1918: Moreuil Wood

We’ve got something special today on the blog. The Corps Historian of the Canadian Armoured Corps, Michael McNorgan, has written an article shedding light on a battle that not enough Canadians know about – The Battle of Moreuil Wood, fought 99 years ago on 30 March 1918.  Image: Alfred Munnings, “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron”, 1918. Oil on canvas. The Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum. 19710261-0443

The great German offensive was running out of steam. In part due to the fact that the assault troops were becoming physically exhausted. In part because the German supply line had been stretched to its limits, slowing down the vital flow of rations and ammunition and in part because the German army was encountering episodes of wide-spread military disobedience. As the German troops over ran the well-stocked Allied supply depots they stopped to loot them. They also paused to wonder at the abundance that they saw in comparison to their own meagre resources. Still, the southern hook of the German offensive was now within sight of the city of Amiens.

Amiens was an important rail centre and lay behind the junction point of the French and British Armies. If the Allied Armies could be split, the British right flank could be turned forcing a withdrawal north to the channel ports. The French left flank would also be exposed leading to a likely withdrawal south to protect Paris. Amiens is situated on the Avre River, which flows through it from the southeast. Nine miles up river, on the western bank, is the village of Castel. A little farther up stream is the village of Morisel and across from Morisel, on the eastern bank, the larger village of Moreuil. On 29 March 1918, as the German advance was closing in on Amiens, a three mile-wide gap appeared in the Allied line centred on a wooded ridge overlooking Moreuil.

The Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB) had been fighting on foot as infantry. Now, once again remounted, it was attached to the Second Cavalry Division on 26 March. After two days of march and counter-march they were ordered to concentrate in the Bois de Guyencourt, five miles west of Moreuil.

At first light on Easter Saturday, 30 March, the Brigade stood-to, ready for an anticipated mounted action. The weather was cold, the day dull with a heavy mist that burned off slowly as the sun rose. The only order that came though was “Move postponed two hours.” and so the troops got a hot breakfast of bacon and tea. The commander of Second Cavalry Division, Major-General Thomas Pitman, conferred with the CCB’s commander, Brigadier-General Jack Seely, at 8 o’clock. Pitman told Seely that the situation was grave. The enemy advance guard had captured Moreuil Ridge and troops were pouring into the Bois de Moreuil. His final words were, “Go to the support of the infantry just beyond Castel, this side of the Moreuil Ridge. Don’t get too heavily involved – you will be needed later.” [1] Seely briefed his officers accordingly. Then, with a small Brigade Headquarters party, he left to conduct a personal reconnaissance taking one of the two available maps; the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) got the other one. The Brigade followed him a short time later. The order of march was; RCD, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (LSH), the CCB Machine Gun Squadron and the Fort Garry Horse (FGH). Leaving the Bois de Guyencourt, the Brigade trotted east across the Noye River, stopping to water the horses and top up canteens. They then proceeded on to Castel and the bridge across the Avre where they were heartened to see troops of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, Canada’s first armoured unit.

Elements of the 23rd (Saxon) Division had hastily occupied the northern portion of Moreuil Wood and were enduring bombing and strafing attacks by low flying Allied aircraft. Marching on Moreuil Ridge from the east was the 243rd (Württemberg) Division advancing in two columns. The right hand column consisted of the 122nd Fusilier Regiment (122 FR) and the 306th Engineer Company with the 1st Battery 238th Field Artillery Regiment (238 FAR) in direct support. The left hand column consisted of the 479th Infantry Regiment and the 253rd Engineer Company equipped with a bridge. In reserve were the 478th Infantry Regiment and the remaining two batteries of 238 FAR all following the right hand column. The objective of the left column was to secure the village of Moreuil and force a river crossing in order to pass through the divisional reserve. The right hand column was tasked to secure the Bois de Moreuil and the high ground overlooking the Avre. All of the German troops had been marching and fighting for nine days. They were low on supplies and tired, but determined.

Seely meanwhile had arrived in Castel where he found the French about to withdraw to the west side of the river. The enemy had already occupied Moreuil Wood and only a thin Allied skirmish line still remained between the wood and the Avre river. He persuaded the French divisional commander to stay put telling him that he was going to counterattack the wooded ridge on the east bank, and would require supporting fire.

Moreuil Wood has a roughly triangular shape with one side facing north, another west, and the third southeast. There is a small outgrowth at the northwestern point called the Bois de la Corne. As it was not yet occupied by the enemy Seely selected this as the site for his headquarters.

His quickly devised plan was to secure each corner of the wood with an RCD squadron. Then, the LSH, dismounted, would clear the wood from north to south, with sections of the Machine-Gun Squadron providing covering fire on the flanks. The FGH remained in reserve north of the wood.

Seely gave his orders to the Brigade Major, Major Con Connolly, DSO. It would be Connolly’s task to brief the units as they arrived at the Castel bridge. [2] Then, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, his Orderly, and the Brigade Signal Troop, he galloped up the crest toward the Bois de la Corne and into the enemy fire. Seven of the twelve soldiers in the Signal Troop survived to reach the wood, dismount and open fire. The Orderly jammed a red pennant into the ground at the northern most point of the wood to mark the location of Brigade Headquarters. Seely turned in the saddle to look behind him and saw the RCD galloping up the hill along the route he had just taken; it was 9:30 a.m.

1918_Moreuil_Wood_Map_1

The lead RCD squadron was ‘A’, commanded by Captain Roy Nordheimer. They rode at a gallop past Brigade Headquarters for the northwest corner of the wood. Their point of entry was not in fact the exact northwest corner, but it appeared to be from the position of Seely’s headquarters. Heavy machine-gun and rifle fire caused Nordheimer to dismount his men and order them forward with fixed bayonets. He was soon wounded, shot through the right knee, but the Squadron carried on. An estimated 300 enemy soldiers were driven right out of the wood by this attack.

The second RCD Squadron to arrive was ‘C’. They had the farthest to go being sent south, past the west face of the wood, to occupy the southwest tip and establish contact with the French in Moreuil village. They did not make it to their objective. ‘C’ Squadron came over a crest to find itself confronted by heavy machine-gun fire from 3rd battalion 122 FR (3/122 FR) trying to fight its way into Moreuil. Behind the battalion was its close support battery 1/238 FAR. Faced with a heavy concentration of fire, the squadron commander chose to wheel left into the wood. At the same time the battery commander of 1/238 FAR, Lieutenant Gottschid, ordered Staff Sergeant Brehm’s Number Two Section into action. The 238 FAR War Diary described the scene.

The, in peace so often practiced, and in war so rarely used, command “attacking cavalry to right” could now be used. As if electrified, the gun trails flew to the left, and with lightening like quickfire, the two guns opened fire at a range of 400M(etres) at the attacking squadrons.

In a few minutes one could only see a few riderless horses still heading toward our gun lines. The greatest part of the riders lay dead or wounded on the ground. A few lucky ones were able to escape this fate through quick retreat. The drivers of the 1st Battery were able to capture about 20 horses that were very welcome as replacements for the many horses lost by us. As expected, these horses that had been bred on the Canadian steppes, distinguished themselves from our horses, because of their superior nutritional condition. [3]

This graphic description may have been prompted by the fact that the Brigade commander, General Von Berger, personally directed the defensive fire.

‘B’ Squadron RCD was next on the scene. Only 80 strong instead of their normal complement of 150, they went half way across the north face, before charging into the Beech tree wood. They did not reach the eastern tip that was their objective. The squadron encountered intense machine-gun fire, including weapons being fired from the branches of trees. Unlike ‘A’ Squadron, ‘B’ was never given the order to dismount. Many horses were killed and the situation became confused as groups of mounted and dismounted soldiers became isolated in the woods. Some of the mounted men left the wood returning in the direction of Brigade Headquarters. One dazed trooper told the BM “the squadron had been cut up”. [4] The squadron commander was later reported as a casualty, suffering from shell shock. The men had been told that ‘C’ Squadron would be supporting their attack. ‘C’ Squadron of course was not in sight and some soldiers were sent back to look for them. [5] The remainder continued to fight forward against heavy odds. Among the casualties was the only other officer in the squadron, Lieutenant Victor Nordheimer. His horse killed, Nordheimer was fighting through the wood with his sword, when he was shot down. It was obvious to Connolly that the northeast corner could not be secured by ‘B’ Squadron RCD without assistance.

The northern RCD attacks had met the 2nd Battalion 101st Grenadiers, 23rd (Saxon) Division, head on inside the wood. ‘C’ Squadron RCD in the south was struggling with 122 FR.

The 3rd Battalion 122 FR was under great pressure. Bombed and strafed by three squadrons of British aircraft, they were still engaging French infantry fighting from positions inside Moreuil village and being pressed by ‘C’ Squadron RCD. The battalion commander, Major Count Zeil, appealed to his superior for support. The 122 FR regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Von Alberti, was about to order the 2nd Battalion to deploy from the wood to put in a flanking attack on Moreuil when a breathless artillery liaison officer announced “Enemy in the rear! Help!” [6] Von Alberni ordered the 2nd Battalion to turn and face the new threat from the northeast. The 1st Battalion 122 FR, which had been following the 2nd up to the wood accompanied by 2nd Battery 238 FAR, was being attacked on its right flank by a squadron of Canadian cavalry.

While the RCD were engaged inside Moreuil Wood the LSH was crossing the bridge at Castel. They formed up to the north of the wood about 1,000 yards from the point where ‘B’ Squadron RCD had entered. Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Donald MacDonald, had been told to attack dismounted. [7] The BM arranged for the Machine Gun Squadron to provide covering fire. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons advanced on foot, ‘C’ Squadron remaining as a mounted reserve. The advance had no sooner started when an order arrived for the LSH to supply a mounted squadron. ‘C’ Squadron lead by Lieutenant Flowers Flowerdew was the only one available. [8] MacDonald and the BM rode over to Flowerdew where the BM briefed him on his task. The attack of ‘B’ Squadron RCD having been stalled, Flowerdew’s squadron would have to secure the northeast corner. He was to take ‘C’ Squadron around that corner of the wood and attack the enemy trying to enter the wood at that point. Once the enemy were dispersed ‘C’ Squadron was to occupy the southeast face of the wood. As Flowerdew moved off he was joined by Seely who later recorded in his memoirs that as he rode with Flowerdew he told him that his was “…the most adventurous task of all; but I am confident you will succeed.” Flowerdew smiled and said: “I know, sir, I know, it is a splendid moment. I will try not to fail you.” [9]

In the meantime ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons LSH attacked on foot to support ‘B’ Squadron RCD in their unequal struggle with the Saxon Grenadiers.

Seeing that the northeast tip of the wood was still occupied by the enemy, Flowerdew ordered Lieutenant Harvey, VC, Troop Leader of 2nd Troop, to secure that point. While riding toward the objective the troop came across a party of five Germans in the process of looting a French transport wagon, they were quickly sabred. On reaching the objective Harvey dismounted the troop and was about to attack a large group of enemy when Flowerdew arrived. Harvey explained the situation to Flowerdew who said, “Go ahead and we will go around the end mounted and catch them when they come out.” [10]

While this conversation was taking place the other three troops of ‘C’ Squadron were waiting in a draw to the northeast of the wood. On returning to the squadron, Flowerdew led them up out of the draw onto higher ground. Almost immediately he saw two lines of enemy infantry about 300 yards to his front accompanied by artillery. In front was Number 8 Company 101st Saxon Grenadiers placed to the east of the wood in anticipation of a rumoured tank attack. Perhaps the rumour was inspired by the armoured cars of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade? Behind them were 1st Battalion 122 FR, 2nd Battery 238 FAR and a machine-gun company. Half turning in the saddle he shouted, “It’s a charge, boys, it’s a charge.” [11] The boy trumpeter, Trumpeter Reg Longley, riding directly behind Flowerdew raised his trumpet to sound the charge. No call was made as horse and rider fell. As the charge gathered momentum Flowerdew and his horse went down the troops streaming past him. The fire from the enemy machine-guns was intense and deadly. Sergeant Tom Mackay, MM who was leading 1st Troop later had 59 bullet holes counted in one leg. The bullet holes in the other leg could not be counted as they ran too close together. [12]

The diarist of 238 FAR was less descriptive about this action than he was with the action by 1st Battery. “While pulling into position, 2nd Battery is attacked by Canadian cavalry breaking out of the eastern edge of the forest north of Moreuil and comes under M(achine) G(un) fire. The battery completes its deployment and in conjunction with the infantry takes out the cavalry, the survivors of which retreat into the forest. ” [13]

Although 238 FAR appears to have taken most of the credit for stopping the attack, it should be noted that Flowerdew’s squadron faced the combined fire of five rifle companies, an artillery battery, assorted mortars and a machine-gun company which had caught the three charging troops in a withering cross-fire. But, inside the wood the hard-pressed RCD squadrons noticed the enemy giving way. The very sound of the Strathcona’s charging horses had caused the Saxons to start looking over their shoulders expecting to be hit from the rear. Flowerdew’s charge had also prevented the attack of 2/122 FR on Moreuil. The loss of the village would have allowed the enemy to carry out a river crossing and with the last natural defence line breached, the way to Amiens would have been open.

Only one Canadian horseman made it through both enemy lines. He was Sergeant Frederick Wooster of 1st Troop. Finding himself alone with another large party of enemy troops to his front, Wooster turned about and retraced his steps. He got all the way back to Brigade Headquarters where he met Seely and described ‘C’ Squadron’s charge. After a short rest, he returned to the wood to join Harvey’s Troop. [14] Augmenting Harvey’s small command were the remnants of ‘B’ Squadron RCD who had fought their way through the wood.

Lieutenant Harrower, with the aid of a sergeant, retrieved the severely wounded Flowerdew who was lying at the tree line. As they carried him into the wood a burst of machine-gun fire struck Harrower in the foot. The still conscious Flowerdew said; “You had better get under cover Hammy, or they will shoot your head off next.” [15] Four men took over the task of carrying Flowerdew back to the Field Ambulance.

Wounded in the chest and both thighs he died the following day and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation for his decoration reads in part: “There can be no doubt that this officer’s great valour was the prime factor in the capture of the position.”

‘C’ Squadron RCD was still heavily engaged along the western face of the wood. Seely therefore sent ‘B’ Squadron FGH back across the bridge at Castel and south along the west bank of the Avre. From here they could bring fire to bear on the enemy flank in the southwest tip of the wood.

The struggle inside the wood was intense and still in doubt. Seely committed his last reserves sending in ‘A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons FGH. German and Canadian losses were severe. All three regiments had from one-third to one-half of their strengths reported as casualties. Very few enemy soldiers surrendered, even those mortally wounded preferred to fight to the end. Only the timely arrival of the British 3rd Cavalry Brigade saved the Canadian gains. The 4th Hussars and the 16th Lancers sweeping down from Castel charged into the western face of Moreuil Wood in the area of the ‘C’ Squadron RCD battle.

The commanding officer of the 16th Lancers was Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Brooke, DSO, MC, Connolly’s predecessor as CCB Brigade Major. Under Brooke’s command the British and Canadian soldiers formed a long line, advancing on order of a whistle blast. Every fifty yards they halted and fired ‘five rounds rapid’ into the underbrush.

To retain the vital high ground that he had captured, Brooke issued an order for all of his troops to maintain their present locations and on no account to withdraw. The commander of one of his very under strength squadrons misinterpreted the instruction and thought that he had been ordered to pull back. The squadron commander, therefore, crawled back through the undergrowth to a ‘ride’ or lane in his rear to determine its suitability as a withdrawal route. As Brooke later recalled:

Jack Seely, mounted on his horse, was up in front on a ride at right angles to the general advance, or, in this case, onto the line of retirement of this little party. The officer, making his way back through the thick scrub on hands and knees, pushed his head out from the undergrowth and looked to right and left along the ride. Suddenly he was confronted by General Seely, revolver in hand, who, espying what he believed to be a solitary soldier possibly deserting his post, first enquired: “Are you wounded?” On receiving the answer “No,” he called out, “Go back, then – go on back,” accompanying this command by a menacing gesture with his revolver.

Obviously dumbfounded at this reception, the head cautiously withdrew, tortoise-like, back to cover.

After a pause the officer made a second attempt, the red face emerging at a slightly different point. Again he was spotted by the general, who promptly returned to the assault, now obviously confirmed in his original belief that he was dealing with a renegade. This time the unfortunate officer did not await the impact, but beat a hurried retreat. After a considerable time had elapsed, he discovered to his consternation that the general, now obviously suspicious of his movements and keenly on the alert, was apparently remaining on the ride to ensure that he made no further attempt at escape. He was contemplating a third essay, this time with a flag of truce, when General Seely, evidently concluding that the miscreant had thought better of his actions, continued down the ride towards his Canadians on the left. The harassed officer was then enabled to emerge safely, and when I met him in the ride he recounted his adventure and explained the situation. [16]

The enemy had by now been pushed back out of the wood with the exception of the southernmost tip. The battle reached a stalemate at this point. After 11:30 a.m., the CCB held its gains against repeated counter-attacks conducted in a heavy rain that had begun at noon and continued through the next day.

When the CCB was relieved by the infantry at 9:30 that night, they rode back to Castel, and watered the horses in the Avre. They then moved on to the Bois de Senécat to bivouac. As the casualty returns were made out it was found that the Brigade had lost over 300 officers and men and 800 horses. Nevertheless the line had been held, Amiens had been saved.

Moreuil Wood drew the survivors back again. On 15 August 1918 as the war again took the CCB past the Bois de Moreuil, a group of RCD officers returned to the scene of the battle. Many of the Brigade’s dead had been buried by the enemy, the graves marked with swords or rifles thrust into the ground. Subsequent artillery fire had disturbed these shallow burials. A group of Strathconas had likewise toured the field on August 13th. They found the body of Trooper David Dobson, MM of 4th Troop ‘C’ Squadron, which they reburied. Near Dobson lay the remains of a horse. Lieutenant Luke Williams, MC picked up a detached hoof from the ground and kept it as a souvenir. He later gave it to his regiment and today it sits on the desk of the commanding officer of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), a memento of a memorable day in the story of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. [17]

A native of London, Ontario, Michael McNorgan served for 39 years in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, in both regular and reserve regiments, retiring as a major. His last posting with the military was at National Defence Headquarters with the Directorate of History and Heritage. Here his duties included organising overseas military ceremonies such as the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, and the burial of Canadian war dead whose bodies had only been recently recovered.
He is the author of The Gallant Hussars; A History of the First Hussars Regiment 1856-2004: An Illustrated History (1st Hussars Cavalry Fund 2004), Black Beret; A History of The Windsor Regiment (RCAC) 1936-2006 (The Regiment 2006), The Leopard In Canadian Service (Service Publications 2006) and Great War Tanks in Canadian Service (Service Publications 2009). He co-authored, with Gord Crossley, Facta Non Verba, A History of The Fort Garry Horse (FGH Foundation, 2012), and is also co-author, with the late John Marteinson, of The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History (Robin Brass Studio 2000) and More Fighting for Canada (Robin Brass Studio 2004).
In recent years he has been involved in guiding small group tours to the many Canadian battlefields in Italy, Belgium and France. He now lives in Ottawa.

[1] Seely, J.E.B., Adventure, Heinemann, London, 1930, p 299.

[2] Major (Brigadier) C.E. Connolly, DSO and Bar, MiD. Connolly was the Regimental Sergeant Major when LSH landed in France in 1915. He was soon commissioned and appointed adjutant. Promoted to captain he was Officer Commanding ‘C’ Squadron in July 1917 when he won his first DSO. He became brigade major of the CCB just a few weeks before Moreuil Wood. He served as commanding officer LSH from 1924 to 1929.

[3] Storz, K., Das Württemberg Feld-Artillerie-Regiment Nr. 238 im Weltkrieg 1914 – 1918, Chr. Belsersche Verlagsbuchandlung, Stuttgart, 1921, p 66.

[4] Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel C.E. Connolly to H.H. Matthews, Editor Canadian Defence Quarterly, 23 March, 1928, NA, RG 24, Vol 1834, file G.A.Q. 9-10.

[5] Anonymous, ‘Notes: Action of ‘B’ Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, At Bois de Moreuille, March 30’, The Cavalry Journal, Vol. XIV, July 1924.

[6] Gnamm, D.H., Das Füsilier-Regiment Kaiser Franz Joseph von Österreich, König von Ungarn, Nr. 122 im Weltkrieg 1914 – 1918, Chr. Belsersche Verlagsbuchandlung, Stuttgart, 1921, p 240.

[7] Lieutenant-Colonel D.J. MacDonald, DSO and two Bars, MC, MiD had started the war as a lieutenant commanding 3rd Troop ‘C’ Squadron, LSH. He commanded his regiment at the end of the war and again from 1919 to 1924. Remaining in the army he rose to the rank of major-general.

[8] A BC fruit farmer, Flowerdew had originally served in the 31st BC Horse. His unit was broken up in Valcartier, most personnel going to LSH. SQMS Flowerdew became a lance corporal in ‘B’ Squadron, his brother Eric a trooper in ‘C’ Squadron. Gordon Flowerdew was commissioned in May 1916.

[9] Seely, Adventure, p 303.

[10] Williams, S.H., Stand To Your Horses, Through the First World War 1914 – 1918 with the Lord Strathconas Horse (Royal Canadians), D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., Altona, Manitoba, 1961, p 204. Lieutenant (Brigadier) F.M.W. Harvey, VC, MC, Croix de Guerre, CD. Lieutenant Harvey who already held the VC would win an MC for his work at Moreuil Wood and finish the war with a Croix de Guerre as well. He went on to command LSH from 1938 to 1940, and served as a brigadier in World War II.  He died in 1980.

[11] Dale, Albert, ‘A Letter to the Editors of the Ottawa ‘Journal’,’ The Strathconian, May 1954, p 16.

[12] Sergeant T. Mackay, MM. The wounds he received at Moreuil Wood were so severe he never served with his regiment again.

[13] War Diary, 238 Field Artillery Regiment, 30 March 1918.

[14] Sergeant (Lieutenant) F.A. Wooster, MM. He won the MM for his work at Moreuil Wood and was one of a group of NCOs commissioned shortly afterward to help make up the shortage of officers. He returned to Canada with his regiment in 1919.

[15] Williams, Op Cit, p 206. Lieutenant R.H. Harrower never returned to regimental duty following his wounding at Moreuil Wood while rescuing Flowerdew.

[16] G. Brooke, The Brotherhood of Arms, William Clowes and Sons Ltd., London, 1941, pp 105, 106.

[17] Lieutenant (Captain) S.H. Williams, MC. He won an MC at Rifle Wood on 1 April 1918. On 24 April 1918, ‘C’ Squadron LSH was asked to pose for artist A.J. Munnings while he created his famous work entitled ‘The Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron’. Williams represented Flowerdew. He survived the war to publish his memoirs in 1961.

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “1918: Moreuil Wood

  1. Trooper David Dobson MM who is mentioned at the end of this report, was my great uncle. Although it was sad to read, it is a new piece of information to add to our research about him. Thank you.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s