The Battle of Festubert

15-25 May 1915

Inception

The battle of Festubert was in effect a second phase of the recently failed attack on Aubers Ridge. The strategic context and why this battle took place are explained on that page. Once again, the attack would take the form of a pincer attack with two assault frontages: a northern one along the Rue du Bois near Port Arthur and Richebourg l’Avoue, and a southern one at Festubert.

The tactical objectives are set

The general plan of the main attack will be as follows:- To continue pressing forward towards Violaines and Beau Puits, establish a defensive flank along the La Bassee road on the left and maintaining the right at Givenchy. The line to be established in the first instance if possible on the general line of the road Festubert – La Quinque Rue – La Tourelle crossroads – Port Arthur. The position to be consolidated and the troops reformed and communication established. While this line is being established, a general bombardment on the whole front will continue with a special bombardment of the next objectives, viz: Rue d’Ouvert – Rue du Marais. When ready a fresh advance will be ordered on these objectives
First Army Operation Order, 13 May 1915.

British Order of Battle

First Army (Haig)
I Corps (Monro): 2nd, 7th, 47th (2nd London), 51st (Highland) and 1st Canadian Divisions
Indian Corps (Willcocks) : 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions.
51st (Highland) Division switched from I Corps to the Indian Corps on 22 May.

Battle timeline

13 May
The British bombardment opens with a total of 433 guns and howitzers firing on a 5000 yard front. The 36 six-inch howitzers would fire on the enemy breastwork parapet, to blow gaps through which the infantry could pour; the 54 4.5-inch would hit the German support lines, as would a portion of the field guns. The majority of the 210 eighteen-pounder field guns aimed at the German wire, firing shrapnel which was known to be an ineffective weapon for this task – but there was no High Explosive available. The bombardment was observed in detail: even early on there were reports of a high proportion of dud shells failing to explode – especially the howitzers. Firing day and night, more than 101,000 shells were fired.

15 May
10.00pm: all units of the attacking battalions are reported to be in position. On the left, the 2nd Division has 6th Brigade (attacking with 1/7th King’s, 1/Royal Berkshire and 1/KRRC) and 5th Brigades (attacking with 2/Inniskillings and 2/Worcestershire) in front, with 4th (Guards) in reserve.

11.30pm: the first-line platoons of infantry leave their trenches and move out into No Man’s Land, as the artillery lifts beyond the German support trenches. The advance of the 6th Brigade, West of the cinder track running from Rue du Bois to Ferme du Bois, is completed with few casualties. They occupy the German front and support trenches and begin to consolidate. On the left, between the track and almost as far as Port Arthur, the 5th Brigade runs into a more alert enemy and is hit by heavy machine-gun fire. Some men of the Inniskillings reach the German front line, and Brigade despatches the 2/Ox&Bucks in support. The same thing happens to the Gharwal Brigade of the Meerut Division (attacking with 2/Leicestershire and 39th Gharwal Rifles), which is advancing to conform with the 5th Brigade; they were to form the defensive flank, but they were also cut down in No Man’s Land.

British troops watching German prisoners being marched to captivity at Festubert, May 1915. Imperial War Museum image Q90283

British troops watching German prisoners being marched to captivity at Festubert, May 1915. Imperial War Museum image Q90283

16 May
12.45am: 2nd Division orders a further bombardment as planned, to coincide with the attack to be made by 7th Division. The support battalions of 6th Brigade (2/South Staffordshire and 1/King’s) are unable to leave the British front trench to move up to the captured position due to heavy cross-fire from the area between the two Divisional attacks, which had not been suppressed by the bombardment. German resistance in the area to the front of the captured trenches is stiffening. The support battalions of the Gharwal Brigade also attempt to move forward, but are immediately cut down and the movement ceases (1/3 London and 2/3 Ghurkas).
2.45am: The bombardment intensifies on the 7th Division front, including six field guns firing from the front line, opening gaps in the German breastwork (a tactic tried with some success by the Division at Aubers), although in places the lines are only 80 yards apart and great care is taken to avoid shelling the British troops forming up. 3.10am: first platoons of the 20th Brigade (led by 2/Scots Guards and 2/Border) leave their front line, to close up with the German before the barrage lifts. Considerable casualties are incurred as they advance too far, into the British shells.
3.15am: although the 2nd Division has failed to reorganise ready for a supporting advance, the 850-yard frontal attack of the 7th Division goes in. 22nd Brigade on the right, attacking across Duke’s Road towards the School House and the Northern Breastwork (a sandbag-parapet German communication trench), with 2/Queens and 1/Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the first wave, is hit by heavy machine-gun fire. The advance is halted for an extra 15 minutes shelling. On their left, 20th Brigade are slowed by a deep ditch, and crossfire from the Quadrilateral position on their left front, untouched by the bombardment as it lay in the area between the two Divisional attacks.
3.45am approx.: 22nd Brigade moves forward, now supported by 1/South Staffordshire on the right. Despite suffering more casualties, they reach the German front and work along the trench system using bombs (grenades). 5.40am: Haig redraws the boundary of the area to be attacked, and halts any fresh attacks by the Meerut Division, directing the Sirhind Brigade to move to the support of 2nd Division.
6.00am: the Queens and Staffords of 22nd Brigade reach the Northern Breastwork, and the bombers of the latter battalion continue to move through the system of communication and support trenches facing Festubert. They secure the position from Stafford Corner to the old German front, and also La Quinque Rue in the area: the objective of the attack had thus been achieved. By 6.30am, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers have advanced too – now joined by some 2/Royal Warwickshire and 2/Scots Guards of 20th Brigade – and meet up with the Queens near the Orchard. The Scots Guards are forced to withdraw a little, after being hit by British artillery (firing by the map and timetable, unaware of the precise position of their infantry) and by German fire from Adalbert Alley. They also repulse a German counter-attack. Further attempts proved fruitless and costly, and by 9.00am the attack has come to a halt. The men in the most advanced positions near the Orchard and along the Northern Breastwork were by now under intensive German shellfire. Monro.
10.00am General Monro (I Corps) directs attacks to close the gap between the Divisions, by converging advances towards Ferme Cour d’Avoue. The 1/Grenadier Guards of 20th Brigade, having moved across No Man’s Land by a new trench being dug by the 1/6th Gordon Highlanders, bomb their way along 300 yards of enemy trench, but can not advance over open ground, being assailed by fire as they make the attempt. No units of the 2nd Division are yet in position to make an attack. Meanwhile the bombers of 1/South Staffordshire (joined now by some bombing specialists from Brigade) continue to take more of the German trench system, 800 yards as far as Willow Corner (facing the front of the 47th Division) being captured in yard by yard fighting: they capture more than 190 Germans in doing so. 7.30pm The 1/Royal Welsh Fusiliers near the Orchard end of the Northern Breastwork withdraw to La Quinque Rue, forced out by lack of support from 20th Brigade on their left, and heavy German shelling.
During the night, the remnants of the Queens, RWF and Border were withdrawn; the position of the British front being: 1/7 Londons (temporarily attached to 22nd Brigade) holding the line from Willow Corner, meeting the 1/South Staffords holding the Northern Breastwork as far as Stafford Corner, where they joined with the 2/Scots Guards, who continued to the junction of Prince’s Road (coming down from Chocolat Menier Corner) and Rue des Cailloux. 11.45pm Having assessed the situation reports coming in from the Divisions and Corps, First Army decides to continue the offensive of I Corps and place all other actions on hold. Orders were given for the gap between the two Divisions to be closed, with a view to continuing an advance towards Chapelle St Roch and Rue d’Ouvert.

17 May
A day of heavy rain, and low cloud. The German units in the area between Ferme du Bois and the Southern Breastwork (opposite Willow Corner) began a systematic withdrawal to a new line, some 1200 yards to the rear. Enough rearguard troops and artillery support were to be provided to enable and hide this action from their assailants.

2.45am: British recommence shelling against targets registered the day before and destroy enemy positions. The German garrison of the Quadrilateral is badly hit, and the remainder can not withdraw as ordered. The survivors attempt to surrender but are cut down by German shelling, as well as the British bombardment which is still falling. Approximately 450 men reach British lines and are captured. Other German units withdraw or surrender, and their front in the area of the gap was giving way fast. Walking wounded make their painful way back to the rear area. Various changes of tactical plan are ordered by I Corps, as mixed reports come in of the preparedness of the attacking units, and of clear German collapse in some areas. German shelling on captured areas in heavy throughout the day.

9.30am: Lead units of 21st Brigade (2/Royal Scots Fusiliers and 2/Yorkshire) advance into the devastated gap, and by 10.15am had cleared the Quadrilateral and some ground to the left of it.

10.00am: Lead units of 6th Brigade (2/South Staffordshire and 1/King’s) with the 2/Highland Light Infantry on their left ran into heavy machine-gun fire from their left front: the location of the gunners was uncertain. British artillery support called by the Brigade unfortunately also hit men of the 2/Royal Scots Fusiliers who were in the Quadrilateral.

Noon approx.: First Army reacts to reports of success by bringing 3rd Canadian Brigade to readiness in support of I Corps, and extending the front of the Indian Corps in order to release 5th Brigade for further forward movement. Haig also advises I Corps that the distant objective was now the direction of La Bassee, the canal and the “Railway Triangle” position on the far bank, not the Aubers Ridge and the La Bassee-Lille road as previously targetted. The British advance was to take on a definite South-Westerly aspect. First objectives in that direction would now be Violaines and Chapelle St Roch. Afternoon Further attempts to attack across La Quinque Rue to capture the Orchard and that end of the Northern Breastwork are halted by German machine-gun and artillery fire. The forward movement of reserves was proving very slow due to roads blocked by traffic and ground conditions that were worsening due to the weather.

7.30pm: The 2/Bedfordshire and 1/4/Cameron Highlanders of 21st Brigade attack on the extreme right of the British advanced positions, with the objective of the Southern Breastwork lying some 400 yards away across what appeared to be flat ground. On moving forward, the infantry discover a number of hidden and flooded ditches – and some men drown in the attempt to cross. The Bedfords advance is broken up, but some men of the Camerons get into the Breastwork trenches.

8.00pm: The 4th (Guards) Brigade of 2nd Division (2/Grenadier Guards, 1/Irish Guards and 1/Hertfordshire), ordered up in the afternoon from Le Touret, gradually gets into position on the Rue des Cailloux. By now too dark to move, they consolidate the position. Throughout the afternoon, evening and night, the enemy moves to a newly-prepared line, extending from Rue d’Ouvert to the Cinder track near Ferme du Bois, behind their original front lines. This movement is not observed by the British, nor is the quiet enemy reinforcement.

18 May
Steady rainfall, clearing around 11.00am.

3.00am: The 2/Bedfordshire and 1/4/Cameron Highlanders repeat their earlier attack, but it is repulsed. The small party of Camerons in the enemy trench are forced to withdraw due to lack of bombs. Further bombardments and infantry attacks are postponed as visibility is so poor in the mist and rain. Enemy shelling on the newly-won positions along La Quinque Rue continues. First Army gives orders to renew the attack in the afternoon – but ominously the bombardment will have no 4.5-inch howitzer component – ammunition stocks are running dangerously low. The orders reach the infantry with little time for thorough preparation.

Afternoon: First Army gives orders for relief of 2nd and 7th Divisions; the Canadian and 51st (Highland) would take over with a view to continuing the advance towards Violaines and Chapelle St Roch.

3.00pm: The bombardment begins again, to prepare for an attack to be carried out by the 3rd Canadian Brigade (attached to 7th Division) and the 4th (Guards) Brigade of 2nd Division, on a front between the School House and Ferme Cour d’Avoue. To the North, the Sirhind Brigade were planned to make a subsidiary attack near Ferme du Bois (but in the event it did not take place, the enemy shelling on rear positions and front line being so severe). The British shells do not touch the new German line, for it has not yet been noticed.

4.20pm: The bombardment intensifies prior to the infantry attack – the enemy artillery responds. The infantry move out at 4.30pm but within minutes are cut down by machine-gun fire, with the Guards (attacking near Ferme Cour d’Avoue) badly hit from enemy positions in Adalbert Alley.

5.20pm: The 3rd Canadian Brigade finally arrives in the front lines, through a combination of late arrival of orders, and slow movement up to position. They are ordered to relieve 21st Brigade. The remainder of the Canadian Division will relieve the rest of the 7th Division this night.

7.30pm: 2nd Division orders 4th (Guards) Brigade to break off the attack. 51st Division are by now moving up towards the area with a view to relieving the 2nd Division during the evening of 19th May.

19 May
The enemy continues to strengthen its new positions and brings up further reinforcements. The Divisional reliefs gradually take place, without incident. The two new Divisions (combined as “Alderson’s Force” after the commander of the Canadian Division, Lieut-Gen. E. Alderson) move into front-line positions.

Festubert

20-22 May 1915
The Divisional reliefs take place, without incident. 3rd Canadian Brigade gradually pushes forward and occupies the Orchard (known thereafter as the Canadian Orchard). The Canadian troops report many problems with their standard Ross rifle, which exhibits a tendency to jam.

23 May 1915
A First Army commanders conference concludes by agreeing to launch the 47th (their first major assault) and Canadian Divisions into a further attack. The artillery begins a bombardment during the evening.

24 May 1915
2.30am: 140th and 2nd Canadian Brigades attack along the Southern Breastwork and advance the position some 150 yards before machine-gun fire halts them. British artillery support continues through the day and night; German shelling also continues.

25 May 1915
At the request of General Foch, Sir John French agreed to relieve another French Division south of the La Bassee canal, to enable it to strengthen the French attack continuing at Vimy. This would mean extending the line held by the British to the track that runs from Vermelles to Le Rutoire. The 2nd Division was ordered from rest, and they completed relief by 31st May. French also ordered Haig to close down the Festubert attacks as ammunition was by now very low, and it was apparent that the enemy had reinforced the new line in considerable strength.

6.30pm: 47th Division’s attack, using 142nd Brigade, achieves success in advancing 400 yards towards Chapelle St Roch, on a thousand yard front. However, the advance takes them into an area that can be covered by heavy German artillery south of the canal near Auchy-les-la-Bassee. This enemy artillery is beyond the range of British guns, and it does great damage to the troops who have advanced. The Brigade lost some 980 casualties in this shelling, but held on to its position. During the evening, it repulsed at least one German counter-attack, using crude grenades that more often than not failed to explode or did so prematurely. The attack of the Canadian Division did not fare so well, but did advance to within 200 yards of the newly-dug enemy line.

26 May 1915
Several enemy counter-attacks are beaten off as the forward infantry consolidate the positions won in the last few days.

Casualties

More than 16,000 casualties were sustained in the attack at Festubert, in support of the much larger French offensive to the South at Vimy Ridge. French losses there were over 102,000, against German almost 50,000, including those at Festubert.

British casualties in the Battle of Festubert
2nd Division: 5,284 of which 178 officers (engaged for 6 days)
7th Division: 4,123 of which 167 officers (3)
7th (Meerut) Division: 2,521 of which 102 officers (5)
47th (2nd London) Division: 2,355 of which 166 officers (10)
Canadian Division: 2,204 of which 97 officers (8)

Senior officer casualties, 15-31 May 1915

Lt-Col Richard Gabbett Officer Commanding 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers Killed in action on 16 May 1915. Buried at Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy.
Lt-Col Archibald Moffatt 1st, attached 2nd Border Regiment Killed in action on 16 May 1915. No known grave. Commemorated on Le Touret Memorial.
Lt-Col Lewis Wood Officer Commanding 2nd Border Regiment Killed in action on 16 May 1915. No known grave. Commemorated on Le Touret Memorial.
Lt-Col Alexander Fraser Officer Commanding 1/4th Cameron Highlanders Killed in action on 17 May 1915. No known grave. Commemorated on Le Touret Memorial.
Lt-Col Harry Bottomley Officer Commanding 2nd Queen’s Died of wounds 18 May 1915 of wounds sustained two days before. Buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.
Lt-Col Alexander Brook Officer Commanding 1/8th Royal Scots Died of wounds 19 May 1915. Buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.
Lt-Col Wilfred Smith Officer Commanding 2nd Grenadier Guards Died of wounds 19 May 1915. Buried in Le Touret Military Cemetery.
Lt-Col George Steele Officer Commanding 1st Royal Dragoons Died of wounds 22 May 1915. Buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension.
Lt-Col Redmond Moriarty Officer Commanding 2nd Royal Irish Regiment Killed in action on 24 May 1915. No known grave. Commemorated on Menin Gate Memorial.
Lt-Col Derek Carden Officer Commanding 1/7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Died of wounds 25 May 1915. Buried in Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery.
Lt-Col Arthur Loveband Officer Commanding 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers Killed in action on 25 May 1915. No known grave. Commemorated on Menin Gate Memorial.
Lt-Col Robie Uniacke AA&QMG, General Staff Killed in action on 28 May 1915. Buried in Steenwerck Communal Cemetery.
Brigadier-General George Nugent Officer Commanding 141st (5th London) Brigade, 47th (2nd London) Division Killed in action on 31 May 1915. Buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.

Lessons and the shell crisis

The battle reinforced the view that the BEF had a serious deficiency of artillery, particularly heavy weapons, shells, (especially the high explosive type that was required to destroy trenches and strong points) and trench weaponry especially bombs. The Canadian units were reporting very serious problems with their standard-issue Ross rifle, and most infantry units reported that they did not have the full complement of machine-guns available due to losses in action.

On 15 May 1915 an article appeared in The Times, written by military correspondent Colonel Repington and based on information given to him by an exasperated Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French. The latter also sent copies of all correspondence between him and the Government on the question of the supply of ammunition to David Lloyd George, Arthur Balfour and Bonar Law, MP’s. The scandal that broke as the public read that Tommies were losing their lives unnecessarily as a result of the shortages proved to be the downfall of the Liberal Government under Asquith. The formation of a Coalition Government and the appointment of Lloyd George as first Minister of Munitions was an important step towards ultimate victory.

Memorials

There is no specific memorial to the attack at Festubert.

Retrospective

Hampered by the shortage of artillery ammunition and guns, and not helped by poor weather, the British Army achieved a small-scale tactical success at Festubert by capturing enemy positions. The offensive fighting potential of the Territorial Force Divisions, and the mixture of veteran and newly-trained troops in the “Regular” units that had been devastated at Ypres, survived a harsh winter and taken a mauling a few days earlier at Aubers, had been tested and found to be encouraging. But their efforts had little or no strategic impact: the enemy were even able to reinforce, despite the continued efforts of the French at Vimy. The main factors affecting the outcome of this battle were:

  • Little surprise was achieved
  • The duration and weight of the British bombardment was in places sufficient to break the German wire and breastwork defences, or to destroy or suppress the front-line machine-guns
  • German artillery and free movement of reserves were insufficiently suppressed
  • Trench layout, traffic flows and organisation behind the British front line did not allow for easy movement of reinforcements and casualties
  • Reserves had been too far from the front to be able to reinforce success; by the time they arrived the enemy had stabilised the position
  • British artillery equipment and ammunition were in poor condition: the first through over-use, the second through faulty manufacture
  • British intelligence, ground and air observation did not detect the important establishement of the new German line
  • When not immediately cut down by enemy machine-guns, British infantry had good offensive fighting quality and abilities in close trench conditions; but British bombs (grenades) were very suspect and gave a disadvantage in close-in fighting.

Links

Battles of the Western Front in France and Flanders