Amiens – Spearhead of Victory
Few Canadians are aware that one hundred years ago, on Aug. 8, 1918, Canadian and Australian soldiers inflicted a crushing defeat on the German army near the French city of Amiens. The battle was the start of a series of Allied victories that ended on Nov. 11 when Germany accepted armistice terms that ended the war.
Despite Canada's relatively small army during the First World War, her citizen soldiers played an important role in the final defeat of Germany. Canada entered the war on Aug. 4, 1914, with an army of only 3,110. By early 1916 just over 103,000 Canadians, all volunteers, were serving on the Western Front in the Canadian Corps. Eventually, over 400,000 would see action. They quickly developed into elite storm troops who won victories at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
On 21 March 1918, the German army began a series of offensives in a final effort to gain a final victory. In late 1917, the British army had taken three months to advance seven kilometres. Two weeks after the start of the German offensive, her army had advanced up 50 kilometres and had killed or captured 200,000 Allied soldiers.
Lieutenant John Peck of Gananoque was attending Queen's University when he enlisted in 1916. He wrote to his parents: “Undoubtedly the Hun is staking everything on this last great push. A German success here on such a scale would most probably decide the war … I cannot help thinking that we face an unequaled hour in the history of the world.” Peck had reason for concern. German guns were close enough to shell Paris.
By June, however, the German offensive had stalled after her army had suffered almost one million killed and wounded. Although total victory no longer was possible, German commander Erich Ludendorff believed the Allies would suffer such heavy losses attempting to liberate France and Belgium they would agree to a negotiated peace. He wrote on Jul. 15: “We should wish for nothing better than to see the enemy launch and offensive, which can but hasten the disintegration of his forces.”
The Canadians and Australian Corps took up his challenge. Both were elite forces consisting entirely of volunteers and would attack side by side east of the French city of Amiens. At 4:20 in the morning of Aug. 8, Canadians and Australian infantry left their trenches in a heavy fog. To complete the element of surprise, there was not the usual preliminary artillery barrage. At the Somme in late 1916, the Canadian Corps had taken two months and had suffered 24,000 killed and wounded to advance fewer than three kilometres. By the time the Amiens offensive ended on Aug. 20, the Canadian Corps had advanced over 20 kilometres and captured 9,000 Germans. The victory was costly: 11,882 Canadians killed and wounded.
Erich Ludendorff, who had welcomed an Allied attack, declared: “August 8 was the black day of the German Army and in the history of the war.” The Kaiser responded:“The war must be ended.”
8 Aug claimed the lives of four local men: George Adair, age 21, Ellis Gibbins age 30 whose brother had been killed in late 1917, Amayas Samson a fighter pilot age 19, and Donald Turner. He had enlisted in 1915 at age 16, well under the minimum age of of 18, served for a few months in the trenches before his true age was discovered and was sent back to Canada but re-enlisted just before his 18th birthday. He was killed at age 19. His platoon commander wrote to Turner's mother: “He was a good boy and an excellent soldier, bright, intelligent, and always cheerful. You boy died a hero's death facing the enemy in the greatest victory the Allies have yet gained.” Martin Flynn, age 35, was killed 9 Aug.
Following Amiens, the Allies launched a series of attacks all along the Western Front, often spearheaded by the Canadian Corps which defeated the Germans at the Drocourt-Queant Line and Canal du Nord. Amiens, however, was the decisive battle. It convinced German military leaders that the war was lost. The Great War lasted over four years and claimed the lives of 58 local men: 15 lost their lives during the three months from Amiens to the armistice.