What Actually Happened at the Battle of Festubert?

Alex Browne

3 mins

17 Oct 2018

The Battle of Festubert took place during May 1915 and was part of a large-scale offensive led by the British Army in the Artois region of France.

It was one of a series of attacks by the British First Army and the French Tenth Army, designed as a strategic attempt to exploit the diversion of German troops to the Russian front.

Background

Initial skirmishes around Festubert had taken place in November 1914.

On November 23, Churchill wrote to his wife, pondering what would happen

“…if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute! Meanwhile, however, new avalanches of men are preparing to mingle in the conflict and it widens every hour.”

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That evening, German troops broke into trenches being held by Indian troops at Festubert. The Indian soldiers holding the trenches received stringent orders “that the original line must be restored before dawn and held at all costs”.

In the clash that followed, Indian troops were successful in recapturing the trenches, with two Gurkhas being awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.

The offensive at Festubert in 1915, meanwhile, was part of the larger Battle of the Aubers Ridge and also had the goal of ensuring that the Germans did not reinforce positions opposite the French.

Map of strategic positions in Festubert in 1915. Credit: E. Wyrall / Commons.

Before the Festubert offensive, the British Army unleashed a 60-hour-long bombardment on the Germans’ front line defences. More than 400 artillery guns are estimated to have fired more than 100,000 shells. The goal was to cut the Germans’ barbed wire and demolish machine-gun posts and infantry strong points.

However, the bombardment failed to significantly damage the German Sixth Army’s defences and was unsuccessful in destroying the barbed wire so that the British troops could advance.

British battle tactics changed significantly as a result, with slower and much more targeted artillery fire being adopted ahead of future infantry attacks.

The attack

During the Festubert offensive, it was expected that German defences would be captured by a pincer movement: one division would attack Chocolat Menier, while a second division to the north would secure German trenches on the outskirts of Festubert village.

The initial attack was made by the British First Army under the leadership of Field Marshal Douglas Haig against a German salient which was situated between Neuve Chapelle to the north and the village of Festubert to the south. It marked the first night attack of the war.

The assault took place along a three-mile front and initially consisted of divisions mainly made up of Indian soldiers.

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After only a few days the British had suffered incredibly high casualties, which resulted in the British 2nd and 7th Divisions being withdrawn from battle.

They were quickly replaced by the Canadian Division, along with the 51st Highland Division. But both failed to make little progress in the face of relentless German artillery fire.

The consequence of this was that British forces decided to entrench themselves in their position in a bid to secure the advances they had made.

Meanwhile, both the British and Germans then brought forward reserve troops to reinforce their lines.

Between 20–25 May the fighting resumed and Festubert was finally captured by British forces. Overall, the offensive resulted in a three-kilometre advance for Allied troops.

View of the Post Office Rifles Cemetery in Festubert. Credit: Floflo62 / Commons.

British casualties during the Battle of Festubert totalled 16,648.

The 2nd Division suffered 5,445 casualties, the 7th Division 4,123 casualties, the 47th Division 2,355 casualties, the Canadian Division 2,204 casualties and the Meerut Division 2,521 casualties.

The German defenders, meanwhile, counted 5,000 casualties, including 800 soldiers who were taken prisoner.