30 March 1918 – The Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron
A Centenary Action

“Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron” by Sir Alfred James Munnings.
Credit: CWM 19710261-0443.

30 March – 1 April 1918 – Battle of Moreuil Wood and Rifle Wood

On 21 March 1918, General Ludendorff launched Germany’s massive Spring Offensive, Kaiserslacht (Kaiser’s Battle) along the Western Front. The first phase, Operation Michael, involved thousands of troops, artillery, and poison gas, and the Germans quickly advanced deep into the British lines, causing catastrophic losses in both men and ground to the Allies. The Canadian Corps was in the First Army area and not directly affected by Operation Michael, however the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade were both brought in to shore up the British lines around Saint-Quentin.

On 30 March 1918, the 23rd Saxon Division occupied Moreuil Wood, a vantage point near the critical Amiens-Paris railway and only twelve miles south-east of Amiens. Just south of the Wood, the French were under heavy attack in the town of Moreuil itself. When Moreuil Wood fell, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, under Brigadier-General John Seely, was immediately ordered to re-capture the lost ground.

As one, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade set off at a gallop, surging down from the village of Castel to the Avre River, charging across the bridge and up toward Moreuil Wood. The spectacle was not lost on the Brigade’s commander, who later wrote “it looked like a great host sweeping forward over the open country… it was strange to see the horses roll over like rabbits, and the men, when unwounded, jump up and run forward, sometimes catching the stirrups of their still mounted comrades” (Seely, Adventure, p. 302).

Charging at the entrenched enemy over open fields, the leading Royal Canadian Dragoons suffered heavily under machine gun fire; seeking cover, many dismounted and entered into the woods wherever they could. The fighting within was heavy and hampered by “close-growing saplings and heavy undergrowth” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 369). But by 10 am, the enemy was slowly being pushed back.

Still mounted, Lt. Gordon Flowerdew’s “C” squadron, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, had waited outside of the Wood for the opportunity to advance to the eastern flank. Reaching the north-east corner, Flowerdew spotted two lines of Germans, each numbering about sixty men, with machine guns at their centres and their flanks, advancing to reinforce the Wood. Immediately, Flowerdew “wheeled his four troops into line, and with a wild shout, a hundred yards in front of his men, charged down on the long thin column of Germans” (Seely, Adventure, p. 303).

Their sabres drawn, Flowerdew’s squadron burst through both lines of the enemy, wheeled about, and then charged on them again, with decimating effect. After the second charge, the enemy broke into retreat. At some point in this desperate melee, Lt. Flowerdew was fatally wounded. Brigadier-General Seely later recorded: ‘A man with him told me his last words as he and his horse finally crashed to the ground – he had two bullet wounds through his chest and was shot through both thighs, but he still had strength to shout quite loudly, “Carry on boys. We have won.” And so they had.’ (Seely, Adventure, p. 304).

Lt. Gordon Flowerdew.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence- W.W.I. collection/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006810.

The survivors of Flowerdew’s squadron established themselves in a ditch bordering the Wood’s eastern flank, armed with the enemy’s abandoned machine guns. They held this position until reached by the other Canadians fighting through the Wood.

The aftermath of Flowerdew’s charge was devastating. Only 51 members of “C” squadron were left alive, a casualty rate of approximately seventy percent. Of the enemy, 70 were counted killed by the sword during the charge, and an additional 200-300 were cut down by their own abandoned machine guns, commandeered by the surviving Strathcona’s (Seely, Adventure, p. 304).  Altogether, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade suffered 305 men killed, wounded, or missing, and over 800 horses killed on 30 March 1918.

Moreuil Wood and the smaller Rifle Wood would be lost by the British the next day. Counter-attacks waged back and forth over the contested ground until the Canadian Cavalry Brigade sent its’ remaining 488 men into the fray once again, re-taking Rifle Wood on 1 April. Moreuil Wood however remained in German hands until August 1918.

The leader of what is believed to be the last cavalry charge of the war, Lt. Gordon Flowerdew died of his wounds on 1 April 1918. He would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross. Fellow Strathcona, Lt. Frederick Harvey, VC received the Military Cross for his actions during the battle.

After the war, war-artist Sir Alfred James Munnings immortalized Flowerdew’s actions in the now famous painting “The Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron”.

 

Technological advancements|

-During Operation Michael, the German Army made use of newly formed and trained “stormtrooper” units, who functioned elastically within the large offensive. Stormtroopers were trained to move quickly beyond the front lines into enemy territory

-The German Army also used a creeping barrage to target headquarters and communications behind the British frontlines, before the frontline trenches themselves. This cut the British communication lines and sowed chaos

-Canadian Cavalry units, like their British counter parts, fought both mounted and dismounted. Terrain and the use of machine guns had made traditional cavalry charges suicidal at best, so they were very rarely used. Flowerdew’s charge was an exception.

Notables|

Lt Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, VC emigrated to Canada from England and settled in British Columbia as a rancher. He enlisted in 1914 with Lord Strathcona’s Horse and moved up the ranks to become an officer in 1916. Flowerdew’s Victoria Cross was donated by his mother to Framlingham College, where he was educated, after the war.

Lt Frederick Harvey, VC, MC received the Victoria Cross during a cavalry action at Guyencourt in March 1917, when he charged and eliminated a German machine gun post defending the village. He received the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of Moreuil Wood. Harvey survived the war and returned to Alberta where he died in 1980, aged 91.

The official Victoria Cross citation for Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew.
Credit: The London Gazette. Publication date: 23 April 1918, Supplement: 30648, Page: 4968.