It was hailed as the cavalry charge that turned defeat into decisive victory in the spring of 1918. But the truth about Gordon Flowerdew’s heroic ride is shrouded in myth. Steve Snelling charts the extraordinary story of one of the last mounted attacks on the Western Front.
The slaughter had barely ceased and all along the wooded ridge was wild confusion. Bullets split the air, shells chased blood-smeared and mostly riderless horses. A cavalry charge as brave and desperate as any in history had descended into chaos. The ground south-east of Amiens was strewn with dead and wounded; men and animals forming a grisly mosaic before a makeshift German position bristling with machine guns.
During a mad few minutes in the “mocking spring sunshine” of Easter Saturday 1918 a squadron of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) had been shattered in a whirlwind of fire. A third had been killed, most the remainder hit, several fatally. But from that hell a few emerged, dazed with shock, to reach the covering shelter of the wood.
Among them was the squadron’s farrier. Sergeant D Watson was on foot, leading his faithful horse, its flesh torn to tatters, when he stumbled across his commanding officer somewhere in the midst of that tangle of blasted trees. “Sir,” he reported bleakly, “the boys is all gone.” The shock was tangible. So, too, was the sense of disaster his terse account conjured. Others, however, drew different conclusions. They presented an altogether different version of the charge at Moreuil Wood, one more heroic than catastrophic. It would colour people’s impressions for decades.
‘Carry on boys’
The rendering of an apparently forlorn small-scale action into a pivotal struggle owed much to the presentational skill of John Edward Bernard Seely, politician, soldier and best-selling author of a celebrated equine war memoir regarded by some as the real-life inspiration for the novel War Horse.
As Brigadier General Jack Seely, astride his redoubtable and seemingly indestructible mount, Warrior, he had commanded the Canadian Cavalry Brigade during the dark days of the Spring Offensive of 1918. Fourteen years on, he recalled those momentous events at a widely-reported gathering designed to publicise his autobiographical study covering his years of command. The image he sketched was graphic and grim. It was a picture of disintegration and despair as the British gains, painfully won by two years’ attritional warfare, were surrendered in little more than a week.
Chaotic retreat threatened to become a rout, involving the collapse of a significant portion of the army. In reality, Seely informed his audience, the Allies’ plight was even worse. “The Germans,” he declared, “had won the war completely, definitely and finally on 30 March 1918, but did not know it…” They remained oblivious to this ‘fact’, he insisted, due only to the courageous enterprise of a “young boy… the son of an Eastern counties parson” who, in his vivid description, literally rode to the Allied armies rescue and, at heavy cost, stemmed the enemy tide with an act of supreme self-sacrifice that “may have deflected the whole course of history”.
The audience was transfixed as the general recounted the story. Mostly, however, he spoke of the gallant “boy” whose daring intervention at the critical moment had, in his estimation, transformed British fortunes. He quoted from the officer’s own journal, a record he described as “the diary of a gentleman who played a wonderful part in the greatest battle in history”, and he recited his last reported words as a phalanx of men and horses swept over his wounded body: “Carry on boys. We have won.”
To sustained applause, Seely sank back into his chair, tears streaming down his face. It had been a bravura performance that made headlines — with extraordinary consequences.
Within days, the leader of the charge was hailed a hero all over again by magazines and newspapers. Fact and fiction merged and the story became legend. From being the officer credited with turning defeat into victory at Moreuil Wood, the Norfolk-born Canadian cavalryman became a posthumous sensation as “the man who won the war”.
The truth about Gordon Muriel Flowerdew and the 75 men of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse who charged on an embattled French ridge is altogether more complicated, but no less remarkable.
To begin with, Flowerdew was not quite the romanticised character portrayed by Seely. The son of a gentleman farmer from the Norfolk village of Billingford, he was far from being the “young boy” of Seely’s story. In fact, at the time of his last and most memorable action, he was a 33-year-old squadron commander hardened by years of toil in the Canadian west and on the battlefields of France and Flanders. The eighth of 10 sons, four of whom volunteered to fight the Boers, he emigrated to Canada, aged 18, in 1903, not in search of adventure but of a cure for his poor health.
Shortly after leaving school at Framlingham College, he had contracted pleurisy and it was considered the wide open spaces of Canada might act as a restorative. Working his way across the prairie lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta, he eventually wound up in a pioneering settlement on the edge of the Rockies. Walhachin, British Columbia, was a ‘Little England’ populated by a band of gentlemen horticulturists who included among their number the sixth Marquis of Anglesey, Lord Victor Paget, and descendants of King George V, Cecil Rhodes and the British prime minister Herbert Asquith.
Described as a Canadian ‘Camelot’, the aristocratic community discovered in Gordon Flowerdew its own Sir Galahad. Daring and dashing, 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.
Flowerdew’s rise mirrored his equestrian prowess. One of 44 (out of a male settler population of 45) who volunteered from Walhachin, he was swiftly transferred to the Lord Strathcona’s Horse and from lance-corporal to sergeant in seven months. Dismounted service on the Western Front, where Canadian cavalry units helped make up for infantry shortages, neither dulled his enthusiasm nor stunted progress.
A soldier by instinct, he displayed stoicism, manning trenches where “the water was well over my knees”, and fearlessness, leading night patrols across no-man’s-land. On one such foray he resorted to clubbing an enemy soldier with his revolver after forgetting to remove the safety catch. The result was one finger smashed between revolver and steel helmet and two prisoners secured. His leadership skills earned him a commission, but opportunities for further distinction were few and far between. By spring 1916, the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, having resumed its mounted role, was among those cavalry units held back in the hope of exploiting a breakthrough that seemed to be a distant prospect. “I very much doubt,” he wrote home prophetically, “if the war is more than half over.”
Fleeting hopes of a return to open warfare following early successes around Arras and Cambrai in 1917 proved transitory. It was no little irony, therefore, that his only chance to lead a classic cavalry charge should result not from a British but from a German breakthrough.
The so-called Kaiserschlacht, launched on 21 March 1918, struck a devastating blow against the thinly spread, overstretched British positions in front of St Quentin, occupied largely by Fifth Army. In the first day alone, the massed German army advanced over four miles and took more than 20,000 prisoners.
As resistance crumbled and shattered formations fell back across the old Somme battlefield, the three divisions of the Cavalry Corps became the only reserve, with three Canadian units forming an 800-strong battalion. Part of a dismounted cavalry brigade commanded by Jack Seely, the makeshift unit’s CO was Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacDonald and its 337-strong Strathcona’s element was led by Major Jackie Tatlow until he was killed by a sniper on 23 March. Command now devolved upon Gordon Flowerdew.
The next four days were a blur of rearguard actions fought behind canals and riverbanks as stragglers streamed back. With the crisis threatening to become a catastrophe, Flowerdew, a squadron commander of just two months standing, rose to the challenge. According to MacDonald, he displayed the “greatest skill and coolness” throughout a relentless battle that was constantly in danger of sliding out of control. “The situation was such,” wrote MacDonald, “that a mistake on the part of a leader would have at once brought disaster to the men he led, but in this case, although the troops under Gordon were the last troops to cross south of the Oise, yet they were withdrawn intact, and none of our wounded fell into enemy hands.”
Plugging gaps in the fragmented lines held by 18th Division before being briefly placed under French command, Flowerdew’s cavalrymen helped cover a shrinking bridgehead over the Canal de la Somme through which the French were struggling to save their artillery. The withdrawal accomplished, the dismounted Canadians were pulled to Carlespont where and reunited with their horses and the rest of the brigade under Seely’s command.
Far from being dismayed by recent events, Flowerdew was in buoyant mood. To his “dearest mother”, he wrote: “Have been a bit busy lately, so haven’t been able to write… The weather is still very good, but very keen at night. Have had the most wonderful experiences lately. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything…”
The following day, having resumed command of C Squadron, he rode out in advance of the brigade through a desolate landscape to near Welles Perrennes amid reports of a developing attack on the junction between the British and French armies. Fears of another breakthrough proved unfounded and, aside from a few minor and confused clashes with friendly as well as enemy forces, 28 March passed uneventfully. The next day the brigade was diverted to Guyencourt, where Flowerdew and his men spent a fitful night’s sleep with instructions to ‘Stand to your horses’ and to be ready to move at 05.30.
‘Engage and delay’
30 March dawned cold, dull and cheerless with the ground shrouded in fog. Orders to mount having been countermanded, there was a pause while Seely was briefed about a rapidly deteriorating situation and the desperate measures required to avert a disaster. “The Germans had captured Mezieres and were rapidly advancing on Amiens,” the Brigade war diarist noted. “The Brigade was to cross the Noye and the Avre rivers as quickly as possible and engage and delay the enemy.”
In fact, 23rd Saxon Division were within 20 kilometres of Amiens, a key communications centre, with another division advancing towards the strategically important high ground that dominated not just the approaches to the city but the main railway link running to Paris. Seely set off immediately, leading his brigade over the Avre at Castel where he found the commander of the French 125th Division preparing defences, but with little confidence of holding the Germans who were already swarming over the wooded slopes of Moreuil Ridge just across the river.
It was, as Seely put it, “the supreme event in my life”. Recalling the moment, he recorded: “I believed that if nothing were done the retreat would continue, and the war would be lost.” His opening gambit to his French senior was blunt. “We must retake Moreuil ridge,” he declared. The Frenchman agreed, but was equally certain it could not be done with the forces at their disposal. Seely’s powers of persuasion won the day: he convinced the French to hold while the Canadian cavalry pushed across the Avre towards the sprawling tangle of leafless ash and beech trees that stretched from the flattish crest of the ridge to within a kilometre of Moreuil.
His orders were simple and unambiguous. One squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons was to veer to the right of the wood and occupy the south-east corner, while two squadrons were to move to the left and seize the north-eastern fringe followed by the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, whose men faced the toughest task of all. For while one squadron was to gallop right round the north-eastern reaches and charge enemy reinforcements pouring into the wood before occupying the eastern edge, the remaining two squadrons were to press on into the wood and fight through from the southern tip to the point on the eastern side, hopefully, by then secured by their comrades.
Having issued his orders, Seely, his aide-de-camp, an orderly and his signal troop galloped through enemy fire across a field to the southern point of the wood. By the time his red pennant had been planted in the ground five of his headquarters party were already casualties, but he was in time to witness the en-masse approach of his brigade. He later wrote: “It is curious how galloping horses seem to magnify in power and number; it looked like a great host sweeping forward over the open country.”
From then on there was little let up. At 09.30, the three squadrons of the Royal Canadian Dragoons began fighting into the wood. The clashes were fierce. One troop, driven out by heavy machine gun fire, charged again on foot, with bayonets. The Germans, many of them young soldiers belonging to 8 Company, 2nd Battalion, 101st Grenadiers, were stunned.
As the squadrons splintered, the fighting developed into a series of small-scale actions, some of them desperate hand-to-hand affairs with no quarter asked for nor given. Major Reg Timmis’ B Squadron caught it worst. His objective was to encircle the wood and attack from the east, but galling fire tore into men and horses, forcing him to wheel right and then left. It was all to no avail. The curtain of fire seemed impenetrable and the remnants of Timmis’ battered squadron were forced to admit defeat. Survivors were straggling back from the bloody repulse when Seely intervened.
The Strathcona’s were preparing to follow the example of some of the Dragoons by dismounting and advancing on foot. But Seely was convinced the original plan could work. He wanted a second attempt to be made to get men round to stem the flow of reinforcements reaching the troops embattled inside the wood. The task fell to Flowerdew’s C Squadron. To succeed where Timmis’ had failed, the English lieutenant knew he had to limit the time his Canadian horsemen would be exposed.
His plan was to head for a draw, a narrow cutting running along the north-east corner of the wood, which at least afforded a measure of natural cover as his squadron approached their objective. He ordered his second-in-command, Lieutenant Fred Harvey, a lanky, powerfully built Irish-born rancher with a couple of international rugby caps and a Victoria Cross to his name, to forge ahead with his troop, and before following on he was joined by Seely who rode up alongside him.
The two men were well-acquainted. Flowerdew had served on Seely’s staff where his willingness to work hard and shoulder responsibility had been noted. Seely had absolute faith in the ability of ‘Flowers’, as he was known throughout the brigade. He merely wanted to be sure his instructions were fully understood and to offer moral support. “As we rode along together,” Seely later wrote, “I told him his was the most adventurous task of all, but I was confident he would succeed. With his gentle smile he turned to me and said: ‘I know, sir, I know, it is a splendid moment. I will try not to fail you.”
At the north-east tip of the wood Seely bade him farewell and watched C Squadron ride away until they were lost to sight in the mist-shrouded draw.
‘It’s a charge’
By the time Flowerdew caught up with Harvey’s troop the first clash had already taken place. Four or five Germans caught unawares looting a French transport wagon had been put to the sword by Harvey’s men.
Having reached the edge of the wood and come under fire, Harvey ordered his men to dismount. They were in the process of starting after “a big bunch of Germans” inside the wood when the rest of the squadron led by Flowerdew arrived. “I told him the situation,” recalled Harvey, “and said I thought we could drive them out. Flowers said, ‘Go ahead and we will go around the end mounted and catch them when they come out’.”
The “scrap”, as Harvey called it, was well and truly on. While the dismounted Strathcona’s pitched into the wood, Flowerdew gathered the remaining three troops of his squadron, around 75 men, and led them up a steep bank out of the draw and into the open. As he crested the rise, Flowerdew made a startling discovery. Where he expected to find a disorganised mob desperately fleeing Harvey’s bayonet attack, he saw instead a solid line of German troops, hundreds strong, barely 300 yards distant. The Germans were no less surprised. The 300 or so men from the 101st Grenadier Regiment, bolstered by artillery and a machine gun section, had been warned to prepare for an attack by tanks, not horsemen.
Flowerdew’s decision was never in doubt. The ‘splendid moment’ had arrived, though not quite in the manner anticipated. An attack on such a well-armed and alerted enemy was tantamount to suicide, but to attempt to retreat in full view at such close range, as well as being anathema to him, was liable to be almost as costly. According to the Strathcona’s’ diarist, he acted “without any hesitation”.
Trooper Albert Dale, a member of 4th Troop, later recalled that split-second. “Flowerdew half-turned in his saddle and shouted, ‘It’s a charge, boys, it’s a charge’.”
Behind him, Trooper Reg Longley raised his bugle to blow the call, but it never sounded. The 22-year-old bank clerk from Manitoba was dead before it reached his lips, the first casualty of the charge. As man and horse crumpled, Dale was forced to leap their prone bodies. Everything after that, according to Dale, took place amid a blur of “speed and fury”. Writing about it 30 years later, he had a “hazy” recollection of seeing Flowerdew and his horse falling as the survivors swept over them. “Everything seemed unreal,” he recalled, “the shouting of men, the moans of the wounded, the pitiful crying of the wounded and dying horses. When I woke up I was pinned under my horse which was mercifully dead.”
Accounts of the action vary. The official citation for Flowerdew’s subsequently awarded Victoria Cross portrays the attack as a ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in miniature, with rifle and machine gun fire directed from the front and both flanks crippling but failing to stop the rush. It claimed the cavalrymen hacked their way through “two lines” of Germans, “killing many… with the sword”, then wheeled about and “galloped on them again” until “the enemy broke and retired”.
According to the Brigade war diary many of the Germans, who “showed no signs of surrender”, were killed by Flowerdew’s men as they “ran out to meet them with the bayonet”.
Seely put the number of Germans killed by “sword thrust alone” at 70 and claimed to have seen around 200-300 more victims of machine gun fire, although he did not say whose guns they were. The only machine guns mentioned in other accounts were German, with the Strathcona’s’ war diarist estimating the chargers were confronted by the “murderous fire” of about 20 such weapons from among a force that “showed no sign of wavering”.
Survivors’ bear witness only to the confusion and the slaughter. Sergeant Fred Wooster was one of the few to emerge unscathed. He claimed to have fought his way into and out of the lines of German infantry, thrusting and clubbing all in his path before picking his way among the dead and dying to the rear. So numerous were the losses he thought for a time he was “perhaps, a sole survivor”.
Another sergeant, Tom Mackay, considered himself fortunate to have escaped with more than a hundred wounds. According to Lieutenant Luke Williams, who later collected eyewitness accounts of the action, the action was far-removed from the glorious charge portrayed by war artist Alfred Munnings in his celebrated painting.
Recalling a scene of chaos and carnage, he observed the only thing that seemed to stand out was “that the horses, no doubt catching the excitement from the men, became entirely unmanageable and simply bolted”. He cited the experience of the officer commanding 4th Troop who only succeeded in regaining control of his horse after the charge “was completely smashed”. A sergeant from the same troop was last seen heading in totally the wrong direction, straight towards a German-held village, while another trooper was spared a similar fate only by a comrade who galloped after him and succeeded in bringing him back safely.
The question of how many Strathcona’s actually reached the enemy position remains a matter of conjecture. German accounts are in sharp conflict with the British version of events. Dismissing the action as being of little importance, one German officer merely observed that “the attack was bloodily repulsed, the last rider falling dead from his saddle 200 yards from the rifle muzzles of No 8 Company”. The Grenadiers’ regimental history broadly agrees, stating: “The last horses collapsed 200 metres in front of the company, only one horse and two wounded troopers reached our lines.”
Casualties were certainly heavy. An official record reckoned that 70% of the chargers were killed or wounded. In fact, 24 had been killed, with 15 dying later from wounds. Of the 36 survivors, few emerged unscathed.
For all the undoubted chaos, there are grounds for believing the British claims that, against all the odds, the surprise attack launched by Flowerdew had, at least in the short term, consequences advantageous to the Canadians’ struggle for Moreuil Wood. Both Flowerdew’s citation and the Brigade war diary made reference to the action’s contribution to the successful “capture of the position” while the Strathcona’s’ diarist wrote of its “moral effect” on the enemy troops fighting in the wood. “Hearing the clatter of hooves behind them and thinking themselves surrounded,” he noted, “their resistance to our dismounted troops weakened considerably…”
Seely went further. In a letter written a month later, he credited Flowerdew and his chargers with the largest share of the victory. “His splendid courage and fearless leading,” he wrote, “turned the fortunes of that fateful day.” What is certain is that by 11.00 hours on 30 March, following hours of bitter fighting, all of the wood bar the southernmost tip was in Canadian hands. The last Germans were finally ejected by the 16th Lancers, vanguard of the British 3rd Cavalry Brigade.
Seely’s battered brigade — he had lost more than 300 men and 800 horses killed — was withdrawn into reserve to be eventually showered with honours. Their victory, however, proved little more than a delaying action. The following day the Germans renewed their attack and recaptured most of Moreuil Wood which they would continue to hold until the Allies’ war-winning summer offensive. And what of the man who led the charge? Gordon Flowerdew had fallen from his saddle with two bullets in his chest and grievous wounds to both thighs and yet, according to Seely, had the strength to shout to his men as they surged over him.
Still conscious when he was recovered, he lived just long enough to know his actions had contributed to the wood’s temporary capture. The next day, his commanding officer, found him lying on a stretcher at No.41 Casualty Clearing Station, near Amiens. “He… knew how serious his wounds were,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald. “He had the satisfaction, though, of knowing how great was the service which he and his squadron had rendered towards stopping the Germans and was content.
“When they took him away to the operating theatre, about ten o’clock on Easter Sunday morning, I asked him if there were anything I could do for him or any messages, and he said: ‘Nothing’.”
It was the last word he heard him utter. Shortly afterwards, the leader of one of the last British cavalry charges on the Western Front succumbed.
So, passed the hero of Moreuil Wood.
A posthumous Victoria Cross would recognise his “great valour”. In Jack Seely’s estimation, his final act had been “not only one of the bravest, but also one of the most decisive of the war.” However, contrary to the hype generated by Seely’s post-war publicity tours, Flowerdew had not “won the war”, nor had he been responsible for halting a German offensive that was already fast losing momentum.
None of that, though, in any way diminishes the courage displayed by either he or the 75 men who sought to follow his lead by charging a more heavily-armed enemy force three times larger than themselves, with a degree of determination and self-sacrifice which, on occasions, may have been equalled but seldom surpassed.