The Road to Armistice - Amiens

Rangers at the Battle of Amiens (1918)

The 20th Battalion CEF and the ‘Black day of the German Army’

A century ago today(Aug 8th), more than 1,000 soldiers of the 20th Battalion, precursor to today's Queen's York Rangers, scrambled out of their trenches just east of the northern French city of Amiens in an offensive that broke the German Army and led directly to the end of the First World War.

“At 0420 to the moment a blaze of crimson lighted the whole horizon behind us for miles. Three seconds later there was a deafening roar from hundreds of guns,” one soldier wrote home after the battle. “It was impossible to distinguish the sound of the individual guns, but rather the concussion resembled the throbbing of an engine built to drive a planet on its course.

“With one accord along the whole line the men leaped on the parapet and went ‘over the top.’ The company officers with synchronized watches and compasses, led their men as if on parade.”

There was a thick fog that morning, made worse by the smoke and dust from the rolling barrage the Canadian artillery unleashed on the German front line, and soldiers who survived the battle remembered “the whole country seemed alive with ghostly figures.”

The Rangers were on the far left of the Canadian advance that day, with the Australians to their north. Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie, the Corps commander, had elected to attack with two of his four divisions up front, because of the tight space within which he had to manoeuvre – his frontage was less than eight kilometres. His two remaining divisions followed close behind the 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions, ready to leapfrog forward once the first objectives had been achieved.

Figure 1: Canadian War Museum collection

Figure 1: Canadian War Museum collection

The Canadian assault had achieved nearly complete surprise, thanks to elaborate precautions – including having the motto: “Keep Your Mouth Shut!” printed on the soldier’s pay books – and a successful deception plan that convinced the Germans that the feared Canadian Corps was still on the Belgian front, hundreds of kilometres away.

A handful of Canadians had been sent to Ypres, far to the north, to send out radio traffic and mount patrols and raids wearing the distinctive Corps patches – all to convince the German high command that the Canadians were in Belgium. By this time in the war, the Germans had realized that the presence of the Canadian Corps was an almost certain sign of a coming attack.

The entire Canadian Corps, more than 100,000 soldiers in all, marched 70 kilometres from their positions in the Arras sector to their assembly areas around Amiens in complete secrecy. The soldiers marched at night, taking cover during the day to avoid being spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft. The RAF even flew heavy bombers back and forth along the front so that the noise from their engines would drown out the rumble of heavy artillery rolling down the roads.

“The roads were crowded with transport, and greetings passed between units from Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal and Halifax,” said Capt. Robert John Renison, chaplain for one of the Canadian Corps battalions.

The 20th battalion set off after dark on the 3rd of August, on a two-day march to their assembly area for the battle to come. “The night was fine, the roads good, and splendid time was made,” the war diary noted.

They rested in sheds, courtyards and chateaux along the way, under strict orders to remain out of sight. But that didn’t keep the men from finding ways to amuse themselves, according to the war diary: “Early in the afternoon the Battalion marched five kilometres to Oissy to bathe in a small lake in the Chateau grounds.”

On the 5th, they took over the trenches held by an Australian battalion just outside the village of Cachy, 10 kilometres west of Amiens, a tiny village left a burnt out ruin by four years of fighting, its buildings empty shells of brick and stone pockmarked with bullet holes and filled with rubble.

“It rained all day,” the battalion war diary noted glumly.

Figure 2: Canadian War Museum Collection

Figure 2: Canadian War Museum Collection

The soldiers settled into the routine of trench warfare made themselves as comfortable as they could in their dugouts and ‘funk holes,’ manning the parapets and observation posts and waiting restlessly for three days for the battle they all knew was coming. The officers were kept busy travelling to and from brigade and battalion headquarters to receive orders for the offensive and draw up their own plans for the attack.

“Constant showers kept the roads slippery and disagreeably muddy,” the diary said of the days waiting the start of the battle. “The enemy was fairly active during the time we were waiting for Zero Hour, and the Battalion had two killed and five wounded.”

Capt. Renison noted that the Rangers of the 20th Battalion “were seen lined up in long queues in a back trench, awaiting their turn to grind their bayonets on the grindstone.”

At 0420, the sudden artillery barrage that signaled the start of the attack opened up on the Germans, who were taken by surprise in part because there had been no preparatory artillery barrage – a fixture of most First World War offensives. As the men of the 20th Battalion advanced towards the first line of German trenches, the creeping barrage moved ahead of them, just as it had more than a year earlier at Vimy Ridge.

Their attack was cloaked by a fog so thick that the battalion war diary noted: “It [was] impossible to see more than two or three yards in front of one.”

“We found a number of [Germans] hiding in the grain and in dugouts, and owing to the density of the fog, a number of the enemy were passed by and were not discovered until they commenced firing at us from behind.”

Soon after the assault began, Germans began surrendering en masse. “Within a mile the prisoners began to appear, running unarmed from shell hole to shell hole, shouting ‘Kamarad,’ as they lifted both hands to any approaching soldier,” Capt. Renison wrote.

Figure 3: Imperial War Museum

Figure 3: Imperial War Museum

 “At three o'clock on the first afternoon there were 2,000 prisoners in a single wire cage. They were petrified with surprise. A German officer told me that it was impossible that we should be Canadians: ‘We have the most certain information from our Intelligence Department that the Canadians are in Belgium.’ ”

By nightfall, 8,000 Germans had given up to the Canadians, and 17,600 were captured in total.

The 20th captured the town of Marclave, five kilometres behind the overrun German front line, including an entire German headquarters taken intact by the Battalion Scout platoon. Casualties were light by the standards of the First World War: 20 killed, and 133 wounded.

The next day, the Rangers were on the move again, as the Canadian and Australian attack threw the Germans into headlong  retreat.

They marched to Rosieres, 30 kilometres east of Amiens, where they found a rare situation in the static fighting of the Western Front: no trenches to occupy. The Canadian Corps had penetrated so far into the German defences that they were in undisturbed ground. “Everyone had to set to digging in immediately on arrival,” according to the war diary.

Figure 4: Canadian War Museum Collection

Figure 4: Canadian War Museum Collection

In three days of long marches and hard fighting, the Canadian Corps had dealt the Germans their worst defeat of the war. The Canadians penetrated up to 15 kilometres into the Germans’ rear area – a spectacular achievement in a war where advances were often measured in metres – taking 5,033 prisoners and capturing 161 guns.

Three German divisions were shattered by the attack, losing so many men killed, wounded or captured that they effectively ceased to exist.

It came at the cost of 1,036 Canadians killed, 2,803 injured and 29 taken prisoner, but the victory had far-reaching consequences. Their comprehensive defeat at Amiens crushed German morale – General Erich von Ludendorff described it as "the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.”

When he informed Kaiser Wilhelm II of the disaster at Amiens, the Kaiser replied: “We have reached the limits of our capacity. The war must be terminated.” For the first time, the Germans made peace overtures to the Allies.

Indeed, Amiens was the opening shot in what became known as the Hundred Days campaign, the Allied push that drove the Germans backwards until their ultimate defeat, and which led directly to the armistice on November 11th.

And the spearhead of that 100-day drive was the Canadian Corps, with the Rangers – as always – in the thick of the action.