Although the opera Mary's Wedding and the play on which it is based are fictional, the character of Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Gordon Flowerdew is historical, and the battle of Moreuil Wood, which is a pivotal event in the opera, actually took place. On March 30, 1918, Flowerdew carried out one of the last great cavalry assaults in history, leading a squadron of Lord Strathcona's Horse, armed with sabres, against German rifles and machine guns. The Canadians helped to stop the German offensive, but at enormous cost. Nearly three-quarters of the Canadian cavalry involved in this attack against German machine-gun positions at Moreuil Wood were killed or wounded. Flowerdew himself died from his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Following Flowerdew's death, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of all Allies armies in Europe during 1918, reportedly commented that Flowerdew's charge at Moreuil Wood possibly deflected the whole course of history.
When what later was called the Great War broke out, Canada had two regular force cavalry regiments, the Royal Canadian Dragoons based in Ontario, and Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) in the west. Originally raised privately by Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona, of CPR fame) for war in South Africa, the Strathconas were disbanded after the Boer War. The name lived on when it was adopted by the Canadian army's western cavalry unit before the war began in 1914.
The Strathconas went by ship to England along with the rest of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Standing by and hoping for mounted action, the cavalry trained there until 1915, frustrated because their brethren in the infantry were already at the front. Early that year, things went badly for the Canadians in Belgium and France, where they were suffering under relentless artillery, infantry, and gas attacks. Responding to a desperate plea for help, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade left their horses behind in England and proceeded within days to the Continent to go to the aid of their comrades.
There followed miserable and deadly months in the trenches, until in early 1916 the Brigade was remounted. Often acting as mounted infantry, the cavalry troopers would spend two weeks at a time in the trenches, followed by two weeks in reserve, training and looking after their own horses and those of the other half of the regiment who would then be in the trenches.
That all changed when, on March 21st, 1918, the Germans mounted an all-out effort to finish the war, pounding the Allies with a monstrous artillery barrage and advancing over a forty-mile front. British and French troops were overrun or in retreat. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade, now composed of the Dragoons, the Strathconas, and the Fort Garry Horse, for nine days galloped from one firefight to another, horses and men exhausted and hungry. Midnight on March 29th found them encamped two valleys west of the village of Moreuil in Picardy, France.
"C" Squadron of the Strathconas was led by Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, a one-time Saskatchewan homesteader and Thompson Valley fruit farmer. An English immigrant, Flowerdew had been an officer in a British Columbia militia regiment. On the outbreak of war he resigned his commission in order to get into the cavalry, joining the Strathconas as a sergeant. By 1918 he had his commission back, and was one of the regiment's sterling young leaders.
The officer commanding the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was John E B Seely, and on March 30th, 1918, under heavy fire, he led his troops to the northwest corner of Moreuil Wood in response to a British plea to the Canadians to stop or delay the German advance. The Strathconas, Dragoons, and Fort Garrys were flung into a bloody fight in the forest.
Lieutenant Flowerdew led his squadron around the Wood, intending to cut off the escape of the retreating enemy. Rounding the northeast corner of the wood, his "C" Squadron encountered a double line of Germans armed with rifles, machineguns, and artillery. Too late to retreat, Flowerdew drew his sword and shouted, "It's a charge, boys, it's a charge!" Plunging forward, many of the troopers were killed; others wounded; and a very few escaped death by swerving into the woods. My father, who was galloping hard on Flowerdew's heels as they pounded toward the enemy lines, was badly wounded. Gordon Flowerdew, who died of his wounds the following day, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
by Robert W. Mackay
Robert W. Mackay is the author of the historical novel "Soldier of the Horse" which is set in the First World War and based on the experiences of his father, Sergeant Tom Mackay, who served with Lord Strathcona's Horse and took part in the cavalry charge at Moreuil Wood. Robert served with the Royal Canadian Navy and the British Navy until 1969.
The citation for Gordon Flowerdew's Victoria Cross reads as follows:
For most conspicuous bravery and dash when in command of a squadron detailed for special service of a very important nature. On reaching the first objective, Lt. Flowerdew saw two lines of the enemy, each about sixty strong, with machine guns in the centre and flanks, one line being about two hundred yards behind the other.
Realising the critical nature of the operation and how much depended upon it, Lt. Flowerdew ordered a troop under Lt. Harvey, V.C. to dismount and carry out a special movement while he led the remaining three troops to the charge. The squadron (less one troop) passed over both lines, killing many of the enemy with the sword; and wheeling about galloped at them again.
Although the squadron had then lost about 70 per cent of its numbers, killed and wounded, from rifle and machine gun fire directed on it from the front and both flanks, the enemy broke and retired. The survivors of the squadron then established themselves in a position where they were joined, after much hand-to-hand fighting, by Lt. Harvey's party. Lt. Flowerdew was dangerously wounded through both thighs during the operation, but continued to cheer on his men.
There can be no doubt that this officer's great valour was the prime factor in the capture of the position.
(London Gazette, no.30648, 23 April 1918)
Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew, Lord Strathcona's Horse and the Battle of Moreuil Wood
Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew
An account of Flowerdew's charge and a photo from the July 4, 1918 Canadian Daily Record showing King George V with Lt Flowerdew's mother at the Victoria Cross investiture ceremony.
Walhachin: Death in the Desert
Stephen Hume's fascinating and beautifully written essay about Gordon Flowerdew and Walhachin, the BC town where he lived before the war. Walhachin is a ghost town because of the First World War.
Veterans Affairs Canada
The Record of Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, who died on March 31, 1918, including the citation for his Victoria Cross, and links to newspaper clippings, and photos of the Brigade Diary, including an account of the Battle of Moreuil Wood.
Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians)
This is the website of the Canadian Regiment who distinguished themselves at the Battle of Moreuil Wood. Flowerdew was a member of this regiment, and the Battle of Moreuil Wood is commemorated annually by Strathconas as a tribute to Fallen Comrades, and as a great symbol of Regimental pride.
The last cavalry charge
An account of the Battle of Moreuil Wood by John Boileau, who commanded Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) from 1985 to 1987.
The Battle of Moreuil Wood
This detailed, 26-page account of the battle was published in 1993 on the 75th anniversary of the battle and written by Captain J.R. Grodzinski of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Dr. Grodzinski is now a Major in the Canadian Armed Forces and a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston. Here is a brief excerpt from the account, which mentions Sergeant Tom Mackay (whose son Robert Mackay fictionalized his father's story in the new novel Soldier of the Horse)
'C' Squadron approached the Germans with sabres raised; sabres against rifles and machine guns. They rode into two lines of Germans. Steel cut into flesh; bayonets and bullets answered. Casualties were high on both sides. Once the two lines were passed, the surviving horsemen turned back toward the wood. There, through the smoke and enemy was Harvey and his men. The survivors fought furiously to get back to them. Sergeant Tom MacKay, MM, the Troop Sergeant of 1st Troop was acting troop leader since Lieutenant Harrower was on patrol. The flesh was practically stripped between the knees and thighs of both his legs. The doctors later counted some 59 wounds in one leg alone.
World War I History
The Canadian War Museum
Click on the Education Link to find a history of WWI, letters, photos, teachers' resources, and much more.
The Canada Remembers Program of Veterans Affairs Canada
Here are extensive resources and links to information on Canada's military history, as well as Canada's Books of Remembrance.
Horses in World War I
Although machine guns, artillery, and tanks were beginning to replace cavalry, horses were used extensively during WWI, and they suffered and died along with the soldiers. This is an interesting introduction to what horses did in the war, to the cavalry units deployed by the various nations in the war, including Canada's own Lord Strathcona's Horse, and to the logistics involved in the care and feeding of the horses.
World War I Casualties
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I numbered over 35 million, including over 15 million deaths and 20 million wounded. WWI was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. This site is a summary of the casualties for each country involved in the conflict. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, nearly 65,000 members of the Canadian military were killed during the war.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Established by Royal Charter in 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission pays tribute to the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Visitors to this web site can search for the names of casualties of the war, historical information and educational resources. There's even a video on the horticultural challenges of caring for thousands of cemeteries and memorials around the world.
Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew
Detail from Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron by Alfred Munnings, 1918
Click to view full image
Alfred Munnings was employed as war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade during the First World War.
This painting depicts the Canadian cavalry charge against German machine-gun positions at Moreuil Wood, led by Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew of Lord Strathcona's Horse. The painting is in the Canadian War Museum.
From Wikimedia Commons