Travel Reminiscing - Battle of Moreuil Wood Centennial
On March 30, 2018 we were in Moreuil, a small town in northeast France, not far from the city of Amiens. Arriving the previous day at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we rented a car and made the one hour and twenty-minute drive to Moreuil. We would be spending the next six days in the Moreuil area before returning to Paris to join up with a Viking River Cruise tour that would take us through the Bordeaux region.
We were there to attend the Centennial commemoration ceremonies in honor of the Battle of Moreuil Wood, fought on 30 March 1918. This was a battle that my grandfather David Lee Wetmore fought in as a cavalry trooper with the Royal Canadian Dragoons cavalry regiment.
Honoring my Grandfather's actions in the Battle of Moreuil Wood
So how is it that we ended up being invited to this event in a small town in France?
After my dad died in 2003, I inherited a couple of boxes and binders with papers and short stories written by my grandfather. Many of his short stories were about his experiences in World War One. Most of these stories were illustrated with his own hand-drawn sketches. He wrote these stories in the 1940’s and 1950’s from his recollections, but there was no date or other historical context to try to identify any specific battle or events. Just a common soldier telling stories.
Back in 2010 I transcribed most of his stories to create a blog. The blog called “Shadylawn”, the name he gave his very humble home in Methuen, Massachusetts, very quickly got a response from Robert Mackay, a Canadian author. Bob and I started corresponding, and he introduced me to his historical novel “Soldier of the Horse” about a WW1 Canadian Cavalry soldier. Bob’s dad was in the Lord Strathcona's Horse regiment, a regiment that participated in the Battle of Moreuil Wood, and from Bob I learned about the significance of this battle and saw that some of my grandfather’s stories may have been derived from this battle. The Battle of Moreuil Wood is significant in that it is considered the last cavalry charge of modern warfare.
During our email conversations, Bob connected me by email to a French farmer named Jean Paul Brunel. Jean Paul is from Moreuil and tends to fields that are the former battlefields. In this part of France, it is not uncommon for farmers to uncover war artifacts when they are plowing and preparing the fields each Spring. In fact, Jean Paul has a collection of rusted war implements in a personal museum.
In the 1986 Jean-Paul found the remains of a Lord Strathcona Horse trooper, John Willoughby, who was listed as dead, but who's body was never recovered. After a number of years of research Willoughby's descendants were located in Edmonton and the remains were returned to Edmunton for full military burial. Jean-Paul traveled to Edmonton to meet the Willoughby family and he was embraced by the Strathcona Regiment.
Fast forward to 2013, we were planning a trip to visit our daughter, at the time she was working in Frankfurt Germany. We wanted to do a driving tour to Normandy, then on to Epernay and the Champagne district of France. I contacted Jean Paul to see if we could stop in to meet him and he was emphatic that we visit. Jean Paul greeted us with so much enthusiasm. He speaks French, we don't, but we all managed to communicate. He has a small building on his farm dedicated to his war research. It's like a small museum of war artifacts. Rusted German and British helmets, spent shell casings, bits of uniforms, lots of things collected from the fields over the years. He brought us out to the battlefield site along the edge of Mureuil Wood where he has erected a memorial to the fallen. We took pictures with the Royal Canadian Dragoon regimental flag. It was great that we got the chance to visit. Since that time Jean Paul and I connected on Facebook and I could follow his activities related to the Moreuil Battle.
Our 2013 visit with Jean Paul Brunel
As 2018 was approaching Jean Paul was heavily involved in the planning for a Centennial commemoration for the battle. It was in late 2017 when we were invited to attend the official Moreuil commemoration activities that would be taking place March 29-31, 2018. We made the plans and it was an honor to be included to represent my grandfather at this event.
During the massive March-April 2018 German offensive there was chaos all along the front in Northern France. French, British, Canadian, Australian and other Allied units were being pushed back towards Paris. In a wooded area on a ridge above the town of Moreuil France German units took positions that overlooked a main rail line from Amiens to Paris and threatened to cut off this vital link. Units of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB), commanded by British Brigadier-General Jack Seely were assembling nearby after a long fighting withdrawal in the face of the powerful German advance. It was decided to push the Germans out of Moreuil Wood.
The Canadian horse cavalry regiments including Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), Lord Strathcona Horse (LSH) and Fort Gary Horse (FGH) charged across open fields under heavy machinegun and artillery fire towards the German positions in the thick woods. The RCD, including “A” Squadron (my grandfather’s squad) galloped into the north part of the wood and had to dismount and engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat. LSH “C” Squadron led by Lt. Flowerdew made a daring charge around the NE side of the wood. Flowerdew was cut down during the charge and mortally wounded. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Flowerdews’ sergeant, Tom Mackay (Bob's dad), continued the charge while suffering numerous gunshot wounds.
"Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron" by Sir Alfred Munnings
Royal Canadian Dragoons attack German positions in Moreuil Wood, 30 March 1918.... Painting by: Sergeant A. E. King, an eyewitness to the action.
Riders with the Royal Canadian Dragoons charge through Moreuil Wood in a painting by Canadian artist John Climer.
Moreuil Centennial Events
As mentioned at the beginning, we drove from Paris airport to Moreuil on 29 March 2018, arriving at an equestrian arena late morning. There we met up with Bob Mackay, first time we met in person. The Lord Strathona Horse regimental equestrian unit was practicing and we got to meet some of the Canadian soldiers as well. We had lunch with Bob and got caught up with the upcoming schedule of events. Jetlag was setting in, so we left Bob and headed to our B&B, L'Hortensia Blanc, in the nearby village of Hangest-en-Santerre, we would call it a day and eagerly awaited the next day's activities, especially the cavalry charge reenactment.
March 30th we headed out to the battlefield site for the ceremonies and the cavalry charge. We drove up the dirt (muddy) road along with many others to a clearing that was setup for parking. From there it was about a half mile walk to the ceremony site. This time of year there is a lot of slippery mud in these fields, so it was quite messy under foot.
As the crowd gathered awaiting the start of the ceremonies, the Lord Strathcona Horse mounted unit was lined up for photo opportunities, troopers were in World War 1 uniforms. Various units marched out to the site as the ceremony began. More Canadian soldiers marched in along with the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band, delegation of French, British and Canadian Veterans groups carrying the flags of various regiments. A group of local school children march to the ceremony site carrying miniature Canadian flags.
The Cavalry Charge Reenactment
Sharing a picture of my grandfather and his actual spurs with Sergeant Kruhlak
March 31st was the final day of Centennial commemoration events. It started with a late morning parade through Moreuil ending at the city hall and War Memorial plaza. Canadian troops marched smartly along with the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band to the City Hall where the mayor of Moreuil presented the keys to the city to the Lord Strathcona Horse regiment. Two mounted troopers stood guard at the city hall door. After speeches, a memorial service was held in the nearby church. The Lord Strathcona honor guard, in brilliant red coat uniforms and golden royal helmets, stood at attention outside the church offering great photo opportunities.
At night there was the final event, a dinner and closing ceremonies. It was a chance to mingle, had some great conversations with the young soldiers of the regiment. At dinner we sat with some of the descendants of John J. Willoughby, and also met two grandsons of Brigadier General Seely. It was a very festive night with entertainment from the pipe band and a local jazz group providing lively music. The closing ceremony ended with the Strathcona's Commanding Officer and the Regimental Sergeant Major presenting Jean Paul with gifts and a plaque to recognize his efforts in bringing together the Centennial events. A visibly emotional Jean Paul gave his final remarks, he should be very proud to see the results of what he started back in 1986.
This trip for me was so important and moving, all of the events and activities were so much enjoyed and appreciated. But I must say, the cavalry charge reenactment was the most meaningful. To stand at the spot where, 100 years earlier, my grandfather charged at full gallop along with 1000 other troops into the face of heavy machinegun fire, was a very humbling experience. He made it through, while others fell, and because of his luck and fortune, I was able to be there to honor all those brave men so long ago.
The following are some videos describing the Battle of Moreuil Wood, story of John J. Willoughby, and the Centennial commemorations of March 30-31, 2018.
Canadian Forces News Clip
Historical Background, the story of John J. Willoughby and the Heroic Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron
The Centennial Events