On 30 March 1918, a squadron of Lord Strathcona's Horse charged into a German position on horseback with sabres raised.
This panel is based on a painting by Alfred Munnings, called the "Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron", which reconstructs the dramatic charge of Lord Strathcona's Horse at Moreuil Wood on 30 March 1918 during the First World War.
The painting depicts a remarkable battle in which Lt. Flowerdew and his 70 mounted cavalry charged into a German position with sabres raised against rifles and machine guns. They crashed through two German lines taking heavy casualties but forced the Germans to retreat.
Only fourteen men of the squadron survived the attack. Lt. Flowerdew was wounded and died three days later. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for "most conspicuous bravery and dash" in helping to bring the German advance to a halt.
The Somme, Spring 1918
The Somme is a county in the province of Picardy in France. This county was the scene of many bloody battles during the Great War. The town of Amiens is the capital of Picardy and is located in the county of the Somme. In the First World War, the town of Amiens was an important transport hub, and remains so to this day.
To understand the battles of March and April 1918 it is useful to understand the world scene of 1917 and early 1918.
Three important things happened in 1917 that set up the battles of 1918 – The Americans entered the War, the Russians left it due to their May communist revolution and the British, in an attempt to wear down the Germans, had executed a series of failed attacks all along their front line.
The Americans had started their build up in France toward the end of 1917 but due to political wrangling and a lack of equipment, notably tanks, aircraft and artillery they would not enter the War till mid-1918.
These events, the closing of the Eastern front, the American delay in entering the War, and the weakening of the British Army, had the effect of giving the Germans a temporary numerical advantage on the Western front at the beginning of 1918. If they could swing units west that had been engaging the Russians before the Americans could mobilize sufficient troops, they might be able to eliminate the British Army, defeat France, and win the War.
The Germans knew this but also knew they would be in trouble once the extra American troops engaged. They had to move fast. They theorized that the British army was the weak link having finished the battles of Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai in the previous year. They attacked the British Army in what is referred to now as the Spring Offensive of 1918 or, sometimes, the second battle of the Somme or, more correctly, the Kaiserschlacht.
The German Spring Offensive
The battle began in March 1918 with the Germans attacking all along the Western Front, often using tactics developed by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. They used their artillery as a counter battery and had their troops advanced behind a creeping barrage. In the meantime they flooded the air over the battlefield with aircraft in an attempt to achieve air-superiority.
These tactics worked initially and the German troops gained ground further into France. Their original intent was to attack the British army but what they achieved was a gap between the British and French armies that some estimates put as high as five kilometres in width.
There were still Allied units operating within this gap but the situation was very confused. One of the units in the gap was the Canadian Cavalry Brigade under General John Seeley.
By the 30th of March 1918 the German advance had slowed due to lack of resources and exhausted troops. Still, they had captured considerable ground and were advancing on Amiens. They needed to capture the rail center there to be able to reinforce their now faltering attack.
If they had been successful capturing Amiens they could rapidly send fresh troops forward by rail and continue on to Paris. At this crucial moment the key terrain to taking Amiens was the ridge at Moreuil. Just 12 kilometres from town, the wood and ridge dominated the terrain leading to the all important rail center.
Canadian Cavalry Brigade
Throughout the German advance the Canadian Cavalry Brigade had been fighting a series of delaying battles. On the 30th of March General Seeley’s orders were similar to those of previous days, he was to, as quickly as possible, “engage and endeavour to delay the enemy”.
Giving his orders, he and the Brigade Major, C.E. Connolly set off for Moreuil Wood. The Brigade followed about 20 minutes back with the Royal Canadian Dragoons leading, then the Strathcona’s, the Machine Gun Squadron and finally the Fort Garry Horse.
As they neared the wood, the machine-gun and rifle fire increased. Seeley assessed the situation, realized the key nature of the terrain, and formulated a bold plan. Seeley told Connolly:
"The Royal Canadian Dragoons are to send one squadron to the right of the Bois de Moreuil, to occupy the southeast corner. The other two squadrons are to gallop around the left face of the wood and endeavour to seize the northeast corner."
"Lord Strathcona’s Horse are to follow close behind these two Squadrons of Dragoons and send one squadron forward to gallop right around the north-east corner, engage the Germans who are entering the wood by mounted attack and, occupy the south-east face of the wood. The remaining two Squadrons of Strathcona’s are to enter the wood at the southern point, fight their way through and join their comrades on the eastern face. The Fort Garry’s are to be in reserve with me."
"C Squadron" of the Strathcona’s was deployed immediately and was to pass around the northeast corner of the wood in support of "B Squadron" of the Dragoons and cut off any enemy reinforcements attempting to move into the wood. As the Squadron passed Brigade HQ, General Seeley rode up to Lt. Flowerdew and took him to where they could see around the northeast corner of the wood. Seeley described his task, bid him farewell, and watched as "C Squadron" rode off.
As "C Squadron" moved off, the officer commanding, Lt. Flowerdew, ordered Lieut Harvey to take his troop ahead as an advance guard. Harvey was to make good the northeast corner of the wood and report back.
The battle progressed, and although the Cavalry Brigade was suffering heavily; the enemy was being pushed to the east. Meanwhile Harvey’s troop was some 200 yards from the northeast corner of Moreuil Wood, had encountered some dismounted Germans, and was attacking.
Flowerdew and the remaining three troops of the Squadron then arrived. Harvey gave Flowerdew a quick overview of the situation and suggested that his men could probably drive the Germans out of the wood. Flowerdew agreed. He would proceed mounted to the end of the wood and catch the Germans as they came out. The two men looked confidently at each other and Flowerdew rode off.
Just as Flowerdew and his 70 men reached the corner of the wood they found a large group of Germans, perhaps 300 strong, armed with rifles and machine guns retiring from the wood. The war diary records that there were 20 German machine guns left on the field in this area after the battle.
In a split second, Flowerdew gave the order: "It’s a Charge boys!" The trumpeter, Reg Longley riding behind Flowerdew raised his trumpet to blow the call, it never sounded. Shot through the throat, Longley was the first casualty of the charge.
In the excitement, many horses simply bolted. Private Dale of 4th Troop, riding behind Longley, had to jump over the trumpeter. He recalled that everything seemed unreal, "the shouting of men, the moans of the injured, and the pitiful crying of the wounded and dying horses...".
The Squadron approached the Germans with sabres raised; sabres against rifles and machine guns. They crashed into two successive lines of Germans. Casualties were high on both sides.
Once the two lines were passed, the surviving horsemen turned and fought back toward the wood. When Harvey had finally fought his way through the wood he found small pockets of C Sqn soldiers using captured Machine-guns to fire on German reinforcements as they tried to move into the battle area. Harvey and his men joined them and consolidated the position.
A German veteran of the battle reported that the "British Cavalry fought like madmen until all the Germans were either dead or had surrendered."
A Costly Victory
One report states that the Squadron had only fourteen survivors after the charge, the rest were either killed or wounded. Men and horses lay strewn about the field. Many were dead, most wounded.
Flowerdew had fallen during the initial charge. He was shot in the chest and legs, but he continued to cheer his men on until the battle was concluded. He died of wounds three days later and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
The effect of the charge was immediate. Soldiers on both sides of the fight in the woods heard it happen and heard the fire of the German’s supporting machine guns switch directions. The German resolve slackened while the Canadians intensified their attack; both sides knowing the wood was surrounded and the Germans were cut off.
None of the participants knew the small size of the Canadian force now pouring fire into the German reserves. Ultimately the wood was taken and held. The entire German advance finally petered out over the next few days.
After the War the German commander, Ludendorf, commented that upon hearing of this battle, he realized that the Germans were beaten. When he heard that the "British" had thrown away a squadron of cavalry by charging emplaced machine guns he theorized that they must have near inexhaustible resources available.
What he didn’t know and couldn’t have known at the time was that this was the last squadron available. The charge was conducted because it had to be done. It was executed by brave men lead by a hero and they carried the day.
Citation: Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew
"For most conspicuous bravery and dash when in command of a squadron detailed for special service of a very important nature (March 30th, 1918). On reaching the first objective, Lieutenant Flowerdew saw two lines of the enemy, each about sixty strong, with machine guns in the centre and flanks, one line about two hundred yards behind the other.
Realizing the critical nature of the operation and how many depended upon it, Lieutenant Flowerdew ordered a troop under Lieutenant Harvey to dismount and carry out a special movement while he led the remaining three troops to the charge. The squadron (less one troop) passed over both lines, killing many of the enemy with the sword, and wheeling about galloped at them again."
Although the squadron had then lost about 70% of its number, killed and wounded from rifle and machine gun fire directed on it from the front and both flanks, the enemy broke and retired. The survivors then established themselves in a position, where later they were joined, after much hand-to-hand fighting, by Lieutenant Harvey’s party.
Lieutenant Flowerdew was dangerously wounded through both thighs during the operation, but continued to cheer on his men. There can be no doubt that this officer’s great valour was the prime factor in the capture of the position."