Noted for Your Morning Procrastination for May 18, 2015

Liveblogging World War I: May 18, 1915; The Battle of Festubert

The Battle of Festubert:

The battle of Festubert was in effect a second phase of the recently failed attack on Aubers Ridge.... 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 'Avoue, and a southern one at Festubert....

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 Bassée 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....

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.

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'Avoué. 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....

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'Avoué. 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'Avoué) 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....

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.

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.

There is no specific memorial to the attack at Festubert.