By Daniel J. Demers
From the May issue (Volume 23, Issue 4)
The Fort Garry Horse’s 1917 charge against German forces was touted by the New York Evening World as equaling “anything in cavalry exploits in the history of the British Empire.” Another era newspaper article was headlined “Canadian Cavalry Betters the Charge of the Light Brigade.” According to Roland Hill, the official war correspondent of the Canadian government at the time, the mid-November 1917 charge “is regarded as the most famous cavalry action of the war.”
By the time the First World War started, most of the world’s armies still maintained limited horse cavalry regiments but had stopped using them in massive cavalry wave charges. The realities of trench warfare, poison gas, machine guns, tanks, and airplanes pretty much relegated cavalries to training, scouting and pursuit. The days of the horse-mounted cavalry were numbered. The military glory of the inseparable bond between warrior and his trusted steed would soon be extinct.
When Canadian cavalry forces first arrived in Europe they often found themselves dismounted and “[leaving their] horse behind [they] joined the infantry in the trenches,” according to an article in the New
York Sun. In June of 1915, the commanding general of the First Canadian Division apologetically addressed the First Canadian Cavalry Brigade: “I had to put you in the trenches the other night to help us when we … were short of men.”
The much heralded Fort Garry’s Horse (a.k.a. “Hell-for-Leather”) charge started on November 20, 1917 as part of the Battle of Cambrai, the British forces’ attempt to break Germany’s infamous Hindenburg Line. The goal was to capture Cambrai, a key German supply depot. The plan anticipated breaching the line with tanks behind which “cavalry formations could be unleashed,” according to Major M.R. McNorgan in his 1992 article “The Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Part 2 of 4, Cambrai” published in Canada’s Armoured Bulletin. All five divisions of the British Army’s Cavalry Corps were committed under the battle plan. The Fort Garry Horse regiment was under command of LCol Robert Walter Paterson.
The Hindenburg Line was a defensive bulwark which had been constructed by the Germans along the Western Front in September of 1916. It was virtually impenetrable, despite being repeatedly attacked by French and British forces. On this particular day, according to Roland Hill, the Fort Garry Horse would be “responsible for the capture of several [French] villages [from the Germans] … one battery of German guns and scores of prisoners — among them a complete engineers’ staff, with valuable plans of the [military] district.” As conceived, the cavalry charge was led by a contingent of 350 armoured tanks followed by infantry along a six-mile front. The tanks flattened “tons of [barbed] wire and [caved] in the wide trenches, so that the mounted [soldiers] could easily” traverse the battlefield. An unnamed major who led one of the squadrons was quoted as saying, “it was a joy ride all the way to [the French village of] Masnières.” Getting to Masnières required negotiating two bodies of water: l’Escaut (the Scheldt River) and the Canal de Saint-Quentin. The river was easily fordable but the canal was deep. Bridges over the river and canal were damaged by both offensive British and retreating German forces, thus posing traversing difficulties to the advancing British forces. By the end of the first day of battle, British forces had experienced 4,000 casualties. They had taken 4,000 German prisoners and captured or destroyed 100 German guns.
According to McNorgan, B Squadron was “tasked with capturing the German 13th Corps Headquarters and returning with the Corps Commander as a prisoner.” The squadron was commanded by Captain Duncan Campbell who would be killed during the attack and be replaced by Lt Harcus C. Strachan. It would be B Squadron’s assault that the press likened to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light
Brigade: When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made!
B Squadron’s course took them slightly to the east of Masnières. The cavalry forded the river and then crossed over a temporary bridge built over the double lock of the Canal de Saint-Quentin. During the crossover B Squadron lost several men and horses to German fire.
Boldly they rode and well / Storm'd at with shot and shell
As nighttime was approaching, headquarters opted to halt the attack and recalled B Squadron. Unfortunately the message to return never reached the squadron.
Someone had blundered / Theirs not to make Reply Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die
On they rode towards the Village of Rumilly-en-Cambrésis.
Boldly they rode and well / Into the jaws o Death / Into the mouth of Hell
As they approached the village they “caught sight of a battery of German field guns that had hastily been unlimbered and were firing at sight range on three or four [British] tanks.”
Cannon in front of them / Volley'd and thunder'd
Storm'd at with shot and shell
Boldly they rode and well
According to one newspaper account, in four-formation the Canadians launched a surprise attack with “drawn sabers.” Two rows swerving to the right and two to the left — “surrounding and killing every man and horse.”
Flash'd all their sabers bare
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there
Two Canadian cavalrymen, Troopers William Albert Morrall and Jean Edouard Clement van Wilderode, both slightly wounded in the attack, were sent back to regimental headquarters as messengers. The two men had their mounts shot out from under them, forcing them to complete the trek on foot.
“The next adventure of the raiders was [along] a sunken road,” reported the Bisbee
Review. The cavalry encountered a large body of German troops marching down the road to reinforce their comrades in the village of Rumilly-en-Cambrésis. The Canadian contingent decided to charge and rode at breakneck speed towards the Germans.
Forward, the Light Brigade! / Charge for the guns!
At the crest of a hill they came upon a German machine gun emplacement. The Bisbee
article went on to relate: “It was a massacre. More than 50 Germans were killed … the rest [of the Germans] got to Rumilly and gave the alarm.” Nearly 100 Germans surrendered, but thinking British forces were behind them, B Squadron left them as they continued their assault. It was a mistake according to McNorgan: “Once the enemy soldiers had been bypassed … they took up arms again … inflicting more casualties [from behind] on the squadron.” German machine guns opened up on the cavalry troop that was holding out along the sunken road. Four officers and 129 men with 140 horses (some were pack animals) had started the assault. By this time only three officers, 43 men and 46 horse remained standing. Several of the men were wounded as well as all the horses. With dusk coming they decided to fight their way back on foot and join whatever friendly forces they could find.
Era newspapermen touted the squadron’s ruse of stampeding their remaining horses in the opposite direction in an effort to make the Germans believe they had galloped off in that direction. But in reality, according to Major McNorgan, “The horses were so tired they just wandered off into the darkness and were quickly shot down.”
Storm'd at with shot and shell
While horse and hero fell.
During their escape the squadron inadvertently became split in two. One contingent led by Lt William Joseph Cowen, who spoke fluent German, and the other by Lt Strachan. The men were told to use their sabers in preference to their rifles as they were “less alarming” than gunfire.
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sundr'd
Under guise of darkness the two groups encountered several German infantry details and took fire — another five Canadians were killed or wounded. In an effort to further confound the enemy, the squadron cut all telephone wires and power lines in the area. Yet another cavalryman was electrocuted cutting wires. As they proceeded they took additional prisoners while fighting as they fought through German details and outposts. At one point the horseless troopers came upon a German engineering contingent (an officer and nine men). The German-speaking Canadian major [probably Lt Cowen (later a major) who by now had been shot in the neck] joked with a German officer. The German “hesitated a second” and the Canadians were able to surround the Germans who then surrendered. The Canadians made the Germans guide them back to Masnières and regimental headquarters without any further fighting. Reported Hill, “It was one of the most stirring cavalry adventures of the war.” Only 37 men of Squadron B survived the attack. All their horses were killed.
They who had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Black from the mouth of hell
All that was left of them
According to McNorgan, B Squadron “had destroyed an enemy battery, inflicted well over a hundred casualties, tangled enemy communications … and captured or caused the surrender of numbers of enemy soldiers far exceeding their strength.” Arthur Conan Doyle praised the effort in one of his newspaper dispatches: “one small mounted body of Canadian Cavalry, the Fort Garry Horse from Winnipeg, particularly distinguished itself, getting over every obstacle, taking a German battery, dispersing a considerable body of infantry, and returning after a day of desperate adventures without their horses …”
Honour the charge they made
The British Empire forces were able to hold onto Masnières a brief 12 days before being forced to withdraw when the Germans were able to successively counterattack and close the gap in the Hindenburg Line. While casualty reports are sketchy — roughly 41,000 British forces were counted as casualties while the Germans experienced 53,300 — the Hindenburg Line would not fall until October of 1918 when an overpowering battle mounted by British, Canadian, American and French forces pushed the Germans back. Five weeks later the war ended. W