IT WAS NOT yet official, but it was incontrovertibly true: Germany was about to lose the war.
The success of the Battle of Amiens prompted General Rawlinson to write to Sir Henry Wilson on 9th August, “I think we have given the Boche a pretty good bump this time.” His magisterial understatement offers a delicious flavour of how it felt, just then, to be on the winning side.
There had been too many false dawns over the previous four years, in which both sides had launched gigantic assaults, fortified by the best technology and massive firepower, and reliant upon the astonishing courage of their troops. Yet these had not been enough. Again and again, initial gains had slowed into inch-by-inch attrition, before the war had reverted once again to the beastliness of the status quo ante.
The day of this decisive assault came four years and four days after Britain had declared war on Germany. General Rawlinson and his Fourth Army had been entrusted with the attack, but the battle’s conception belonged to Haig. British troops were lucky in their allies that day — the famously aggressive and justly feared Australian and Canadian Corps, and the French First Army under General Debeney. But would that be enough? She had had allies too at the time of the Somme and of Passchendaele.
Was it the firepower which proved decisive? At 4.20 a.m. over 2,000 artillery pieces opened fire and, with limited defences in which to shelter, the front-line German troops were helpless. The weather, for once, was on the Allies’ side: a thick mist covered the ground and the gloom was intensified by phosphorous grenades dropped by the RAF. Certainly, those first volleys of artillery were enough for the Germans to be dumbfounded, and these were swiftly followed by a creeping barrage and a coordinated attack led by a huge force of tanks — over 400 of them in all, working closely with the cavalry. Then came 400 aircraft, their engines tuned to make the greatest possible noise in order to unnerve the enemy and to divert their attention from the rumble of advancing tanks.
There could be no argument about the result. By noon at least six miles had been gained and, by nightfall, a breach in the German line had been made, twelve miles wide and about seven miles deep. About 100 tanks and 1,000 horses had been lost by the Allies, but German casualties numbered 30,000 of whom some 17,000 were prisoners. Three to four hundred guns had been captured by the Allies.
So — what was it that marked out, to copy Rawlinson, this “bump” from earlier ones? For too long there has been a temptation to fall back on structuralist explanations — the exhaustion of German troops in the wake of their failure to drive home their offensives in recent months or the demoralisation on the German Home Front. Both were critical, of course, as (goodness knows) was the infusion of verve and vigour from the United States.
But we can see also the extent to which Haig and his commanders had summoned humility to learn from the mistakes of the past. They had more and better tanks and aeroplanes at their disposal, of course, and knew far better how to integrate them into the whole battle plan. Above all, they had learned about secrecy. Hundreds of tanks had been brought into the sector and concealed from enemy aerial observation. Four Canadian divisions had been moved into attack positions between 30th July and 3rd August — meaning 100,000 men, 20,000 horses and 1,000 guns — without the Germans picking up on the fact. Other Canadian troops were switched to Ypres and ordered to fill the air with wireless signals in an effort to deceive the enemy into expecting more actions in that area: the kind of decoy which would become typical in the next war but, for now, was a technological marvel.
Even so, few experienced soldiers succumbed to hubris. The Australian, General Monash, remembered the tension of the night before the battle:
In the black darkness, a hundred thousand infantry, deployed over twelve miles of front, are standing grimly, silently, expectantly, in readiness to advance, or are already crawling stealthily forward to get within eighty yards of the line on which the barrage will fall; all feel to make sure that their bayonets are firmly locked, or to set their steel helmets firmly on their heads; Company and Platoon commanders, their whistles ready to hand, are nervously glancing at their luminous watches, waiting for minute after minute to go by…
Finally, it was 4.20 a.m., and the opening bombardment was unleashed:
And suddenly, with a mighty roar, more than a thousand guns begin the symphony. A great illumination lights up the Eastern Horizon: and instantly the whole complex organisation, extending far back to areas almost beyond earshot of the guns, begins to move forward; every man, every unit, every vehicle and every tank on the appointed tasks and to their designated goal, sweeping on relentlessly and irresistibly. Viewed from a high vantage point and in the glimmer of breaking day, a great artillery barrage surely surpasses in dynamic splendour any other manifestation of collective human effort.
Captain Oliver Woodward recalled:
Only those present can understand the great feeling of relief which followed this glorious attack… For some months we had seemed to be living under the fear that the enemy might at any moment launch another great attack, which possibly might be as successful as his early one. We were up and about before zero hour on the 8th, wondering what success would be ours in the coming attack. We were to measure swords with the enemy. Failure might mean anything.
Yet at 9 a.m., we felt that once again we were on top, and that we would eventually win the War. How and when this end would be reached did not concern the individual. The essential fact was that one; and all recognised that we had the game well in hand and eventually the winning goal would be kicked. Our whole viewpoint had changed in a few hours.
Early next morning I inspected a great portion of the area which had been so brilliantly captured, and it may be difficult to believe that except for the sound of the guns ahead, I walked over this area unable to imagine that 24 hours earlier it was in the hands of the enemy.
Understandably, the Germans remembered it all rather differently. Famously, Ludendorff dubbed 8th August “the black day of the German Army” but a secret order he sent his staff twenty-four hours earlier suggests that, even before it began, he was deeply disturbed by defeatism in the ranks:
Whether rightly or wrongly, each member of the OHL [Supreme Army Command] is looked upon as being well informed and corresponding value is placed on all he says.
For this reason every member must even outside the OHL remain conscious of his responsibility… The OHL is free from despondency. Sustained by what had previously been achieved on the front and at home it prepares stout-heartedly to meet the challenges that are to come. No member of OHL may think and act in a manner other than this.
Commanders in all armies get periodically bothered by poor morale. What shrieks out here are Ludendorff’s own doubts.
They were, however, well-founded. According to the official German report:
As the sun set on 8th of August on the battlefield, the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the War was an accomplished fact. The positions between the Avre and the Somme, which had been struck by the enemy attack were nearly completely annihilated.
Next day at German Headquarters, all was panic and recrimination. Ludendorff vented his fury on Marwitz, commander of the battered Second Army, for having asked permission to withdraw behind the Somme. The line, he insisted, must be held. He also harassed Crown Prince Rupprecht, whose chief of staff, General von Kuhl, noted:
Ludendorff is continually insisting on having a say in all the particulars, talking to all the armies and their chiefs, arranging details often quite contrary to his orders to me. Then when one talks to the army commanders, one hears they are doing something different from what we ordered. This makes everything terribly difficult. At the same time he is extremely restless and does not listen to a single suggestion.
Leutnant Rudolf Binding’s diary entry, on crossing the Somme battlefields yet again, was also relentlessly pessimistic:
It will be the same all over again, but without any confidence. Our troops will be thinner and worse; for days the horses have not had a grain of oats; the men are being given barley-bread which will not rise in the oven, and we have taken some knocks. Against us we shall have thousands of tanks, tens of thousands of airmen, hundreds of thousands of hearty young men, behind whom there will be an American Army which may number a million.
When, after the war, Ludendorff penned his own highly unreliable memoirs, he described the events of 8th August:
I was told of deeds of glorious valour, but also of behaviour which, I openly confess, I should not have thought possible in the German Army; whole bodies of men had surrendered to a single trooper or isolated squadrons. Retiring troops, meeting a fresh division going bravely into action, had shouted out things like ‘Blackleg’ and ‘You’re prolonging the war’, expressions that were to be heard again later. Even the officers had been swept along in the prevailing tide of pacifism and war weariness.
All that I had feared, all that I had endlessly and repeatedly warned against, had here at one place become an actuality. Our fighting machine was no longer of real value. Our capacity for war had suffered harm even if the far greater majority of our divisions fought bravely. August 8 marked the decline of our military power and took from me the hope, with the replacement system that existed, of discovering some strategic expedient that should restore the situation in our favour.
There is no sense here of compassion for the sufferings of his soldiers, nor of regret for having identified himself with a strategy which later generations would deplore. In Ludendorff’s weasel words, we see all-too-clearly the nucleus of the theory which would later be known as the stab-in-the-back.
At the time, however, he was desperate. Further fighting would take on “the character of an irresponsible gamble”.
The fate of the German people was too precious for that game. The war had to be ended.
The following day, on 10th August, he offered the Kaiser his resignation. Although this was refused, the two men were already at odds over who or what to blame for the defeat: Ludendorff railed at the lack of discipline which infused the ranks, whereas the Kaiser believed too much had been demanded already of them. He had just received a telegram from his worried ally, Emperor Karl of Austria, warning him that his country was on the brink of starvation and that peace must be concluded before the end of the year. If Germany failed to do that, he said, Austria would be concluding one anyway.
The famous bumptiousness of the last of the Hohenzollern kings seemed to have given way to weary pragmatism. Faced with Karl’s ultimatum, and with Ludendorff’s desperation, he said simply:
I see that I must balance accounts. We are at the end of our ability to do anything. The war must be ended.
There were a few crumbs of comfort for the Germans. Although a further three miles were gained the following day, the Allied advance was slowing — for reasons entirely familiar to veterans: troops were exhausted, and tanks were breaking down. German resistance was also stiffening especially as nests of machine-guns had been established in shell craters and other protected spots.
The British press was not about to dwell on that, however. The Daily Telegraph reported on 10th August that the whole of the Western Front today “is tingling and thrilling and exulting” after the spectacular success of the Battle of Amiens and hailed the photographic work done by British airmen as “one of the minor wonders of the war”.
The extent to which civilians and soldiers alike were electrified by the news of military success after four years should give pause for thought. However wearied by war, or lowered by privation and loss, there seems to have been an unquenchable thirst to applaud every square foot of ground taken, every enemy aircraft knocked down, every heavy gun captured. Nurse Edith Appleton, at Le Tréport, personified it:
August 10 The times are stirring and it’s been an exciting week. I think yesterday was top day! When I went on duty at 8 a.m., I was met by a patient who asked if I had heard the news — we had broken through Albert and in front of Amiens, and had advanced nine miles. A little later my Yankee MO arrived, flushed and excited. Had I heard — -we had taken prisoners two divisional generals, lots of big guns and two complete CCSs? Our tanks had done wonders and we had taken lots of German tanks… the spirit and cheer of the men is unbounded. You hear them talking about it as excitedly as if it were a game of football…
…They say the British — by that I mean all English-speaking troops including Americans — have done the real work so far. The French are held in readiness, resting with their best cavalry, and when we are tired out the French are going to make a dash and carry on.
The brimming satisfaction that it was the British who were in the vanguard of the attack is authentically of the period. Churchill, now Minister for Munitions, wrote to his wife on the same day from Château Verchocq, striking a similar note:
I am so glad about this great and fine victory of the British Army. It is our victory, won chiefly by our troops under a British Commander, and largely through the invincible Tank which British brains have invented and developed. Haig has done very well, and it does not follow that we are at the end of our good fortune yet…
Churchill’s generosity to Haig contrasted with the grudgingness of Lloyd George, who said nothing by way of congratulation. Some of his critics were inclined to believe that Foch, elevated on 7th August to the rank of Marshal of France, was the real hero of the hour: he had been all along determined to press the attack and, on 10th August, the French had captured the important town of Montdidier on 10th August.
Haig seems to have been unfazed by this kind of backbiting. His feelings as tightly controlled as ever, he now wrote to his wife:
How much easier it is to attack than stand and await an enemy’s attack! As well you know I am only the instrument of the Divine Power who watches over each of us, so all the Honour must he HIS.
The Americans, not the French, were his problem. Their troops were lion-hearted, but their commander, General Pershing, was a serious trial. He simply would not allow his men to fight under the colours of his allies. The better the war went for the Allies, the more insistent he was on this point. His diary this week records a rather pointed encounter on the matter with no less a person than King George V:
12th August …the King of England arrived at 11.15 and presented to me, in the Chateau, the decoration of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath and to General Bliss the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.
As the King, General Bliss and I were in a room alone, the King took advantage of this opportunity to talk to me about the employment of American troops. He is very anxious to have as many of them as possible serve with the British army, and stated that their presence had a tremendous effect in bracing up the morale of the British and the French; that the British had never lost spirit, but that after the March drive they were very sorely tried. He stated that he was not a politician and did not see from that point of view, but he thought it very advantageous to have some Americans with the troops serving with the British…He indulged in some sentiments as to how much it would mean after the war to say that the two English-speaking races fought side by side in this struggle, and again mentioned the confidence which would be inspired by the presence of American troops with the English.
I should have liked to argue with the King and set him right on a good many matters in this connection, but seeing that he is a King and that what he thinks will have very little influence on the situation anyway, I let it go by informing him politely that it is not intended to have the Americans serve either with the French or the British, but that we are now forming armies of our own for which we have sufficient troops…
Everybody seems to have been falling over themselves in the effort to stay polite. Later in the day, Pershing met Haig, who also wanted American divisions for an action which he was planning. Once again, Pershing was having none of it:
I informed him of my own plans and told him that I should like to withdraw from the British Front three of my five divisions which are now serving there. The conversation was not pleasant for a while, though we both kept quite within the bounds of politeness. I… made it very clear to him that I propose to form an American Army and did not propose to have my troops, used here, there and the other place at the will of any allies.
These tensions notwithstanding, the Battle of Amiens had been a stunning success for the Allies. Fourteen Victoria Crosses were awarded, seven of them posthumously. An outstanding victory had been won, even though German counterattacks were evidence that a stalwart enemy was not giving up. Haig felt confident enough to insist on a rest for his soldiers, and he was further buoyed up by news of near mutiny amongst German units supposed to be heading for the front. By the time the battle ended on 12th August, the Germans had lost 40,000 men killed or wounded and a further 33,000 taken prisoner — 73,000 in all. Allied losses totalled around 46,000 men.
The good news from the front served to divert attention from some spectacularly unlovely behaviour at home. There was a big showdown in the House of Lords during the week during a clique of jealous toffs clamped down on some pretty harmless pleasures of the masses. Or, depending on how one viewed these things, the guardians of public morality saved the masses from themselves. The spat had originated six months earlier, in February, when Lady Northcliffe had launched an unusual appeal in order to raise funds for the Red Cross, and invited women to donate a pearl as a tribute to a life changed by the war. The appeal touched hearts immediately and hundreds of women contributed pearls from their own necklaces, most in memory of a loved one killed in the war.
The campaign caught the public imagination and, in late June, the individual pearls were displayed at a week-long special exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in New Bond Street. By the end of July, over 3,300 pearls had been sent in and it was clear that not just one, but about forty long strings of pearls could be constructed from the donations. Rather than sell the necklaces at auction which obviously would only permit the well-off to participate, the organising committee decided to hold a raffle, estimating that about £1,000,000 could be raised as opposed to a mere £100,000 which an auction might bring. That was when the problems began. When word of the Red Cross’s intention got out, all hell broke loose: the Bishop of Winchester argued that raffles simply encouraged gambling, “one of the gravest moral evils in national life”. Opposing him was Lord Lansdowne, a long-time supporter of the Red Cross, who now introduced the Lotteries (War Charities Bill) which would have enabled lotteries to take place, and he secured its passage through the Lords.
Once back in the Commons, however, the killjoys won the day. The bill was rejected by eighty-one votes to seventy-seven and there was widespread public anger at what was seen as a wasted opportunity to raise substantial funds for many war charities. Viewed from now, it is easy to see that this wasn’t really about gambling. Raffles, although technically illegal, had been a common medium for fundraising for the past four years. What the Bishop and his ilk did not like was the idea that working class women could aspire to enjoy the kind of wealth and glamour of those born into gentler circumstances.
It was that which lent the remarkable intensity to the debate. On 6th August, two days before the summer recess, a late-night debate continued in the House of Commons, peppered with the kind of revolting snobbery which has, from time to time, made the English, especially, such a baffling and off-putting people: “What good will a pearl necklace of great value be to a miner or a munition worker? Their wives would be anxious not to get the pearl necklace as such, but to convert it into cash. It is pure gambling and nothing else…What would a workman’s wife do with that? Put it round her neck?”