What Actually Happened at the Battle of Festubert?

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

Before the Battle: 60 Hour Artillery Bombardment

Before the battle, the British  Army unleashed a 60 hour bombardment using over 4oo artillery guns which are estimated to have fired more than 100,000 shells. However, the bombardment failed to significantly damage the front line defences of the German Sixth Army and was therefore ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its principal objective of destroying the German barbed wire.

The remains of a shell bombardment in France.

The remains of a shell bombardment in France.

After the failure of the bombardment, there was a significant change in battle tactics when the technique of  slow and much more targeted artillery-fire was adopted in an attempt to prepare the way for an infantry attack.  During this attack, it was expected that German defences would be captured by one division from Rue du Bois to Chocolat Menier Corner and by a second division to the north, which would capture German trenches on the outskirts of Festubert village.

NYTMapNeuveChapelle1915

The Attack

The initial attack was made by the British First Army under the leadership of Sir Douglas Haig against a German salient which was situated between Neuve Chapelle to the north and the village of Festubert to the south.  The assault took place along a 3-mile front and initially consisted of divisions which were made up mainly of Indian soldiers.

Indian soldiers digging trenches.

Indian soldiers digging trenches.

After a few days, casualties were incredibly high for the British, which resulted in the British 2nd and 7th divisions being withdrawn from battle due to the heavy losses they were suffering.  However, 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 current position in a bid to secure the advances they had made.  Whilst holding this newly gained position, both the British and Germans were now able to bring forward reserve troops to reinforce their lines.

Afterwards, during the 20–25 May the fighting resumed and Festubert was finally captured by British forces.  Overall, the offensive resulted in a 3-kilometre advance for allied troops.

Casualties and Aftermath

British casualties during the Battle of Festubert totaled 16,648 casualties.  The 2nd Division had 5,445 casualties, the 7th Division had 4,123 casualties, the 47th Division had 2,355 casualties, the Canadian Division had 2,204 casualties and the Meerut Division had 2,521 casualties.

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

Browns Road Cemetery, Festubert.

Browns Road Cemetery, Festubert.

Paul is a History Teacher at Clydebank High School. He graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University with an LL.B (Hons) in 2005, before graduating from the University of Glasgow with an MA in Historical Studies during 2009. Afterwards, whilst training to be a teacher, he gained a Professional Graduate Diploma in Education from the University of Strathclyde. His current interests include Scottish Industrial History, Nazi Germany and World War One.