23 March 2008

Warrior was ready. It was 9.30 on the morning of March 30, Holy Saturday, 1918. He had somehow survived four years of shell and bullet and privation, and Passchendaele, but now, in the little hamlet of Castel, not 10 miles south-west of Amiens, the horse faced his most dangerous mission of all. He would lead one of the last great cavalry charges in history – at Moreuil Wood, on the banks of the Avre river in France. Victory would not only secure the river bank, it would help stem the German Spring Offensive of 1918.

Behind Warrior were the 1,000 horses of the Canadian Cavalry. In the 10 days since the German breakthrough against the Fifth Army at St Quentin, they had trekked a 120-mile, anti-clockwise loop south from Peronne to cross the Oise east of Noyon and then worked back north to get round the spearhead of the enemy advance. In Warrior’s saddle – as so often in the 10 years since he had bred the little bay thoroughbred back home on the Isle of Wight – was my grandfather.

General Jack Seely, 51, was no shrinking violet, and legend has it that he later recommended Warrior for the Victoria Cross with the simple, if not very modest, citation: “He went everywhere I went.”

Jack and Warrior had first arrived in France on August 11, 1914. Before that he had been an MP for the Isle of Wight, elected while serving in the Boer War. But although he became a senior member of the Asquith Cabinet, his political career foundered when, on March 30, 1914, he had to resign as Secretary of State for War over the mishandling of the drama known as the Curragh Crisis – when Kildare-based officers refused to march against the Ulster Unionists.

Since February 1915, Seely had commanded the assorted bunch of ranchers, clerks, expats, Mounties and Native Americans who made up the three regiments of the Canadian Cavalry. Jack Seely was a popular general. But not as popular as his horse.

If ever an animal was a symbol of indomitability for weary soldiers to follow, it was this short-legged, wide-eyed, star-foreheaded, independent-spirited but kindly gelding who, in January 1918 had been immortalised in the first of the portraits painted by Alfred Munnings as war artist to the Canadian Cavalry.

Warrior was brave but not stupid, fast but not fragile, tough but not thick. His father, Straybit, had won the lightweight race at the Isle of Wight point-to-point in 1909. Warrior was a survivor. In September 1914, his groom Jack Thompson had to gallop him 10 miles across country to escape encirclement by the advancing enemy. In 1915, a shell cut the horse beside Warrior clean in half, and a few days later another destroyed his stable, seconds after he had left it.

On July 1, 1916, that fateful first day of the Somme, he and the Canadians were readied to gallop through a gap in the enemy line that never came. In 1917, only frantic digging extricated him from mud in Passchendaele, and only three days before March 30, 1918, a direct hit on the ruined villa in which he was housed left him trapped beneath a shattered beam. Yes, a survivor: but could he survive Moreuil Wood?

With hindsight it is easy to say that, at that point in the war, the Germans were overstretched, the Americans were arriving, and Allied victory was inevitable. That is not how it seemed then – the Germans had smashed the British line, advancing 40 miles and taking more than 100,000 prisoners. The gloom was shared by the greatest war reporter, not to mention war leader, who ever put pen to paper. “Actual defeat seemed to stare the Allies in the face,” he wrote. Winston Churchill was on his way.

As Warrior champed at the bit for the attack on Moreuil Wood, Churchill, as a special envoy from Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was being briefed, first by Marshal Foch of France and later by General Rawlinson, the commander of the beleaguered British Fifth Army, at his headquarters 10 miles south of Amiens. “The men are just crawling slowly backwards,” he told Churchill. “They are completely worn out.” Rawlinson was asked if he would still be in position next day. “He made a grimace,” Churchill records with majestic understatement, “the dominant effect of which was not encouraging to my mind.”

Cavalry had been made all but redundant by trench warfare. The Germans had disbanded theirs at the end of 1917. Lloyd George had argued for the Allies to do the same after the disaster of the advance of tanks and 27,500 horses on Cambrai, when Seely and Warrior had trotted behind the leading tank, only to see it crash through the bridge into the canal at Masnières.

Horses were easy targets, but a committed group could still act as a sort of early day parachute brigade. At full gallop they could shift hundreds of men half a mile in a couple of minutes. It was in this climate that Seely took the decision to charge. The signal group would lead – 12 men ready to plant a red pennant with a black C on a white star for the Canadians to aim for.

In the group was Seely’s 35-year-old aide de camp, the remarkable Prince Antoine d’Orléans-Bragance (“Orléans” as great-grandson of France’s last reigning monarch, Louis-Philippe, and “Braganza” because his maternal grandfather was the last Emperor of Brazil). And where was Seely himself? Not for nothing had he named his horse Warrior. The general led the charge.

In fact, he could not hold Warrior. “He was determined to go forward,” said Seely of his charger, after they had crossed the bridge and come up out of the hollow, “and with a great leap started off. All sensation of fear had vanished from him as he galloped on at racing speed. There was a hail of bullets from the enemy as we crossed the intervening space and mounted the hill, but Warrior cared for nothing.” Seely, Prince Antoine and six of the others made it. Five didn’t.

The pennant was planted. Squadron after squadron came thundering up the hill, taking terrible casualties but going on to exact many of their own. They were supported by the Royal Flying Corps, which dropped 190 bombs and fired 17,000 rounds into the mêlée. The German official history records that one bomb knocked out an entire battalion staff: “Moreuil Wood is hell.” Especially for horses.

The worst slaughter was to the east. Moreuil Wood was triangular, a mile long on each side. Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew took his 75-strong squadron of Strathcona’s Horse round the northern tip, only to gallop up out of a hollow and be confronted by two rows of machine guns. The Germans had rumours of a tank attack coming down from Villers-Bretonneux. Horses did not have a chance. “Sir,” sobbed Sgt Watson when he finally crawled back with the news. “Sir, the boys is all gone.”

Warrior and Seely were now in the wood and what they were seeing was war at its most bayonet-thrusting horrible. In the thick of it was Fred Harvey, a 6ft 2in rancher from Fort Macleod, Alberta, who had made his debut for Ireland 11 years earlier as a fly-half on the wrong end of a 29-0 thrashing by Wales at the Arms Park. In March 1917, he had won the VC for single-handedly charging a machine gun. He never wrote about it, but at a regimental dinner in Calgary many years later confided: “I don’t know about 1917, but I think I did a VC’s worth at Moreuil.”

The engagement went on into what became a rainy afternoon, and as the light faded an unlikely looking little motorcade came down the valley. “The Bois de Moreuil lay before us,” wrote Churchill, who was accompanying the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, at “Le Tigre’s” insistence. “The intervening ground was dotted with stragglers, and here and there groups of led horses – presumably Seely’s Brigade – were standing motionless. Shrapnel continued to burst over the plain in twos and threes, and high explosive made black bulges here and there.

“A wounded, riderless horse came in a staggering trot towards us. The poor animal was streaming with blood. ‘The Tiger’, aged 72, advanced towards it and with great quickness seized its bridle, bringing it to a standstill. The blood accumulated in a pool along the road. The French General expostulated with him and he reluctantly returned to his car. As he did so, he gave me a sidelong glance and said in an undertone – ‘Quel moment délicieux.’”

It was not so delicious for Seely, Warrior and the other survivors as they held a sad Easter Service next morning. Though Moreuil Wood had been taken and the German advance had been checked, a quarter of the men and half of the horses had been lost.

Another summons came that afternoon. Seely and Warrior were to report six miles north to Gentelles at 2am to plan an attack in the morning. On the way, Warrior lamed himself in the dark and was out of action. Next day, Seely was gassed and both his replacement horses were killed. It was Warrior’s last great escape.

Warrior lived until 1941, when Seely felt that the extra corn rations needed to keep the 33-year-old hero going could not be justified in wartime. On that Good Friday he wrote “I do not believe, to quote Byron on his dog Boatswain, ‘that he is denied in Heaven, the soul he had on earth.’ “

After the his injury in 1918, Warrior had recovered sufficiently to join the victory parade in Hyde Park and three years later won the race at the Isle of Wight point-to-point that his sire won in 1909. You might have guessed the date: March 30.

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