John ‘Galloping Jack’ Seely led the last major cavalry charge of World War One. Seely commanded men from the Canadian Cavalry Brigade at Moreuil Wood in March 1918. During the course of World War One, many had accepted that cavalry had become obsolete as a front line weapon. New weapons such as the machine gun had made a cavalry charge extremely dangerous and at certain times of the year, the mud made any form of movement by horse all but impossible. Trenches were also protected by masses of barbed wire, which horses would have found difficult to clear. Seely did not share these views and saw the cavalry charge as the highest embodiment of spirit and courage – man and loyal horse against the enemy.
It is probably a truism that the life of Jack Seely could not be lived in the C21st as he truly belonged to an era associated with the British Empire and the attitudes that were embedded into a society that at one point had a government that controlled a quarter of the world. Seely was born into wealth on May 31st 1868. His education had an air of inevitability for someone born into privilege – Harrow and Cambridge, where he studied at Trinity College. He then involved himself in the worlds of the army and then politics. To what extent as a boy he was influenced by his aunt’s husband, Col. Harry Gore Browne, who had won the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny, is difficult to know. But for anyone steeped in the importance of duty and honouring your country, the desire to be awarded the country’s highest award for gallantry must have been huge.
Seely joined the Hampshire Yeomanry and fought in the Second Boer War. He believed that he should always lead from the front and by example. As a result of this approach Seely was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1900 and he was mentioned in despatches on four occasions.
Seely became MP for the Isle of Wight on his return from South Africa in 1900. It was the start of a long political career that was only interrupted by World War One.
As the political situation in Europe became more fraught, Seely was in the perfect position to assess the state of the British Army – one that had been defeated in South Africa just fourteen years earlier as Seely himself had witnessed. In 1912, Seely had been appointed Secretary of State for War and it was only an incident in Ireland at Curragh that temporarily suspended his political career as it forced him to hand in his resignation.
Seely rejoined the army and was appointed commander of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which consisted of three regiments. Seely built on the reputation he had acquired in South Africa – a man devoted to leading from the front, sometimes with an obsession that bordered on the highly dangerous. It would have been highly unusual for someone in their late forties with the rank of Major General to lead his men into battle let alone on horseback.
Seely believed in the value of the cavalry throughout the war. However, he was also aware that circumstances encountered during his time on the Western Front made a standard cavalry charge all but impossible – barbed wire, artillery, machine guns and snipers all conspired to neutralise a cavalry charge – as did the winter mud. He had also seen firsthand the failure of old style military thinking in South Africa. However, given the opportunity of good weather, good terrain and well-trained troops, Seely still believed in the cavalry charge. That was to come at Moreuil Wood, some ten miles southwest of Amiens, in March 1918, when Seely, then aged 51, led a cavalry charge that was part of an Allied campaign to stop the advance of the German Spring Offensive. The initial charge involved just 12 men – five were killed. Those who survived this charge, including Seely, planted a pennant for the other Canadians to aim for. It was then that the major cavalry charge occurred by the Canadians. They suffered many casualties despite the fact that the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) supported the attack.
Moreuil Wood was triangular shaped with each side measuring about 1 mile. The Germans had become convinced that they were about to face attack by Allied tanks and set up numerous machine gun posts around the wood’s perimeter. Against such firepower, horses and men stood little chance. Though the casualty rate was high, some cavalrymen, including Seely, got into the woods and what had been the last major cavalry charge of World War One descended into the most basic of hand-to-hand fighting. The Canadians got the upper hand and defeated the Germans – but at a cost. Half of all the horses in the attack were killed and a quarter of all the men. But the German advance at this point in France had been halted.
Shortly after the fighting at Moreuil Wood, Seely became a victim of poisonous gas. As he rode to his next post shortly after Moreuil Wood, Seely saw a man in a shell hole very ill after inhaling gas. Seely went over to help him and probably in his haste forget that the poisonous gas, being heavier than air, would have sunk to the base of the shell hole. As he got into the shell hole to aid the stricken soldier, Seely inhaled this gas and suffered accordingly. It ended his part in World War One.
Seely returned to politics after the war and once again gained ministerial rank. In 1926 he was made chairman of the National Savings Committee and co-ordinated its activities during World War Two. From 1918 to 1947, Seely was Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire.
John ‘Galloping Jack’ Seely died on November 7th 1947 aged 79.