Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Willoughby’s solitary remains were undisturbed for sixty-eight years, until they were revealed by Jean-Paul’s plow in 1986. Having discovered the body, and knowing little about the Canadian connection, Jean-Paul duly contacted the local authorities. The body was collected and removed for reburial. The plowing and other farm chores carried on, but Jean-Paul couldn’t put J. J. Willoughby out of his mind. Who was this Canadian, so long resting in an unmarked grave on the rolling hills of Picardy?
In 2007 a Yap Films crew interviewed Jean-Paul for an hour-long documentary, “Man & Horse”, which dealt with the Canadian cavalry in general and Willoughby in particular. In the course of researching for the production, the crew discovered living members of Willoughby’s family, including his great nephew, John James Willoughby of Drayton Valley, Alberta. Yap Films took the younger Willoughby to France to show him where his great-uncle fought and died. In an emotional scene Jean-Paul Brunel came face-to-face with the namesake of the cavalryman whose memory he had worked so hard to preserve. The film crew presented Jean-Paul with a Lord Strathcona’s Horse jacket and cap, which he wears proudly to historical functions.
The French farmer has become a crusader for recognition of Canadian sacrifices on behalf of the people of Moreuil. In 2008 he established “Historial de Moreuil”, a society to study and memorialize the efforts of the Canadians and the battles that surrounded the town in the Great War.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 2)
John James Willoughby was one of thirteen children, raised in Ontario. He was at times a barber and possibly a miner, and in 1914 was sworn in as a member of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. He left the force in 1916, and shortly thereafter joined Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). After training in Winnipeg and England he was taken on strength by the regiment, which was then in the field in France. The Strathconas, along with the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Fort Garry Horse, were the backbone of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, acting under British command. When Willoughby arrived in 1917, the Brigade was spending much of their time in the trenches, augmenting the infantry.
In the spring of 1918, everything changed. The German army made one last, great, convulsive effort, overrunning Allied lines over a forty-mile front. British and French forces were overrun or in retreat. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade, now remounted, was ordered to turn back the German juggernaut, or at least delay it. After nine days of running battles the Brigade reached the ridge overlooking the Avre River and the village of Moreuil. If the Germans were not stopped here, it was feared they would cut the rail line from Amiens to Paris, and irrevocably turn the tide of the war in their favour. Brigadier John Seely flung his troops into a desperate battle for Moreuil Wood, already in the hands of the enemy. The Canadians fought the Germans to a standstill, and eventually drove them back, but at huge cost. The Brigade suffered terrible losses in hand-to-hand battles in the Wood and in a mounted charge by C Squadron of the Strathconas against machineguns and artillery.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
The day dawned clear and bright as French farmer Jean-Paul Brunel prepared for a day’s plowing. He drove his tractor to a field atop a ridge near Moreuil Wood. To the south was the forest, still pockmarked amongst the beech trees by remnants of shell holes from seventy years before. Just visible to the northwest, the city of Amiens caught the early morning light. Rolling hills of the Picardy countryside stretched away east; to the west, the land sloped downhill to the broad, shallow valley of the Avre River and the village of Moreuil. The pastoral scene belied the blood-soaked history of the area for it was here that the Canadian Cavalry Brigade fought a desperate battle in World War One. History was about to intrude on M. Brunel.
Something caught his eye. He stopped his machine and climbed down. A boot, partially rotted and battered, but clearly a boot, was exposed. With a bone still in it. Jean-Paul marked the spot and returned later with a shovel and mattock. It was not unknown for the detritus of war to be heaved to the surface of French fields after spring thaws. Unexploded shells, fragments of weapons, shrapnel—all are regularly recovered and tossed aside by the farmers. Sometimes even bodies.
But this time would be different.
On October 2nd, 1986, Jean-Paul’s mattock clanked against metal, and his searching fingers brushed mud off the remains of a change purse and small collection of coins. American, French, and Canadian coins. Further excavation turned up .303 ammunition, a spur, and buckles. Next came the skeletal remains of a body, along with a metal shoulder badge and identity disks. The remains now had a name—John James Willoughby. The shoulder badge identified Willoughby as a trooper of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), one of three regiments that made up the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Jean-Paul stood and gazed west, the direction from which Willoughby and the rest of the Brigade would have approached the ridge. He was taken off guard by a tear that trickled down his cheek.
* * *
Monday, March 14, 2011
At left above is the proud author and wife Pat, together with Barney Flowerdew, nephew of Gordon Flowerdew, VC, who had such a pivotal role in the Battle of Moreuil Wood and therefore in the book itself.
The launch took place in the hall of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 6, Cloverdale; an appropriate place for all kinds of reasons.
Friday, March 11, 2011
I just had an email from Sidney Allinson, who blogs under "warwriting", re Steven Spielberg's latest epic, due out late this year. Very interesting article in British newspaper at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1365183/Steven-Spielbergs-War-Horse-Jeremy-Irvine-picked-epic-movie.html
Readers of Soldier of the Horse will be interested, for sure.
Readers of Soldier of the Horse will be interested, for sure.