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France 1918: Battle of Amiens
Harbonnières, Heath Cemetery
A thousand guns speak as one – The road to Lamotte–Warfusée
From Villers–Bretonneux the ‘Route National’ 29 (D1029) runs east in a straight line, a Roman road. Not far from the town is a cross–roads and beyond there the village of Lamotte–Warfusée comes into view across this flat landscape. Corporal Frank Fitzpatrick of the 6th Machine Gun Company AIF stood somewhere out in the fields on the left before dawn on the morning of 8 August 1918:
A minute to go; forms rise up from the shell holes in readiness … 30 seconds to go; we glance back to the dark stillness of the western horizon, so silent, but we know packed with artillery batteries with gunners standing tense and ready … a vicious boom – the French artillery open up. Still the rear horizon is silent and menacing – then a terrific ripping flash! A thousand guns speak as one; such awe–inspiring roar and rend and flash and crash as surely man never saw or heard before; we’re off!
Corporal Frank Fitzpatrick, quoted in Lieutenant W A Crane, In Good Company: An Account of the 6th Machine Gun Company AIF in Search of Peace, 1915–1919, Melbourne, 1937, p.329
As the Allied shells roared overhead seeking distant German batteries and positions, thousands of Australian and Canadian soldiers like Corporal Fitzpatrick, along a front of nine kilometres north to south, advanced towards the German lines. This bombardment at 4.20 am on 8 August 1918 began the Battle of Amiens, designed to push the German army back beyond the old French Amiens defence line 14 kilometres to the east of Villers–Bretonneux.
Initially the two Australian battalions, 19th (New South Wales) and 20th (New South Wales), heading for Lamotte–Warfusée were hampered, as were the other units, by a dense mist. Their objective was the old inner defences of the Amiens line just short of the village. The plan was that the 17th and 18th Battalions (New South Wales) would then pass through them, or ‘leapfrog’ them in the military parlance of the time, into Lamotte–Warfusée and beyond. ‘Leapfrogging’ was to be the order of the day all along the front of the Australian Corps, fighting together for the first time as five complete divisions under an Australian, Lieutenant–General John Monash. Their main guide in the mist was the old Roman road and British tanks lurching forward in front of them while well ahead fell the protective shells of the ‘creeping’ barrage.
Working their way forward with the 20th Battalion and its tanks was a detachment of the 6th Machine Gun Company led by Lieutenant Norman Wilkinson:
Just on Zero I issued a tot of rum to all ranks … My own stimulant was my old favourite – cold tea from my water bottle, instead of rum.
Lieutenant Norman Wilkinson, quoted in Lieutenant W A Crane, In Good Company: An Account of the 6th Machine Gun Company AIF in Search of Peace, 1915–1919, Melbourne, 1937, p.330
As they approached the village, German machine guns opened up. A tank was called up. Firing through the clearing mist, the tank rumbled towards the German positions which quickly crumbled. The machine gunners now reached the old Amiens line and began digging in to be ready for counter-attacks. A little later, an official AIF photographer appeared and the infantry and machine gunners all had their pictures taken with their friendly tank. The fight for Lamotte–Warfusée itself did not last long. Companies of the 17th and 18th Battalions entered the village and took on the enemy in cellars and houses. By 7 am the village was in Australian hands.
The mist cleared that morning to reveal an amazing sight spread over the flat countryside for kilometres around. Charles Bean described the scene:
The mist lifted like a curtain. The Somme valley came into view, the gentle sunlight, still tempered by the haze, bathing the steep wooded slopes and folds of the northern riverside and the more gradual, long grass – or wheat – covered spurs of the southern. It was to those spurs and to the plateau to which they rose that all eyes now turned … [across the countryside] until lost to sight were scattered parties of Australian infantry, some still digging, others looking out from their new–dug trenches, others strolling or standing between the groups in the easy attitude by which Australians were recognisable on all their battlefields since the first sunrise at Anzac [Gallipoli].
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VI, pp.545–546
To the north and south of Lamotte–Warfusée other Australian and Canadian battalions with tanks had similarly pushed forward to the day’s first objective. Behind the infantry came a mass of support units crowding the roads and spreading out over the landscape: more tanks; batteries of field guns being dashed forward by horses with ‘chains jingling’ and ‘manes tossing’; ammunition and water wagons; wagons with engineering stores; armoured cars making along the road to Lamotte–Warfusée. Pioneer battalions and engineer units marched forward to keep tracks and roads in repair, to keep village and wayside wells operating and to begin wiring new defence lines. Thousands of ‘wide eyed’ prisoners under guard were already making their way to the rear. ‘A great shout went up’, wrote Bean, ‘as some of the field batteries, allotted to help the foremost troops, arrived at a gallop and in a few minutes their guns were banging, to the delight of the troops’. Elation and confidence was in the air. British journalist Charles Montague was watching the battle unfold from a height above the Somme River:
Beyond the river a miracle – the miracle – had begun. It was going on fast. Remember that all previous advances had gained us little more than freedom to skulk up communication trenches a mile or two further eastward, if that. But now! Across the level Santerre [flat upland plain of the Somme beyond Villers–Bretonneux] … two endless columns of British guns, wagons and troops were marching steadily east, unshelled, over the ground that the Germans had held … Nothing like it had ever been seen in the war.
C E Montague, quoted in Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (eds), Defining Victory, 1918, Canberra, 2000, pp.10–11
But as the mist cleared and the spectacle of the advance showed itself to observers, the battle was just beginning.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010