May 20

This Day in History

World War I

May 20, 1915:

British renew attacks in Battle of Festubert

On May 20, 1915, British, Canadian and Indian troops launch a new round of attacks against a reinforced German line around the village of Festubert, located in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.

The Battle of Festubert formed part of the large-scale Artois Offensive spearheaded by Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French forces. Launched by British commander Sir Douglas Haig after pressure applied to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by Joffre, Festubert marked the BEF's second attack of the offensive, after a largely unsuccessful assault on May 9 at Neuve Chapelle.

A four-day-long artillery bombardment of the German positions by over 400 Allied guns firing over 100,000 shells preceded the attack on Festubert. Although the bombardment failed to cause significant damage to the German front line, the initial attack, conducted by two predominately Indian divisions in fair weather conditions on the night of May 15, advanced rapidly, as the German Sixth Army (commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht) retreated to positions directly in front of the village of Festubert.

The British 2nd and 7th divisions continued the attacks on May 16, but within two days had to be withdrawn due to heavy losses. On May 18, under heavy rain, Canadian troops began another onslaught, but were forced to retreat under heavy German artillery fire. The Allied troops hurried to build trenches to consolidate the small gains made so far, as the German command sent a fresh injection of reserves to reinforce their lines.

On May 20, the Allies renewed the attacks at Festubert; over the next four days, they were able to capture the village from the Germans, a position that would be held by the Allies until the final German spring offensive in 1918. Still, by the time the Allied command called off the attacks on May 27, the Battle of Festubert had resulted in gains of less than one kilometer of territory—at a cost of 16,000 Allied casualties.

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