A century ago, German forces on the Western Front were destroyed, thrown back or captured at Amiens — a rout that finally broke the four-year stalemate and introduced the integrated ‘battlecraft’ that would forever change the face of modern warfare
In essence, the tactical concept for the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 was of a surprise frontal attack in depth sufficient to over-run all German defences and its artillery. For the concept to succeed required the application of a number of battlecraft techniques, particularly in the methods of artillery fire, infantry manoeuvre and tank support and for the integration of these techniques into a unified combined-arms battle plan. The success of the tactics hinged on the battlecraft skills that had evolved and then been tried and tested a month earlier at the Battle of Hamel. Success also depended on having the right equipment for the job: particularly reliable artillery shells, tanks with adequate armour and a mass of light machine-guns. At Amiens these components came together. The battlecraft, weaponry and tactics at last matched and clicked into place.
Battlecraft is the name given to the fusion of a number of collective skills of the soldier. They include such fundamentals as handling crew-served weapons, battle drills, section and platoon formations, obstacle crossing, target indication and fire control. They are the skills taught in the first stage of collective training that integrate the soldiers into the team and get them working together. It is a crucial step in establishing combat effectiveness. Sound battlecraft, linked with good junior leadership and high morale, allows the team to dominate its piece of the battlefield.
This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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Over the course of the preceding three years of war the skills attained by the infantry, the gunners, tank crews, airmen, engineers and all the other components of the British Expeditionary Force had reached a high level. Their competence was now displayed at the Battle of Amiens. And it was the battlecraft of the Diggers that set a benchmark. The men of the Australian Corps had become among the most competent soldiers in the BEF. The Australians and the other dominion contingents were now invariably chosen for the most challenging tasks. Together with a handful of British divisions they were essentially the “shock troops” of the BEF, despite Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s denial of such an elite.
Ironically, some senior British officers still refused to recognise them as soldiers. The Australian journalist and author C.E.W. Bean records a prevailing attitude among some that “these men might make fighters, perhaps, but soldiers never”. Besides its condescension this attitude reflected elements of both truth and delusion. It is a criticism justified by the Australians’ performance in the early days on Gallipoli, but that had been corrected by intense training, particularly collective training, and the honing of their skills. The delusion lay in the belief that the semi-feudal system of the British Army, with its class-based structure, represented the pinnacle of soldiering.
There is no disputing that the British Army was the mentor of the Australian Imperial Force. The AIF was modelled on the British Army and it was guided in its formation and early years by seconded British officers and an invaluable rump of ex-British NCOs and warrant officers who had migrated to Australia before the war. British systems and methods were accepted unquestioningly, right down to the mincing thirty-inch marching pace. Yet despite the effort to make it a clone of the British Army there was one great difference that would frustrate that intent. Since the arrival of the First Fleet, a very different social system had evolved in Australia. It was an egalitarian society with its own attitudes to discipline and social hierarchy which was reflected in the AIF. The leadership style and the approach to discipline that was required could never mirror that of the class-ridden British Army of 1914. In consequence one of the great attributes of the AIF was that the Digger was a thinking soldier. Most armies of that vintage preferred their soldiers to be instinctively obedient and unquestioningly responsive. The Digger brought a different background to his service. He was used to having an opinion and expressing it, and uniquely among armies of the time, this was encouraged in the AIF.
The disdain of a clutch of senior British officers at the initial incompetence of the Australians morphed into irritation as their skills improved. By late 1917 the fighting quality of the Digger was more than equal of that of the average Tommy. The Digger was being noticed. He was often loud, brash and self-confident. He also stood out physically, being on the average taller and lankier than his Tommy counterpart. He was also identifiable by his uniform. With its voluminous pockets it lacked the neatness of the British service-dress, but it was warm, comfortable and practical and the Diggers were proud of it. A soldier pays great attention to his gear: his clothing, boots, packs and “webbing” are very important as they confer what little comfort he can find in the field. The Diggers approved of what they had been provided: it was superior in design and quality to that of the Tommies, but that made it a further target of envy and criticism. Above all, it was his hat that made him most distinctive. His slouch hat kept off rain and sun but also stood out. It could be worn smartly with the left side clipped up, chin strap on the point of the chin, a polished buckle level with the mouth, or it could be worn tipped on the back of the head, with a leer beneath.
On July 26, 1918, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch issued the formal order for the operation which was “to disengage Amiens and the Amiens–Paris railway”. He placed the adjoining French First Army under Haig’s command for the operation. This left a scant two weeks to complete the planning, deploy the forces, and prepare for the attack. Such now was the skill of the staff at the many levels of command, and the responsiveness of the forces, that it was easily achieved. General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was to attack together with the French First Army on its right. The Australian Corps was to be central in Fourth Army with the British III Corps on its left, on the north bank of the Somme and the Canadian Corps on its right, with that boundary delineated by the Amiens–Nesle railway.
To the front of Fourth Army were six divisions of the German Second Army deployed in three belts of defence. Behind them were a further six divisions in reserve. The initial assault was to be by seven divisions: two each British and Australian and three Canadian. This meant far less than the desired ratio for the attack of 3:1. However, the German divisions were under-strength, improving the ratio in terms of manpower to 5:3. Still, it showed a confidence within the BEF that had not existed previously. It is a military convention that a formation is attacked by the next-sized formation: that a battalion position is assaulted by a brigade, and a brigade by a division. In the opening phase of the battle two Australian attacking divisions would be pitted against two German defending divisions.
The battle began at 4.20 a.m. on August 8. By around midday the two dominion corps had advanced eight kilometres and had seized their final objectives. The Germans had lost 27,000, including 15,750 prisoners (some pictured below) of whom 7920 had been taken by the Australians. Taken too were over 400 German guns. It was conceded in the official German monograph as “the greatest defeat which the German Army suffered since the beginning of the war”. The cost to the Australians was 652 casualties of whom eighty-three were killed. It was a stunning victory.
Essentially the battle was won by the battlecraft of the BEF. The British and their dominion contingents had at last acquired the skills to outfight the German Army. The battlecraft of each of the arms had at last evolved to the point where they could be integrated into a battle-winning formula. The guns had learned that their objective was to neutralise, that is, to keep the enemy’s heads down by creeping barrage and counter-battery fire until the infantry could close. The infantry had learned that their objective was to take and hold ground and that this was best achieved by following closely behind the barrage and through fire and movement rather than a bayonet charge. The tanks had learned that their role was to work closely with the infantry providing mobile fire support and to crush the wire for them to get forward. The battlecraft skills meshed into a combined arms tactic of attack that could at last over-run the defence.
The Battle of Hamel in early July 1918 had shown the cohesion of the Australian Corps. There it had displayed its leadership, discipline and aggression but, most importantly, its grasp of the new tactic of the combined-arms battle that could change the face of battle. This had been recognised by Foch and Haig, who saw the potential for it to break the stalemate, and they unleashed it at Amiens, using the same methods on a vaster scale.
Since the Franco-Prussian War, Europe had stood more or less in awe of German tactical skill but now at last, at Amiens, after nearly four years of war, the tables would be turned and the German Army would lurch into retreat. And it would be a retreat that gained speed as the Hundred Days passed and it was pushed back towards its border.
There has been a reluctance to recognise the victory of the BEF over the German Army. It is hard to conceive that this is due solely to British modesty. Something, however, arose to subvert the triumph. The victory of the BEF on the Western Front in 1918 was the clinching event of the war, but that is not how it is portrayed or remembered. We have allowed the legends to distort our perception of how the war concluded.
Wars end because one side loses, which may be for a number of reasons. The enemy may have greater numbers, better strategy or tactics, better weapons, leadership or morale; public support may collapse; or the economy fail. Loss means humiliation and the greatest humiliation comes when it is due to the defeat of the nation’s armed forces. Amiens was the tipping point for the German Army. Between August 8 and November 11 the allies drove the Germans back from successive defensive lines to its frontier and mauled it until it was no longer capable of resistance. The German Army faced catastrophic defeat and humiliation.
For the German Army this was a very bitter pill. Its vaunted General Staff and professional soldiers had been defeated by those they had regarded as “amateurs”, and by what the Kaiser had derided as “a contemptible little army”. For the pride of the Army, its prestige, and their plans for its recovery, it was better to deny defeat. There were many causes to which they could point to excuse Germany’s loss other than defeat on the battlefield: there was the blockade that cut off the flow of strategic supplies, and also starved the population; the failure to fully adapt its industry to war production; the inability of the submarine campaign to isolate Britain; the eventual collapse of its allies; and, towards late 1918, growing political anarchy within Germany itself. The last was chosen by the General Staff as their scapegoat and blame was laid on “the November Criminals” of the Catholic Centre, the Social Democrats and the Jews. It was, they claimed, that cartel which had inflicted “the Stab-in-the- Back”, dolchstoss, on the German Army. Were it not, they alleged, for the November Criminals the army would have continued the struggle.
This boast though, defies the reality: by early October the Hindenburg Line, the last established defences, had been over-run; the allies were advancing rapidly to the German frontier. Although there remained a million German soldiers on the Western Front, few were now fighting; and there were no reserves left to plug the gaps. The German Army was defeated but, rather than admit their humiliation, its leaders desperately sought excuses and “someone to blame”. This they found in the dolchstosslegende.
By September, recognising the probability of defeat, the German government began seeking a means to end the war at least cost. Anticipating the vengeance of the French and British they turned to the Americans and to President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, an outline formula for an armistice rather than surrender. It avoided apportioning blame or making demands for reparations. On those terms they sought to open negotiations with the Americans, who quickly passed the responsibility to the French and British, who understandably refused to accept the constraints of the Fourteen Points. In mid-October Wilson informed the Germans that his Fourteen Points could not form the basis for an armistice. Yet, despite the warning, when the delegates met on November 11 in the railway carriage in the Compiégne Forest the Germans affected surprise when rigid terms, essentially of surrender, were laid down. Yet with their army in disarray and civil war looming they had no option but to concede. These conditions were subsequently formalised in the Treaty of Versailles, which included loss of territory, heavy reparations and severe limits on the size and structure of Germany’s army and navy. The wisdom of the harshness of the terms is conjectural and there is little doubt they provided the grievances that fuelled the next conflict. The immediate consequence however was to provide Germany with two excuses which it used to mitigate the pain of its surrender.
First, they claimed, Germany had been tricked into surrender. They had begun discussions in the belief that the Fourteen Points would lead to a negotiated settlement, but had then been forced to accept surrender terms. They claimed that in expectation of a negotiated armistice they had begun demobilising their army and by the time they found they were to be given no option but surrender it was too late to halt the process. They had, they claimed, been tricked. This legend laid blame on the allies: the second excuse blamed the German people, elements of whom they claimed had failed the army and “stabbed it in the back”. How, they asked, could their valiant soldiers continue their defence of the fatherland while behind them the nation was collapsing into civil war and anarchy, betrayed by the Jews, Catholics and socialists?
The fabrication was accepted at face value, not only by the German people, but eventually by many who had fought against them. Dolchstoss was a calculated lie, designed to obscure the truth of the German Army’s defeat. This is now well established, initially by the German scholar Wilhelm Deist, but it is still refuted by some. It is the most pernicious of the legends and its consequences have been the most damaging.
By denying its military defeat the German Army avoided humiliation. So with its dignity intact it set about rebuilding, helped by having retained the best of the old army in the rump allowed by the treaty. While the allies wallowed in the complacency of victory the Germans clinically analysed the reasons for their defeat and devised the tactic for future success—blitzkrieg. As the years passed the memory of Amiens and the Hundred Days faded. The legend of dolchstoss denied the allies their victory and hence their collective triumph. It became easier to sympathise with the horror than to argue for the triumph.
At last, however, there is a growing recognition that at Amiens and in the battles of the Hundred Days the British Army and its dominion contingents had their finest hour. Amiens is now being recognised as the decisive battle of the First World War, that which set the scene for Germany’s defeat. Ludendorff at the time recognised its significance and called it der schwarze Tag, “the black day of the German Army in the Great War”. Few battles in the next war were as strategically decisive as Amiens, possibly only those fought by the US Navy at Midway and the USSR at Stalingrad.
Britain should have regarded its victory at Amiens as on a par with Waterloo as a uniquely British battle of decisive strategic importance, yet for nearly a century it has been ignored. Many books have been written on the battles in Flanders and the Somme, yet only one has been written exclusively on the greatest battle of them all. A number of reasons have been suggested as to why it was overlooked. In part it was because of the brilliance of its success. Casualties to the BEF were so minimal on August 8 that in First World War terms it did not seem to register as a significant battle. The BEF suffered no more than 6000 casualties on August 8, a figure that suggested it was a minor engagement. That this paucity of casualties was the consequence of a dramatic and successful change to the approach to battle failed to register.
The combination of tactical success with relatively few casualties signalled a tidal shift in the course of the war. Amiens confirmed a new tactical approach to battle and, if its success could be matched with an appropriate strategy, it could be a war-winning combination. But why had it taken four years of war to devise the necessary tactics? And could a complementary strategy be developed?
What accounts for the allied victory of 1918? How had the BEF transformed from an army that in April had faced defeat under the weight of the German Spring Offensive to one that achieved victory in November? It was a remarkable change of fortune that astounded not only Germany but the allies themselves. By mid-1918, after the German Spring Offensive had been blocked, it became clear that with the flood of US forces into France, an allied victory was inevitable, although it was believed this could not happen until late 1919 when the Americans had learned the skills of soldiering. Amiens and the Hundred Days upset the calculations and brought forward the chance for victory far earlier than had been anticipated.
At Amiens the BEF found the key to victory, and it lay in the unification of its battlecraft, tactical and strategic skills. For a century, until 1914, attack had been the dominant phase of war and battles had been fought in a prescribed manner almost to a ritual. The respective capabilities of the infantry, artillery and cavalry were employed but not in unison. At Waterloo, Gettysburg and Sedan the artillery had battered the infantry, the cavalry had charged, and then the infantry had attacked. Each fought in succession and generally in the absence of direct support from the other arms. And it was through attack that the battles were won. But the nature of war had changed. The wealth and organisation of the nation-state now allowed for vast conscript armies, while the telegraph enabled rapid mobilisation, and railways could deploy them speedily to the frontiers. There however, the system stalled, for the recent innovations in defence frustrated the offensive: barbed wire, concrete and the machine-gun stopped the attack. By 1915 defence had become the dominant phase of war.
The Germans had attained a mastery of defence. The grand plan for the conquest of France, prepared by the German Chief of Staff Count Alfred von Schlieffen (left) in 1905, called for an offensive by the bulk of the German Army, deployed in the north, to strike through Belgium and encircle Paris. An essential ingredient of the plan relied on the remaining German forces to block the inevitable French counter-offensive in the south. An outnumbered German force had to be able to withstand a concentrated French attack. Schlieffen emphasised the study and development of the techniques of defence. Consequently, although in 1914 the attack to encircle Paris failed, the defending southern flank still held firm.
Throughout the war the Germans refined their tactical skills of defence. They developed the concept of defence in depth, with a series of lines of trenches over a distance of up to five kilometres using the protection of reverse slopes, together with camouflage and concealment. A subsequent refinement was to forsake the trenches for a chequerboard of strong points, sited for all-round defence with each providing mutual support to its neighbour. These strong points would be shielded by obstacles to deflect the attack into killing grounds with the intent, not to repel, but to absorb and destroy. Plans for quick and deliberate counter-attack were an integral part of the tactic. The German army had transformed defence from a passive to a highly active and lethal element of war. It was so effective that for four years the allies found German defences difficult and very costly to breach. But now it was to come apart in the face of the combined-arms attack.
By the end of August in 1914, although the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the Germans had been able to seize much of Belgium and large areas of eastern France before the Allies could consolidate the front. The Germans were then largely content to sit in their defences and let the Allies expend their manpower in costly attacks—the war of attrition. Yet the Allies had no option but to attack if they were to recover the ground lost in 1914 before entering negotiations. When at Verdun in 1916 the Germans swung to the offensive, their heavy losses proved to them the futility of attack without a battle-winning tactic. Thereafter on the Western Front they remained largely on the defensive until they believed they had the formula for victory in the shock tactics of the Spring Offensive. That tactic broke down however, when through its very success the shock troops, racing ahead, outstripped the range of their supporting artillery.
For the attack to be effective on the First World War battlefield required an integrated approach. It was quickly apparent that machine-guns left the cavalry irrelevant, and it was relegated to awaiting the breakout following a successful battle. Its place was taken by the tanks but they were slow and cumbersome and, while effective against machine-guns, they were vulnerable to artillery. The infantry were vulnerable to both machine-guns and artillery and their attack was slowed by barbed-wire. The guns however could cut the wire and neutralise the machine-guns, while the tanks could crush both wire and machine-guns. Realisation dawned that success could be achieved by all the arms working closely together to provide mutual support and protection—the combined-arms tactic was born.
From its formation the BEF was a developing and evolving force. It had grown rapidly since 1914. The combined-arms battle of 1918 was very different from battles of the earlier years of the war. Each of the major battles from 1915 had seen a desperate search for a battle-winning idea. Steadily the new concepts were floated, tested and either proven or discarded. By late 1917 most of the separate elements of the combined-arms battle had been identified. It was not however, until 1918 that the various techniques were linked into a tactical plan.
Taking and holding ground was the key objective of the First World War battle. This was the task of the infantry: the other arms were there to help the infantry achieve their objective. Yet to integrate their actions as demanded by the combined-arms tactic requires a high degree of skill, confidence and experience across all the arms involved. To develop the techniques required seasoned and battle-hardened formations which were in short supply in the BEF in 1918 but could be found in the dominion contingents.
Since 1914 the number of British divisions had grown ten-fold through first regular, then volunteer and, by 1918, conscript numbers. The dominions had seen equivalent early growth but then declining numbers of volunteers. In consequence, where British expertise had been dissipated across an enlarging force, that of the dominions was concentrated in a contracting force. Consequently it was the Canadian and Australian Corps and the New Zealand Division, with only a handful of British divisions, that led the way in developing the techniques of the combined-arms battle. While the logic of the concept was obvious to most commanders in the BEF it was nigh impossible for it to be tried, developed and introduced by the inexperienced conscripts that comprised most British divisions by 1918. So the Australian Corps played a major part in developing and refining the combined-arms tactics. Its contribution to the success of the Hundred Days was significant.
At Amiens all the players in the military orchestra came together to work in harmony. The generals could at last, as Australia’s Lieutenant-General John Monash described it, “orchestrate the battle”. No longer did the tactical instruments play solo but the guns, the infantry, the tanks and the planes, were now unified in a symphony of violence.
Understandably this change was not recognised by the public. The photographs showed soldiers in the same uniforms, carrying the same rifles, wearing the same helmets, peering out of the same trenches, stumbling across the same shell-shattered landscape. The casualty lists in the papers were as long and as tragic as ever. The public believed the battles were being fought as they had been since 1914. They had difficulty seeing the changes evolving over the years. Then when the tide turned they asked why had it taken four years to achieve. They failed to recognise that a completely new way of waging war had had to be developed. A hundred years of established tactical methods had to be discarded and new techniques identified and tested, introduced and then integrated. That it was done so quickly, and so effectively, was a remarkable achievement that the public failed to recognise.
It is only over the past forty years that even the historians have come realise that it was the major changes in the way the battles were fought that led to victory over Germany. Despite the sudden transformation of the fortunes of the allies, where tactical success over the Germans suddenly became commonplace from July 1918, neither the reason nor the effect were actively investigated by the historians. When recognition dawned in the early 1980s of the change in tactics its cause was dubbed “the Learning Curve” by Peter Simkins, a leading British military historian, and this modest descriptive has stuck. He led the historians to a belated recognition that there was a major change to the way the war was fought in 1918. That this change had not been recognised earlier may account in part for the public’s failure to credit the BEF with its great victory at Amiens and in the Hundred Days. The soldiers knew what they had achieved but, as it was difficult to describe, the public remained in ignorance. And in consequence the public imagining fixed on the horror, denying the victors their triumph.
Dolchstoss played a large part in the failure to recognise the change in the tactics. The claim that German defeat lay in the stab-in-the-back from the “November criminals”, rather than a transformation of military tactics, appeared logical and was simpler for the public to believe. The revelations of the German scholar Wilhelm Deist in the 1970s of the fabrication of the legend gave impetus to the search for the real reason for German defeat. The war-shattering importance of the combined-arms tactic had been overlooked and with it the major part played by the AIF. Even now few Australians realise this role the Diggers played in the defeat of the German Army.
While tactics win battles, strategy is the art of winning wars. Strategy is usually considered in terms of national strategy, its overarching objectives, or as military strategy, defeating the armed force of the enemy. While the tactics applied on August 8 had been brilliantly successful, could it be matched by the strategy?
By midday the final objective had been reached and heavy losses had been inflicted on the enemy at a cost of minimal casualties. The Australian Corps had been led to believe it would then be withdrawn to the reserve for an overdue rest, but it did not happen. Haig and Foch, seeing tactical success, grasped at the straw of the long-dreamed-of classic breakout, with the cavalry pouring through into the German rear to achieve the strategic objective of a battle of annihilation. That was the military strategy with which they had persisted from 1914 and which they still demanded for August 9.
The Battle of Amiens however, was over. What the Fourth Army had set out to do had been done. The tactics had succeeded; the strategy could not. The troops were exhausted and there remained only 147 of the 530 tanks that had deployed at the start of the day. All the ingredients and the complex and elaborate planning for a renewal of a successful combined-arms battle were missing. Targets had to be identified, the guns repositioned and registered, and ammunition had to be stockpiled. Most seriously however, the Germans had once more consolidated their front. Late on August 8 and over the night ten German divisions had been rushed forward to confront the five forward Australian and Canadian divisions. If there ever had been a “window of opportunity” it was now firmly closed. Yet, in response to orders, the staffs of Fourth Army and the two corps set about planning the breakout battle. But little could be cobbled together in one night, and there was neither the time nor the resources for a combined-arms battle.
Towering walls of sandbags inside Amiens Cathedral
Throughout the war the tactics and the strategy had been intertwined. Until 1918 the German tactics of defence in depth had frustrated the attack and any chance of strategic breakout. Now with the combined-arms tactic the attackers could at last break in, overwhelm the defence and break through into the rear, but there the battle stalled. The capacity to encircle and exploit had been lost. That had been the role of the fast-moving cavalry, unleashed into the enemy’s rear areas to deny him the chance to rally. But the machine-gun stopped the cavalry and trains quickly deployed the reserves to plug the gap opened by the breakthrough. The strategic concept of the annihilation battle was a lost cause. The Germans had seen this early in the war and had disbanded their cavalry divisions; Haig clung to his in hope.
Over the next three days the two corps launched a succession of ill-planned, uncoordinated and under-resourced attacks, and casualties quickly mounted, for little success. Finally Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander, stood up to General Rawlinson and demanded an end to it. Rawlinson concurred and took the issue to Haig, who in turn confronted Foch who reluctantly conceded. Then Haig, inspired by what had been achieved, ordered a similar combined-arms attack with limited objectives by Third Army to the north that also met with success.
As early as 1915 Rawlinson had advocated a strategy of “bite and hold”, based on a concept of well-resourced attacks but with limited objectives, rather than grandiose dreams of breakout. Yet for three years the commanders had persisted in that dream. German defence frustrated each offensive but they continued to be pushed mercilessly and as each offensive faded away into stalemate they had to settle for the consolation of their small gains. They were essentially fighting a strategy of “bite and hold” but refused to accept its reality: better always to dream of unleashing the cavalry to achieve the great battle of annihilation. At Amiens, realisation of reality finally dawned and Rawlinson’s concept at last gained acceptance. Amiens had proved the brilliance of the combined-arms tactic, and now belatedly it forced acceptance of the bite-and-hold strategy.
The Germans confronted a succession of intense surprise attacks, but with limited objectives, along their front. They lost their capacity to move reserves in anticipation to the vicinity of the next well-advertised battle even before it was launched. With the exception of Verdun and the Spring Offensive, the Germans on the Western Front had relied mainly on their mastery of defence to erode the allied strength. Suddenly the combined-arms attack could sweep away their defences, while the surprise that could now accompany the bite-and-hold strategy meant their reserves arrived too late to influence the battle. They struggled to react to the multitude of attacks and the key elements of their defensive strategy came apart. Success of the combined-arms battle had shown Foch and Haig the means to win on the battlefield and now acceptance of the bite-and-hold strategy provided the formula to win the war.
In war the national will to achieve victory is vital: armies cannot persist if the nation does not support their effort. Therein lies the logic behind the dolchstosslegende; the people no longer supported the army. Ironically, the German Army had lost the capacity to persist well before the nation withdrew its support.
While in August 1914 the British Empire was not attuned to war, within a few years it had geared itself to war, with the resources of the dominions flowing to the factories of Britain and then for distribution to the British forces fighting in campaigns across much of the globe from East Africa to Mesopotamia, Salonika and Palestine, to the Western Front.
The logistics, the supply and support of the army, and behind that the industrial production, had also been transformed. The Learning Curve had not been confined to the front line. The success of the new tactic and the new military strategy relied on those behind the front line to both produce the materiel: the weapons, the ammunition, the food, the clothing, the medical stores and all the paraphernalia needed to sustain a vast army in battle, and then to move it where, and when, it was needed. These two elements—war production and logistics—were crucial to victory. Logistics became a linkage between the military and the national strategies.
Air superiority over Amiens did not necessarily mean a happy landing.
By 1917 the BEF in France had grown to a strength of two million. To sustain it required 200,000 tons of stores each week, shipped across the Channel, transported to the Front and then distributed. Once landed, the transport was primarily by rail, which meant the inadequate French network had to be restructured and expanded. Five hundred additional British railway engines were brought across the Channel and several thousand kilometres of new railway line were laid. Amiens was the linchpin of the Southern Line-of-Communications through which passed half the total tonnage. Its importance as a logistics nodal point was a major factor in the decision of Foch and Haig leading to the battle of August 8.
Once at the railhead the stores then had to be moved forward. Early in the war this had been by horse and cart but gradually motor transport took over as thousands of lorries flowed off the British production lines. By the end of the war the BEF had 50,000 lorries in use while the German Army remained essentially horse-drawn. The BEF had fashioned a vast and comprehensive logistics system that could meet the needs of the combined-arms battle and then sustain the force, once it broke out of static warfare into the advance of the Hundred Days.
With logistics and the combined-arms battle mutually dependent, so too were both reliant on war production. Without the shells for the guns there could be neither barrage nor counter-battery fire. Without well-made and reliable shells the creeping barrage would lose its effectiveness and the counter-battery fire would fail. Much depended on what happened hundreds of miles from the battlefield.
Britain’s industry had to adapt to the war. The scandal of the Shell Crisis of May 1915, when failure in production limited each gun to firing only four shells per day, led to the fall of the Asquith government and the appointment of Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. Production rose rapidly from 80,000 shells per month to over four million, largely through the labour of a million women who had been brought into the ammunition factories. Hand in hand with the massive increase in production was an equally crucial improvement in the quality of those shells. It had been judged in 1915 that due to faulty fuses only 50 per cent of the shells detonated, while the infamous “drop-shorts” often resulted from badly measured charges. Rectifying such problems was essential to an effective barrage on which the combined-arms tactic relied. From what had been a minimal war industry base in 1914, Britain and the empire had built a massive capability by 1918.
By 1917 Britain’s war production had exceeded Germany’s in all sectors: tanks, aircraft, munitions and guns. Germany was defeated on the factory floor as well as on the battlefield. Support of the combined-arms battle was not simply an issue of defence production. Behind success on the battlefield, and in the factory, lay commitment across a wide range of skills and disciplines. The war unleashed a torrent of innovation. New ideas were brought quickly to effective use: tanks and sound ranging, sonar and depth charges, light machine-guns, gas masks and anti-tank mines were conceived, designed and put into production. Existing systems were revised, improved and refined. Despite the negatives of death and destruction the war also generated great creative energy.
In significant part the victory at Amiens was due to the effort behind the front. The battle could not have been fought or won without the improvements that had occurred in logistics and production. Now these elements of national strategy were meshing with the new combined-arms tactics. And at last, as a consequence of the battle, an important and attainable military strategy had been recognised. All the components for victory were in hand and all that was left for Germany was inevitable military defeat.
Pat Beale DSO MC served as an officer in the Australian Regular Army for thirty years and saw active service in the post-Malayan Emergency, the Borneo Confrontation, and also served in Vietnam as a member of the Australian Army Training Team attached to the US Special Force. This article is an edited extract from his book Legends of War: The AIF in France, 1918 (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017).