In the second major engagement of the Canadian Army in the First World War, the troops who had enlisted in a flurry of patriotism would soon find that the First World War was not a war like any other. The Battle of Festubert was launched on May 15 as a continuation of the Battle of Aubers Ridge in order to assist the French Tenth Army against Vimy Ridge. The goal was to attract German divisions to the British Front, rather than allowing the Germans to reinforce defenders against the French.
The battle would take place south of Neuve Chappelle, where Canadians had seen action earlier in the year, and which I covered in my last episode on the Canadian battles of the First World War. To the south was the village of Festubert. An assault was planned along a five-kilometre-long front, that would be made up initially of Indian troops. The hope was that a hole would be punched in the German lines.
There would be two brigades of the First Canadian Division taking part with the British troops in the attack. The Third Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to capture an orchard outside the village, along with a building. This brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Richard Turner. The second Canadian Infantry Brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Arthur Currie and was tasked with taking enemy trenches in the south.
Neither brigade was given the chance to prepare for the attack, nor did they receive accurate maps, or enough firepower to accomplish the mission.
Things began with a 60-hour bombardment by 433 artillery guns, launching 100,000 shells. The Third Brigade was assigned to the British Seventh Division but failed to reduce the gap in the line between the Second and Seventh Divisions. Unfortunately, the bombardment did little to damage the defences of the German Sixth Army and little in the way of an advance was made. On May 16, the attack was renewed but by the 19th, the British Army had to withdraw its divisions due to heavy losses.
On May 20, the Third Brigade conducted an attack in in broad daylight with the bombardment at 4 p.m., followed by the attack at 7:45 p.m. The 16th Battalion, called the Canadian Scottish, and the 15th Battalion, the Highlanders of Canada, were designated to be the assault battalion. Lt. Col. Leckie protested the order, but Turner stated that he British had stated that night operations restricted the ability of commanders to control troop movements. The plan was made for the No. 3 Company to attack the orchard while the No. 1 company supported it. The No. 3 company was able to reach the orchard and take it despite the defenders being dug in. This put them within 100 yards of the main German trenches. Attempts to attack the trench failed under heavy fire and belts of barb wire. With the taking of the Orchard, the Canadian Scottish had made the deepest penetration of any unit of the British First Army during the battle and the orchard would remain in the hands of the Allies until the spring of 1918.
As for the Highlanders, they suffered heavy casualties going over the open ground right into the machine gun fire of the Germans. The Highlanders gained the North Breastwork but could not advance more than 100 yards past it.
For the second brigade, the attack was even worse. The trench maps were full of errors and Currie asked that the attack be halted before it became a total failure. Currie, in what was his first major difference of opinion with commanders, said later that he was left angry and bitter about being forced to take an action he knew was wrong.
For the Second Brigade Attack, the 8th and 10th Battalions moved into the line on May 19 and the Second Brigade assumed its position on the lines. The attack was planned for May 21 but then with only five hours notice it was announced that the attack would take place on May 20. With little time to prepare, the 10th Battalion was selected for the assault, with two companies attacking the German communication trench and Major Percy Guthrie acting as acting commander. He would describe the German line as “constructed of concrete and sandbags and in which numerous machine guns were mounted so as to sweep the ground in every direction.”
In the words of the Army’s official historian afterwards, the attack was “doomed to failure before it started”.
The attack would lead to severe Canadian casualties and barely any ground taken.
On May 21, a new renewed attack was called for and Major Guthrie would make three trips across the terrain to headquarters to finalize the attack on the front. The communication trench would be utilized as a jumping off point and the same two companies from the night before would be used, splitting them in two, with the left hand company going after the objective and the right hand company clearing trenches. Guthrie knew that for the attack to succeed, artillery fire was incredibly important.
Unfortunately, the bombardment that began at 5 p.m. and went for four hours was ineffective since an ammunition shortage resulted in the use of shrapnel shells that were ineffective against the trenches.
The attack was a failure and Currie would withdraw the men from all but 100 yards of the newly occupied line. The 10th Battalion would suffer the losses of 18 officers and 250 troops.
Four the next three days, from May 22 to 24, the Canadians would attack at various times, taking out patrols and completing night assaults. The attacks would succeed in taking more land but would see the death of 13 officers and over 250 casualties in all.
The last Canadian involvement in the battle would be the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General J.E.B. Seely, who had volunteered for service due to the heavy casualties hitting the First Canadian Division. On May 25, the Brigade launched an attack, despite no training in trench warfare, fighting alongside the British 47th Division. They were able to gain some ground on the front.
The British would eventually capture the village of Festubert, advancing the front by only three kilometres.
The Canadians would capture the orchard on May 20, but the Canadian soldiers would suffer severe casualties because of the machine gun fire from the artillery.
The British would lose 16,648 men, while the Canadian Division lost over 2,400 soldiers in one week of fighting. In all, the Canadians took 600 yards of ground across a mile of front, taking a few defences but no reaching the objectives set or the German front line.
The battle would be called “the most unsatisfactory engagement” involving Canadians of the war. One of the reasons for this was that half the troops there had been fresh from reinforcement camps and barely arrived from Canada. The First Canadian Division would lose 93 officers, one in five of those being in the 10th Battalion. The 10th battalion lost over 250 men. The 16th Battalion would lose 277 men, including six officers.
Let’s look at some of the men who fought in this battle.
Private W.J. Dean from Brant County had been part of the attack and was seriously wounded when shrapnel hit him, causing severe injuries. The injuries on the outside were bad, but the internal injuries were even worse. He was in hospital for quite awhile before transferring to Canada and spending time in the hospital in London, Ontario. He had recovered enough to enter civil life, selling war books, but he suddenly took extremely ill and died in hospital.
Milton Gregg was born in Mountaindale, New Brunswick in 1892 and would volunteer to serve in the First World War as a private with the Highlanders. He would cross into French in February 1915 and took part in several small engagements until he was severely wounded in the Battle of Festubert and sent back to England where he trained as an officer. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918 and eventually become the MP for York-Sunbury, serving as the Minister of Labour from 1950 to 1957, and the Minister of Veterans Affairs from 1948 to 1950.
Arthur Dodd of Trochu would enlist in 1914 and serve with the Cavalry until he was wounded with shrapnel in the eye and forced to return home.
Private James Lovett would write home regarding the preparations for battle in a letter on May 27, 1915.
“Our line had advanced and we had nothing to bother us except the occasional shell. It was in this spot we were caught when advancing to age a flank attack. The Germans saw us advancing into the trench and shelled us. Parapets, sandbags, the result of a big shell. We managed to get them out. I hear a new draft of Camerons is coming. I guess we will need almost the whole of them to make up our company. The boys are not lacking in spirit and sang nearly all the way back from the trenches last night.”
Private A.P. Glasgow would also write home about the battle.
“I have had some exciting times since I last wrote you, a bayonet charge being the most stirring. We captured a trench from the Germans but they unfortunately could not pluck up enough nerve to wait for us and the gleam of our boys nets in the moonlight and our Indian yell caused them to beat it in the most undignified manner, leaving only a few wounded and Landstrumers behind them. They made a couple of very vicious counter attacks the next day, but we managed to keep them out with heavy loss to themselves. Fortunately, I came through the whole thing without a scratch, though the reaction afterwards left me with nerves somewhat shaken.”
Trooper T.L. Golden of the Wetaskiwin Branch of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse would detail some of the more intense moments of the battle in a letter home. This is a rather long quote, but it gives an excellent look at the battle.
“At noon we found we had to repair about 200 yards of communication trench that had been blown away in the morning. Before starting this, we decided to have dinner, so we dug ourselves in and wrestled with some bully beef and hard tack. This finished we picked up our shovels and started out. We were just about 100 yards from our dugout and in a very exposed place when they started the fireworks. There was a sand bank there and we rushed for it. I dug a hole with my nose and urged it tight…A shell hit the bank immediately above my head and two of us were absolutely covered with sand and clay. There was a dirty, green slimy pool immediately behind where we lay. When a shell burst right in it and presto, we were all covered in green slime and pieces of frogs.”
The letter continues…
“When it all stopped, I shook myself and took a look around. My haversack was riddled and there was a great piece of shell imbedded in my tin of bully beef. My emergency ration of biscuits was all broken up into crumbs. A cartridge pouch was completely shot off my belt and not a round in it exploded. Two of our boys were wounded. I had a piece of shrapnel in the fleshy part of my thigh.”
He goes on…
“Just about this time I saw some of the finest example of pluck that a person could see. One sergeant had a great piece torn out of his right. He calmly put his left hand into his pocket, pulled out a knife, opened it with his teeth and slit his coat sleeve. Then he took a field dressing out of his pocket and bandaged himself. When it was done, he called the corporal of the troop and gave him charge.”
He also describes shell fire in the letter.
“You hear it coming as a dull moan, then it gradually develops into a weird whistle, then a shriek and the earth rocks under you. You are covered with mud and earth and you are glad you are alive. Simultaneously with the bursting of a shell come with the cries and moans of the wounded. When are exposed to this for quite awhile, it gets rather nerve racking, my left ear is singing yet.”
The battle is one that is rarely celebrated within Canada and is mostly forgotten in the wake of other battles such as Vimy Ridge.
Nonetheless, many Canadians died for only a few metres of ground.
Information comes from Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian War Museum, Canada.ca, CanadianSoldiers.com, The History Of Brant County, Fredericton’s 100 years, then and now, Remember When: the History of Trochu and District.