Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 4 of 4)

March 30th, 2008, was the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Moreuil Wood. On that date the author and his wife stood beside the spot where Willoughby’s body was found. With us were thirty French villagers, a small band, and French veterans. A minute’s silence was punctuated by a distant gunshot. Then, as we stood with heads bared in the cold, damp wind, the skirl of a pipe was heard. Two figures, a piper and a bugler in First War Highland uniform appeared over the ridge and marched toward us. The piper’s lament gave way to the bugler, and the Canadian flag was raised over Willoughby’s memorial beside the Bois du Moreuil. The French veterans bearing regimental flags stood at attention as wreaths were laid.
Jean-Paul, wearing his Strathconas jacket and cap, spoke to the gathering about the Canadian sacrifices made on that spot ninety years before. Even twenty-two years after the discovery of Willoughby’s unmarked grave, tears rolled down his cheeks. The determination of Jean-Paul and those citizens of Moreuil to commemorate Canadian sacrifices forged a bond for all present. Jean-Paul moved us all that day, Canadians and French alike.
In 2010 Jean-Paul visited Fort Steele, the home of the present-day Strathconas. There, in an emotional ceremony before the commanding officer, he presented relics found with the body of the trooper killed in 1918 to his namesake, John Willoughby, and other members of his family.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 3)

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?
Jean-Paul Brunel had some sense of history. His grandmother had told him stories about when she was a young woman during World War One, driving a vehicle to carry soldiers to the front. He knew the village of Moreuil had been flattened, battered to heaps of rubble by German artillery, leaving but one building barely standing. Jean-Paul had a soft spot for Canadians fostered by early travels when he met several in youth hostels. He respected the sacrifices of Canadians who had fought and died in France in two world wars to protect the French and French soil.
Jean-Paul tried to trace Willoughby’s descendants in Canada, but was unsuccessful. As the years went by, Jean-Paul got on with his life. But he kept the Willoughby artifacts close, safe in storage in his office. The regimental badge, the spur, the live ammunition tugged at him, reminding him of unanswered questions. Slowly, his interest in the battles of the First War grew.

In order to mark the spot where he had discovered the remains of trooper Willoughby, Jean-Paul set up a moving memorial. Located at the side of his field, it backs onto a corner of Moreuil Wood within feet of ancient shellholes and trenches. Facing the field are reproductions of paintings of the Canadian cavalry, mounted to form a cross. Rusted British and German helmets are hung either side, with the bulk of the installation made up of native rock and wicked-looking unexploded munitions.

In 2004 his interest accelerated. Friends and fellow amateur historians had organized a memorial to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. They erected and dedicated a cairn a mile from Moreuil Wood. In attendance were representatives of the present-day Fort Garry Horse, one of the regiments that had been part of the Brigade. Jean-Paul was invited, as the man who had discovered Willoughby’s remains, to take part in the ceremony. In a solemn and emotional moment for Jean-Paul the Garrys, walking the route of the long-ago Brigade, came upon Willoughby’s memorial at the edge of Jean-Paul’s field—and saluted.

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.
In the course of the battle many young Canadians died. Willoughby was among them. Precisely how he came to be buried in an unmarked spot is unknown. He may have succumbed to wounds, then been entombed by earth thrown up by exploding artillery shells. Officially, he was among the missing. His name is still chiselled on the face of the Vimy Memorial, among the 11,284 other Canadian soldiers “the site of whose graves is unknown”.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 1)

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.
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Monday, March 14, 2011

"Soldier of the Horse" launched

A rambunctious crowd was on hand for the launch of "Soldier of the Horse", my first published novel, which had its genesis in the brutal battlefields of northern France in the Great War. Many thanks to all those friends and family who turned out for the occasion, and to the good people at TouchWood Editions who made it all come together.

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
Readers of Soldier of the Horse will be interested, for sure.