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Think Piece: What was Amiens?

Thursday 31 August, 2017

On the 8 August was the 99th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens. It will be very interesting to see how its centenary will be commemorated next year. While the bloody battles on Gallipoli and at Fromelles, Pozieres and Passchendaele all figure prominently in our recollections of WW1 few seem to recall Amiens. This is strange as Amiens was significant on two counts. Firstly it was the only battle in which all Australian infantry battalions have ever fought together on the same battlefield on the same day. Secondly, and of far greater importance, Amiens was one of the few decisive battles of WW1. Amiens heralded the opening of the ‘Hundred Days’, from when the German Army was driven back in a succession of humiliating losses until it sought peace through the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Yet despite being so strategically significant it is largely unknown to the public.

On 8 August the Fourth Army, comprising the Australian and Canadian Corps and the British Fourth Corps, supported by the French First Army on the right flank, launched an assault at first light that over-ran the German defences and secured its final objectives by mid-day. The Germans lost 27,000 men including 15,750 prisoners and over 400 guns in what Ludendorff, the German Chief of Staff, described as ‘the Black Day of the German Army’. That this was achieved by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) for the cost of less than 6,000 casualties suggests it was the consequence of a major change in the way the war was fought.

Over the preceding two years the BEF had been developing the skills to challenge the Germans’ mastery of defence. This came together at Amiens in the tactic of the ‘combined-arms battle’. For the first time on the Western Front all the objectives of a major offensive were reached and within the prescribed time. Despite this tactical success, in the following days the battle bogged down in the futile effort to break out to achieve strategic victory. But Amiens had shown Foch and Haig that they could achieve their objectives through a limited strategy of ‘bite and hold’ rather than through the grand concepts of an annihilation battle. Amiens provided the vision of a way to victory that over the following ‘Hundred Days’ would lead to German capitulation.

Amiens was the tipping point in the war. It opened the path to victory, and the AIF played a notable part in its achievement. Yet it does not figure in our collective memory of the war. Our focus is on the battles we lost or those we won at terrible cost. Why do we overlook the battle where we made a major contribution to the defeat of Germany? This is an interesting conundrum. We seem to have created a narrative of the war that excludes our part in the victory. How and why has this happen? Who or what was responsible? Now seems the time to question the legends we have created that distort our understanding of our part in the war.

Since his retirement Brigadier Pat Beale DSO, MC has followed an interest in World War 1. His particular focus is on the perceptions the public has created of war, a phenomena he explores in a book “Legends of War'” to be published in December. 

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