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Battle of Festubert

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Battle of Festubert (15–25 May 1915) was an attack by the British army in the Artois region of France on the western front during World War I. The offensive formed part of a series of attacks by the French Tenth Army and the British First Army in the Second Battle of Artois (3 May – 18 June 1915). After the failure of the attempted breakthrough by the First Army in the attack at Aubers Ridge (9 May 1915) tactics of a short hurricane bombardment and an infantry advance with unlimited objectives, were replaced by the French practice of slow and deliberate artillery-fire intended to prepare the way for an infantry attack.

A continuous three-day bombardment by the British heavy artillery was planned, to cut wire and demolish German machine-gun posts and infantry strong-points. The German defences were to be captured by a continuous attack, by one division from Rue du Bois to Chocolat Menier Corner and by a second division 600 yards (550 m) north, which was to capture the German trenches to the left of Festubert. The objectives were 1,000 yards (910 m) forward, rather than the 3,000 yards (2,700 m) depth of advance intended at Aubers Ridge. The battle was the first British attempt at attrition.

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January 1915. World War One is just five months old, and already around one million soldiers have fallen. A war that began in the Balkans has engulfed much of the world. The Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, fight the Allies: Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Belgium, and Japan. In Poland and the Baltic, the Russian army has suffered a string of massive defeats, but continues to battle German and Austro-Hungarian forces. Austro-Hungarian troops have also suffered huge losses, and are humiliated by their failure to defeat Serbia. In the Caucasus Mountains, Russian and Ottoman forces fight each other in freezing winter conditions. While on the Western Front, French, British and Belgian troops are dug in facing the Germans, in trenches stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland. As part of the world’s first strategic bombing campaign, Germany sends two giant airships, known as Zeppelins, to bomb Britain. They hit the ports of King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth, damaging houses and killing 4 civilians. At sea, at the Battle of Dogger Bank, the British navy sinks one German cruiser, but the rest of the German squadron escapes. Command of the seas has allowed Britain to impose a naval blockade of Germany, preventing vital supplies, including food, from reaching the country by sea. Germany now retaliates with its own blockade: it declares the waters around the British Isles to be a war zone, where its U-boats will attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Britain relies on imported food to feed its population. Germany plans to starve her into surrender. On the Eastern Front, German Field Marshal von Hindenburg launches a Winter Offensive, and inflicts another massive defeat on the Russian army at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes. The Russians lose up to 200,000 men, half of them surrendering amid freezing winter conditions. The Russians have more success against Austria-Hungary: the city of Przemyśl falls after a four month siege, netting the Russians 100,000 prisoners. Austria-Hungary's total losses now reach two million. Meanwhile, the British and French send warships to the Dardanelles, to threaten Constantinople, capital of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. They believe a show of force will quickly cause Turkey to surrender. They bombard Turkish shore-forts in the narrow straits, but three battleships are sunk by mines, and three more damaged. The attack is called off. On the Western Front, the British attack at Neuve Chapelle, but the advance is soon halted by German barbed wire and machineguns. British and Indian units suffer 11,000 casualties – about a quarter of the attacking force. Six weeks later, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans attack with poison gas for the first time on the Western Front. A cloud of lethal chlorine gas forces Allied troops to abandon their trenches, but the Germans don't have enough reserves ready to exploit the advantage. Soldiers on both sides are quickly supplied with crude gas-masks, as a chemical weapons arms-race begins. The Allies land ground troops at Gallipoli, including men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the ANZACs. Their goal is to take out the shore forts that are preventing Allied warships reaching Constantinople. But they immediately meet fierce Turkish resistance, and are pinned down close to the shore. The day before the landings, the Ottoman Empire begins the systematic deportation and murder of ethnic Armenians living within its borders. The Armenians are a long-persecuted ethnic and religious minority, suspected of supporting Turkey's enemies. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are transported to the Syrian desert and left to die. In all, more than a million Armenians perish. The Allies condemn the events as 'a crime against humanity and civilisation', and promise to hold the perpetrators criminally responsible. To this day, the Turkish government disputes the death toll, and that these events constituted a 'genocide'. On the Eastern Front, a joint German / Austro-Hungarian offensive in Galicia breaks through Russian defences, recapturing Przemyśl and taking 100,000 prisoners. It is the beginning of a steady advance against Russian forces. At sea, the British passenger-liner Lusitania, sailing from New York to Liverpool, is torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland without warning. 1,198 passengers and crew perish, including 128 Americans. US President Woodrow Wilson and the American public are outraged. But Germany insists the liner was a fair target, as the British used her to carry military supplies. In May, the Allies launch the Second Battle of Artois, in another effort to break through the German lines. The French make the main attack at Vimy Ridge, while the British launch supporting attacks at Aubers Ridge and Festubert. The Allies sustain 130,000 casualties, and advance just a few thousand yards. That summer, above the Western Front, the Fokker Eindecker helps Germany win control of the air. It's one of the first aircraft with a machinegun able to fire forward through its propeller, thanks to a new invention known as interruptor gear. Allied aircraft losses mount rapidly, in what becomes known as the 'Fokker Scourge'. Italy, swayed by British and French promises of territorial gains at Austro-Hungarian expense, joins the Allies, declaring war on Austria-Hungary, and later the Ottoman Empire and Germany. The Italian army makes its first assault against Austro-Hungarian positions along the Isonzo river, but is repulsed with heavy losses. Meanwhile the Allies face a crisis on the Eastern Front. The Russians have begun a general retreat, abandoning Poland. German troops enter Warsaw on 5th August. Tsar Nicholas II dismisses the army's commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, and takes personal command. It will prove disastrous for the Tsar, as he becomes more and more closely tied to Russian military defeat. At Gallipoli, the Allies land reinforcements at Suvla Bay, but neither they nor a series of fresh attacks by the ANZACs can break the deadlock. Conditions for both sides are terrible; troops are tormented not only by the enemy, but by heat, flies, and sickness. In the Atlantic, a German U-boat sinks the liner SS Arabic: 44 are lost, including three Americans. In response to further US warnings, Germany ends all attacks on passenger ships. On the Western Front, the Allies mount their biggest offensive of the war so far, designed to smash through the front, and take pressure off their beleaguered Russian ally. The French attack in the Third Battle of Artois and Second Battle of Champagne; The British, with the help of poison gas, attack at Loos. Despite initial gains, the attacks soon get bogged down, with enormous losses on all sides. Allied troops land at Salonika in Greece, to open a new front against the Central Powers, and bring aid to Serbia. But the Allies are too late. Bulgaria joins the Central Powers, and their joint offensive overruns Serbia in two months. That winter the remnants of the Serbian Army escape through the Albanian mountains. Their losses are horrific – by the end of the war a third of Serbia's army has been killed – the highest proportion of any nation. Fierce fighting continues on the Italian front, as Italian troops launch the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo. Austro-Hungarian forces, though outnumbered, are dug in on the high ground, and impossible to dislodge. In the Middle East, a British advance on Baghdad is blocked by Turkish forces at the Battle of Ctesiphon, 25 miles south of the city. The British withdraw to Kut, where they are besieged. The Allies abandon the Gallipoli campaign. 83,000 troops are secretly evacuated without alerting Turkish forces. Not a man is lost. It's one of the best executed plans of the war. The campaign has cost both sides quarter of a million casualties. 1915 is a bad year for the Allies – enormous losses, for no tangible gains. But there is no talk of peace – instead all sides prepare for even bigger offensives in 1916, with new tactics developed from earlier failures. All sides still believe a decisive battlefield victory is within grasp. Epic History TV relies on the support of viewers like you – please visit our Patreon page, and consider pledging as little as $1 per video to help us keep making them.



Tactical developments

The Battle of Festubert was the continuation of the Battle of Aubers Ridge (9 May) and part of the larger French Second Battle of Artois. The resumption of the British offensive was intended to assist the French Tenth Army offensive against Vimy Ridge near Arras, by attracting German divisions to the British front, rather than reinforcing the defenders opposite the French.[1]


British plan of attack

The attack was made by the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig against a German salient between Neuve Chapelle to the north and the village of Festubert to the south. The assault was planned along a 3-mile (4.8 km) front and would initially be made mainly by Indian troops. This would be the first British army night attack of the war.[2]


The battle was preceded by a 60-hour bombardment by 433 artillery pieces that fired about 100,000 shells.[3] This bombardment failed to significantly damage the front line defences of the German 6th Army but the initial advance made some progress in good weather conditions.[4] The attack was renewed on 16 May and by 19 May the 2nd Division and 7th Division had to be withdrawn due to heavy losses. [5] On 18 May, the 1st Canadian Division, assisted by the 51st (Highland) Division, attacked but made little progress in the face of German artillery fire. The British forces dug in at the new front line in heavy rain. The Germans brought up reinforcements and reinforced their defences.[6] From 20–25 May the attack was resumed and Festubert was captured. The offensive had resulted in a 3-kilometre (1.9 mi) advance.[7]



The British lost 16,648 casualties from 15/16 to 25 May; the 2nd Division lost 5,445 casualties, the 7th Division 4,123, the 47th Division had 2,355 losses, the Canadian Division lost 2,204 casualties and the 7th (Meerut) Division had 2,521 casualties. The German defenders had c. 5,000 casualties, including 800 men taken prisoner.[7] French casualties during the Second Battle of Artois were 102,533 men and German casualties were 73,072.[8]


The 100th anniversary of the battle saw a range of commemorations held across the world. Some of the most poignant were those held in the Highlands of Scotland, in particular in shinty playing communities, which were affected disproportionately by losses in the battle.[9] Skye Camanachd and Kingussie Camanachd, representing two areas which lost a great many men, were joined by the British Forces shinty team, SCOTS Camanachd for a weekend of commemorations, lectures, memorial services and shinty matches on the weekend of 15–17 May 2015 in Portree. Isle of Skye.[10] A week later, the Beauly Shinty Club renamed their pavilion after the Paterson brothers, Donald and Alasdair, who were killed in the battle and were part of their 1913 Camanachd Cup winning side. Donald's bagpipes were recovered with his other effects in the early 1980s and were played at both commemorations.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Farndale 1986, p. 107.
  2. ^ Edmonds 1928, pp. 49–52.
  3. ^ Edmonds 1928, pp. 52–55.
  4. ^ Edmonds 1928, pp. 56–58.
  5. ^ Edmonds 1928, pp. 59–73.
  6. ^ Edmonds 1928, pp. 73–77.
  7. ^ a b Edmonds 1928, p. 76.
  8. ^ Reichsarchiv 2012, pp. 93, 96.
  9. ^ Falconer, Lisa (22 May 2015). "Festubert centenary marked on Skye". West Highland Free Press. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  10. ^ "Shinty and music prevail: Remembering WWI fallen". BBC Sport. 21 May 2015.
  11. ^ Candlish, Jan (22 May 2015). "Highland shinty club to rename pavilion after heroic brothers killed in battle". The Press and Journal. Retrieved 12 June 2016.


Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 18 February 2019, at 21:53
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