Final Gasps: Battle of Festubert (1915)

Wednesday, May 26, 1915

In billets, Le Hamel

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Received orders and left at 7 p.m. for trenches at Festubert, south of The Orchard towards Givenchy (La Bassée) to relieve Seely’s Detachment. * Took over from the Royal Canadian Dragoons.  Battalion of London Regt.(Territorials) on our right, 16th Canadian Scottish on left.  Some doubt as to exact position occupied by Seely’s Detachment, which was cleared up next day.  Difficult relief owing to lack of accurate information from H.Q. Seely’s Detachment. Relief not completed until 1 a.m. on 27th.” [1]

*  Note: We encountered Seely’s Detachment in the posting for May 6th 1915.  The Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which was sent from England to France earlier in May to reinforce the 4th Infantry Brigade was composed almost equally of men from two Canadian regiments, namely Lord Strathcona’s Horse, and the Royal Canadian Dragoons, as well as King Edward’s Horse, composed of British and colonial men.


THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “The final Canadian actions at Festubert were fought by “Seely’s Detachment”, which relieved the 2nd Brigade on 24 May. The detachment consisted of the headquarters and dismounted cavalry units of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Following the carnage of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, and in response to the desperate need for infantry, the cavalrymen volunteered to serve in France, and moved from their training camps in the United Kingdom on 4 May, numbering about 1,500 men, leaving behind their horses with British Yeomanry units. One squadron of Royal Canadian Dragoons received a day of instruction, otherwise, the 9 squadrons of dismounted troopers had no experience in trench routine or fighting. They went into the line opposite the also newly arrived 91st Reserve Regiment of the 2nd Guard Reserve Division, and on 25 May were ordered to cooperate with the 47th Division’s attack that evening.

The British attacked at 6:30 p.m. on 25 May north of the Givenchy-Chapelle St. Roch road and two battalions advanced 400 yards to take the German forward and support trenches on a 1,000 yard front, suffering 980 casualties in the process. Lord Strathcona’s Horse contributed a bombing group at 9:00 p.m. which worked north from K.5, bringing with them 200 gas bombs – as it turned out, the first authorized use of gas in the history of the British Expeditionary Force. They were assisted by bayonet parties and the Strathconas reported the South Breastwork clear from K.5 to L.8, a point 300 yards northeast, shortly after midnight. The 2nd Brigade sent work parties forward to consolidate but L.8 was found to be occupied by the enemy. The Strathconas had been as confused by the wretched maps as everyone else, and had occupied ground farther west than they believed. The 3rd Brigade, which relieved Seely’s Detachment on 27 May, was given the task of securing L.8 and link the Canadian line with the 47th Division south of K.5

On 31 May, the 1st Canadian Division began a shift to its right in order to take over a new sector at Givenchy, to the immediate north of the canal, as part of a 1st Army reorganization, in the wake of Sir John French’s decision on 25 May to stop the Festubert fighting and attempt new missions to assist the French offensive. Major offensives were out of the question due to ammunition shortages and the open country faced by the 1st Army did not permit assembly of infantry attacks nor cover for artillery positions. The best option, recommended by General Haig, was a limited operation north of the canal from Givenchy towards La Bassée, possibly followed up with further operations south towards Haisnes.

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.  [2]

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.  [3] The 16th Battalion had lost 277 men, including 6 officers, 3 of them dead. No. 3 Company had been reduced to just 56 effectives. [4]

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 26, 1915. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089733.jpg
[2]  Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, CD, “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919,” Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 19612, pp. 89-90; as quoted in Festubert 1915, Canadiansoldiers.com  http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/westernfront/festubert.htm
[3]   Ibid. pp. 91-92
[4]   Daniel G. Dancocks, “Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919,“  The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990), pg.53.; as quoted in  Festubert 1915, Canadiansoldiers.com
 http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/westernfront/festubert.htm

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