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Festubert

Following the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the battered Canadian Division was withdrawn and hastily rebuilt, having lost 6,000 of its 10,000 men. In the first week of May 1915, the 10th Battalion received a draft of two officers and 250 men, making it larger (with 1133 all ranks) than it had been before its first action, but many were of average physique and none had military musketry training, and some had never handled a firearm of any kind at all.1

The British continued the fight to defend Ypres with their 2nd Army and the 1st British Army began a co-operative venture with the French in Artois, including an inconclusive assault on Vimy Ridge.2 About 100,000 French troops were lost in the fighting there, sixteen kilometres of "tactical importance" being gained on the lower slopes of the ridge, the heights themselves remaining in German hands until the famous Canadian assault in April 1917.3

The British Army contributed to the offensive by attempts to breach the German line north and south of Neuve Chapelle, at Aubers Ridge. The assaults were ineffective, no ground being gained and 11,000 casualties being suffered.4

The French demanded that the British meet their commitments, however, and the British 1st Army recognized a need to continue operations, especially with German divisions thinning the line to leave for the Eastern Front. The failure at Aubers Ridge convinced the 1st Army's General Haig that two attacks could not be maintained simultaneously and therefore resources were concentrated on the three-mile front between Neuve Chapelle and Festubert, a small village one and a half miles north of the La Bassée Canal. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, agreed at this time to the 1st Army extending its front south of the Canal in order that a French division might be freed for the action at Vimy Ridge. Therefore, the 1st Canadian Division, reorganizing after 2nd Ypres, was selected to relieve the French 58th Division. However, their artillery was still fighting at Ypres and Ploegsteert, and so the 1st British Division made the relief instead.

The disaster at Aubers Ridge had demonstrated the strength of German defences and the ability of machine-guns to mutually support each other. The British opted now for longer, methodical bombardments by heavy guns and howitzers, with the intention of observing fall of shot.

In formally approving "a deliberate and persistent attack" in which the enemy would "be gradually and relentlessly worn down by exhaustion and loss until his defence collapses", Sir John French noted that surprise would be lacking because of the long bombardment...The distinction between semi-open warfare and semi-siege warfare had at least been recognized. For the first time in the war British forces were to engage in a battle of "attrition".5

The war of attrition on the Western Front had begun, though few of the British and French leaders yet recognized it, still firmly believing that there was still a way to achieve some form of breakthrough, if they could only find the correct method of bombarding the enemy first.6

The Battle of Festubert

The 60-hour bombardment preceding the Battle of Festubert began on the morning of 13 May 1915, as 433 howitzers and guns began to systematically work over German defences on a frontage of 5,000 yards extending north from the village. The fire was slow and deliberate (just 50 rounds per gun every 24 hours) so effects could be observed. Targets included the German parapet, support and communication trenches, wire entanglements and harassing fire in the form of shrapnel shells into communication trenches. The fire was originally to last just 36 hours but extended another 24 at the request of one of the British assault divisions. The 1st Corps used just over 100,000 rounds of ammunition in total.

Opening Attacks

Two divisions of British infantry launched the initial attack (in fact, the first British night assault of the war) on 15-16 May 1915. On the left, the 2nd Division attacked at midnight on a frontage of 1,300 yards with the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps covering their left flank. The right-most brigade achieved the German breastwork soundlessly, but on the northern flank, the planned demonstration by Indian troops only managed to alert the enemy that an operation was underway, and both of the two assault brigades on the left were driven back by heavy fire.

At daybreak, the 7th Division, new to the sector and unfamiliar with the ground (and thus required to advance in daylight) was scheduled to join in on the right, attacking on a front of half a mile during which time the 2nd Division would again advance to the second objective, the line of la Quinque Rue, a road running northeast out of Festubert. They division was held up by heavy fire, tried twice to tie in its flanks, and was stopped both times during 16 May.

The German 14th Infantry Division was manning the line south of the La Bassée Canal to the Ferme du Bois, a wood two miles northeast of Festubert. The division comprised three infantry regiments (the 16th, 56th and 57th), while opposite the Indian Corps was the 13th Division. The commander of the 14th Division felt compelled to withdraw on a 3,000 yard frontage and formed a new line behind Quinque Rue. The British were unable to identify the new line for several days where it swung west, winding north from Festubert. However, the British staff were once again optimistic, and saw the withdrawal as reason to pursue a continued advance where possible. The 3rd Canadian Brigade was put under command of the British 1st Corps, who put it into the divisional reserve of the 7th Division.

The general direction of advance was to swing to the south-east, Sir John French having changed the First Army's ultimate objective from Aubers Ridge to La Bassée, in order to gain access to the area south of the canal. But efforts to get forward failed, and that evening General Haig ordered a fresh infantry attack, preceded by a deliberate bombardment, to take place on the 18th. The Corps Commander named the 3rd Canadian Brigade to assault on the 7th Division's front; immediately on the left the 2nd Division would attack with the 4th Guards Brigade. Because of early morning fog the artillery preparation was postponed and zero hour for the infantry assault was set at 4:30 p.m. The main attack would be launched at the centre of the 1st Corps front to secure a mile of la Quinque Rue. In a subsidiary effort farther north the Indian Corps was to capture Ferme du Bois. Because the 7th Division's front line was much closer to the road (which angled towards the north-east), the 3rd Brigade was given the additional task of occupying the North Breastwork (a section of the original German line running east and north-east from la Quinque Rue), and at the end of this Breastwork an orchard which was known to be defended. Brig.-Gen. Turner's plan for the Canadian assault called for two companies of the 14th Battalion on the left and one from the 16th Battalion on the right to attack eastward to the road and the orchard beyond. In the meantime another company of the 16th would make a long detour through Festubert village to take the North Breastwork from the south-west and link up with the frontal attack.7

Festubert, 18 May 1915

For the Canadian battalions, the battle promised new challenges:

The Battalions were to attack over a country a country we had never seen before, and depended on guides from the troops in line, rather than on the inaccurate map, which showed the same symbol for hedges, paths and ditches - and was printed with the south at the top and the grid inverted. Points of interest, such as buildings and road junctions, were marked with letters and numerals within a circle - e.g. M10 encircled, pronounced Emma ten.8

Haig's orders were not issued until mid-afternoon and received by the infantry brigade as Zero Hour approached. The two-hour preliminary bombardment was an hour late in starting, originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m. The Canadian attack did not go forward until 5:25 p.m. by which time the Guards Brigade had already been halted by German machine-guns - scarcely touched by the British artillery due to their positions still not having been precisely located.9

14th Battalion

The 14th Battalion attacked with two companies, flanked by the Guards Brigade and 16th Battalion, setting off from the former German front line and told not to expect serious opposition. They met heavy shell and M.G. fire. Guided by a British officer, they attempted to reach a position known as "The Orchard", but were forced to stop short and dig in. They handed their positions to the Guards on the night of 18-19 May and pulled back to their start line. "Both the attack and the withdrawal were made under trying conditions - in darkness, under constant fire, and across water-logged country seamed with deep ditches and old tranches." Some 65 other ranks were casualties, most of them fatal, including 18 NCOs. The 14th Battalion remained in support trenches until 22 May under constant shellfire, losing 75 other ranks killed and wounded, as well as one officer killed and another wounded while attached to the 13th Battalion.10

16th Battalion

The 14th Battalion had met fire from the same M.G.s that had harried the Guards and were diverted south, halted about 400 yards from their jumping-off trenches. The 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) had an adventure just assembling for the attack, deploying in assembly trenches early on 17 May and then setting off cross-country through steady rain to new billets, the last troops arriving at 1:00 a.m. on 18 May. New orders sent them to Indian Village at 4:00 a.m., "dead tired", and the renewed cross-country trip lasted from 6:45 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., with one company detailed to make a circuitous 5,000 yard long end-around through Festubert and up la Quinque Rue to make a flanking attack on The Orchard.


German parapet at Festubert. Earthworks were common in this area due to the high water table, which prevented the digging of trenches.
Library and Archives Canada photo

In addition to inaccurate maps, printed upside down and with poor iconography, the frontal attack was ordered over ground laced with deep drainage ditches and abandoned breastworks - entrenchments built up above ground because of the shallow water table. The flanking company was to meet a British staff officer somewhere in Festubert, the only one who knew where the start line would be.

Not surprisingly, the plan began unravelling from the outset. As the three companies began moving toward the objective in extended formation, the Germans zeroed in on the troops with heavy artillery fire. Most of the shells fell on the left and centre of the Montrealers, which caused them to begin shrinking to the right across the front of (Captain William) Rae`s advancing (No. 2 Company). All three companies became hopelessly entangled and lost all cohesion, so that finally the officers just herded the soldiers into hodgepodge clusters and led them onward. Finally the attackers were forced to ground by the withering fire about 500 yards short of the orchard with men scattered on either side of la Quinque rue.11

The flanking company was shelled in Festubert, then split up to run the gauntlet, their staff officer escort never arriving, and their maps useless in finding the objective or a covered route forward. The company commander ordered packs dropped, the communications trench was found by luck or God's grace, and they moved forward to meet the survivors of the battalion's frontal assault, to be informed of its failure.12

Situation 19 May - "Alderson's  Force"

Neither the 1st Corps nor the Indian Corps had managed to reach their objectives on 18 May (the Germans credited their heavy artillery fire for this lack of progress), but the 3rd Canadian Brigade did manage to reduce a gap between the positions of the 2nd and 7th British Divisions. The 16th Battalion worked through the night in driving rain to consolidate gains and create a continuous line. On the night of 18-19 May, the 2nd Canadian Brigade deployed to the right of the 3rd as the 2nd and 7th Divisions were replaced in the line by the 51st (Highland) and 1st Canadian Divisions. "Alderson's  Force", which included the divisional artillery of the 2nd and 7th Divisions, became an unusual command arrangement for a tactical grouping of the two divisions in the line (in essence, a corps without a corps staff). Meanwhile, the Germans were rushing all available reserves to the scene.

The 10th Battalion completed their move by 11:00 p.m. on 19 May, and Major Percy Guthrie - given temporary command of the battalion following the mortal wounding of Lieutenant-Colonel Boyle at Kitcheners' Wood on 21-22 April - remained as C.O. Captain Geoff Arthur, recommended for promotion to major, was designated the second-in-command, with a major, two captains, and a lieutenant now commanding the four rifle companies. Battalion H.Q. was established in a small house in the southern outskirts of Festubert, the village mostly lying in ruins. The three companies occupying front line trenches found them in poor condition, with unburied corpses and also wounded men lying untended, some for as long as a week.13

20 May 1915 - Renewed Assaults

On the morning of 20 May, General Alderson gave orders to renew the advance, hoping to gain 600 to 1,000 yards against objectives sited 3,000 yards apart. The 51st (Highland) Division's relief of the 2nd Division was delayed, however, and the 1st Army changed the requirements. At 3:00 p.m. the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades were ordered to make a fresh assault at 7:45 p.m., the 2nd Brigade towards a point on the map labelled K5, which was a junction between the former and the newly established German front lines. The 3rd Brigade was to simultaneously secure half a mile of that new enemy front line and capture The Orchard, now christened "Canadian Orchard" as well as the adjoining building marked M.10.14

3rd Brigade Attack - 20 May

The attack by the two designated assault battalions on the 20th began in broad daylight at 7:45 p.m. after a barrage starting at 4:00 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie of the 16th Battalion had protested the order to attack over open ground with a single company. Brigadier-General Turner replied that the British felt, after the experiences at Aubers Ridge, that night operations restricted the ability of commanders to control troop movements and despite the disadvantages of exposure to accurate enemy fire, there was an advantage to be gained by attacking in daylight. The plan was for No. 3 Company to attack Canadian Orchard and No. 1 Company to support it; if the orchard was gained, a communication trench leading to the orchard would be used as a covered route to approach M.10.15 In the event, No. 3 Company managed to reach the orchard, and despite the enemy being well dug-in, the defenders were surprised and evicted, putting the Canadian Scottish within 100 yards of the main German trenches. The attempts to attack M.10 were turned back by heavy fire and belts of barbed wire.16 The Canadian Scottish had made the deepest penetration of any unit of the British 1st Army during the Battle of Festubert, and Canadian Orchard remained in Allied hands until the German offensives in the spring of 1918.17

The 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) had as fruitless an attack as No. 1 Company of the Canadian Scottish, and the Highlanders suffered heavy casualties attacking over open ground into the teeth of machine-guns and watchful German artillery observers. Despite using short 20-yard dashes, many men were hit, and though they gained the relative safety of the North Breastwork, they were stopped 100 yards beyond it. Supporting companies came up to consolidate the gains after dark.18

2nd Brigade Attack - 20 May

Brigadier-General Arthur Currie also protested his attack orders, received from 1st Army with less than five hours notice on 20 May. Currie's request, also denied, was for 24 hours to better prepare. Currie's his first major difference of opinion with a superior left him "angry and bitter" about taking an action he knew to be wrong.

The 10th was left with little time to prepare for their mission: an assault on K.5. Two companies were to attack from a former German communications trench. Major Guthrie described K.5 as a "fort in the German line constructed of concrete and sandbags and in which numerous machine guns were mounted so as to sweep the ground in every direction."19

As with the 15th Battalion's attack, the attack of the 10th did not go well - "doomed to failure before it started" in the words of the Army's official historian.

In an afternoon reconnaissance Brig.-Gen. Currie had been unable to identify his objective, which was shown as a small circle on the map. (A major disadvantage of this method of designating positions was the use of the same symbol regardless of the nature of the feature to be identified. To confuse matters further, the Festubert trench map was full of inaccuracies, with errors in position amounting to as much as 450 yards. Furthermore, it was printed upside-down, with the north at the bottom of the sheet and the east on the left.) The assembly trenches were badly breached and under fire, as was a shallow communicating ditch which provided the only semblance of a covered approach to his target. Currie therefore asked for the attack to be postponed until next day, but was refused. Even his expected fire support was reduced. The original artillery plan had included a blasting of K.5 by two 9.2-inch howitzers, but this was cancelled lest the necessary withdrawal of Canadians from the danger zone near such a bombardment should alert the Germans, who from Aubers Ridge could look right into the First Army's positions. The 10th Battalion's attacking party cleared the communication trench of enemy for 100 yards, but as the brigade bombers emerged in single file into the open they came under a storm of fire from machine-guns on built-up positions which had been unharmed by our artillery. Seeing the leaders all shot down, the company commander halted the suicidal advance and ordered the gains made good.20

There was no record of the number of casualties in the 10th Battalion attack, but a renewed attack was immediately called for dawn on 21 May, then postponed until after dark to allow for a proper bombardment.21

Festubert, 21 May 1915

10th Battalion Attack - 21 May 1915

The 1st Army's orders for the renewed attack required "Alderson's Force" to secure both K.5 and M.10, as well as the intervening stretch of 1,500 yards of front-line trench which was barring access to the Rue d'Ouvert which led southeast towards La Bassée. The new front formed a salient with the old front line, and the Germans intended for K.5 to be occupied as long as possible until the new front line could be completed, with reinforcements and counter-attacks allocated to K.5. Since K5 was at the boundary of the 1st Canadian and 47th (London) Divisions, its left forward battalion also came under command of Brigadier-General Currie. The units on the left were given no orders to expand the gains earned at Canadian Orchard, the strength of the positions at M.10 being known, complicated further by a lack of unexposed assembly areas in which troops could prepare for new attacks.22

The 10th Battalion's Major Guthrie made three trips through shell-swept terrain to Brigade Headquarters finalizing details for the renewed attack on K.5. The communication trench would again be utilized as a jump-off point, and he planned to use the same two companies from the night before, splitting them in two, with his left-hand company assaulting the objective and the right-hand company clearing trenches adjacent. Guthrie realized that success would depend on the ability of the artillery to reduce the German position before the assault.23

To that end, a bombardment of three and a half hours was laid on, beginning at 5:00 p.m. Once again, the attack went in while it was still light, and once again, in the words of the Army historian, the bombardment was "woefully ineffective." The field guns had been dispersed across the front, and ammunition shortages required them to fire shrapnel shells, comparatively ineffective against the German strongpoints as opposed to the heavier guns of the siege batteries. Counter-battery artillery fire was still in its infancy and German guns, heavier and with ample supplies of shells, were able to respond by shelling the Canadian infantry heavily.

The 2nd Brigade's assault was made by the same two companies of the 10th Battalion, together with the 1st Brigade's grenade company, carrying 500 bombs. From breaches cut in the sides of the approach trench half the force broke out to the left, half to the right. The former, advancing across 200 yards of open ground towards K.5, was quickly cut to pieces by machine-gun fire. The right-hand party, however, attacking the western face of the salient, met less resistance and drove the enemy out of 400 yards of his front line. During the night the Germans attempted several counter-attacks, which the Canadian garrison, reinforced by a company of the 5th Battalion, drove off. Then, with the coming of daylight on the 22nd, enemy guns began a heavy bombardment of their lost position. Large portions of the breastworks were blown away and the occupants wiped out. Before midday Currie withdrew his men from all but 100 yards of the newly occupied line. The 10th Battalion had by then suffered casualties of 18 officers and 250 other ranks.24

22-24 May - Continued Attacks

On the morning of 22 May, General Haig told General Alderson of his dissatisfaction at the failure of the Canadians to achieve their objectives. He dissolved "Alderson's Force" and placed the Canadian Division under the direct command of 1st Army. A successful attack was launched on K.5 by the 2nd Canadian Brigade early in the morning on 24 May, but at a cost to the 7th Battalion of 250 casualties. Renewed attacks from the Canadian Orchard the next night ended in severe losses as men were caught in open ground trying to take trenches north of M.10. despite a 6-hour bombardment. Infantrymen were so short that dismounted Canadian cavalry were put into the line on 24 May. With no training in infantry tactics, troopers of the RCD and Lord Strathcona's Horse took gas bombs into action north of K.5 on the 25th, the first authorized British gas attack of the war. The wretched maps betrayed them as they did everyone else, and after a few days more of confused actions, the division began shifting to Givenchy. Ammunition was running low for the B.E.F. and the 1st Army had no safe ground to assemble for further offensive actions.

In concurring, Sir John French ordered the First Army to take over another divisional sector on the French Tenth Army's left so as to enable Foch to reinforce his renewed offensive against Vimy Ridge. For the 1st Canadian Division, as for the other formations of the First Army taking part in the battle, Festubert had been a frustrating experience. Substantial gains had been looked for but not achieved, and in the lower echelons, where the Army's role of easing pressure on the French was little appreciated, few could readily share the Commander-in-Chief's view of an objective attained. In the course of the battle Canadians had assaulted on five separate days, to advance their line an average distance of 600 yards across a one-mile front. Except for the capture of a bit of German defences at K.5 their attacks had not reached the enemy line. In doing this they had suffered 2468 casualties. The Canadian Division had returned to action a little more than two weeks after losing half its fighting strength at Ypres - far too short a time for units to assimilate their infantry reinforcements (we have noted the inexperience of the dismounted cavalry). Yet no fault can be found with the offensive spirit and the self-sacrifice of the troops, who were called upon to persist in the impossible. Once again the superiority of the German artillery had decided the issue. The enemy's organized shelling of the front line and support trenches prevented the assembly of troops within reasonable assaulting distance of their objective and kept reinforcements from coming forward to exploit initial gains. Our own guns, outclassed in weight and short of high explosive shell, could neither destroy the enemy's field defences nor silence his batteries. In addition the German defenders held the advantage in machine-guns, trench mortars and their very effective "stick grenades". New tactics were needed to offset the lead thus taken by a nation which had well prepared itself for war; yet so far Allied commanders appeared satisfied that success was merely a matter of persistence - and more guns and ammunition.25

The original history of the C.E.F. described the battle at Festubert as "the most unsatisfactory engagement" involving Canadians of the entire war. Half the infantry who fought there had been fresh from reinforcement camps in the U.K. and barely arrived from Canada, thrown into action just three weeks after the horrifying losses of 2nd Ypres. The 1st Division lost 93 officers, 1 in 5 belonging to the 10th Battalion, though that battalion lost less than a tenth of the 2,230 other ranks. Over establishment early in May, the 10th Battalion was at half strength on 30 May.26 The 16th Battalion had lost 277 men, including 6 officers, 3 of them dead. No. 3 Company had been reduced to just 56 effectives.27

Aftermath

On 24 June 1915, the 1st Canadian Division moved yet again, this time to the Ploegsteert sector, returning to the 2nd Army and the beginning of three months of relative inactivity along the entire British front. German units continued to stream out of the trenches to reinforce the Eastern Front, and with the unlikelihood of a German offensive in the west growing, there was time to improve defences.

From late June to mid-September 1915 a strange tranquillity persisted across the Canadian front. Apart from the activity of snipers on both sides and one small patrol clash in no man's land, the only hostilities were an occasional exchange of light shelling by the opposing artilleries, which in general confined their attention to registering targets. On three occasions the Royal Engineers exploded mines in front of the Canadian trenches, and detachments of the 13th Battalion (on 9 and 13 July) and the 4th Battalion (on 31 August) occupied the resulting craters without difficulty. Mobile anti-aircraft sections formed from the Motor Machine Gun Brigade occasionally engaged enemy aircraft reconnoitring behind the Canadian lines. July brought a visit from Sir Robert Borden; and in August the Minister of Militia, Major-General Sam Hughes, spent two days with the Canadians, witnessing a shoot by three field batteries and reviewing the P.P.C.L.I. and the R.C.H.A. Before the end of September the arrival of a second division in France had increased Canadian representation in the field into a full army corps.28

Notes

  1. Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 (The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990) ISBN 0-9694616-0-7, p.44

  2. Nicholson, Gerald Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Candian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 1964) p.82

  3. Sheldon, Jack The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917 (Pen & Sword Military Books Ltd, Barnsley, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84415-680-1 p.87

  4. Nicholson, Ibid,pp.83-84

  5. Ibid, p.85

  6. Marteinson, John. We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army (Ovale Publications, Montreal, PQ, 1992) ISBN 2894290438 p.118

  7. Nicholson, Ibid, p.86

  8. Duguid, A. Forescue History of the Canadian Grenadier Guards (Gazette Printing Company, Montreal, PQ, 1965)  p.84. "Emma" was the phonetic for "M" in the phonetic alphabet of the day. The official history by Nicholson further explains that `"On the trench maps in current use topographical features and other tactical objectives were indicated by e.g., J.1, J.2, etc. The letters distinguished narrow sectors of the front in alphabetical order from right to consecutively from the British front line out into enemy territory." (p.88, footnote)

  9. Nicholson, Ibid

  10. Duguid, Ibid, pp.84-85

  11. Zuehlke, Mark. Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) in the First World War (John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2008) ISBN 978-0-470-15416-8 p.71

  12. Ibid, pp.71-73

  13. Dancocks, Ibid, pp.46-47

  14. Nicholson, Ibid, p.88

  15. Zuehlke, Ibid, pp.75-76

  16. Nicholson, Ibid, p.88

  17. Zuehlke, Ibid, p.78

  18. Nicholson, Ibid, p.88

  19. Nicholson, Ibid, pp.88-89

  20. Dancocks, Ibid, p.48

  21. Nicholson, Ibid, p.49

  22. Dancocks, Ibid, p.48

  23. Nicholson, Ibid, p.89

  24. Ibid, pp.89-90

  25. Ibid, pp.91-92

  26. Dancocks, Ibid, p.53

  27. Zuehlke, Ibid, p.78

  28. Nicholson, pp.95-96


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