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The battle of Festubert, 15-27 May 1915, was the second British contribution to the second battle of Artois, the major Allied spring offensive of 1915. The first British attack, at Aubers Ridge (9-10 May), was a disaster. The BEF suffered 11,000 casualties without achieving anything.
The French attack on 9 May had achieved a dramatic success, capturing part of Vimy Ridge, but the Germans had counterattacked, forcing the French back off the ridge. General Joffre called on the British to mount another attack to prevent the Germans moving troops to the French front. Sir John French agreed to mount a new attack.
This attack would be made to the south west of Neuve Chapelle, the scene of the failure of 9 May. As at Neuve Chapelle the 1st Army under General Douglas Haig would launch a two pronged assault on the German lines. The gap between the prongs would be rather narrow, effectively leaving a German strong point in the middle of the British attack.
Festubert marked a significant step on the journey from the search for a breakthrough to the war of attrition. Aware that the Germans were expecting an attack, Haig set limited objectives for the advance, and made it clear that the main purpose of the battle was to grind down the Germans. The attack was preceded by a 60 hour artillery bombardment in which over 100,000 shells were fired, but large parts of the German lines survived intact.
The attack went in early on 15 May. It was more successful than at Aubers Ridge, with some British units reaching and capturing the German front line. Over the first few days of the battle, the British were able to capture more segments of the German front lines, but on 17 May the Germans pulled back to their second line, 1,300 yards behind the original front line.
After a series of failed attacks on 18 May the British rested and replaced some units in the front line. An attack by two Canadian Brigades on 24 May failed to achieve any success, and on the following day all further attacks were cancelled to save ammunition. The battle ended with a series of unsuccessful German counterattacks, aimed at recapturing their original front lines.
The fighting was not as deadly as at Aubers Ridge. Over the thirteen days of the battle, the British suffered 16,000 casualties, most during the first four days of the battle. The British advanced up to 1,300 yards, but in most cases this only took them to the new German lines. The French attack in Artois continued into June, and also turned into a battle of attrition, but again without achieving any significant successes.
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