Battles of the Play

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The Battle of Morieul Wood

The Battle of Moreuil Wood (30 March 1918) was an engagement of World War I that took place on the banks of the Arve River in France, where the Canadian Cavalry Brigade attacked and forced the German 23rd Saxon Division to withdraw from Moreuil Wood, a commanding position on the river bank. This defeat at the hands of the Allies contributed to the halt of the German Spring Offensive of 1918. During the battle, a Victoria Cross was awarded to Canadian Gordon Flowerdew.

At 08:30 on the 30th, General Seely and his aides travelled towards the Moreuil woods from where his forces were stationed on the other side of the River Avre, with orders to cross the river and delay the enemy advance as much as possible. At 09:30, upon reaching the wood, having received fire from German forces that were occupying it, Seely ordered The Royal Canadian Dragoons to send sections to protect the village of Moreuil, while other sections were to seize the northeast corner of the wood itself. While this was being undertaken, Lord Strathcona's Horse was ordered to occupy the southeast face of the wood and disperse any German units found there (both the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona’s Horse were two units making up the Canadian Cavalry Brigade).

The remaining squadrons of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade were ordered to enter the wood from the northwest, and sweep through it towards the eastern face where Lord Strathcona’s Horse was awaiting them. After being driven back from their first assault by machine gun fire, the cavalry units dismounted and proceeded to attack a second time with fixed bayonets, driving German forces from the edge of the wood and into its centre. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out in several locations with swords and pistols as Allied forces fought through the German 101st Grenadiers, who became disorganised and demoralised.

Inside the wood

As Canadian cavalry fought through the wood, they were channelled eastwards by German machine gun fire. Simultaneously, units of the Royal Canadian Dragoons were forced to wheel into the woods at the north due to German attack. This battle quickly became a series of separate engagements due to the nature of the battlefield, with units separated and dispersed inside the German formations, and the fact that horses were ineffective in the woodland led to the pace of the battle slowing down considerably.

By this time, the remainder of the 3rd Cavalry had crossed the river and was distributed around the wood to support various Canadian forces currently engaged with German forces, many of these reinforcements were instructed to dismount before entering the battle. At this time, units from Lord Strathcona's Horse were formed into scouting teams of around ten men each and sent to discover details about the enemy forces and positions.

The commander of 'C' Squadron Lord Strathcona's Horse, Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew, ordered his forces to secure the northeast corner then report back to him. Flowerdew was then ordered to cut off the German forces who were retreating to the east in the face of the Allied forces advancing through the wood. During this time, the forces dispatched by Flowerdew to the northeast corner ambushed and killed German forces looting from a French wagon, then dismounted and entered the wood under fire. Flowerdew arrived, assessed the situation, and decided that his unit would move to cut off the German retreat while the other section would help to drive the Germans from the wood.

By this time there were six squadrons of cavalry in the wood. Planes from the Royal Flying Corps were also attacking German forces from overhead, dropping 109 bombs and firing 17,000 bullets. Cavalry forces approached the southwest corner of the woods, coming under heavy fire and suffering heavy casualties, and they were forced to halt temporarily. Flowerdew reached high ground at the northeast corner of the wood just in time to encounter a 300-strong German force from the 101st Grenadiers, who were withdrawing. Flowerdew ordered, "It's a charge boys, it's a charge!" however, the bugle call was silenced by German fire before it was even sounded. During the charge, both sides were decimated, and Flowerdew was killed, with only 51 of his unit still alive.

By 11:00 Only the southern point of the wood was still occupied by German forces. With reinforcements arriving for the British, Seely ordered the remaining Germans to be driven away. Seely ordered British artillery fire into the wood to cease so he could operate without fear of friendly fire. The Germans were routed from the wood, and the day ended with 305 Allied casualties but the wood was in Allied hands.

The following morning

The next morning, the 31st, a German attack recaptured most of the wood, and the nearby Rifle Wood one mile to the northeast. General Seely was given command of the Allied counterattack. The Canadian Brigade attacked in three waves, securing their flanks whilst moving through the wood, and engaging the enemy in hand to hand combat. Once the German forces were again driven out, they commenced heavy artillery bombardment and several counterattacks; however, control of the wood remained with the Allies at the end of the day. To the northeast, Rifle Wood was attacked at 09:00 and by 11:00 was also in Allied hands. By 15:00, the Allied forces were relieved by fresh divisions.

Despite German forces eventually regaining control of the Moreuil woods and surrounding area, Ludendorff ending the offensive on 5 April 1918.

Consequences of the Battle

The German offence had come to an end after dogged Allied resistance. Despite capturing 1,930 square kilometres of territory, it was at a cost of 250,000 men killed, wounded or missing. In the poor economic state of Germany by this time in the war, they could never recover such losses. The Allies, in comparison, lost 240,000. The strength of Allied forces in defence and in slowing down the German advance in engagements such as those at Moreuil Wood contributed to the ultimate defeat of the German offensive.

After the end of the German offensive, Lloyd George sent the reinforcements to Haig. American presence also increased from 162,000 to 318,000. The allies launched their own counter-offensives starting at Amiens just north of Moreuil Wood, which proved to be a decisive victory for the Allies. Ludendorff commented after the first day of battle that it was a black day for the German army.

Flowerdew’s posthumous Victoria Cross for his charge on the German forces was one of twenty that would be awarded during the German and later Allied offensive.

The Moreuil wood were finally taken from the Germans in August by French forces, with elements of the Canadian Cavalry taking Rifle wood.

Other medals won at the battle include:
This battle also caused the destruction of the Moreuil Castle, an estate of the family of Rougé, inherited from the Lords of Créquy, Princes of Poix and dukes of Lesdiguières.

The Battle of Festubert

The Battle of Festubert was an attack by the British army in the Artois region of France on the western front during World War I. It began on May 15, 1915 and continued until May 25. It was part of the larger French Artois Offensive and was undertaken to assist the French near Arras by preventing German reserve troops from being available to move there.

The Battle

The attack was made by the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig against a German salient between Neuve Chapelle to the north and the village of Festubert to the south. The assault was planned along a three mile front, and would initially be made mainly by Indian troops. This would be the first British army night attack of the war.

The battle was preceded by a 60 hour bombardment by 433 artillery pieces that fired about 100,000 shells. This bombardment failed to significantly damage the front line defenses of the German Sixth Army, but the initial advance made some progress in good weather conditions. The attack was renewed on the 16th, and by the 19th the British 2nd and 7th divisions had to be withdrawn due to heavy losses.

On the 18th the Canadian Division, assisted by the 51st (Highland) Division, renewed the advance, but this made little progress in the face of effective German artillery fire. The British forces then entrenched themselves at the new front line in conditions of heavy rain. The Germans now brought up more reserves to reinforce their lines.

From May 20 until the 25th the attack was renewed, resulting in the capture of the village of Festubert. However the total offensive had only netted 1 km of advance, at a cost of 16,000 casualties.

The Canadian Division's part in the offensive gained them 900m on a 1.6 km front, and cost 2468 casualties, including 661 dead.