The Battle of Festubert was in fact a series of confused attacks launched by British, Indian and Canadian troops on the front in French Flanders to the west of Lille between 15 and 27 May 1915. The attacks came just six days after the disaster of Neuve-Chapelle, several kilometres further to the south, and were the British Army's contribution to the major offensive being fought by the French at Vimy Ridge and Lorette Spur which, despite some early and spectacular success, was in the process of grinding to a halt.
The British also accepted to relieve a French division stationed to the south of La Bassée Canal so their allies could concentrate their forces on Vimy and Lorette.
Preliminary shelling lasted three days and employed 433 guns of various calibres to fire 100,000 shells on a five kilometre stretch of the front. Despite its intensity the bombardment was relatively ineffective because, in addition to the defective nature of many of the shells, it did not succeed in dislocating the German front. Also, such was the confusion on the battlefield that, at various moments, both sides came under artillery fire from their own camp and this resulted in many deaths.
Launched on 15 May by two infantry divisions, comprising for the most part Indian soldiers, the attack saw some tactical success early on and several sectors of the German front were taken, forcing the enemy to fall back to their second line. A second assault, this time entrusted to the Canadians, was launched on 18 May in torrential rain but failed because of the arrival of German reinforcements and the numerous losses caused by heavy shelling. A third series of attacks between 20 and 24 May resulted in the capture of the ruined village of Festubert. In total, after twelve days of fighting, the British Army had advanced one kilometre on a limited front. By the time the battle came to a definite halt, on 27 May, British casualties amounted to some 16,000 without the operation having made any significant contribution to the French offensive on Vimy Ridge.
In addition to the slaughter wrought by the shelling and the machine gun fire, many soldiers died in hand-to-hand fighting and some were drowned in the flooded trenches and drainage ditches which criss-crossed the battlefield.
This latest reverse engendered a political crisis in Great Britain when the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, General French, complained to a journalist of the insufficient quantity and quality of the shells. The Asquith government subsequently fell and was replaced by a coalition which for the first time included a minister of munitions, a post to be occupied by one David Lloyd George. Thenceforth the United Kingdom entered a phase of all-out war with Kitchener's New Army of volunteers already in training and soon to be transferred to the war on the front.
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France