The Black Day

There was little visibility in either side’s trenches in Amiens at 4:20am on August 8th, 1918.  Between the last of the night sky and a thick fog that rolled into the battlefield in northern France, spotting any movement was at a premium.  Despite the distance between the trenches being larger than usual at nearly 500 yards (usually trenches were only 50 to 250 yards apart), the Germans felt they had a good understanding of the disposition of the British forces across from them.  While elsewhere on the newly established lines of the Western Front the Germans were either fortifying or retreating to more defensible positions following their Spring Offensive, at Amiens German troops sat largely in place.  Other than increased aerial bombing in the area, the Germans believed their intelligence that the Allies would counterattack elsewhere.  They had even held a raid that penetrated 800 yards into the Allied trenches just days earlier and had seen no evidence of an Allied build-up.

The crashing weight of 32 divisions of British, Canadian, Australian, French and American troops utterly broke the German line that morning.  Erich Ludendorff would call August 8th, 1918 “the black day of the German Army” and the Allies would eventually know the attack as the start of the “100 Days Offensive” – the last 100 days of the Great War.

British soldiers ride a tank at Amiens.  The battle saw the successful deployment of hundreds of tanks

As July of 1918 began to wind down, the positions of both the German and Allied armies were becoming clear.

German numerical superiority had vanished, with the Germans holding 207 divisions in France and Belgium and the Allies having 203 divisions to meet them.  Worse for Germany, an increasing number of these Allied divisions were Americans, meaning those divisions were typically twice as large as in any European army.  In terms of pure manpower, Germany was probably now in the minority in the West.  The German High Command estimated that they’d need at least 200,000 new soldiers a month just to make good on the rate of loss they were experiencing in France.  The next annual class of 18 year-old draftees was only 300,000 in total, and perhaps only 70,000 wounded German soldiers would be physically able to return to duty.  Germany was literally bleeding to death. 

The Allies had taken a heavy blow from the Germans, and lost a fair amount of ground, but the morale of the average soldier and civilian in the West was increasingly high.  The Allies could see they had taken Germany’s last, best shot and held.  The Germans had left their intricate Hindenburg Line defenses and were exposed to Allied counterattacks.  Allied planes were beginning to rule the sky and the Allies were in the process of deploying thousands of new tanks, faster and better armored than before.  Germany would only deploy 20 tanks for the entire Great War.  

British troops prepare to march during the 100 Days Offensive

As advantageous as the Allied position was in the mid-summer of 1918, Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch knew that pushing Germany out of her holdings wasn’t going to be easy.  The Allies had operated under the fallacy that the Germans were about to collapse throughout 1917, leading to disasters like the Nivelle Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, and Foch wasn’t going to repeat the critical mistake of assuming that all that was required of the Allies was to make one big push.  Despite the historical reputation it would receive after the war, the forthcoming Battle of Amiens wasn’t intended as a grand Allied counteroffensive – merely a localized attack designed to catch the Germans before they potentially retreated from the Marne salient and back to relative safety.

Speed and surprise were the keys to the Allied strategy, with the British in particular wanting as little of a bombardment preceding the attack as possible.  The attack would use over 580 tanks and pounding no man’s land for hours or days would only make an advance that much more difficult.  The bombers the Germans had heard had flown their missions to cover the noise of the gathering tank units, part of 800 aircraft designed to blind the German air cover to what the Allies were preparing.  Foch and the Allies hoped to bloody the Germans a bit before they retreated; they instead drove a knife into the German line and Germany’s morale.

The artillery that rained down on the Germans on August 8th, 1918 mostly didn’t hit their lines – it hit their artillery.  Allied air control helped towards more pinpoint targeting and Allied gunners destroyed much of Germany’s artillery positions around Amiens.  504 out of the 530 German guns at Amiens were hit in the opening salvos.  At the same time, 32 divisions worth of men and 580 tanks charged into the corners of the Marne salient, a sort of gigantic pincher maneuver that threatened the entire front.  After four years of stubborn tactics leading to the deaths of millions, military planners had begun to learn how to coordinate inter-service arms and strike at the weak points of the front.

Ferdinand Foch – the Allied Supreme Commander.  Foch wasn’t a brilliant general, but like Eisenhower a generation later, was a great diplomatic coordinator of the final Allied efforts

The Germans were so dazed by the offensive that it took them five minutes just to start shooting back – by which point the Allies were already overwhelming the first line of trenches.  Calvary units, some armed with horses but many with armored cars, now slashed into the German rear, sowing confusion and capturing reserves who didn’t even know an attack had commenced.  The Allies left commander centers near the front in place, actually making the situation worse for the Germans as their commanding generals, cut off from the fight, issued orders to their men stay in place where they were easily overrun.  In one day, the Allies gained 15 miles of ground, en route to causing 75,000 casualties including 50,000 prisoners.  The offensive only halted due to the Allies running past their ability to resupply.

The devastation to German morale was clear – for the first time, large numbers of Germans had surrendered.  Reports made their way to back to Berlin that retreating troops refused orders to reorganize as they shouted “You’re prolonging the war!” at their officers and harassed reserves making their way to the front.  Informed that his officer corps could not get their men back in line, Ludendorff declared Amiens to be “the black day of the German Army.”  Between this and the Austro-Hungarian defeat just months earlier, the end of the war was becoming apparently clear to those willing to see it.

The morale shift could be seen on the other side as well, with one British reporter noting “the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly.”  By the start of September, the Allies had pushed the Germans back to their original positions before the start of their Spring Offensive and were pressing on the Hindenburg Line itself.  In less than 30 days, the Allies had undone what had taken the Germans nearly four months, and one million casualties, to gain.

Ludendorff, after the war, with Hitler.  Ludendorff would join in the “Beer Hall Putsch” (the Nazi effort to overthrow the Weimer government in 1923), having already seen his reputation destroyed by his actions in the final months of the war

At the German High Command, the likely outcome of the war was clear to everyone – except perhaps Ludendorff.  Having staked Germany’s survival, and his reputation, on the Spring Offensive, Ludendorff now began to lie to his superiors about what was happening in France and the larger war effort.  Ludendorff assured the Kaiser that the Americans couldn’t stay in the war for long, telling him that “special police” were required to get American servicemen to even board their ships for France.  Once one of the most feared generals in the world, Ludendorff was getting one hour of sleep a day and ping-ponging between screaming at his subordinates and breaking down into fits of crying.  Like Hitler a generation later, Ludendorff sat at his desk, vainly moving depleted or destroyed army units on paper in a diluted sense of control.  At a dinner with Hindenburg, Ludendorff melted down in front of his old boss, causing many in Berlin to demand that Hindenburg replace him.  Hindenburg knew battle fatigue when he saw it and split the difference; Ludendorff kept his post but was put on the equivalent of medical leave, meaning he no longer held any effective control over military strategy.

Amiens was the beginning of the end for Germany.  The war had been devastating; now the only question was how costly would be the price of peace?

12 thoughts on “The Black Day

  1. Yup. Keep in mind they lost one million men in 6 months of fighting. And with the new German system of troop rotation, designed to keep men from burning out in the trenches, they’d need a massive number of soldiers to both replace losses and cycle through divisions. It was simply impossible to maintain with the casualty figures coming from France.

  2. From what I’ve read, American forces lost more men due to influenza than battlefield casualties.

  3. And year after year, facing horrendous losses, the generals just kept doubling down on the same plan of attack: artillery bombardment then frontal assault.

    No really, it will work this time.

  4. kinlaw;
    And that strategy was adopted by Democrats and their addiction to Keynesian economic policies.

  5. Scary thing is that even this stage of rapid movement and the breakdown of the system of trench warfare, each side lost over a million men. Thankfully the vast majority were captured or just injured, but wow….

  6. The cultural effects of the First World War were far, far, greater than the cultural effects of ALL the wars that followed. The world was utterly transformed in just a little over four years, If, when you hear or read the word “intercourse,” you think of sex rather than a mixing of people, that is a result of the cultural changes of WWI.
    The Victorian era, from about 1830 through mid 1914 (yes I know VR died in 1901) saw the GDP of the world increase by nearly a factor of twenty. All the while eliminating slavery..
    Since then world GDP has increased about ten times. The growth of the world economy under the colonialism of the 19th century was incredible, unheard of, no period of history could compare to it, and it was (so the Victorians believed) due to colonization. Meaning the efficient exploitation of world resources by the people best able to exploit the world’s resources.
    In the end it didn’t matter who won World War One. The conflict itself created the world we live in.

  7. MO, it was a golden era of discovery and idealism leading up to the war; the industrializing West was energized and impressed with its ability to overcome challenges and create a new utopia using the technology; it seemed there was no good thing that couldn’t be achieved with our wondrous devices.

    And then the War came, and we saw what else our new inventions could do. The ennobling, hopeful idealism of the age was gassed and ground into the mud of the trenches as dreams of glory were replaced by Gotterdammerung.

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