Summary of Operations: Battle of Festubert

Thursday, May 20, 1915

Festubert (Indian Village)

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Lts. Godwin, Richardson and Sumption arrived from England on May 20th.  Lt. Godwin took over command of the battalion Machine Gun Section.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: Godwin took the place of Lieut W.M. Pearce, who was wounded while temporarily attached to the 13th Battalion.

20 May 15
Festubert, 20 May 1915

SUMMARY OF OPERATIONS – 3rd Brigade Attack – 20 May 1915: “The attack on the 20th began in broad daylight, the bombardment starting at 4:00 p.m. and the attack launching at 7:45 p.m. The 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) and 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) were designated by the 3rd Brigade as the assault battalions. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie of the 16th protested the order, attacking over open ground, and with only a single company detailed to attack Canadian Orchard. Brigadier-General Turner replied that the British felt, after the experiences at Aubers Ridge, that night operations restricted the ability of commanders to control troop movements and despite the disadvantages of exposure to accurate enemy fire, there was an advantage to be gained by attacking in daylight. The plan was for No. 3 Company to attack the orchard and No. 1 Company to support it; if the orchard was gained, a communication trench leading to the orchard would be used as a covered route to approach M.10.   [3]

No. 3 Company managed to reach the orchard, and despite the enemy being well dug-in, the defenders were surprised and evicted, putting the Canadian Scottish within 100 yards of the main German trenches. The attempts to attack M.10 were turned back by heavy fire and belts of barbed wire.  [4]   The Canadian Scottish had made the deepest penetration of any unit of the British 1st Army during the Battle of Festubert, and Canadian Orchard remained in Allied hands until the German offensives in the spring of 1918.  [5]

The 15th Battalion had as fruitless an attack as No. 1 Company of the Canadian Scottish, and the Highlanders suffered heavy casualties attacking over open ground into the teeth of machine-guns and watchful German artillery observers. Despite using short 20-yard dashes, many men were hit, and though they gained the relative safety of the North Breastwork, they were stopped 100 yards beyond it. Supporting companies came up to consolidate the gains after dark.”  [6]

20 May 15_B“Torrential Rains and heavy mists in northern France and Flanders have rendered operations impossible since Monday night, and the war torn soldiers upon both sides have secured a breathing spell.  It was greatly needed.  The Times correspondent in northern France says that between the 8th and 14th of May no less than seven distinct battles were fought on the western front.  The week will go down to history as perhaps the most sanguinary in the annals of Western Europe.  The losses of the Germans around Ypres alone since the opening of the spring campaign on April 22nd are believed to be almost a hundred and fifty thousand men killed, wounded and taken prisoners.  In an engagement on Monday night on the banks of the Yser Canal, an engagement which the French, who were victors, did not regard as a battle, the enemy left over 2,000 dead behind them.  That the German spring offensive is no longer dangerous is the general belief expressed by correspondents in close touch with the headquarters of the allied armies.

Lord Kitchener in the House of Lords yesterday, made a momentous announcement when he stated that the Allies would meet poison with poison.  If the Germans insist upon destroying their opponents with poisonous gases the Allies will use like means of warfare.  The War Minister states that this must be done to remove ‘the enormous and unjustifiable disadvantage’ which must exist for the allied armies if no steps are taken to meet on his own ground the enemy who is responsible for the introduction of this pernicious practice.  It is now up to the Canadian universities to offer a battalion of students of chemistry who will be able to spread poisonous gases along the lines as effectively as the German chemists.  The prospect is a horrible one, but there is some little consolation to be derived from the fact that the prevailing winds in Flanders and northern France during the summer are from the south and west.  The Allies, therefore, should have the windward of the enemy most of the time.

After notifying the Country that he wants 300,000 more recruits to form new armies, Lord Kitchener gave a statement regarding recent operations in the course of which he paid this tribute to the men from the Dominion, who outfaced at Langemarck the most determined effort yet made by the Germans to break the lines of the Allies: ‘The forced retirement in front of the heavy clouds of gas which preceded the German advance at Ypres resulted in the left flank of the Canadian division being exposed.   The Canadians suffered severely from the poisonous fumes, but, nevertheless, they held to the position in the most determined manner.  This was an ordeal to try the qualities of the finest army in the world, and all the more credit is due to the soldiers of Canada, who were unprepared for such an attack, and were at the same time exposed to a withering fire.  Reluctantly, and with perfect steadiness, they withdrew their left flank to conform with the new alignment.  The Canadians were soon supported by British brigades, which were pushed up, and the enemy’s advance was thereby checked.”   [8]

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 20, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,
[2]    Festubert 1915,
[3]  Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 (The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990) ISBN 0-9694616-0-7, pp. 46-47; as quoted in  Festubert 1915,
[4]   Nicholson, Gerald Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Candian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 1964) pg.88; as quoted in  Festubert 1915,
[5]   Zuehlke, Mark. Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) in the First World War (John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2008) ISBN 978-0-470-15416-8, pp.75-76;  as quoted in  Festubert 1915,
[6]   Nicholson, Ibid. pp. 88
[7]  “War Summary,” The Globe (1844-1936), Toronto, Ontario, Wednesday, May 19, 1915, pg. 1 col. 6, & pg. 2, col. 2.
[8]   Ibid.

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