The lost battle: Festubert and the Canadian 1st Division

The famous road to Ypres [c1915]. From “The Red Watch” with the First Canadian Division in Flanders by Col. J.A. Currie, 1916.
The famous road to Ypres [c1915]. From “The Red Watch” with the First Canadian Division in Flanders by Col. J.A. Currie, 1916.
Canada’s record of achievement and battle honours from the First World War is an impressive one, including Courcelette, 2nd Ypres, Mont Sorrel and Vimy. Most of the battles, particularly those in 1917 and 1918, were victories, with the Canadian Corps garnering a reputation as an elite force, tasked with the most difficult objectives; some, like 2nd Ypres and Mont Sorrel were desperate moments when Canadian divisions struggled to hold the Allied lines against superior numbers and in terrible conditions. But what about the battles fought by the Canadians that are rarely mentioned or remembered? What is it about these engagements that makes them lesser moments than Ypres or Vimy?

A perfect example of such a battle is the battle for Festubert, which the 1st Division joined on 18 May 1915, just weeks after they had struggled to hold the lines at Ypres after the German gas attack on 22 April. Festubert was part of the larger British battle for Artois, meant to drain German soldiers from the French front at Vimy Ridge; the objective was the town of Festubert and the salient between the town and north to Neuve Chapelle, which was to be taken after a three day bombardment. Like most of the other battles of 1915, Festubert was not a success. The German front line was only minimally damaged by the bombardment, which also provided ample warning of a coming attack, and the troops of the British 1st Army were forced to withdraw. Two battalions from the Canadian 1st Division was sent in with the 51st Highland Division to attempt to take the village again on 18 May.

The Canadian advance was a disaster; thrown into the battle with little notice and after an all night march to reach their jumping off point, the 16th and 14th Battalions were unable to match their maps to the terrain and were cut down as their men tried to advance into the Orchard outside the village. Communications between the two battalions and the rear lines were almost completely severed, and both found themselves trapped in No Mans Land with little shelter from the ongoing German machine gun fire. The 8th, 10th and 15th Battalions would join them later on 20 May to relieve the men of the 16th and 14th, before making a further push to try to take the Orchard again. The objective was taken, but none of the battalions were able to hold it, and it remained in German hands until the general retreat of the spring of 1917. The 1st Division counted over 2 000 casualties.

Unfortunately, Festubert, though typical of the battles of 1915 in its poor planning and great loss of life for an un-holdable objective, lacks the two features that could have made it a battle to be remembered in the Canadian historiography of the First World War. Firstly, it was not a heroic struggle to hold a desperate position, like Ypres or Mont Sorrel in 1916. Secondly, it was patently not a victory. Though Festubert was certainly a training moment for the 1st Division, particularly Arthur Currie who was at that time on the rise to becoming the commander of the whole division, it did not capture the public imagination in the way that Ypres or Vimy did. The soldiers who fought it would rather have forgotten it completely, since it represented the deaths of hundreds of their comrades for no discernible gain, and the press was not able to spin it in any positive light. The objective had not been taken and Canadian families had lost their relatives for nothing. As a result, Festubert, and most of the other small but deadly engagements around Ypres in the summer of 1915 are almost completely lost to public memory, yet it was these battles, the learning battles, that allowed the Canadian Corps to emerge in 1917 as the unified and efficient force it became. After 1915-1916, never again would the Canadians fight without solid planning and intelligence, and never again, would Currie allow his men to enter into a position without being as completely prepared as possible.

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