Webmatters Title
Webmatters : Battle of Festubert May 1915
Rough Map of Area

Festubert

The 3rd Canadian Brigade CEF

By 0900 hours on the 20th May 1915 the 51st (Highland) and Canadian Divisions under the title of Alderson’s Force occupied the front line between Festubert and the Ferme du Bois. The 47th (London) Division remained on the southern flank and the Indian Corps on that to the north.

The 3rd Canadian Brigade consisted of four battalions :

  • 13th Bn Canadian Infantry (Royal Highlanders of Canada)
  • 14th Bn Canadian Infantry (Royal Montreal Regiment)
  • 15th Bn Canadian Infantry (48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • 16th Bn Canadian Infantry (Canadian Scottish)

The soldiers of the three Scottish battalions wore the kilt.

The Brigade had just been involved in the heavy fighting at Ypres during the gas attacks launched by the Germans on the 22nd and 23rd of April. The 13th and 15th Battalions in particular had been right in the middle of one of the gassed zones.

 

The march south

48th Highlanders of Canada

On 11th May the 15th Battalion received its orders to leave the Ypres Salient and to follow the 14th Battalion. Destination unknown !

On 14th May they arrived at Robeque where they remained until 17th May.

At 0300 hours the battalion received its marching orders to move to Richebourg and then the second line behind La Quinque Rue, Festubert on 18th May.

That very afternoon at Festubert the 14th and 16th Battalions had attempted to take the Orchard and a stronghold known as K5 on the maps.

It needs to be remembered that in this flatland where water can be found just under the surface that trenches were usually shallow affairs with forward breastworks solidly built up out of sandbags with fire positions at suitable and mutually supporting locations. Those in the German positions in this area were particularly well constructed.

In torrential rain and following an inadequate artillery preparation the result should have been foreseen.

Unbeknown to the British Staff the Germans had recently pulled back along much of the sector to a new position. With a poor idea as to the exact location of the German line the Montrealers advancing in open view across a muddy field were viciously dealt with by the machine guns hidden across the ground.

Their losses were so bad that they had to be replaced in the line.

La Quinque Rue Festubert

Looking from la Quinque Rue towards the North Breastwork
The Camping ground in the trees on the left was the site of the Orchard
The ditch is one of many that had to be crossed

As for the Canadian Scottish they managed to get as far as La Quinque Rue but were quickly disabused of any possibility of being able to go farther.

The Canadians were given little time to get to know their new front.

 

20th May 1915

Early in the afternoon Lt Mavor and four NCOs from the 15th Battalion took themselves up to the front line on a reconnaissance mission. They were stunned to find that in fact there were no trenches in the sector. The various minor advances since the opening of the battle had created a totally new position and the Brigade’s scheduled attack would simply commence from La Quinque Rue itself.

La Quinque Rue Festubert

The 15th Battalion formed up along this sector of la Quinque Rue
The North Breastwork ran across the ground in front of the trees.

The Lieutenant continued alone and soon located a trench in front of him, the hint that it was occupied by Germans was the number of bullets whistling around his head.

Lt Colonel Marshal gave his orders to his men : the battalion would advance on a two Company front on the right flank of the 16th Battalion (which was going to make a second attempt to take the Orchard).

On the right the 2nd Canadian Brigade would deal with the K5 emplacement.

The Highlanders would advance with No 2 Coy (Captain Smith) on the left and No 4 Coy (Captain Malone) on the right. No 1 Coy would act as support and No 3 Coy would remain in reserve. Captain Musgrove (No 3 Coy) would be in overall command of the attack.

The sergeants were given flags to mark out the advance and word from on high was that the German lines would be obliterated by the artillery – the soldiers had heard this before and to their cost.

That morning the sun made an appearance in the sky and by the evening of the attack a light mist from the steaming mud hung over the field along with the smell of hundreds of bodies still lying out between the lines. The unlucky; from the various counties of England; Indians; Bavarians and from the past two days, Canadians.

Captain Musgrove scanned the ground with his binoculars. There were three strongholds in front of his men. Three houses : M6, M7 and M8, each manned by machine gun teams.

The bombardment was far too light to make any impression on such fortifications.

Festubert: The Canadian Orchard

The Canadian assault on the Orchard and North Breastwork

At 1945 hours the order to attack was given and the Highlanders rose and began their advance across the ground. They were completely out in the open and the German machine gunners had a field day against such obvious targets.

The Highlanders advanced by leaps and bounds of twenty metres, losing contact with each other in the mess of shell holes and barbed wire. They paused after a hundred metres and then their Captain ordered them up and on again.

The house, M8 hadn’t even been touched by the artillery and the only smoke about it that the Captain could see was that of the machine gun hidden within.

Another hundred metres, but the losses were terrible. Captain Musgrove himself was badly injured (He would lose the arm after the battle). Lieutenant Muir tried to take M8 in a rush but was killed in the attempt.

The Battalion’s Machine Gun Company had been all but wiped out in the opening moments and without their supporting fire the soldiers couldn’t get any further forward.

On the left the 16th Battalion had won the battle for the Orchard (Thereon known as Canadian Orchard) and now the Highlanders pulled back to the North Breastwork.

For the Highlanders of the 15th Battalion the battle was finished, but for other units the battle slogged on until 25th May, with very little more to show for it.