The Saga of John Willoughby
On March 30th, 2018, a dozen members of the Willoughby family gathered in northern France to mark, among other events, the death of their Great-uncle Jack, who died a hundred years earlier. John James Willoughby, former mounted policeman, was one of hundreds of casualties of the Battle of Moreuil Wood, but long after his death his presence was felt.
(Left: Constable Willoughby)
French farmer Jean Paul Brunel worked his fields as normal in 1986, preparing them for the spring planting. Like prairie farmers who deal with rocks heaved up by the frost every spring, Jean Paul kept an eye out for debris on the surface of the land—often unexploded munitions dating back a hundred years. From his tractor seat he saw something different—the remnants of a boot. And in that boot was a skeletal foot, with other bones still intact. With the body were various metallic objects: a bayonet, brass buttons, a shoulder badge that read LSH(RC)—and identity tags. Two of them, meaning the body had not received a proper burial. But the hitherto unremarked remains of John James Willoughby were the catalyst that a hundred years later saw hundreds of soldiers and civilians alike on the spot where he perished. (Below: Jean Paul at the location he found J J Willoughbys remains)
Jean Paul became an unofficial guardian of the memory of Jack Willoughby and the long-ago events of March 30th, 1918. On that date Brigadier-general “Galloper Jack” Seely led the Canadian Cavalry Brigade into its fiercest fight of the Great War at Moreuil Wood. Seely set up his post at the spot where Willoughby’s body was found, and directed the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the Strathcona’s, and the Fort Garrys into the battle. Willoughby was a member of C Squadron of the Strathcona’s, led by Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew, late of Walhachin, British Columbia. (Below: “Galloper Jack”)
Flowerdew’s squadron was held in reserve when Seely committed the rest of the brigade to the fight in Moreuil Wood, eventually sending it around the south-east corner of the wood to engage what were anticipated to be Germans driven out by the Canadians. Flowerdew and his men were met with enemy rifles, machineguns, and artillery, but carried out a deadly charge. Roughly a third of the squadron were casualties, and Flowerdew himself died a day later.
Jack Willoughby may well have taken part in that charge. In any event, his body was buried, perhaps by an artillery shell, back where Seely had his headquarters, until it was discovered by Jean Paul Brunel sixty-eight years later.
Later research by a documentary film crew led the search for J J Willoughby’s descendants, if any. Researcher Judy Ruzylo turned up John James Willoughby, of Rocky Mountain House Alberta, J J’s great nephew.
In the meantime, Jean Paul Brunel was in closer contact over the years with the Strathcona’s. He would welcome descendants of the Moreuil Wood veterans, history buffs, and serving members when they sought out the site. A very dramatic moment occurred in 2008 when the younger John James Willoughby was introduced to Jean Paul, and escorted to a memorial set up by Jean Paul where he had discovered the remains of “Uncle Jack”. (Below: John Willoughby, at the memorial set up where his great uncle Jack’s body was located by M. Brunel)
Now an armoured regiment, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) has always celebrated Moreuil Day to commemorate March 30th 1918. Twenty-eighteen was to be particularly noteworthy, being the 100th anniversary of the battle. Jean Paul Brunel’s determined and focussed efforts in France, and those of the regiment, culminated this year. Hundreds attended the anniversary, highlighted by the presence of the LSH(RC) Mounted Troop, descendants of veterans of the battle, and French citizens. The extended Strathcona’s family, including no fewer than a dozen Willoughbys, joined General Seely’s family and the English branch of the Flowerdews, taking part in a tight schedule of events highlighted by the re-enactment of the charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron.
(Above: Willoughbys and friends, Moreuil Wood, 2018)