Amidst a national discussion on weapons and their rates of fire, we might reflect on an earlier time, before firepower drove cavalry from the battlefield. March 30, 2018 marked the centennial of one of the last great charges, at Moreuil Wood in France, led by a wealthy horseman, soldier, and statesman, renowned in his day as “a Boy’s Own hero, a dashing man of action.”
Members of the elite, the one percent, no longer lead men into battle. Once, the evasion of military service was considered reprehensible. Four of the first seven Presidents had fought in the Revolution or the War of 1812 (James Monroe served in both). James Madison became the only President to take the field as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, against the British at Bladensburg MD on August 24, 1814. Winston S. Churchill charged with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman on September 2, 1898. During the Great War, he led a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers over the top on the Western Front in the spring of 1916.
“War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid.” Thus Churchill reflected during the 1930s on what he had witnessed during his military career. He went from a cavalry charge at full gallop across the sands of the Sudan to the mud, trenches, and barbed wire of World War I. He witnessed the replacement of the sword and lance – weapons he had been trained to use as a cadet – by poison gas, machine guns, and tanks. He did not like it. He lived with it.
A cavalry saber is a tool, like a hammer or saw. Its work is killing men. Wound about its hilt is a sword knot and acorn. A cavalryman loops the sword knot about his wrist before drawing the saber in preparation for the charge. The acorn prevents the knot from slipping. If the weapon is knocked from his hand in combat, he will not lose it. He can pull it back into his grasp.
Horses have been ridden into battle for at least 3,000 years, since the Assyrians and then the Persians realized the speed and maneuverability of cavalry. Philip of Macedon was among the first Greek commanders to make substantial use of horsemen, creating the army with which his son Alexander the Great would conquer the world. Xenophon, author of the Anabasis, commanded Greek mercenary cavalry in Persian service and wrote On Horsemanship and Hipparchicus, on the duties of a cavalry officer.
“Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” God asks Job in the King James Version:
He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men…
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage:
He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Cavalry remained on the battlefield until after the American Civil War. Technology changed that. The muzzle-loaded single-shot muskets used during the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars required a minute to reload. By 1860, breech-loading rifles and metal cartridges were replacing them. The new weapons fired eight to ten rounds a minute. Within the next two decades, the machine guns devised by Richard Gatling in 1861 (200 rounds per minute) and Hiram Maxim in 1883 (600 rounds per minute) exponentially increased the rate of fire.
Yet into the 21st Century, horsemen remain in war. Into the 1970s, the Portuguese and Rhodesian armies maintained dragoons – mounted infantry – in their African wars. The horsemen proved effective in scouting and pursuit. After 9/11, when U.S. Special Forces worked with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, they charged into battle alongside their Afghani comrades against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, firing from the saddle, as dramatized in the recent film 12 Strong, based on Doug Stanton’s best seller Horse Soldiers.
A century ago this month, March 30, 1918 was Easter Saturday. Around 9:30 am, Jack Seely was in the saddle.
To be formal, Brigadier-General J.E.B. Seely, astride his charger, Warrior, stood at the head of his command, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, about half a mile from Moreuil Wood, near Amiens, France. The 23rd Saxon Division, German infantry, had entered the forest, which overlooked the River Arve and the railway between Amiens and Paris, and dug in with machine guns. Seely’s orders were to delay the enemy advance as much as possible.
John Edward Bernard Seely had been born to great wealth in 1868 and raised on the Isle of Wight. His family owned much of the island and his grandfather accurately boasted that he could walk seven miles without stepping off his own land. Jack Seely graduated Harrow, where he began a lifelong friendship with a ginger-haired boy named Winston S. Churchill, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He served most of his adult life in the Hampshire Yeomanry, a volunteer cavalry unit akin to our National Guard, and eventually rose to its command.
Seely was good-natured, generous, and kindly, the sort who makes and keeps friends for life. He was unflinchingly brave; he was also self-consciously heroic. The opening line of one of his memoirs, Fear, and be Slain, is “Safety first is a vile motto.” In Adventure, he writes, “Fear is a useless emotion.” One senses a soldier’s life lived with an eye toward the mirror, toward the image he would present to his men and to the world.
He was also lucky: Brough Scott, his grandson, a horseman and journalist, wrote in Galloper Jack, his biography of Seely, that the man’s number had been up at least some 14 times before he finally died at 79.
Captain Seely led his Yeomanry to the Boer War in 1900. In South Africa, he disobeyed a direct order in the field when his commander ordered him to conduct a partial withdrawal of his squadron from the rear . Jack preferred to remain with his men on the front lines. Several hours and many bullets later, having successfully withdrawn his men under fire with few casualties, Seely was placed under arrest.
At his court-martial, Seely testified that under similar circumstances, he would again disobey. The general presiding over the trial told him that the court had chosen “to congratulate you…upon the efficient manner in which you conducted your defense” and restored him to his command. On the same general’s recommendation, Seely received the Distinguished Service Order for his successful and valiant disobedience.
Seely survived, as did Churchill, who had gone to war as a reporter and made a fortune from his journalism. Both men became inveterate memoirists, each both a hero in his own right and the bard of his own epics. Scott observed that his grandfather “had exhibited many magnificent qualities even if modesty was not among them.” As for Churchill, he wrote The World Crisis, a six-volume history of the First World War of which one colleague said, “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour said he was reading Churchill’s “brilliant autobiography disguised as world history.” This was before Churchill had written The Second World War (also six volumes) and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (four volumes).
Both Seely and Churchill were elected to Parliament at the beginning of the new century. By 1912, in rapid succession, Churchill had become President of the Board of Trade, then Home Secretary, and then First Lord of the Admiralty. Meanwhile, Major Seely became first Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, then Undersecretary of State for War, and then, also in 1912, His Majesty’s Secretary of State for War.
Meanwhile, Seely had found his warhorse. A bay—reddish brown coat, with black mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs, with a white star on his forehead—born in 1908 of a mare Seely had purchased on impulse from a passing rider for £80, serious money in those days. Seely had Warrior raised and trained by professionals. They told him Warrior was born to be a racehorse. Seely insisted he be trained as a charger, a cavalryman’s horse, ready to stand firm and work calmly amidst gunfire, trumpet calls, and screaming men.
Seely first rode Warrior in 1911. He believed that with infinite patience one could gain control of any horse. Warrior tested this belief by throwing him three times that morning. As Seely wrote in Warrior, his biography of the horse—a best-seller in the 1930s and again after its reissue in 2011—after the third toss Jack sat down, somewhat the worse for wear, and talked to the horse:
He looked at me, his nostrils distended, and I looked at him, trying to explain that I was a busy man, but that I loved him because I loved his mother, and would he please not buck me off any more, and if so we might be friends together for all our lives.
Then Warrior approached and nuzzled him. Seely remounted and was not thrown.
Seely resigned his Cabinet post in 1914. He remained in Parliament and worked in its defense committees. Because of the planning for transport and supplies that he’d made at the War Office and on the committees, in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was across the Channel and ready for action within ten days of the declaration of war.
On August 11, 1914, Colonel Seely and Warrior joined the BEF. Within the year, Churchill had persuaded Lord Kitchener, the war secretary, to give Seely a command. Seely was promoted to Brigadier-General and given the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.
The Brigade was an odd lot of adventurers: cowboys, Mounties, clerks, “Red Indians,” and Americans who wanted to get into the fight. Seely believed that “daily personal contact alone” could cure the problems created by the distance between the high command in the rear and the trenches at the front. One officer, Luke Williams, wrote in his diary, “[Seely] was always poking around in the Front Line. How he was never killed or at least seriously wounded will always be a mystery.”
Seely became an extraordinarily popular commander. Part of his appeal, his grandson wrote, was the horse. One did not slap the general on the back. One could pet “good old Warrior.”
From the first days of the war, Warrior too enjoyed astonishing good luck. He survived shelling, rifle and machine gun fire, and even a strafing while bogged in the mud.
Warrior went lame one morning; Seely took another horse and, as he wrote in Warrior:
A chance shell hit [that horse] and killed him. I had three ribs broken myself… but my first thought was, “What luck it was not Warrior.”
Seely led the Brigade at the Marne, Ypres, the Somme, both battles of Cambrai, and Passchendaele. He had at least four horses (not Warrior) shot from under him.
The Allies repeatedly sought to break through the German lines with massive frontal attacks. Their intention was to create a gap so cavalry might pour into the enemy’s rear. The entrenched Germans were ready with heavy machine guns and artillery. The result were massive losses, as on on the first day of the Somme. The British took 57,740 casualties: roughly 40 men dead or wounded each minute of the 24 hours in the day. They lost 20,000 in the first hour: roughly 333 casualties per minute, six per second.
Though the horsemen were waiting, the gap never opened. Some in Britain’s War Cabinet began to question whether horses still had a place in battle.
In early 1918, Alfred Munnings, an English artist, was plucked from obscurity while working as a groom for the Army to be appointed an official painter to the Canadian forces in France, where he painted a portrait of Seely mounted on Warrior. The result made Munnings famous. In 1919 it was shown at the Royal Academy. The critics raved about the picture. Wealthy riders, including royalty, began commissioning him.
On Wednesday, March 20, 1918, Seely was called to London for a conference.
The next morning, at 4:40, 3,000 German cannon opened up on the British Fifth Army. It was the start of Operation Michael, the German army’s last effort to win the Great War.
On Palm Sunday, March 24, 1918, having re-crossed the Channel and negotiated refugee-jammed roads for two days, Seely rejoined his command. The Germans had broken through. The static warfare of the trenches was over. The war of movement, for which cavalry is made, had returned. So the Canadians did what cavalry does against an overwhelming advance: retreat, stay before the enemy, and relay intelligence to the commanders in the rear. During the following days, through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, miserable with rain and cold, they rode about 120 miles. Seely probably snatched four hours’ sleep.
A century ago, on Easter Saturday, March 30, 1918, the Brigade was on the move toward Moreuil Wood by 6:30 am. Seely wore a general’s khaki field uniform, with brown riding boots and a general’s red silk band around his garrison cap. Seely disdained a helmet: he felt the red band showed the men he was leading into battle that he was with them.
Seely concluded that, unless he stopped the Germans at Moreuil Wood, they would seize the railway and divide the Allied forces, compelling the French to retreat toward Paris and the British to fall back on their supply lines to the sea. The war might be lost in a day. Churchill wrote of this moment: “Actual defeat seemed to stare the Allies in the face…”
But a cavalryman and horse at the charge is a projectile: over half a ton of mass, galloping up to 30 miles per hour, with lance, pistol, or saber in hand.
Seely briefed his colonels, who trotted to their regiments. He later recalled:
Warrior was strangely excited, all trace of exhaustion had gone; he pawed the ground with impatience. In some strange way, without doubt, he knew that the crisis in his life had come…
The Canadians jingled and clattered through the village of Castel and crossed the river. The horsemen wheeled from column into line.
With his right arm, Seely reached for his saber. He pushed his wrist through the sword knot and grasped the hilt. His sword rasped from its scabbard. He raised it above his head.
“All my life had led to this,” he later wrote. He rose in the saddle and roared the command to charge. Warrior leapt to the gallop taking Seely forward with the Brigade thundering up the hill behind them.
The distance was half a mile, uphill over muddy ground after four days of rain. It took three minutes. Yet Seely and Warrior survived; so did most of his command. The German advance stopped. The Saxons never made it to the railway. Perhaps the Canadians prevented the Allied loss of the Great War. Seely thought so, as did Ferdinand Foch, the marshal of France and commander-in-chief of the Allies, and Winston S. Churchill.
The next day, Easter Sunday, Seely was injured by poison gas. It was the end of his war.
In retirement, Major-General Seely wrote his swashbuckling memoirs as well as his charger’s biography, liberally illustrated by Munnings. His grandson gently suggests that Jack did not always allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.
Warrior died in 1942 at the age of 33. The Times of London gave him an obituary.
Seely wrote of his charger, “I do not believe that he will be denied in Heaven the soul he had on earth.” The words are engraved on the plinth of their statue on the Isle of Wight.
The old soldier faded away in 1947. Jack had embraced some changes: he had learned to fly before the Great War. Yet despite his experiences in World War I, he continued to argue that horsemen had a place in modern warfare. Cavalry itself was swiftly redefined as a function of its speed and maneuverability. Cavalrymen now drove tanks (armored cavalry) or flew helicopters (air cavalry). Seely’s beloved Hampshire Yeomanry lost its horses before World War II; it is now an artillery regiment, firing anti-aircraft missiles from armored vehicles.
In his paintings and drawings made during his five weeks with the Brigade, Munnings captured the twilight of the horse at war. His portrait of Seely and Warrior is in the Canadian War Museum. Jack is astride his charger, posed a mile or two from the German lines, which are visible on the horizon. Seely is in khaki field uniform, a scarf tossed about his neck, his riding boots gleaming, with a red silk band about the garrison cap he wore into battle so his men might know he was with them.