8 August 2008


Today is the ninetieth anniversary of one of the First World War's most critical battles, the battle of Amiens. This battle was a true turning point in the war, and Canadians played a prominent role in the fight.

The battle has its genesis in the spring of 1918. By then the Germans had concluded their peace treaty with the now communist Russia. With that part of the war concluded, Germany moved over sixty division from the eastern front to the Western Front. Their goal was to launch an attack and defeat the British and the French armies before the American forces could become a factor in the war. They very nearly succeeded.

The Germans drove back the British all along the front, with one exception: they purposely avoided the Canadians now camped at Vimy. Their reasons for doing so are fairly clear: Vimy was a very strong defensive position, and throughout 1917 the Germans had lost in every engagement with the Canadians. Their attitude to the Canadians can be seen by a new word entered the lexicon of military terms: "stormtrooper." It was a German word, a name they gave to the Canadians. They seemed to wish to isolate the Canadians, rather than meet them directly. Even so, in the early days of spring the situation looked bleak. The Canadian General, Sir Arthur Currie, echoed this pessimism as he addressed his troops while waiting for the attack that never came.

Under the orders of your devoted officers in the coming battle you will advance, or fall where you stand facing the enemy. To those who fall I say; you will not die but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have born such sons. Your names will be revered for ever and ever by your grateful country, and God will take you unto himself. Canadians, in this fateful hour, I command you and I trust you to fight as you have never fought with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage. On many a hard fought field of battle you have overcome this enemy. With God's help you shall achieve victory once more.

(*Note: This speech met with mixed reviews. Students learning English in Northern France or Belgium in the 20's were often required to memorize this speech. The Canadian troops at whom it was directed booed it from their trenches. One soldier, Deward Barnes, wrote in his diary: "Currie spoke to us today. He said no one would miss us if we died.")

Because the Germans avoided all contact with the Canadians, the British forces still had one unit fresh and fit for battle, its morale untainted by defeat. Further, this unit had been used in the past as a spearhead, and could do so again when the time to launch a counterattack came. That time came on this day in 1918, near the town of Amiens.

The German advance had been slowed to halt, and repeated attacks at Amiens had been successfully resisted by the Australian troops. The Generals believed the time was ripe, and in secrecy they moved the Canadians south.

The attack began in the morning. The code word, for psychological reasons, was "Llandovery Castle," the name of a British hospital ship that had been torpedoed by the Germans not long before. The troops had read lurid accounts of the sinking, particularly of the deaths of many of the nursing sisters on board. The reminder of the sinking was meant to enrage the troops before the attack. In order to achieve total surprise there was no preliminary bombardment. This battle is often remembered for the role of tanks, but tanks only played an important role only in the beginning. Before long they had been disabled or suffered from mechanical problems.

The Canadians charged into the Germans and swept them aside. As the tanks fell to the wayside one by one, and as the troops began to outdistance the support of their own artillery, it became an infantry battle, and eventually a race, as the Germans fled and the Canadians pursued. At the end of the day, the Canadians had driven the Germans back 8 miles, the Australians on the Canadians flank had driven them back 7. It was a disaster for the Germans.

On the night of the 8th, several allied generals sought out the opinion of Currie. They had never had a success like this at any time during the war. They were uncertain how to proceed. Currie responded using a Canadian phrase: "The going's good," he said. "Let's keep going." The next day, the Canadians advanced another 4 miles.

Mop up operations continued for several days and before long both sides were back in their old trenches. The Allied generals were determined to break the stalemate of trench warfare once and for all, and once again the Canadians would be called upon to play a pivotal role.

There are many things to say about this battle, but I will leave the final words on a more personal level. They come from my grandfather who served at the battle. he came home a decorated soldier. It seems he most likely was decorated for capturing some prisoners- possibly the ones he mentions. Shortly after the battle he found time to write a letter home to his sister. It is a personal letter, in which the war is mentioned, but he'd really rather speak of home:

My Dear Sister,

I'll bet all of you are worrying yourselves these days wondering what has happened to me that I haven't written you a line sooner to let you know that I am O.K. Well Sis we have been so busy that writing was out of the Question altogether. I suppose you have seen in the papers that we have been at it again and say Sis we sure did spill the beans for Fritz this time and yours truly did his little bit as usual and came through it O.K. I managed to capture the odd prisoner and got a nice revolver and cap for a souvenir. See it was funny to see the boys go after souvenirs and there were lots to take them from. I received your welcome letter of July 17th also one from Marg & Ann tell them I will write to them as soon as I can also Dad. I had a letter from him to (sic) glad to hear he is out of the soldiers at last & I hope he stays out but sorry to hear about his broken arm hope it is getting along all right now. I received a letter from Ed and He says his stay in Eng. is about over so I guess he will soon be on his way over well good luck to him and hope I meet him when he arrives. Glad to hear you had a line from Herb he sure was looking good the last time I saw him. Well Sis you haven't moved yet Eh? Well I sent a letter to the new address a while ago and hope you get it O.K. I will send this one there as I think you will be moved by the time it reaches you, Say Sis I am not a kicker but I sure think it is the limit that none of you manage to visit Ollie (*note: my grandmother. His sister lived around the corner from his wife) once in a while (Nough said). Say I'll bet Jim had a nice time at the Falls Eh? I don't blame him for sticking his chest out I know I did the first time I saw them. I hope this reaches you in time for your birthday and I wish you all the luck I would wish for myself may I be there for the next one. I will have to close now Sis as I want to get a hair cut. Hoping to hear from you soon with love and
kisses to all and the kiddies.



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