MOREUIL WOOD AND WALHACHINAfter I finished Grade 8 my family took a vacation to a place called Dutch Lake just outside of Clearwater not too far from Kamloops. On the way I remember vividly stopping for a picnic lunch in a field at Spence’s Bridge in the Fraser Canyon. My father had an interest in history and, as we sat munching our sandwiches, he spoke about a time just before the First World War when a group of English settlers arrived in the area and built a town with the intent of turning the land into a fruit growing paradise.
Alas the Great War intervened and the men returned to England to join up. Most did not return. The dream of the fruit growing paradise died with the men and the town died too.
I may not have been really paying attention that day. I was after all 14, we were on vacation, and I had a couple of weeks of swimming and canoeing ahead of me. The story did remain hazy in the back of my brain though, but I suppose I largely forgot about it.
I grew up, went to university, got married and started my own family. Years later my job took me to Terrace for a couple of years. On many occasions I drove that oh so long drive between Vancouver and Terrace, sometimes in one marathon session.
The first time I passed through Spence’s Bridge my dad’s story from all those years ago popped back into my head, and it did so on subsequent drives as well. Where was he talking about? He can’t have been referring to Spence’s Bridge because, while there might not be much there, the town did not die. ………..I never did ask my dad about it and when he died in 2003 the opportunity was gone.
About five years ago I was introduced to Bob Mackay. A former submariner in the Canadian navy and now a retired lawyer, he was writing a novel the climax of which was the charge of Lord Strathcona’s Horse at The Battle of Moreuil Wood in March 1918.
Bob’s father had taken part in the charge and had been badly wounded.
Bob’s father’s squadron commander in the Strathconas , Lt Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, was killed in the charge, subsequently being awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The end of the First World War was not like the end of the Second.
In the Second, as the war ground to its conclusion, there was an inevitability that it would end with the total collapse of Nazi Germany.
But in the First World War the final year began with great trepidation in the west.
The end of 1917 had seen Germany knock Russia out of the war.
Though the United States had joined the British and French, it would take time for trained American troops to arrive in sufficient numbers to affect the balance.
The Germans had transferred almost 50 divisions from Russia to the western front and now had a significant superiority in manpower over the British and French.
The British had sustained heavy losses in 1916 and 1917 and in 1918 Prime Minister Lloyd George was reluctant to release additional troops to the army in France fearing a repeat of the casualties of the past two years.
At the same time the French weakness obliged the British to extend the line under their control by relieving French units.
Everyone knew a major German offensive was coming in the spring, but British defensive positions, particularly in those areas recently taken over from the French, were incomplete.
Short of troops the commander of the British Army in France knew he could not be strong everywhere so he kept a larger proportion of his reserves in the north. He needed to be stronger here as, due to the closer proximity of the coast, he had less room to manoeuvre if he was forced to fall back.
This means that further south, not only was the line weakly developed, it was also thinly held.
The first German offensive began on March 21, 1918 and struck hard at the southern end of the British front; the most vulnerable part of the line.
Using specialized shock troops the Germans initially made large territorial gains.
Territory bloodily captured by the British in 1916 was quickly lost in 1918. The British 5th Army was largely destroyed and the Army commander sacked.
The Battle of Moreuil Wood took place at the height of this first German offensive of 1918.
By the morning of March 30 the Germans had occupied Moreuil Wood overlooking the River Arve. Amongst the units being thrown in all along the line to stem the German surge was the Canadian Cavalry Brigade under the command of J E B Seely, a friend of Churchill’s and whose biography is entitled “Galloper Jack”. At 0830 on the morning of the 30th Seely sent his brigade across the River Avre with orders to try and stop ANY German advance.
Throughout the day much of the brigade fought dismounted inside the wood. At times they fought hand to hand, often at bayonet point.
As the Germans were pushed back, C Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, still mounted, under Lt Flowerdew moved around the perimeter of the wood looking to cut off any German retreat.
As they rounded the wood’s north east corner they suddenly found themselves confronted by about 300 Germans armed with rifles and machine guns.
Bob Mackay’s book “Soldier of the Horse” has now been published and I’m going to read you a brief excerpt. Though it is a novel, Bob went to great pains to research the action in which his father took part. It is well worth a read and if you are interested in a copy, I can give you Bob’s website. http://www.robertwmackay.ca.
Flowerdew ripped his sword from its scabbard and waved it overhead. “It’s a charge boys, it’s a charge!”
More horses and men tore up the embankment and into the open. Riders shouted and cursed, struggling to control their excited mounts and get into parallel lines, stirrup to stirrup. Horses spread out, some flinging their heads, nostrils flaring. The mass of men and horses plunged ahead.
Tom reached across his body for his sword and jerked it from its scabbard behind his left thigh, pain stabbing at his left arm. Over the pounding of hooves he heard the scrape of swords as the three troops of cavalry drew their weapons, their horses’ eyes rolling as they thundered on.
A hail of bullets came at the Canadians, and some went down. The men roared as they leaned low over their horses’ necks, bolting towards the Germans. From the corner of his eye Tom saw the youthful trumpeter, Reg Longley, pull up his trumpet to sound the charge, then disappear, his horse cut from under him. (1)
In 2008 I went to Moreuil Wood at Bob’s request. He was still working on his book, I was touring the battlefields and he had some questions about the battle site. He mapped out where he wanted me to go and asked me to take some pictures. I followed the path taken by the Canadian Cavalry Brigade that fateful day and then found the spot where C Squadron’s charge took place. There is a little industrial complex there now covering part of the battlefield and I asked if I could go in to get some pictures of the field where the charge took place. My high school French actually came in handy (JUST) as I explained to the three bemused blue collar workers just why I wanted to take pictures there.
Mon ami en Canada. Son pere dans le Grand Guerre……..
I stood in the field and pondered the bloody melee that had taken place there and the sacrifice of the men from both sides....and of course the horses.
Flowerdew was dead. Bob’s father was grievously wounded and it was thought he would lose his leg. Thankfully he did not.
The German offensive was halted because of desperate actions like this along the whole front as well as a host of other reasons: casualties, exhaustion, lack of supplies, poor strategic direction. Several other offensives would follow and each of these also ground to a halt. By August it was the British, initially with the Canadians and Australians in the forefront, who would take the offensive. By November the Germans, in full retreat and nearing collapse, asked for an armistice.
And there the story seemed to end for me. I had been happy to provide Bob with some minor assistance in his research and also learn something of a fairly obscure action. I now awaited the publication of his book.
One day sometime afterwards I had some spare time on my hands and for some reason decided to fill it by learning something more about the Strathcona’s C Squadron commander, Gordon Flowerdew.
He was born in Billingford Norfolk, England and before the First World War immigrated to British Columbia where he took up ranching. Shortly before the war he and his sister moved to the community of Walhachin in the Fraser Canyon.
The brainchild of American entrepreneur Charles Barnes, he envisioned thousands of acres of lush orchards and an elegant community of gentlemen farmers from England. Walhachin was no ordinary pioneer community. It boasted luxurious amenities that were nearly unheard of in other towns of the era. The Walhachin Hotel had an elegantly appointed dining room, and offered quality accommodations. It also had a strictly enforced dress code. Many of the townspeople lived in fine stone homes with high ceilings and large fireplaces and had servants, maids and valets. In town, there was a Chinese laundry, a polo field, a swimming pool, a skating rink and tennis courts. (2)
By 1914 there were 300 residents.
Located close to….. Spence’s Bridge, the town died as a result of the outbreak of the First World War. You see, most of the men returned to Britain to join up and fight..............
They did not return.
By 1922 the last resident had moved out and the town had died. …………………………….
This is what my father had been talking about all those years ago as we ate our lunch in the field at Spence’s Bridge.
Life is an adventure and I look forward to future CONNECTIONS that complete stories where I currently am only in possession of part of the tale. But with the Walhachin connection, discovered by complete chance, I will end my talk tonight.
Thank you for your time and attention.
(1) Mackay, Robert W., “Soldier of the Horse”, Touchwood Editions, 2011
(2) Walhachin, BC, Wikipedia