The Beginning of the End: Canadians at Amiens

August 8th marked the centenary of what came to be known as the “last hundred days”, a string of Allied offensives that eventually led to the demise of the German Army and the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

Image: Royal Lindsay Hamilton Ewing, Collections CCGW/CCGG 2015.04.24.01

Just a few months earlier, however, the German army launched an offensive of their own- the Spring Offensive. Following the Russian Revolution in October 1917, the new Bolshevik government quickly initiated peace negotiations with Germany; it wasn’t long before they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. No longer over-extended over a two-front war, the German army was finally able to focus all of its efforts and resources on the Western Front. In a desperate final attempt to win the war, General Ludendorff ordered a massive German attack on the Western Front in March 1918. While the German army made great strides, it was outpacing its supply lines and was severely weakened by the large number of casualties it suffered. With a weakened and demoralized German army and an increasing number of American troops joining the conflict, the Allied forces held an encouraging position by the end of July 1918.

The decision to launch an attack at Amiens was not haphazard. Amiens was an important railway centre in France’s northern region and a few months earlier, the Germans came within reach of capturing the city. [1] Notes circulated in the soldiers’ paybooks- an attack was coming, and secrecy was paramount. [2] Just outside the city of Amiens, the 42nd Battalion was camped in a field awaiting the command. Lieutenant-Colonel Bartlett McLennan, while doing a reconnaissance over the area which the Battalion was to advance, was killed by shell fire. [3] Major Royal Lindsay Hamilton Ewing assumed command of the Battalion and on the eve of the attack, he wrote to his brother Stuart back home “we are now bivouacked awaiting to take part in what will probably be one of the greatest shows in the war.” (7 August 1918). Was he ever right.

With the French to their right and the Australian Corps to their left, the Allies launched their attack on the morning of 8 August at 4:20 am. The 42nd Battalion was tasked with capturing Hill 102, a main tactical feature on the Brigade front and a German strongpoint. [4] By 10:20 am, the 42nd Battalion advanced 2 ½ miles, crossing the flooded and swampy Luce River and reaching their objective. [5] The rest of the Canadian Corps was met with similar achievements; by the end of the day, the Canadians succeeded in advancing 13km. The infantry’s surprising success, however, highlighted the challenges of open warfare. The infantry was moving forward too quickly for its artillery support, medical support, and lines of communication to keep pace. Without these much-needed services, it was increasingly difficult for the infantry to keep pushing forward. Shared with the arrival of more German reinforcement, the battle slowly grounded to a halt. By 12 August, it was called off.

Dubbed the “black day of the German army” by Ludendorff, 8 August was not without sacrifice; the Canadian Corps of a little over 102,000 men had suffered 11,822 casualties in the effort. [6] Nevertheless, 8 August was the single most successful day for the Allies, and for the first time since 1914, the end of the war felt near. Amiens was only the beginning.

References

[1] Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting in the Great War 1917-1918. (Viking Canada: Toronto, 2008), 410.

[2] Morton, Desmond. When your number’s up: the Canadian soldier in the First World War. (Random House of Canada: Toronto, 1993), 175.

[3] Lieut.-Colonel C. Beresford Topp, D.S.O., M.C., The 42nd Battalion, C.E.F. Royal Highlanders of Canada in the Great War. (Gazette Printing Co.: Montreal, 1931), 204.

[4] Cook, Shock Troops, 433; Topp, The 42nd Battalion, 206.

[5] Topp, The 42nd Battalion, 215.

[6] Shaw, Susan Evans. Canadians at War: A Guide to the Battlefields of World War I. (Goose Lane Editions: Fredericton, 2011), 232.

 

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