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Zero hour at Amiens: The dawn of victory in 1918



With zero hour in the Battle of Amiens only minutes away, the infantrymen made their final preparations, both physical and spiritual. Most of these men were fatalists. Months, and, for some, years of carnage had convinced them that there was nothing they could do when the inexorable hand of fate singled them out.

“Something’s going on here boys, something’s – Listen!” said Corporal Harry Brice of the Canadian Engineers. As the droning of the plane receded northward another more ominous sound could be detected. It came from close behind them on the Amiens-Roye Road – the muffled roar of engines slowly turning over mingled with a subdued clanking. Brice was sure he knew what it meant, but he jumped to his feet and followed the parapet of the road back through the dense fog that shrouded everything. In a few moments he could distinguish a threatening silhouette – a tank. Behind it in the fog an endless file of the monsters disappeared in the mist. It was moments before dawn on the 8 August 1918 – the Dawn of Victory.

The tanks were now in position. When darkness had fallen they had begun their approach from harbours four miles in the rear. Progress had been slow with the engines throttled down to prevent them from being heard. Now they were in assembly points only a thousand yards behind the infantry jumping-off tapes. There they lurked in the foggy silence. At 4:08, twelve minutes before zero, the monsters coughed into life and, almost purring, crawled forward through the crowded formations of infantry. “In the impenetrable mist we started off for Hamel to fall in with the Australians,” Captain Hickey of the 8th Tanks remembered. “I was responsible for getting my section there. It was impossible to see where we were going, and it was more by good luck than good guidance that when the mist lifted a little we found ourselves in Hamel. Eventually we reached a field where tanks were lined up.”

It was almost at this same moment that Corporal Harry Brice of the Canadian Engineers first saw the line of tanks about to cross Domart Bridge, which his squad had cleared of explosives. For a moment Brice stood in awe, then stepped up to the first of the monsters idling softly in the foggy darkness. These were the tanks of “A” Company, 5th Tank Battalion. Climbing up on the tank, he was accosted by a young officer who opened a hatch and asked politely, “How far am I from bridge number 64?”

“About twenty yards,” replied Brice.

“This is it, boys,” the young lieutenant reported excitedly to his crew. “We’ll be the first to go over!” Then remembering his manners, he invited the Canadian corporal inside his iron landship – and just in time, too!

“Darned if that machine gun didn’t open up just then,” Brice would recall later. “It sounded like a hailstorm outside.” Brice laughed and said to the lieutenant, “You hear that? You might run into a lot of that when you get over there.”

“That’s what we’re for,” replied the officer confidently. “That’s where we’re going.”

Years later Harry Brice was still impressed by the crew’s spirit. “They were raring to get at it. The first tank to go over!” Brice could not stay long, he was told, for zero hour was very close now. “I wish you luck, boys. I sure wish you luck,” he said. “I hope nothing happens to you and I hope you get back.”

He climbed out of the warm tank, smelling of oil, into the chill fog and walked along the road till he had counted ten tanks, but he could detect even more looming out of the white vapours. Returning to his men in their post he told them what he had learned. “Watch out there. They’re waiting for the signal,” he told his squad, trying not to sound excited. “The signal is the largest gun we have. When it’s fired, the officer said, you’ll see the flash, but you won’t hear it, for it’ll be drowned out. Everything will be drowned out by the barrage.”

Extracted from Amiens 1918 by James McWilliams

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