The Battle of Moreuil Wood

This documentary project proposal presents the 1918 Battle of Moreuil Wood as a worthwhile subject for a historical documentary relevant to Canadians. This subject is also in keeping with recent interest in Canadian military history as demonstrated by this year’s federal initiatives to commemorate the role of Canada in the War of 1812.

Canadians do not know their military very well, typically drawing on US films and television for their appreciation and understanding of military culture and the profession of arms. I believe this particular moment in our military history serves well as a demonstration of the remarkable capabilities and distinctive character of the Canadian Horse Soldier that have persevered to manifest in our modern Armoured Regiments of today.

The story of the Battle of Moreuil Wood is more than a forgotten gem in Canadian Military History. It is a story shared by 4 Canadian Regiments based out of Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.

  • Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) (LdSH (RC))
    • The Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD’s)
      Fort Gary Horse
    • 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA)

Principle among these, in terms of revered battle honours and heroics is Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) as it was one of their own, Lt Gordon Flowerdew, who led the March 30, 1918 charge against 300 Germans holding Moreuil Woods.

Flowerdew himself is the basis for additional community connections related to the Battle of Moreuil Woods. He was a 33-year-old squadron commander who had emigrated to Canada, at aged 18, in 1903. He eventually settled in Walhachin, British Columbia where he was a sometime rancher, storekeeper and lawman who acquired celebrity status for the Wild West-style horseback chase and capture of two bandits who had beaten and robbed a Chinese businessman. His reputation was enhanced by his performance as a volunteer trooper in the locally-raised 31st British Columbia Horse. In the years leading to the First World War, he set records as steeplechaser and marksman.

The story will also resonate with Military Museums across Canada, especially the military museum in Calgary, where there is a section for Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) with an excellent display for the Battle of Moreuil Wood.

Any distinguished aspect of Canadian Military History is also of interest to Canada’s Historical Society, The Canadian Cadets and the Royal Canadian Legion.

FLOWERDEW, GORDON MURIEL,

b. 2 Jan. 1885 in Billingford, near Diss, England,

Educated from 1894 to 1899 at Framlingham College in Suffolk,

Came to Canada in 1903, eventually settling in British Columbia, at Queens Bay on Kootenay Lake and finally at Walhachin, BC where he found work in a general store and post office. He apparently turned his hand to many things, managing a butcher shop and working as an orchardist and rancher.

Flowerdew was a Reserve officer with the 31st British Columbia Horse (The Regiment originated at Vernon, B.C., on 1 April 1911) when the First World War broke out. He owned an apple orchard in Wallachin BC at the time but, along with all the other Reserve officers, gave up his commission to volunteer. He was appointed a lance-corporal in Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), under the command of Archibald Cameron Macdonell*.

A German offensive, launched on 21 March 1918, was more successful, almost overwhelming the 5th British Army, and with the front somewhat fluid the cavalry became valuable once again, using its mobility to reinforce hard-pressed infantry units. On 27 March the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was assigned to the 2nd British Cavalry Division, and three days later was ordered to recapture Moreuil Wood, which had recently fallen to the German advance. The plan was for the Dragoons to assault with the LSH in support and the Fort Garry Horse in reserve, and the Dragoons were soon heavily engaged.

It was at this moment that the LSH’s C Squadron, commanded by Flowerdew – who had been promoted sergeant in 1915 and temporary lieutenant in 1916 – began circling the wood to attempt to trap the enemy. The troop was confronted by two lines of Germans, “each about sixty strong, with machine guns in the centre and flanks.” Given the choice between retreat and attack, either of which might lead to substantial losses, Flowerdew chose the latter. In a cavalry charge reminiscent of Waterloo or Balaklava, C Squadron inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and forced the survivors to withdraw, but lost 70 per cent of its own troopers doing so. Flowerdew himself, wounded in both thighs, died the next day. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, a decoration made with the bronze from cannon captured in a similarly brave but catastrophic cavalry charge of the Crimean War.

Maj (ret’d) Michael McNorgan, a retired armored officer from the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

“I’ve spent considerable time investigating the story of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the Great War. It’s been a long time interest of mine. 

By 1917. The Great War had been going on for three years. All the main combatants, the British the French, and the Germans were reaching a state of mutual exhaustion. At that point in early 1917 there was a revolution in Russia. The communists took control of the country and they concluded a peace treaty with the Germans.And what this did was it freed the German army from fighting on two fronts. And so they were able to take all of the soldiers or most of the soldiers rather that they had on the eastern front in Russia and move them by train across Europe to the western front and by the time they had this organized we are into the spring of 1918. And at this point the Germans had a local superiority in numbers because of this move from the eastern to the western front. On the allied side the Americans had entered the war in 1917 but they had not yet sent large numbers of troops in Europe. And the consequence was there was a window of opportunity for the Germans to win the war early n 1918. If they could break the alliance between the French and the British and defeat them piecemeal.

So 21 March 1918 they start the German offensive. It’s known generally as the March offensive.

The Battle of Moreuil Wood has lots of myths surrounding it and we can get into that. As to its significance in the war some people were claiming even in the 1930s that it was the turning point in the war. Very significant battle indeed and there were reasons for those statements. However looking at the big picture with all the hindsight that we have did it make a difference to the war? It was a very minor affair. It did not change the course of the war it did not win it. It was one of many many small actions that took place about that time which contributed towards the end result which was the Germans were eventually stopped and then the Allies were able to assume the offensive after that.

So significant to the war? Minor significance. To Canada? Canadians are notoriously a-historical. They know very little of their own nations history. They know even less about our military history. And so outside of the military itself I don’t think Canadians are too much aware of it which is a great shame, I think.

The Battle of Moreuil Wood is a fascinating battle that I think Canadians would enjoy knowing more about. They’d also probably profit from acquiring a better understanding of their military through looking at things like this one small battle. And in fact the advantage of it being such a small battle is that you can look at it in a very intimate level.

There was another individual very significant in this battle with a background similar to that of Flowerdew. Charles Connolly was fairly tall whereas Flowerdew was a short fellow. They were very close friends They’d served together in the ranks they’de risen through the ranks together as NCOs. They’d both been commissioned, FLowerdew after Connolly, but they’d remained close. Connolly, however, had served in the ranks of a British army cavalry Regiment before emigrating to Canada  and joining Lord Strathcona’s Horse as a trooper himself.”