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Webmatters : Battle of Festubert May 1915
Rough Map of Area

Festubert

15th May 1915

The Night Attack

Already familiar with the area the 2nd Division, commanded by Major General Henry Horne, had opted to commence the battle of Festubert with a night assault.

The 6th Brigade would attack on the right and the 5th Brigade on the left of a front spanning about 1200 metres. They were supported by the 4th (Guards) Brigade and were to be assisted by the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps covering a further 400 metres on the left.

Between the two British and the Garhwal brigades the number of assaulting troops amounted to about 10,000 men. Opposing them was the 55th Infantry Regiment which had two of its battalions in the front line and the third in reserve. The Germans were thus outnumbered by about five to one.

This would be the first ‘British’ night attack of the war.

On a dark overcast night the first troops crept out over the British parapet at 2330 hours on the 15th May 1915. They had light bridges with them because just in front of the British front line there was a four metre wide ditch filled with water to a depth of over a metre.

The ditch was traversed and the leading troops continued to creep out into no man’s land and to their jumping off points.

Festubert: The night attack by 2nd Division

The night attack by 2nd Division

On the right, the 6th Brigade with the 1/7th Bn King’s; 1st Bn Royal Berkshire and 1st Bn KRRC, managed to walk across and all but up to the German breastwork before the Germans had time to react.

Most of the defenders fled via the communication trenches leading past the Ferme du Bois and the German front line was seized with hardly a shot being fired. The support companies moved forward and took possession of the German support trench with just as much ease. The casualties had been light though the 1st Bn KRRC had lost its commander; Major Shakerley.

All was ready on the 6th Brigade front for the opening of the daylight assault by the 7th Division on their right.

Unfortunately the story on the left was from a different book altogether. The Lahore Division on the far side of the La Bassée Road had been given orders to lay down rifle and machine gun fire periodically during the evening’s bombardment. This had taken place and had roused the suspicions of the local German commanders who found the action out of the ordinary.

The German sentries spotted the bridge laying parties and when the bombardment lifted at 2330 hours the sky was lit by every means the Germans had available; rockets; flares; searchlights…

As the 5th and Garhwal Brigades began their advance into no man’s land they were scythed down by the alerted defenders.

The only ray of hope for the sector was on the far right where the 2nd Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (closest to the 6th Brigade) managed to get their right flank into the German lines. They tried to bomb their way north with grenades but the Germans swiftly put in a trench block and held their position.

As the first reports of the attack reached Corps Headquarters it was decided to mount a second assault at 0315 hours (coinciding with the attack by the 7th Division).

A thirty minute bombardment was delivered on the German positions but the defenders had been given more than sufficient time in which to organise.

In front of the 6th Brigade the Germans hastily prepared a new front line and with the aid of flanking fire on their old positions managed to halt the British from making any further advance.

For the 5th and Garhwal Brigades the dawn attack brought more woe as the soldiers attempted to cross the 300 metres of no man’s land. The Inniskillings had almost been obliterated with 649 casualties, the other three British battalions had all suffered over 300 casualties a piece and the 39th Garhwal Rifles 154 soldiers.

The dawn attack by 2nd and Meerut Divisions had failed, the 7th Division was on its own.