Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, October 26, 2020

What Happened at Festubert?

Cameron Highlanders at Festubert

By David Craig

After the early 1915 battles of Neuve Chapelle (a British success) and Aubers Ridge (a failure due to inadequate artillery fire), Joffre and Foch continued to put pressure on Sir John French to continue offensive action. The day after the failure at Aubers Ridge, and despite the heavy fighting involving the defense of Ypres by the Second Army, planning for a further offensive operation on the Artois front was ordered. The BEF had a manpower shortage as newly raised divisions were being held in the UK while decisions were made to send them either to the Western Front or to Egypt. Despite the shortage of gun ammunition on the Western Front, French had been ordered to send much of his 4.5-inch howitzer ammunition to the Dardanelles and the BEF was reduced, at one point, to 92 rounds of ammunition for every rifle.

British Battlefields in Artois Early 1915

Nevertheless, Haig continued to plan a further assault on the Artois. The bitter experience of Aubers Ridge convinced him that, in the face of the developed German defenses and well-sited machine guns, a rapid infantry assault with distant objectives preceded by a short and sudden burst of intensive artillery fire was no longer possible. He planned to adopt the French pattern of a long methodical bombardment by heavy artillery to destroy the enemy's wire, strongpoints, and machine guns before the infantry was sent forward, with artillery moving forward in support. By 12 May a plan had been developed for an attack much reduced in scale from the Aubers Ridge attack, with two attacks 600 yards apart (as opposed to 6000) and objectives of 1000 yards (as opposed to 3000). 

A night attack on a one-mile front would enter the first two lines of German defenses, with a further attack at dawn, accompanied by a new simultaneous attack on a half-mile front just north of Festubert village. Again it was hoped that as the attackers spread out, they would join up. Air activity would now include bombing various German rest points and observation posts in the rear area. The intention was to wear down the defenders before the assault, acknowledgment being made that the long preliminary preparations would lose any element of surprise. Field artillery was carefully registered and the fire of the heavy artillery observed and corrected. (The observers would report that again many howitzer shells failed to explode, providing evidence of manufacturing failures.) 

At 11:30 p.m. on 15 May the Meerut Division attacked with mixed results. In places the German defenses were breached and the second line taken, but on the right of the attack the Germans illuminated the battlefield with searchlights and flares and heavy machine gun fire stalled the attackers. 

At first light, 3:15 on 16 May, the 7th Division attacked in the south. Despite German machine gun fire, the attacking troops broke into the German position and took the front line but were unable to make further progress. At 9:30 a.m. the gap between the two attacks had still not been closed. However, as the day wore on, small local attacks by the British continued to improve their situation. Fighting continued overnight. The German defenders in the south had been given orders to withdraw to a new line three quarters of a mile in the rear. At 2:45 a.m. on the 17th the British guns carried out a bombardment of German-held trenches in the vicinity of a strongpoint called "the quadrilateral.” So accurate was this fire that by 7:00 a.m. white flags were showing all along the line in this area and a large number of Germans attempted to surrender. Many were killed by their own artillery, but some 450 managed to cross no-man's-land to the British lines. 

Captured German Front Line

Fighting continued until the 18th, with both sides now nearing exhaustion and the attackers increasingly unable to make progress as German resistance stiffened on their new front line. On 19 May the line was taken over by the Canadian 1st Division and over the next nine days repeated attacks continued to gain ground, but by 25 May both sides were consolidating their new lines as fighting diminished. Despite German efforts the British held their new positions. 

That day the battle was shut down. Although results had been, in the words of the official historian, "tantalizing," the shortage of gun ammunition in First Army was such that continued offensive operations were simply not feasible. The fighting ability of the BEF was increasing, partly because of the "battle hardening" of raw troops and party due to the influx of recovered 1914 wounded and re-enlisted old soldiers, many with experience of fighting in South Africa or even older wars. Commanders were learning how to mount successful operations against entrenched positions, although much still needed to be learned. 

Though no German reserves had been called on to deal with the attack in the Battle of Aubers Ridge on the 9th of May the operation at Festubert had brought to the battle every German who could be spared.
British Official History

British losses were 11,739 wounded, 2,151 dead, and 2,758 missing. 

If the Aubers Ridge battle was a complete failure, the change in tactics delivered near success a mere three weeks later.

Source:  Over the Top, July 2015

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