Theresa May has paid tribute to the “courage, bravery and skill” of troops who fought in the First World War Battle of Amiens as a poignant commemoration service marked its centenary.
Relatives of soldiers who served and died in the conflict also spoke of their pride and sadness as they joined the Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge at the event staged exactly 100 years since the start of the offensive.
The battle changed the course of the war, as the comprehensive Allied victory, due to superior tactics, use of technology and leadership, finally convinced German commanders they could not win.
William acknowledged the debt owed to the First World War troops in a message printed in the official programme: “The Battle of Amiens, and the continued fighting which followed during the summer of 1918, brought the Allies hope and optimism after four long years of bloodshed and stalemate.
“While it is right that we have collectively commemorated many of the significant battles and campaigns of those years, it is important that the success of the Battle of Amiens takes its rightful place in our shared history.”
Kevin Sherlock, 58, a retired Rolls-Royce engine inspector from Derby, said his 19-year-old great uncle Ernest Harm, who was killed towards the end of the battle, “paid the ultimate sacrifice”, helping to bring peace to Europe.
He said the teenage soldier, also from Derby, a Lance Corporal in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion was killed, possibly by machine gun fire, going “over the top” on August 11 1918.
Mr Sherlock added: “I think as I’ve got older I’ve thought about it more really, he was only 19, just a lad really, never experienced anything in his life.
“So there’s sadness but also pride that he took part in a key battle that brought ultimately the Allied victory and no doubt about it, shortened the war as well.”
Commenting on the fact his great uncle has no known grave Mr Sherlock added: “It must be very painful for a mother to come to terms with, she probably thought he was listed as missing, killed in action, but there’s always a small part of you thinking he might walk through the door one day.”
In Amiens Cathedral in northern France, the story of the battle was told through contemporary letters, diaries and poems read by guests from the 2,000-strong congregation.
Among those invited were Armed Forces minister Mark Lancaster, his French counterpart Florence Parly, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter, who is head of Britain’s Armed Forces, and representatives of other nations including Germany.
Missing from the commemorations was Emmanuel Macron, who held Brexit talks with Mrs May last week at his summer retreat.
France’s president, who is from Amiens where the event was staged, is believed to be on holiday.
In her message printed in the official programme Mrs May highlighted how the battle of Amiens heralded the beginning of the period known as the Hundred Days offensive.
After the 1918 conflict successive military victories eventually led to the surrender of German forces and the end of the conflict on Armistice Day on November 11 that year.
The Prime Minister, who has been holidaying in Europe, wrote: “Today, we commemorate that success, but we also reflect on the fear and hardship experienced by the people of this city and the surrounding battlefields, as well as the immense suffering demoralisation of the German troops.
“We remember with profound respect all those who served on both sides of the battle and we give thanks for their courage, bravery and skill which would lead to what the world had long yearned for, the guns finally falling silent.”
William said in his address to the congregation: “What began here on August 8 was truly a coalition operation under the strategic command of a great Frenchman, Marshal Foch, a battle in which the forces of many nations came together to fight; in which aerial, mechanical and human courage and ingenuity combined with devastating results.
“Amiens was symbolic of the Entente Cordiale, the co-operation without which victory was impossible.
“It is entirely fitting therefore, that today, that same international coalition has returned to Amiens with our former enemy in peace and partnership.”
General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army, combined air and land forces from Australia, Canada, France, America and Britain to great effect during the battle.
He had learnt the lessons of the bloody Somme offensive – where he played a prominent role – employing improved tactics and new technology, utilised alongside subterfuge, from concealing troop numbers to ending the practice of firing range-finding shells so there was no warning of the attack.
The battle saw more than 500 tanks from the UK’s Tank Corps deployed, more than 1,900 British and French aircraft used, tens of thousands of troops present, with the Australians and Canadians prominent in the attack, and all supported by more than 2,000 guns from the Royal Artillery.
Over the following days the gains made by Allied troops were significant with many miles claimed from German forces – but its real impact was on the morale of many in the German high command, convincing them the war could not be won.
During the service Mrs May read an extract from the memoirs of her predecessor David Lloyd George from 1918 about the battle of Amiens.
She said: “The fact of the matter was that the British Army itself did not realise the extent and effect of the triumph they had won that day.
“The effect of the victory was moral and not territorial. It revealed to friend and foe alike the breakdown of the German power of resistance.”
At the end of the ceremony the duke and Mrs May laid wreaths in the cathedral’s Chapel of the Allies and met descendants of soldiers who fought in the battle.
William chatted to Pippa Britton whose grandfather Christopher Ribbans was the gunner in the famous “Musical Box” Whippet tank.
Vice-chair of Sport Wales Mrs Britton, from Newport, South Wales, said: “We recently read a letter saying his crew were really looking forward to a good scrap on the day of the actual battle.
“Musical Box got the furthest behind German lines because Whippets are very fast, rather than the big heavy tanks. They famously took out a four-gun battery to support the Australians and really made a hole in the (enemy) line.”
The 55-year-old this week with husband Nigel, 62, plans to retrace the tanks journey during the battle.
She added: “Eventually they ended up so far ahead of any of the other troops, they literally kept forging ahead, forging ahead.
“They had petrol cans on the roof of the tank and they got punctured and the petrol ran inside and the fumes created ignited. They all bailed out on fire, the driver got shot and my grandfather and the commander officer were taken prisoner.”
General Sir Chris Deverell, Commander of Joint Forces Command, summed up the day for the nation’s Armed Forces saying: “Not only do we remember those who died and the families who made such sacrifices but we also signal to the existing servicemen and women what they do is recognised by the nation.”