About World War 1: August 8, 1918-- Germany's Black Day
The Allies resume the Offensive
In March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, also known as the Kaiser's Battle or the Ludendorff Offensive. This massive drive, consisting of four different major battles between March and July, drove the Allies reeling back more than 50 miles-- an astounding feat given the years of trench warfare where “victory” was measured in yards. In the early morning hours of August 8, 1918, the German Army, depleted and exhausted by months of attacking, were taken completely by surprise when the British Fourth Army attacked and, by the end of the day, had punched a hole 15 miles wide in the front. It was the British Empire's finest day in the war and, as German military leader General Erich Ludendorff later said, it was “the black day of the German Army”. For, on that one day the Kaiser and his generals finally realized they had lost the war.
Allied Supreme Commander French General Foch had decided that the time had come to return to the offensive and encouraged his national commanders to conduct a series of limited attacks against the Germans. British Field Marshal Haig and Fourth Army General Rawlinson decided that Rawlinson's Fourth Army would attack east of Amiens along a 15-mile front and prepared plans in utmost secrecy.
Australian and Canadian Troops Spearhead The Attack
The Fourth Army was quietly built up to four corps of 15 infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions, consisting of British, Australian, Canadian and a small contingent of American soldiers. Key to the attack was the more than 500 heavy and light (Whippet) tanks that, along with Canadian and Australian troops, would spearhead the attack. Also allocated were 2,000 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft. For the first time, Canadians and Australians would fight under their own corps headquarters. Opposing this force were six weak German divisions.
Such was the secrecy, divisional commanders were not informed of the attack until a week before. The British War Cabinet was likewise kept in the dark and troops were not deployed until 36 hours before they were to go into battle; all movement was done at night. Special trains brought in the tanks and reinforcing troops. Fliers were posted in the trenches to “Keep Your Mouth Shut”.
Because the Germans so feared the Canadian and Australian troops (they were considered Stormtroopers because of their ferocity in battle), the British sent a small contingent of Canadians far to the north where they made their presence known. Knowing this, the Germans east of Amiens thought that any offensive would be far to the north.
When Haig informed Foch of their plans, Foch insisted that the French First Army to the south also join in the attack, but the British countered that, since the French had no tanks they would have to begin with an artillery barrage, which would destroy the element of surprise. The tanks and total surprise were crucial to the success of the attack they said. Foch relented and the French were allowed to join in after the attack was underway.
The Day of Attack
Finally, at Zero-hour, 4.20am on August 8, 1918, in a dense fog, the British launched the Battle of Amiens. Without the preparatory artillery barrage to prepare the way-- and warn the Germans-- hundreds of tanks surged forward with tens of thousands of troops. The artillery, using new techniques which didn't require “sighting in”, then opened up and managed to destroy 504 of the 530 German guns. The Germans were so surprised, their artillery didn't even reply for the first five minutes and when they did, they fired on positions that no longer held troops.
The tanks surged through the German front line and proceeded to wreak havoc in the rear. Cavalry poured through. The spearhead of Australian and Canadian troops pushed through the center so quickly and so far, they captured German staff officers at breakfast. Armored cars and planes of the Royal Air Force kept up a steady stream of fire, preventing the shocked Germans from rallying.
As the day ended, the British had pushed the Germans back an average of seven miles along a 15-mile front. German casualties for that day were estimated at 30,000 killed, wounded or captured-- 17,000 of them were taken prisoner, an unprecedented number. The British had 6,500 casualties.
The Battle of Amiens continued until August 12, but with nothing approaching the success of the first day, which ushered in the advent of armored, combined operations warfare and a return to the fluidity of movement on the battlefield. The Battle of Amiens became the first battle of the Hundred Days Offensive which pushed the Germans further and further back until, finally, the Armistice was signed three months later on November 11, 1918.
Many Germans had thought the war lost before August 8, 1918, and it became more evident as the days, weeks and months passed. But it was that day that convinced the Kaiser and his leading generals that all was lost. General Ludendorff said it wasn't necessarily the astounding gains the British made that day that led him to declare it the black day of the German Army (the "Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres") and give up hope. It was the reports of reinforcements going up to the line being greeted with scorn from the retreating survivors who shouted “You're prolonging the war!” and “Blacklegs!” (equivalent to “scabs” in union actions). The smell of revolution was in the air. German morale had collapsed even as British morale soared as they “got on” with the work of winning the war.
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