War Summary: May 1915

Saturday, May 15, 1915

In billets, Mont Bernenchon

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Arrived about 6:30 a.m.  Men very tired but in good spirits.  No stragglers.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY:  “When the Canadian Division withdrew from the Ypres Salient early in May 1915, it rested for some ten days, and then moved south to take part in the Battle of Festubert.   This engagement, which opened on May 15th,  had as its immediate object the capture of Aubers Ridge, from which Lille and La Bassée could be dominated.  Secondarily, the battle was fought to retain on the British front German forces which otherwise could have been used against the French Army attacking Vimy Ridge and Lens.   By May 25th Sir John French realized that his plan had partly failed.  Ammunition was running short by this time and gains in territory had been purchased at a disproportionate price in casualties.  Accordingly the engagement was brought to a close. On the Vimy front fighting continued for six weeks, heavy French loses, with no appreciable advantage gained, threatening for a time to bring about the downfall of General Foch, to whom General Joffre had entrusted the whole operation. Canadian participation in the Festubert offensive began on May 15th when Lieut.-Gen. E.A.H. Alderson, the Divisional Commander, moved his Headquarters to the southern section of the British line.  The Canadian infantry brigades followed and the 3rd Brigade came into action on the afternoon of May 18th, when the 14th and 16th Battalions attacked to the east of Indian Village.”   [2]

OPENING ATTACKS“The infantry launched their assault on the night of 15-16 May 1915. On the left, the 2nd Division attacked at midnight on a frontage of 1,300 yards with the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps covering their left flank. At daybreak, the 7th Division, new to the sector and unfamiliar with the ground (and thus unable to participate in night operations) was scheduled to join in on the right, attacking on a frontage of half a mile during which time the 2nd Division would again advance to the second objective, the line of la Quinque Rue, a road running northeast out of Festubert.

The German 14th Infantry Division was manning the line south of the La Bassée Canal to the Ferme du Bois, a wood two miles northeast of Festubert. The division comprised three infantry regiments (the 16th, 56th and 57th), while opposite the Indian Corps was the 13th Division.

Festubert marked the first British night attack of the war, and it was partially successful, the right brigade achieving the German breastwork soundlessly, but on the northern flank, the planned demonstration by the Lahore Division (who fired small-arms in an attempt to divert the Germans’ attention) only managed to alert the enemy that an operation was underway, and both of the two assault brigades on the left were driven back by heavy fire.

The 7th Division began its attack at 3:15 a.m., a barrage of field artillery preceding it, and the right hand brigade managed to arrive at the final objective on la Quinque Rue. Determined fire elsewhere on the axis of advance halted the assault units, in particular from untouched German positions in the gap between the sectors of the 2nd and 7th Divisions. The divisions tried twice to tie their flanks in during 16 May, but failed. Nonetheless, the Germans discarded any notion of regaining their lost trenches, and the divisional commander of the 14th Infantry Division pulled back on a 3,000 yard frontage. They formed a new line of resistance 500 yards behind la Quinque Rue which for several days the British were unable to identify with accuracy, opposite Festubert. The new line swung west as it wound north of the village, and included strong positions at Ferme du Bois.”…   [3]

WAR SUMMARY“Despite a rainstorm which made the ground soft and difficult for the changing of artillery positions, the French yesterday continued their advance to the north of Arras.  For the first time in many weeks they employed cavalry.  This indicates that at some points they have been able to get behind the network of trenches constituting the German front.  In the northern area covered by the advance, an organized wood and a second line trench were carried, and on the field were found 400 German dead.  The prisoners taken by the French say their losses have been largely due to the efficiency of the French artillery.  The London Times’ correspondent in northern France says the French success in breaking the line was the result of a great expenditure of shells.  Some of the French guns fired 276 rounds each per day during the operations.  The British failed to break through opposite Lille partly because they had more strongly fortified positions, including cement and steel roofed trenches, to attack, but largely because they were not able to expend ammunition so freely as the French have done.

A Canadian artillery officer of experience says that the guns at the front are supposed to have a minimum supply of a thousand shells each within easy reach.  It would be possible with the British, French or Canadian quick-firer to shoot off a thousand rounds of shell per gun in little over an hour.  In practice Canadian guns have been loaded and discharged at that rate.  The German field artillery arm is a much slower gun, which recoils, and has to be retrained for every shot.  Its shells are not nearly so effective as those of the Allies, and the soldiers refer to them contemptuously as ‘Little Willies.’  The field artillery of the Allies, if provided with unlimited ammunition, can at any time smother that of the Germans.

It is in heavy artillery that the later have a marked superiority.  The German heavy guns knock the trenches to pieces and deprive the infantry of shelter.  Describing the check to the British army at Fromelles, when, after gaining a footing in the enemy’s trenches, the infantry were forced to retire.  The Times correspondent says: ‘We lacked high explosives to level the enemy’s parapets.  Until we are thoroughly equipped for this trench warfare we attack under grave disadvantages.  If we can break through the hard outer crust of German defences, we believe we can scatter the German armies, but to break this crust we need more explosives, more heavy howitzers and more men.’  The cry from all parts of the British lines is the same.  Big guns and the unlimited use of high explosives will alone dislodge the enemy.  That having been accomplished, the field artillery of the Allies will aid mightily in keeping him moving.”    [4]


[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 15, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089732.jpg
[2]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 52.
[3]  Festubert 1915, Canadiansoldiers.com
[4]  “War Summary,”  The Globe (1844-1936), Toronto, Ontario , Saturday, May 15, 1915, pg. 1, col. 6; and pg. 2, col. 2.

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