March 30th marks the 100th anniversary of the one of the most dramatic battles for Canadians during the First World War. This was the Battle of Moreuil Wood, which saw the last great cavalry charge in modern warfare. However, despite the tremendous drama and the incredible valour shown by the Canadian troops, this is a battle which is often not remembered.
In early 1918, the Germans were bolstered by the end of fighting on the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia into revolution.
Consequently, on March 21st, 1918, the Germans launched a great assault on the Western Front, dubbed Operation Michael. They initially had great success.
They soon achieved the largest advances by any side since 1914.
On March 30th, the British attempted to halt the Germans at the Arve River. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade along with the British 3 Cavalry Division, was deployed to push the 23 Saxon Division out of Moreuil Wood.
Included in the assault were the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Fort Garry Horse and Lord Strathcona Horse.
The Germans were protected by the trees and were well armed with machine guns.
Consequently, the Canadians had to use fierce hand-to-hand combat, often with bayonets, swords and pistols, to try and dislodge them. As to be expected, progress was slow and very bloody. However, gradually, the Canadians seemed to gain the upper hand.
Men from C Squadron of the Lord Strathcona Horse were dispatched to the northeast corner of the Wood to cut off any German units which might be retreating eastwards.
As they reached their assigned position, C Squadron came across two lines of the German 101st Grenadiers, who were heavily armed with machine guns.
Seizing the moment, Lieut. Gordon Flowerdew, the commanding officer, ordered a cavalry charge. The attack was launched even though the unit’s bugler was cut down by enemy fire before he could sound the call.
The enemy fire was withering, but the Canadians maintained their charge through both lines.
The Germans became disorientated and demoralized. Believing themselves to be increasingly surrounded, the German unit broke.
Thus, the Canadians had won a dramatic and thrilling victory, but at a horrific cost.
C Squadron suffered more than 70% casualties, with only 51 men who took part in the charge still alive. Flowerdew himself was fatally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his incredible valour.
The senior non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) of C Squadron was Reginald ‘Rex’ Tetley of Pine Lake. He had served with the Royal North West Mounted Police before he had enlisted in February 1917 with the 15 Light Horse.
He was later transferred to the Lord Strathcona Horse. Tetley was seriously wounded with a gunshot wound to the head during the famous cavalry charge. Fortunately, by the end of the War, he was able to return to Red Deer and Pine Lake.
A local man who was not as fortunate was Frank Holt. Like Tetley, he had served with the R.N.W.M.P. He had enlisted at Red Deer in January 1915 with the 12 Canadian Mounted Rifles. He got married to a local school teacher, Annie Patterson, just before leaving for overseas.
Holt was later transferred into the Lord Strathcona Horse and was part of the Battle of Moreuil Wood. He was killed in action just as the Battle was coming to a close on April 2nd.
His widow, Annie Holt, who had been waiting for him in England, went home to Red Deer, where she resumed teaching school. She never remarried.
The fighting at Moreuil Wood and nearby Rifle Wood helped to stem the overall German advance.
Soon, the great German offensive faltered and then stopped. The fierceness of Canadian and British resistance had been unexpected. Moreover, the German army had been unable to forward supplies fast enough to keep up with the rapidly changing front
In the end, both sides had suffered heavy losses and were exhausted.
However, the Allies, bolstered by fresh American troops, soon launched a successful counter-attack. The depleted German forces were unable to stem the assault. It finally seemed that the Great War might be coming to an end.