chapter  9
17 Pages

1915: Festubert and the laws of attrition

Two days after the rout of the May offensive, Sir Douglas Haig at last recognized what his own intelligence officers had been telling him and what even humble front-line soldiers knew. German emplacements of the kind facing the BEF could not be subdued, let alone destroyed, using the methods so far employed. The ‘great dash’ of the British infantry and a preliminary bombardment that seemed ‘to have been accurate’ had come to naught because enemy defences had been ‘so carefully’ constructed and the ‘mutual support with machine guns so complete’. In future offensives, a longer, carefully targetted bombardment would be nececessary. For Festubert, Haig was to demand 60-pound siege guns to ‘destroy the Enemy’s “material” ’, augmented by ‘15-inch, 9.2 and 6-inch siege howitzers’. Accurate oberservations of each shot would be required ‘to make sure of flattening out the Enemy’s “strong points” of support before the Infantry is launched’. In the words of the British official history:

A short and intense bombardment, followed by a break-through and an advance with unlimited objectives was thus abandoned, and replaced by the slow and deliberate methods with limited objectives favoured by the French. In fact, the battle of Festubert was to initiate on the British front the policy known since the american Civil War as ‘attrition’: the wearing down of a stubborn foe by the resolute use of superior numbers.292