In 1916 the British had lost 400,000 men in 140 days to gain eight miles of ground. Two years later, fighting on the same battlefield, they lost 180,000 men in 50 days and advanced 25 miles. The British Army had been transformed into an effective instrument of modern industrialized warfare.
The official German report would describe what happened on 8 August 1918 as ‘the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war’. General Erich Ludendorff-joint supreme commander of the German Army alongside General Paul von Hindenburg – considered it ‘the black day of the German Army’, signaling beyond doubt ‘the decline of our fighting powers’.
Germany never recovered. Its Army fought on for three months more, but it was relentlessly battered and forced back by a succession of British, French, and American offensives striking different sectors of the Western Front, bringing to bear each time an overwhelming weight of men, machines, and firepower.
When the Armistice was finally signed, revolution had already broken out in the German Fleet and the home cities, and the generals knew that the line at the front was close to breaking. Later claims that an undefeated Army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ was the self-serving lie of the German Right in the post-war period. The truth was that the German Army had been comprehensively defeated in the field and was, by early November 1918, on the brink of rout.
What was it that had caused this extraordinary turnaround?
General Henry Rawlinson (1864-1925) was an archetypal British senior officer of First World War vintage. A product of Eton, Sandhurst, and the Guards, he had served in India and the Sudan, and had then risen from divisional to corps to army command between August 1914 and January 1916. He had commanded the Fourth Army during the Battle of the Somme, and his class prejudice, military myopia, and lack of imagination were in large part responsible for the stupidity which characterised the British method of attack on 1 July 1916.
Fortunately for the 12 British and Dominion divisions committed to the offensive that began on 8 August 1918, Rawlinson had displayed a belated ability to learn lessons. Among them was the value of surprise – so lacking in the dismal attritional battles of 1916 and 1917, but now restored to its central place in military planning.
Secrecy was the opening theme of Rawlinson’s general instructions for the attack. Staff conferences were moved around to avoid alerting the enemy to any particular location. Normal activity was maintained in the Amiens sector. All unusual movement took place at night. Supply dumps were camouflaged against aerial observation, and British planes overflew the sector to check that all appeared normal from the air. Local inhabitants were moved out of the area, soldiers’ paybooks were inscribed with the injunction ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’, and units designated for the assault were only moved into position the day before zero.
The assault, moreover, was to be led by two overseas army corps formed of Australians and Canadians, soldiers whose martial prowess had turned them into the British Army’s corps d’élite.
Ludendorff had demonstrated the effectiveness of crack units of specially selected and trained ‘stormtroopers’ during the German Spring Offensives earlier that year. Their role had been to spearhead the assault, break into the opposing trench system, infiltrate between strongpoints, and thus fragment and disorganize enemy resistance. The Australians and Canadians were now to play a similar role for the British.
The white Dominions were, of course, pioneer communities. There was a rugged individualism about life on the Canadian prairies and in the Australian outback, and men recruited from these places tended to be physically tough, independent-minded, and – to the profound irritation of many tradition-minded officers – contemptuous of the class pretensions of the British elite. Discipline was more lax in Dominion units, and relations between officers and men closer. Australians in particular tended to be scruffy, insubordinate, and unwilling to obey orders they disagreed with. But this was the reverse side of the self-reliance in combat that the modern battlefield required.
The infantry had also been substantially re-equipped. They were now expected to operate in ‘blobs’ rather than lines, to move forwards in a series of rushes, to employ fire and movement, to fight their way piecemeal from shell-hole to trench and on through the labyrinth of the enemy’s defensive landscape. For this they needed fewer rifles and more grenades, light machine-guns, and trench mortars. British infantry battalions had started the war with two heavy machine-guns apiece. Now the heavy machine-guns had been concentrated in brigade-level machine-gun companies, while the individual battalions had been provided with no less than 16 Lewis guns (light machine-guns) each.
Artillery, airpower, and armour
But Amiens was not just an infantry battle. The British Army had become a true combined-arms force. The transformation can be measured by comparing the composition of the BEF in September 1914 with that in July 1918. As the proportion of infantry fell from two-thirds of total manpower to one half, that of artillerymen increased by a third, of engineers by a factor of two, and tank crew, non-existent at the outset, came to account for 1.2% of military personnel.
At zero hour, the German positions were deluged by the fire of 2,000 guns and howitzers, a third of them ‘heavies’. Most were allocated to counter-battery work, effectively neutralizing the defending artillery.
This not only protected the assaulting infantry; it meant that the tanks became unstoppable, since artillery-fire was the only certain way to destroy them; and this in turn meant that the infantry behind would be guaranteed a path deep into the German trench system.
The 63 aircraft available to the British Army on the Western Front in 1914 had swelled to 22,000 by 1918, and 1,900 of the latter were now deployed in support of Rawlinson’s attack. Initially used almost exclusively for reconnaissance, aircraft were now multi-purpose, being used also for tactical support of the ground battle with bombs and machine-guns, as well artillery-spotting and communications.
The use of airpower in ground attack was combined with the use of armour to punch holes through enemy defences. Some 340 Mark V heavy tanks were to lead the assault on 8 August. A modified design had increased overall reliability and performance, and measures had also been taken to enhance the trench-crossing capacity of tanks, either by equipping them with ‘cribs’ to drop into trenches to create a bridge, or, in the case of the latest models (the Mark V Stars), by building them with 6 feet of extra length.
The assault tanks were supported by 120 supply tanks, and also by 72 of the new ‘Whippet’ medium tanks. These weighed only half as much as the heavy tanks and could manage almost twice the speed; as such, they were intended for rapid advance following any breakthrough.
The British guns opened fire at 4.20am on 8 August, an hour before dawn, delivering a creeping barrage 200 yards in front of the assaulting armour and infantry, with lifts forward 100 yards every two minutes. There was no preliminary bombardment, not even a short ‘hurricane’ bombardment; surprise was everything, with artillery, armour, and infantry working in close harness throughout.
Participants were struck by this. Captain Henry Smeddle, waiting in the forward zone in command of a section of three Mark V Stars, recalled how ‘the silence seemed like that preceding a storm, the occasional crackle of machine-guns in the distance or a far-off boom of heavy artillery being the only sounds that met the ear, yet there were only minutes to go before the commencement of one of the greatest battles of the war.’
When the barrage began, the effect was shattering – ‘it broke the silence with a terrific crashing roar’ – and no sooner had it done so than the assault formations were lumbering forwards.
The tanks led the way, bumping across no-man’s-land, flattening the wire, scything enemy trenches with machine-gun fire, blasting open his strongpoints with cannon. The infantry followed in the wake of these clanking, roaring, fire-spitting monsters, sweeping across successive enemy lines, Canadians on the right, Australians in the centre, British on the left.
Along the whole 14-mile front, they were successful, smashing a weak defensive line of six under-strength German divisions (averaging barely 3,000 men each) that were inadequately entrenched. The surprise, which was complete, was compounded by the confusion caused by the thick fog that lay across the battlefield early that morning. Such resistance as the Germans mounted was generally that of isolated units. Moreover, reported the Official History, ‘when a machine-gun post gave trouble, the infantry lay down while a tank tackled it; in most cases, the crew surrendered as the machine came near, or fled.’
Soon, the advanced elements had broken into territory where there was no inkling of their presence. ‘The enemy were evidently quite unaware of the rapidity of our advance,’ reported Captain Smeddle, ‘for just as we were about opposite Harbonnieres, we saw an ammunition train steaming into the station as if nothing was the matter. It was immediately shelled by all the 6-pdr guns of the approaching tanks. One shell must have struck a powder van for suddenly the whole train burst into one great sheet of flame, reaching to a height of not less than 150 feet.’
Almost all the first day’s objectives were reached. They lay some six to eight miles beyond the Allied start-lines. The advance continued on the following three days, and then intermittently over the following six weeks, eventually carrying the Allies some 25 miles forwards. By the end of the first phase, the British had lost 22,000 men and the French, who were attacking in tandem immediately to the south, 24,000; but the Germans had suffered 75,000 casualties, including 30,000 taken prisoner.
By then, however, the attack was losing momentum and the defence thickening. Many of the tanks had broken down. The attackers had moved far beyond their artillery support. The forward supply dumps were far in the rear. German reserves, on the other hand, were filling out the opposing line, and the weak, disjointed, hastily improvised counter-attacks of the first day were giving way to more coordinated resistance. The offensive was becoming ‘sticky’.
Now another innovation: instead of persisting with an attack that had lost momentum, the offensive was halted for more than a week. Fresh attacks were mounted in other sectors – using the same mix of surprise, combined arms, and modern infantry tactics. Then the centre of military gravity shifted back to Rawlinson’s front and there were renewed pushes in the Amiens sector. And so it continued for three months: this was the nature of the Hundred Days Offensive.
So there was no breakthrough. The state of military technology still precluded this: the weight of defensive firepower and the limits on offensive mobility meant that tactics had swallowed strategy. The only way to win was through attrition. The Hundred Days comprised a succession of advances in different sectors that crumbled the German line, eroding it materially and morally, until it was stretched to bursting like the over-tensioned skin of a drum. And the cost of this was very high.
Between 21 August and 11 November 1918, the BEF suffered 265,000 casualties. This represents roughly the same rate of average daily loss as on the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917.
Matériel and attrition
The fact was that there was no cheap way to win a modern industrialized war against an economic and military superpower like Imperial Germany. In the end, it was not a matter of either technology or tactics; it was a matter of mass. A British signals officer commented in 1918 that ‘for every shell the enemy sent over, he received 10 or 20 back’. And the British Army’s highest 24-hour expenditure of ammunition in the entire war – a total of 945,000 shells – took place on 28/29 September 1918. The key to victory was not Lewis guns, Mark Vs, and Sopwiths perse; it was mass – of men, machines, and munitions.
David Lloyd George was therefore as much the architect of victory as Douglas Haig. By 1918 the BEF had swelled into the biggest enterprise ever mounted in British history. As well as a million and a half men, it involved hundreds of thousands of horses and mules, tens of thousands of vehicles, thousands of guns and aircraft, and hundreds of tanks. To sustain this vast mass a great network of temporary towns and villages, linked by road and rail, had been constructed, with command centres, staff accommodation, rest areas, hospitals, workshops, ammunition dumps, warehouses, power supplies, water pipes, telephone lines, and much more.
Haig himself, the overall BEF commander, was more like the managing-director of a vast industrial corporation than a traditional general. To a large degree, the conduct of the Hundred Days campaigns was left to the commanders of the individual armies, for it was impossible that one man should direct the operations of such vast numbers. The essential job of Haig and his staff was to provide the wherewithal to break the German line.
The total-war economy
The means to do so were now available because Britain had been converted into a total-war economy. The ‘Shell Scandal’ of spring 1915 – when the BEF had virtually run out of ammunition -had brought Lloyd George to the post of Minister of Munitions, charged with reorganizing British industry to enable it to meet the demands of modern warfare.
British industry was out-of-date. It comprised relatively large numbers of medium-sized firms working with antiquated technology and, of course, as private capitalist enterprises, competing rather than co-operating. While old heavy industries like shipbuilding were strong, Britain was way behind Germany in new industries like precision machine-tools, light engineering products, electrical goods, and chemicals – all essential in modern arms manufacture.
Free-market ideology was dumped. State intervention became the driver. Lloyd George established government control over war-related plant, production, and profits. New state factories were set up to manufacture shells, fuses, and explosives. New industries – aircraft, aero-engines, precision instruments – were set up. American machine-tools were imported, and the output of electric power was doubled. Modern assembly-line methods were introduced, and semi-skilled labour was employed en masse, including large numbers of women.
Lloyd George was an egotistical, untrustworthy, unprincipled opportunist; in essence he represented nothing but his own ambition and vanity. Because of this, he was tied to no vested interest, and in the circumstances this made him the man of the moment. Laissez-faire ideology and the prerogatives of private property were no obstacle to him. And for all his faults, he was brilliant, dynamic, and charismatic, such that, when he set about a task, he was able to sweep forwards, inspiring others to go with him, breaking down whatever barriers of conservatism and lethargy might stand in the way.
His successful stint at munitions paved the way for his elevation to the supreme position in the crisis that engulfed the Asquith government in December 1916. As Prime Minister, he then revolutionised government, creating a ‘War Cabinet’ of five members, supplemented by others as needed, to run the war. He also created his own unit of official advisors, a civilian equivalent of an army commander’s staff, some of whom were lodged in wooden huts in the Downing Street garden, becoming known as ‘the Garden suburb’. This, too, was part-and-parcel of creating a total-war economy.
Mass and firepower
Shell deliveries rose from 5,380,000 between July and December 1915 to 35,407,000 in the second half of 1916. Between 1914 and 1916, trench mortar production increased from 12 to 5,554, machine-gun production from 287 to 33,507, and grenade production from 2,164 to 34,867,966. These are measures of the transformation of the British Army from a regular army designed to fight colonial small-wars into a mass army engaged in a modern war of matériel against the armies of other great powers.
This was the context for the introduction of conscription. After the initial surge of volunteer enthusiasm in late 1914, the numbers offering themselves had fallen off sharply. Whereas 761,000 men had joined up in the first eight weeks of the war, the average rate through 1915 was only about a quarter as many. Given the growing demands of essential war industries, the murderous attrition on the Western Front, and the size of deployments elsewhere, Britain was facing an acute military manpower shortage by the winter of 1915/16.
The Military Service Act became law on 27 January 1916. It made all men, single or married, aged 18 to 41, liable for military service, exempting only those who were unfit, proven conscientious objectors, sole supporters of dependants, and men engaged in essential war work.
Thus was Britain’s ‘fourth’ First World War army created. The Regulars had dominated the battles of 1914, the Territorials the offensives of 1915, the Kitchener ‘New Army’ Volunteers the Battle of the Somme in 1916; now it was the turn of the Conscripts.
These, however, were not formed into new units as their predecessors had been. Instead, they were drafted into existing units as replacements according to need: a far better policy, for it allowed experienced men to act as mentors to green troops, and ensured against disasters like the First Day of the Somme.
It meant, though, that the British Army increasingly lost its county and regional character, becoming for the first time in its history a truly ‘nationalized’ force, with men from all corners of Britain serving together in the same units. By the summer of 1917, for example, the 16th Highland Light Infantry, a Glasgow regiment, contained men from Nottingham, Derbyshire, and Yorkshire. By 1918, the l/6th Cheshires included only 20% of men from its traditional Stockport recruiting ground, and barely half from the county as a whole.
Because the veterans had been ground down by four years of trench warfare and the replacements were now usually men who had refused to serve until forced, the British Tommies generally lacked the panache and aggression of the Dominion men and the Americans during the Hundred Days campaigns. Like the French poilus, who had mutinied in spring 1917, many British soldiers had had enough.
But the Germans had been ground down even further. The men of the BEF were now more numerous, better fed, better armed, and better supplied with munitions than their enemy counterparts. That this was so was in large part due to the defeat of the German U-boat campaign in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1917 – which saved Britain from starvation – and the effectiveness of the Royal Navy blockade of German commerce – which created famine conditions in Germany.
An estimated 750,000 German civilians died of hunger before the war ended. When Ludendorff’s men, during the Spring Offensives on the Western Front in 1918, broke into the British rear areas, they had rapidly lost discipline as they dispersed to plunder the bounteous supplies of food and drink they found there. When the British Army took 200,000 prisoners during the Hundred Days, many were motivated to give up by simple privation.
Thus did the BEF spearhead the offensive which finally broke the military resistance of Imperial Germany, defeating 99 of the 197 enemy divisions on the Western Front, and winning what Marshal Foch, the Allied commander-in-chief, regarded as the greatest military victory in the British Army’s history.