“Poor bastard. He looked down at his own legs, splayed out in front of him, at Toby, lying still, at the other huddled shapes on the ground, men and horses. Poor bastards.”
– Excerpt from Soldier of the Horse
Robert Mackay describes his partners at a Cloverdale law firm as understanding when he told them he was heading for greener pastures in 2007.
The pastures he was thinking of, an area of partly wooded French farmland, weren’t for retirement, however.
He was eyeing a spot just east of the town of Moreuil on the River Avre, about 20 kilometres south of Amiens.
Mackay, who had been thinking of writing a historical novel for some time, had just realized that the following spring, March 30, 2008, would be the 90th anniversary of an unlikely First World War battle that involved some 3,000 sword-wielding Canadians on horseback charging the lines of Germans equipped with machine guns – long after trench warfare had relegated such actions as obsolete.
One of those Canadians, both legs riddled with bullets just minutes into the battle, was Thomas Mackay, his father.
Four years into a new and grisly industrial war, with its machine guns, poison gas, barbed wire and the new weapons of tanks and airplanes, the Battle of Moreuil Wood was an anachronism.
In one of the last such instances in history, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a regiment still in existence today, charged the 23rd Saxon Division at Moreuil (pronounced “Moray”), helping to rein in what was, broadly, part of the last major German offensive on the Western Front during the First World War.
“The tide started to be turned on March the 30th when the Canadians stopped them at Moreuil,” says Mackay, a 70-year-old South Surrey man.
After those defensive battles that the Allied forces weathered in the spring, the Germans were pushed back towards their border until the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
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Growing up, Robert Mackay (below) learned about the battle in from his father Thomas, who was 48 when Robert was born in 1942.
He talked “more than the average dad, that’s for sure,” recalls Robert.
“He told me lots of the good things and left out lots of the bad. More than once, he commented that the years of the First World War were the best ones of his life, which is pretty odd.”
He remembered the camaraderie and the pride in the cavalry.
“He was pretty badly wounded, but he had a pretty full life after that,” Robert says.
The elder Mackay was a cavalryman in “C” Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a military regiment born on the Prairies in 1900.
The officer in charge was Lt. Gordon Flowerdew, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for action in the Battle of Moreuil Wood.
From April 1915 on, Canadian cavalrymen alternated every two weeks between trench duty (on foot) and waiting, mounted, well behind the front lines for the order to charge – one that would take three years to come.
On March 30, 1918, Mackay’s squadron, already whittled down to about 75 men and horses through attrition, was ordered by British Maj.-Gen. Jack Seely to charge the Germans around the north corner of a wood, while other Canadians – The Strathconas, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the Fort Garry Horse – charged straight through the trees.
“Flowerdew was supposed to sweep around the corner of the wood and attack the Germans as they were retreating.”
Robert Mackay recounts the battle as his father told him: The Canadians ran into two lines of German machine guns.
“It was too late to do anything but charge, so they charged at the gallop with their swords.
“My dad was in among the Germans when his horse went down – basically killed – and my dad was wounded very badly in the legs by machine gun fire.”
But the Canadians had surprised the defenders enough that they couldn’t aim their machine guns higher than the legs of the horses, and as casualties mounted in the melee, the Germans began to scatter.
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In 1986, a French farmer named Jean Paul Brunel was plowing his field when he saw what he thought was a boot.
He jumped off his tractor, and found the remains of a Canadian soldier who was identified through his dog tags as John James Willoughby, a member of Thomas Mackay’s regiment.
Willoughby’s name was already listed as dead, but his body was never found.
Brunel, learning about the battle on the land he owned and aware of the fact that his village had been flattened by the Germans, went on to become a historian and fan of the Canadian cavalry.
In time for the Battle of Moreuil Wood’s 90th anniversary in 2008, Brunel met the visiting Robert Mackay, and helped him piece together more information to guide Mackay’s novel, Soldier of the Horse, which was published in 2011.
Meeting Brunel “allowed me to walk the ground, which I find is very important as a writer,” notes Mackay.
There was reciprocity, too.
“He was very excited to meet me simply because my father had been there. It’s very common for him to meet grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of (First World War) veterans, but not children... not somebody who had known and lived a normal life with one of the fellows.”
Although Mackay has the historical facts straight in his novel, the dialogue is fiction – otherwise it might have been a conjectural biography of a soldier from Winnipeg.
Mackay had to make up the character of Thomas’ first wife, who died before Robert was born. (Robert was born to Thomas’ second wife).
Thomas was a sergeant at the time of the battle – for the third time, after several demotions and promotions – so his literary counterpart too gets in and out of scrapes with officers.
The protagonist, however, is named Tom Macrae.
“I changed my dad’s name,” explains Mackay. “It was more or less a trick I had to pull on myself because when I was writing the book, it was as if he was standing over my shoulder.”
The real Thomas Mackay passed away in 1969.
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Following the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Cloverdale Cenotaph, join author Robert Mackay on Nov. 11 from 12-1 p.m. at the Surrey Museum, 17710 56A Ave. Learn about Surrey’s connections to the Canadian cavalry in the First World War. Visitors must pre-register at 604-592-6956. Admission is by donation. For more information about Mackay’s novel, visit www.robertwmackay.ca/