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.

The Battle of Cambrai
A Centenary Action

On this day in 1917 (20 November), the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade take part in the launch of the massive Commonwealth attack on Cambrai. Labelled “The Great Experiment”, the attack foregoes the typical artillery bombardment, and instead relies on advanced surveying and range-finding to launch a sudden furious barrage at the hour of attack. Trundling into this are nearly 300 tanks, followed by infantry deploying aggressive fire and movement tactics. The next major offensive on the Western Front was now underway.

“The Great Experiment”

Like the Canadian Corps, the Newfoundland Regiment had fought at Passchendaele in the fall of 1917. After only a short rest period the Regiment was sent back to France near the town of Cambrai. An important supply point on the German Hindenburg Line, Cambrai was the site of the next British attack after the end of Haig’s long and draining Passchendaele Offensive.  

“British Mark IV Female and Male Tanks of ‘C’ Battalion, including ‘Crusty’ and ‘Centaur II’ loaded aboard a train at Plateau Station in preparation for movement to the forward area prior to the opening of the Battle of Cambrai.”
© IWM Q 46941

The attack by the British Third Army, organised by General Julian Byng of Vimy fame, would make use of combined infantry and artillery, with the second major deployment of Haig’s mystery weapon of 1916 – the tank – alongside the Cavalry Corps. Now in sufficient numbers to be massed together, over 200 tanks were to be used to break the Hindenberg Line.  

Launched early in the morning, the massed artillery, machine guns, and tanks quickly overwhelmed the German frontline positions. Placed in a follow-up wave, the Newfoundland Regiment pressed forward with the other units of the 88th Brigade. Meanwhile the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB) waited for the opportunity to attack across the open ground that was to be cleared by the infantry.  

Initially, Cambrai was a great success. The British Army advanced further in one day than the entire Passchendaele campaign, and everything seemed to be going well until the first German counter-attack. Unfortunately, the CCB was stuck until mid-afternoon on 20 November waiting for an improvised bridge to be constructed for their horses, and the Third Army had almost no reserves. This weakness began to show as the battle dragged on, and on 29 November the expected German counter-attack pushed the exhausted Third Army back towards their starting position. On 4 December, Byng carried out a fighting retreat to a position along the Hindenburg Line, where the army was to wait out the winter. 

Losses were heavy for both the Newfoundland Regiment and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade; total Third Army losses were over 40 000 killed, wounded and missing. By the night of November 29, the Newfoundland Regiment had only 8 officers and 230 other ranks left.  The Battle of Cambrai lasts from 20 November – 7 December 1917.

Technological Advancements

-General Byng attempted the combination of artillery, infantry, tanks, and mobile cavalry that would be so successful during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918. There were a lot of moving parts, and not all of them worked as they should, particularly the tanks and cavalry; however, Byng realised that combined attacks were what would win the war.

-The initial attack marked the first use of tanks en masse, with over 200 from the newly formed Tank Corps functioning as an independent unit in coordination with the infantry, rather than suborned to it.  

-The artillery approach at Cambrai was reconfigured, with no preliminary registering of the guns other than survey calculations. As a result, the creeping barrage opened up with no prior warning, gaining surprise, but at the loss of accuracy. The infantry was to advance behind the tanks, which was supposed to protect them from accidental friendly fire.

Notables

The courage and sacrifice displayed by the Newfoundlanders during the Cambrai offensive resulted in a number of medals and awards being awarded to individual members of the Regiment. A member of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade also received the Victoria Cross.

Please click on the hyperlinks in the men’s names for further reading about their lives and actions at Cambrai in 1917.

Lance Corporal John Shiwak, was an Inuk from Rigolet, Labrador and one of the Newfoundland Regiment’s snipers. He was killed on 20 November 1917, by a direct hit from a German shell that killed nine other men. Shiwak corresponded with the journalist William Lacey Amy, who had encouraged him to keep a diary while at the front.  

Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC, served with the Fort Garry Horse, and received a Victoria Cross after leading “B” Squadron through the enemy lines when their Captain was killed, eliminating an enemy field gun battery and numerous infantry parties along the way. Strachan survived the war and returned to Alberta where he lived until his death in 1982.

Captain Grant Paterson, MC & Bar
Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes, DCM
Sergeant Albert Davis, DCM
Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, MM
Captain Bertram Butler, DSO, MC

Download our poster about the centennial anniversary of Cambrai. 

A

Farms At The Front

Two teams of Canadian Cavalry ploughing and harrowing ground on Vimy Ridge where potatoes are to be planted. April, 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003810.
Troops were instructed to assist French farmers where possible if a battalion was unable to manage its own field of produce. Here two Canadians help a group of French women.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000768.

Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.

Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).

Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.

Clydesdale Horse

Founded in 1910 in London, Our Dumb Friends’ League worked to ensure the welfare of animals used in the war. The League continues its mandate today in Denver, Colorado.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-302.

While the memories and images of wastage often prevail when considering the use of animals in the First World War, it should be noted that many of the men were deeply impacted by their suffering. In his memoirs, Sniper Frank S. Iriam relates the following account of a Clydesdale horse with affection:

“We had an old roman-nosed Clydesdale in the transport that was a veteran and had been with the battalion through many battles. He had been wounded, shell-shocked and gassed. Now when he was taken to a bad place that was under fire, he knew what to expect. He would shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat and whinny softly for sympathy. That old Clyde had real courage for he never baulked or refused to go… It seemed to get your goat worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.”
(Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 189)

Horses were employed in a myriad of positions, conventional or not. Pictured here is an Army Motor Car at Lark Hill, Salisbury, pulled by horses. [1915.]
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-004964.