France French: A Strathcona Story
Article and Photos by Tpr B.J. Cocker
Sgt Paul Kruhlak, Cpl Justin Hodgins, Cpl Scott Fraser, and Tpr Benjamin Cocker of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Ceremonial Mounted Troop retraced the steps of the Allied Forces from Cambrai, France to Mons, Belgium on a 100km Cavalry ride. This was a commemorative ride in honour of the Pursuit to Mons. To be as authentic as possible, we used saddles from the Great War that were refurbished by our Strathcona Tack Shop. Our first night was spent in the Chateau de la Motte Fenelon. Here we got our first real taste of the French lifestyle. Bathrooms were very different, with shower heads at knee level, and toilets in separate rooms the size of broom closets with no sinks. The following morning we were treated to our first “breakfast”. In France you seem to have a sip of coffee, some bread and some cheese to tide yourself over until lunch. Later this day we arrived in a small field in Cambrai to meet our fellow riders and get familiar with our mounts. Riders from Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, and of course Canada all showed up to commemorate this time in history. Everyone had something different to bring to the table, and it was an interesting experience to see how different nations rode and handled horses. The end of the first day saw us meet our two mounts: Skinny, for his petite and feeble appearance; and Shrapnel, a large warmblood cross with a spicy demeanor. With little direction and no one taking charge on the ground, the Troop turned to Sgt “I’m About to Have an Aneurysm” Kruhlak and the CO of the 1st Hussars, Lt. Col. Allan “Steal Your Champagne” Finney who led us into the unknown.
The Canadian group of Strathcona's and Hussars went to the small of town of Lwuy which was liberated by the 1st Hussars during their last cavalry charge of the Great War. The town’s folk gathered in the streets and held a memorial service near the local cemetery. The Great War cemetery was filled with mostly Canadians and well maintained by the locals.
The first big ride saw us travel from Cambrai to Bouchain. Using techniques from the cavalry handbook we traveled in half section formation and moved at a cavalry troop’s pace along the canals and roadways. In Bouchain we set up a temporary paddock and prepared for the troops’ arrival. Canvas tents were provided but the Strathcona’s opted to sleep by the horses in bivy bags. The weather in the French countryside was quite fair while snow was in Alberta. The absence of bugs made it all the better.
Next stop, Valenciennes; on our way we passed through Denain. In 1918 heavy fighting between Canadians and Germans engulfed the streets. Local civilians were still in their homes and came out to serve coffee to Canadian soldiers as they fought – perhaps the beginning of the traditional morning coffee break. In Valenciennes we adopted our normal setup in a public park with an electric fence beautifully laid by Tpr “Sit Deep” Cocker and Cpl “Low Speed, High Drag” Fraser. When locals passed through asking us questions, we directed them over to Cpl “John Wayne” Hodgins who speaks no French. The next leg saw us travel to Hensies. We crossed the French countryside with townspeople opening shutters to wave and greet us. Then we crossed the border to Belgium arriving in Hensies, and are met with 350L of beer called “Jupiler” which seemed to be a constant during this whole trip.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Lt. Col. Allan Finney's mount was unfit to lead the contingent into Mons. The Strathcona’s offered up our charger ‘Shrapnel’ to replace the lead horse that would ride first into Mons. The day we rode into Mons we faced heavy rain. It was cold, wet, and we really got an idea of what cavalry troopers went through during the war. Mons is a very beautiful city filled with cobblestone streets and magnificent churches. It was an honour to ride in on horseback to a large town square with the Mons Hotel de Ville in the forefront. The Hippodrome was the final stop for our trip, there were large concrete stables around a horse racing track. The Strathcona's shared a lovely concrete horse stall for the night complete with a clothes line and bedtime stories from Ex-Strathcona Glen Seddon.
That night in Mons, we attended the Gala Dinner hosted at the Hotel de Ville. We ate like Air Force officers and enjoyed some very tasteful cuisine in the forms of a four course meal. Tpr ‘I Can’t Talk to Girls’ Cocker left the Canadian table to join his new British counterparts while the rest of the Strathcona's ate and drank the night away. As the speeches and decorations drew the night to a close we retired to our box stall for the last night. Tpr Cocker will now require a leave pass for London to see his girlfriend, Sir.