Canadian and Allied troops won a major victory against Germany at the Battle of Amiens between 8 and 11 August 1918. Amiens was the first in a string of offensive successes that led to the end of the First World War and culminated in the 11 November 1918 armistice.
By July 1918, Allied forces in the First World War held a superior position on Europe’s Western Front; troops from the United States were also pouring in to reinforce the war effort. Allied commanders decided it was time to switch from defence to offence and push German forces out of France. As part of this, French General Ferdinand Foch planned an attack in the Amiens region of northern France that would protect the vital Paris-Amiens railway.
The attacking force comprised the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force), the British Fourth Army, the French First Army, the Australian Corps and others. 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. False moves were also made in daylight, amid much noise, dust and bogus radio communication.
Secrecy was so important that the soldiers saw the warning “KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT” added to their service and pay book.
The Allies sneaked into position with thousands of heavy and super-heavy field guns, howitzers, more than 600 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft. The Germans were greatly outnumbered and, in the words of German military chief Erich Ludendorff, “depressed down to Hell.” The Germans were protected by three lines of trenches, which were poorly wired for communications and without good dugout shelters.
The Canadian Corps was assigned to hit the German Fourth Army. The attack was scheduled for 8 August at 4:20 a.m. Unlike earlier attacks in the war, the Amiens assault would not be preceded by bombardment. This would keep the assault secret as long as possible.
A Royal Air Force squadron laid smoke screens over the battlefield to hide the attacking Canadians. A heavy mist also concealed no man’s land as the attack grew nearer on that moonless night. At exactly 4:20 a.m., 900 Allied guns opened fire and the infantry headed toward the German lines. Tanks roared across the battlefield and planes droned overhead.
The Germans were entirely unprepared for this scale of attack and many surrendered at the first chance. Allied soldiers fought through woods to clear German machine-gun positions and take prisoners. The tanks lagged behind, struggling across boggy terrain and in thick fog. Canadian forces captured several key targets and pressed forward amid waves of German prisoners being marched back behind Allied lines.
Harry Miner, a 27-year-old corporal and farmer from Ontario, rushed three enemy posts. He attacked two of them by himself and turned a captured machine gun on the Germans. Miner ran alone into an enemy bombing post, killed two soldiers and chased the rest off before a German grenade killed him. His actions earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross, the British Empire's highest award for military valour.
After 8 August, the Allied assault slowed but continued for another three days as it pressed through fields thick with tangles of barbed wire, abandoned trenches and a mess of shell holes,.
Lieutenant Jean Brillant, a 28-year-old from Québec, rushed ahead of one mop-up operation to capture a German machine-gun post. He was wounded but the next day led two platoons to capture 15 more machine guns and 150 prisoners. He was wounded again and led a charge against a German gun firing on his fellow soldiers. He was wounded a third time and died. Brilliant was also awarded the Victoria Cross.
“Black day” for Germany
The Battle of Amiens ended on 11 August. It was Germany's worst defeat since the start of the war. 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. It came at the cost of 1,036 Canadians killed, 2,803 injured and 29 taken prisoner. 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.
Ludendorff described the opening day of the battle, 8 August, as "the black day of the German Army in the history of this war . . . Everything I had feared, and of which I had so often given warning, had here, in one place, become a reality.”
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.