Victory on the Somme
It was the remarkable success that opened the doors to victory on the Western Front.
For the Allies in the First World War, success at the Battle of Amiens demonstrated that their superior tactics and equipment and greater material strength could win the war. Its impact on the morale of their German opponents was profound, utterly destroying the last illusions they may have had about the war’s outcome. It was the German army’s ‘Black Day’.
On 8 August 1918, British and Imperial forces, in co-operation with the French, launched a major attack against the Germans astride the River Somme, east of the city of Amiens.
The stunning achievement on the first day of this battle was the beginning of the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’ (8 August – 11 November 1918), in which the battlefield successes of the armies of Britain, France, the United States and their allies finally forced Germany to sue for an armistice. This eventually led to the end of the war.
Victory in the battle was achieved by a coalition of forces from several nations. Most prominent in the British Fourth Army’s attack were the Australian and Canadian Corps.
This video shows Australian infantry and pioneers moving forward on 8 August 1918. The foggy conditions, which helped the attackers to surprise the Germans, are very obvious in this film.
The Australian and Canadian Corps were most prominent in the British Fourth Army’s attack.
These, together with the British III Corps, were supported by more than 2,000 guns from the Royal Artillery, over 500 tanks from the Tank Corps and over 1,900 aircraft from the Royal Air Force and its French equivalent.
Large numbers of the latest tank types were available to the Tank Corps for the attack.
These included the mechanically more-reliable and more handy Mark V, seen here out of the line with the more unwieldy Mark V Star version.
These tanks gave the attackers the means to deal with opposition from any strongpoints or machine-gun ‘nests’ (in the terminology of the time). Also available were 72 machine-gun laden Medium A ‘Whippet’ tanks, which were able to move at the relatively quick speed of 8 miles per hour.
In this image, taken at 6:30 a.m on 8 August 1918., the first German wounded from Hangard Wood are brought in.
The Fourth Army succeeded in advancing over 8 miles in a single day on their main front while the French forces on their southern flank gained 5 miles.
For their German opponents, it represented the beginning of the end of a war that had already lasted four years. The battle was a complete surprise.
Deception to mislead the Germans and disguise the fact that an attack was being planned was very important.
This film clip shows German prisoners being interrogated by their captors.
The senior German commanders, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, knew from this point on that the war was lost.
Because of the scale of the losses, the number of prisoners captured, and the distance the attackers advanced, Erich Ludendorff, who was effectively the commander of the German armed forces in the war, described 8 August 1918 as ‘the black day of the German Army’ (‘der Schwarze Tag’).
Whilst the story of the battle usually focuses almost solely on the role of the Australians and the Canadians, the role of the French is almost completely ignored. So, too, is the contribution of the British - infantry, tank crews, engineers, artillerymen, and pilots - which is often marginalised.
The success represented a major propaganda opportunity for the British and French and IWM’s collection holds film and photographs made precisely for this purpose.
In this image, soldiers of the 8th Battalion, London Regiment (Post Office Rifles, 58th Division) examine a German-captured machine gun near Malard Wood on 8 August 1918.
Prisoners taken by the British during the battles of August 1918, including those captured at the Battle of Amiens.
Despite the initial success in the battle, there was much more hard fighting - with tremendous casualties on all sides in the final months before the war was won.
Indeed, many of the technological innovations that led to success on 8 August 1918 were precisely the reason why casualties on the Western Front were so high.
Victory would be secured, but at an appalling cost.
Find out more about the First World War and how it has shaped the world at iwm.org.uk.
Curated by Bryn Hammond, Head of Collections at IWM