In 1815, Emperor Napoleon I returned from exile on the island of Elba and retook power in France. For the next 111 days the fate of Europe hung in the balance, until he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. “The Hundred Days” determined the future of Europe for the next century.
103 years later, the fate of Europe again hung in the balance. By August 1918, the “Kaiserschlacht” or the German Spring Offensive was contained and the British Expeditionary Force was no longer threatened with isolation. The threat to Paris ended with the French and American defense at the Battle of Chateau Thierry, and then the German salient was rolled back with the Franco/American victory at the Battle of Soissons. But the German Army was still full of fight and heavily reinforced with victorious troops from the Eastern Front. The Germans prepared for local Allied counterattacks, but expected to handily throw them back. They would then wait out the rest of the year while U-boats starved Britain into submission. In the spring of 1919, Germany’s conquered territories in the East would allay the shortages on the German home front and provide the necessary supplies to defeat the exhausted French and inexperienced Americans.
Unexpectedly, on 8 August 1918, the British Third and Fourth Armies assaulted the German lines at Amiens. The Germans in the Amiens’ sector saw none of the indicators that the Allies planned to attack there: No noticeable build up, no lengthy artillery preparation, nothing. Meticulous British staff work got the entire Canadian Corps, nearly 40,000 men, trained, rehearsed and in their assault positions with Germans completely ignorant of their whereabouts. Tactical and operational surprise was complete. The British had learned the lessons of the past year, and put them all in effect for offensive at Amiens. Radio deception, sound ranging, photo graphic reconnaissance, pin point artillery targeting, rolling barrages, platoon and company rehearsals, engineers and labor battalions for road repair, and the inclusion of more than a thousand tanks in the assault all contributed to what Gen Ludendorff called, “A black day in the history of the German Army.”
The Canadians, Australians, and British troops split the front wide open. German casualties were high, and most notable was the number of surrendered Germans. The German Army was tired and the morale of the divisions that had been on the Western Front for the last three years was extremely low. They surrendered en masse. Only the German divisions recently transferred from the East could be relied upon. The offensive stalled when attacking troops outran, not their supplies as was usual for the last three years, but their artillery support. Nonetheless, the British offensive at Amiens was a success beyond the wildest expectations of Sir Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch, the British and French commanders. The Battle of Amiens was the opening move of the Allied general offensive on the Western Front. Ferdinand Foch expected the general offensive to end the war by the spring of 1919. He was wrong.
The Allied offensive in the autumn of 1918, like Napoleon’s attack into Belgium in 1815, is known to history as “Hundred Days Campaign” and like its predecessor a century before, changed the face of Europe for the next one hundred years.