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”.

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