Gordon Flowerdew was born on a farm, attended Framlingham College in England for five years and emigrated as a young man to Canada in 1903. In 1910, he moved to British Columbia and joined a militia unit, the British Columbia Horse. He was an excellent horseman and won several competitions in riding and shooting.
After the outbreak of the First World War, Flowerdew enrolled in September 1914 as a private in Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). The regiment sailed to Britain in May 1915 and later embarked for France, part of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB), commanded by British Brigadier-General J.E.B. Seely. The CCB consisted of three cavalry regiments, two artillery batteries and a machine-gun squadron. (See Canadian Expeditionary Force.)
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched the first and largest of five offensives they would mount that year. Operation Michael intended to drive a giant wedge between the British and French armies, forcing the British back toward the English Channel and the French toward Paris.
Bravery at the Bois de Moreuil
On 30 March, as British units withdrew in the face of the massive German assault, the CCB was ordered to stem the enemy advance at a five-kilometre gap at Bois de Moreuil, overlooking the French town of Moreuil. The triangular-shaped wood had three sides facing north, west and southeast, each about 1,500 meters long. Parts of it were being occupied by German infantry.
When the CCB (minus its artillery) arrived near Moreuil, Brigadier Seely sent thrusts into the wood by the three mounted squadrons of Royal Canadian Dragoons, followed by two dismounted squadrons of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). The machine-gun squadron provided flank covering fire, while the Fort Garry Horse remained in reserve.
Soon, all five squadrons were heavily engaged with the enemy among the trees. C Squadron, still mounted and under the command of now-Lieutenant Flowerdew, was ordered to gallop around the northeast corner to prevent German reinforcements from entering the wood. Flowerdew led his men up a steep embankment. At the top, they saw two lines of German infantrymen deployed in the open some 300 metres to their front, supported by artillery and machine guns. Flowerdew waved his sword for the squadron to deploy into line, turned in his saddle and shouted, “It’s a charge, boys, it’s a charge.”
Although it was certain death, the Strathcona’s galloped bravely forward, sabres drawn. Flowerdew went down near the first line, badly wounded. The squadron flooded past him, cutting down several Germans with their sabres. Losses for all three regiments were severe, with Flowerdew losing over 70 per cent of his men.
Flowerdew was picked up and carried to a field ambulance, but with wounds in his legs and chest, he died the next day. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Flowerdew's cavalry charge — in the tradition of what had once been a staple of military tactics — was among the last ever launched in the new era of 20th century industrial-style warfare.
Flowerdew’s action at Moreuil Wood was immortalized in a painting by British war artist and famed equestrian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings. Titled “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron,” the 1918 work is held by the Canadian War Museum.
A lake in Saskatchewan is named after Flowerdew. And in 2004 a memorial obelisk was unveiled a few kilometres north of Moreuil, near a main highway intersection. The Battle of Bois de Moreuil is commemorated annually by Flowerdew’s regiment, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), as the most important event in the unit’s ceremonial calendar.