltration tactics, relying on the superior skill and initiative of their
Stoßtruppen to destabilise and demoralise the opposition. This was, as historian Mel Hampton calls it, a man-centric way of war. German generals still planned for a decisive breakthrough and the capture of Paris.
The Entente differed in their strategic thinking. Despite being damned for his obsession with the strategic breakthrough Haig is also criticised for his policy of attrition, a classic example of critics trying to have it both ways. Through the same four years of fighting as the Germans the Entente learnt similar lessons but came up with a very different answer.
If the Germans came up with a man-centric way of war then the Entente came up with a material-centric way of war. Not only was their way of fighting the war different, but their idea of victory was different as well. The German need to win a quick and decisive victory didn’t apply to the British and French. Apart from removing the Germans from French and Belgian soil, there was many shapes for Entente victory to take.
Instead of the decisive breakthrough the Entente military perfected the kind of battles they’d been fighting in 1917. They figured out the key to a successful limited operation and writ that plan large. With the combination of good artillery preparation, well drilled infantry and supporting arms the Entente armies could break into German lines, capture ground, prisoners and materiel and devastate the inevitable German counter-attack. This style of warfare relied on overwhelming artillery support and a level of supply the German military couldn’t cope with or hope to match. Where the Germans attempted to solve a military problem with men the Entente tried materiel. Confronted with the same problems on the battlefield other factors played the decisive role in what solutions were arrived at.
Amiens and Second Marne didn’t end the war immediately. What they did demonstrate was that the Entente had the manpower, material and method to dominate the battlefield. To which the Germans had no answer.