John Arthur Clark, C.M.G., D.S.O. (1886-1976)
In November 1910, on its organization in Vancouver, 24-year-old John Arthur Clark joined what would become known as the 72nd Regiment, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Within a span of eight years Clark would rise in rank from Captain to Brigadier General, be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) three times, and be mentioned in despatches five times.
After graduating with a B.A. from the University of Toronto and a LL.B. from Osgoode Hall in 1909, Clark returned home to Vancouver to begin a career as a lawyer. At the beginning of the 20th century Vancouver’s economy was in full gear, fueled by a prairie wheat boom. A strong economy also attracted newcomers, and between 1890 and 1910 Vancouver's population grew from 13,700 to over 100,000. In 1910 about 44 percent of Vancouver’s population were Canadian-born. One-third of that number, including the young John Clark and his family, had recently resettled west from Ontario.
By 1915 the Great War was in its second year, and Clark was now a Major, having been promoted to that rank in October 1914. The war in Europe had passed from one of movement to stalemate, and to replace mounting casualties, efforts were bolstered across the British Empire to raise new armies to repulse the German Imperial Army from its entrenchments in Flanders and France. Lord Kitchener’s New Army in Great Britain is the best known of such formations. Likewise in Canada, the C.E.F. (Canadian Expeditionary Force) was mobilized, “to be composed of officers and men who are willing to volunteer for Overseas service under the British Crown.”
There was certainly no lack of patriotism and loyalty for the British Empire in Vancouver, where one in three residents were English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish immigrants. On the 10th of July 1915 the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Samuel Hughes, authorized the creation of the 72nd Overseas Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Shortly afterwards, on the 18th of July a telegram was received from the Department of Militia and Defence confirming the promotion of now Lieut.-Col. Clark as officer commanding the 72nd Battalion. It was a command he would hold until almost the end of the war.
Beginning in September, recruitment to the new battalion was brisk, and training began later that month at a camp established at Hastings Park, now the site of the Pacific National Exhibition. Under the command of Lieut.-Col. Clark and his officers the men began to train in earnest to prepare them for combat in Europe. Basic training emphasized musketry drill and shooting practice (on the Ross rifle), route marching and sporting activities meant to improve physical fitness, entrenchment techniques, and tactical instruction at the company and battalion level.
It’s training in Canada complete, the 72nd Battalion entrained from Vancouver on Sunday April 16th, bound for Ottawa and ultimately Halifax. A crowd of 30,000 gathered in fine weather to witness the departure of Lieut.-Col. Clark and the men of the 72nd Battalion, a remarkable achievement when it is considered that the population of Vancouver in 1916 was just over 100,000 people. The 72nd Battalion sailed for England from Halifax aboard H.M. Transport Empress of Britain on Wednesday April 26th 1916, arriving safely at Liverpool on the 4th of May. Upon arrival in England the battalion was assigned to the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division, and it received further training and instruction, especially in musketry, at Bramshott near Portsmouth until the battalion finally embarked for combat in Europe on August 12th, 1916.
Under Clark’s command the men of the 72nd Bn. first saw action near Kemmell, in a less-active sector located southwest of the Belgian city of Ypres. Here the battalion quickly learned how to live and fight in the bewildering trench systems that constituted the Western Front. It is noteworthy that the battalion conducted its first trench raid against the Germans within days of arriving in Belgium, on September 16th. The battalion carefully rehearsed for this surprise night attack, its goal to capture German soldiers for intelligence.
In October 1916 the 72nd Bn. was moved south into France, near Courcellette, about mid-point between Albert and Baupame. Between the 26th of October and the 26th of November 1916, during the Battle for the Ancre Heights, the 72nd Bn. was rotated through to the frontlines assigned to the 12th Brigade. It was an utterly miserable experience for Lieut.-Col. Clark and the men of the 72nd Bn. By October the Somme battlefield was rendered unrecognizable by over three months of war, and the inclement, wet weather made it even worse. Furthermore, superior dispositions of German artillery and machine-guns made any movement by day impossible.
Somme battlefield, July 1 – November 19, 1916
Reminiscing after the war, Capt. Wilson Herald, M.C., the Medical Officer of the 72nd Bn., noted “I do not think it possible that any of the Somme will ever, so long as they live, forget that dreadful battlefield. Everywhere the place was a bog and the trenches were simply ditches of mud and water.” The leadership of Lieut.-Col. Clark at this time, in the words of the battalion’s official history, “calls for special mention for his tireless energy, which took him through his Battalion’s water-filled trenches, daily and under all circumstances.” It was for his actions on the Somme, where he was wounded, that Lieut.-Col. Clark was awarded his first Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.).
The winter of 1916 saw no respite for young Lieut.-Col. Clark and the men of the 72nd Bn. Transferred north from the Somme, the battalion first took up positions in front of the German lines commanding the heights of Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, on the 24th of December. It was a fitting prelude to the famous Canadian victory barely four months later, when on the 9th of April 1917 all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, after careful planning and rehearsals, successfully captured the previously impregnable German positions, and forced them to withdraw eastward across the Douai Plain.
Earlier in February, in preparation for the main assault on Vimy, the 72nd Bn. planned, rehearsed, and executed a “phenomenally successful” trench raid. On the night of February 16th, 54 men of ‘B’ Coy., under the command of Lieut. W.C. Ross and Lieut. T. Barrie, and supported by trench mortar barrages designed to cover their advance and intercept German reinforcements, raided the German lines opposite them on Vimy Ridge, destroying dugouts with satchels packed with ammonal explosive. German soldiers who refused to surrender were targeted by raiders equipped with Lewis light machineguns. The entire operation lasted seven minutes, and not a single casualty resulted. By April, Clark and his officers had created a potent infantry force that was learning how to fight with new weapons in smaller groups and with greater tactical flexibility.
In the second half of 1917, British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig urged that attacks be made in Belgium, especially against the Ypres salient, with the ultimate goal of driving the German Fourth Army from Flanders, especially the Channel coast. The Third Battle of Ypres began at the end of July, and three months later in October the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Arthur Currie, was ordered to prepare an assault against strongly-defended German positions commanding Passchendaele ridge, about 11 km northeast of Ypres, in order to gain better battlefield advantage against the Germans and to capture drier ground for the coming winter.
At Passchendaele, Clark’s personal reconnaissance of his men’s position and route of advance towards Crest Farm, a formidable redoubt commanding the heights of Passchendaele, was instrumental in the eventual success of the 72nd Battalion’s attack. It is worth quoting at length from the official battalion history about the prudent measures Clark made before attack at Zero Hour, set for 5:50 A.M. on October 30th, 1917:
On October 28th the Bn moved from Brandhoek by train to Ypres and marched to Potijze area where it outfitted preparatory to action. At 4:45 p.m. it moved forward, “D” Company going into the front line, taking over from the 47th Bn, and three Companies into support, one near Hillside Farm and the other two at Abraham Heights. On the morning of the 29th a reconnaissance was made which showed that Haalen copse was either entirely under water or so swampy that it was impassable. This made a change in the plan of the operations necessary. One short line of description, but what it conveys is something much more serious than appears. To Major A. V. Wood, M.C., much credit was due for valuable information on this point which had the effect of rendering an entire and drastic revision of plans essential to the success of the operation. On receipt of this intelligence Lieut.-Col. Clark at once made a personal reconnaissance of the position, and without a moment’s hesitation, at the eleventh hour changed his distribution for the attack on the following day. In order to advise Brigade H.Q. of this change, and in order to arrange for a successful barrage to cover the new formation, the Colonel personally conveyed the intelligence to the Brigadier. A few words in reference to these changes will not be out of place. They involved, owing to the flooded condition of the ground in front of the Bn, a very difficult converging movement in order to pass through the only remaining opening, about 50 yards wide, to the right of the flooded area, after which it was again necessary for the Bn to adopt the wave formation of the start before launching itself at the veritable fortress of Crest Farm. When it is considered that all these changes had to be carried out, not on a parade ground, but under intense fire and through clinging mud, some idea of the credit due to those who conducted them with such conspicuous success will be obtained. The four Vickers machine guns and the Stokes gun which were at the disposal of the Bn, together with four Lewis guns, were, however, placed in such a position as to command the enemy defences in the rear of Haalen copse and the south-west slopes of Crest Farm, which latter it will be remembered was the Bn`s objective. Early in the evening of the 29th the whole Bn assembled on the reverse slop of the hill behind the front line. They dug themselves in by 10 p.m. Zero hour was fixed at 5:50 next morning.
The attack by the 72nd Bn achieved its objectives, and “C” Company even managed to send fighting patrols into Passchendaele village itself. An official dispatch received from Sir Douglas Haig after the battle noted that “the unit that took Crest Farm had by this action accomplished a feat of arms which would go down in the annals of British history as one of the greatest achievements of a single unit.”
Following the failure of the German offensive in the spring and summer of 1918, the Canadian Corps, now reckoned as one of the most reliable ‘sharp edges’ of the British Army in France, was given extensive training in the conduct of more mobile warfare, emphasizing combined arms tactics and manoeuvre, beginning early May until July, when the Germans began to withdraw from the Marne river to more tenable defensive lines. Starting on August 2nd the Canadian Corps was moved in complete secrecy to the German front just southeast of Amiens, in the Somme sector. Now assigned to the British Fourth Army under the command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, at 4:20 A.M. August 8th the Canadian Corps attacked through fog against the German defences along the River Luce. During the subsequent Battle of Amiens (August 8th to 12th) the British Fourth Army, with the Canadians in the vanguard, advanced over 13 km and took 50,000 German soldiers prisoner, and scored what hindsight now regards as a mortal blow against the Imperial Army.
The Battle of Amiens
At 12:10 P.M. on August 8th 1918, the 72nd Battalion and its sister battalions in the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade (the 38th, 78th, and 85th Battalions), jumped off from positions captured earlier in the day by the 3rd Division. The 12th Brigade’s objective to advance towards the village of Le Quesnel and the ‘Outer Amiens Defence Line’ was hampered by a lack of artillery support, which meant that the Canadians resorted unaided to well-rehearsed small unit fire and manoeuvre tactics which they had trained for since the summer. But as the 72nd Battalion approached the vicinity of Le Quesnel astride the Corps boundary with the First French Army, Lieut.-Col Clark and his men encountered determined enfilading fire from German machine-guns, which was compounded by the exposed position of the battalion, as the French had been unable to keep up to the rapid advance of the 3rd and 4th Divisions.
It was for his leadership during the Battle of Amiens, which marked the beginning of the ‘Hundred Days’ until the Armistice of November 1918, that Lieut.-Col. Clark was awarded his second D.S.O. while serving as the commanding officer of the 72nd Battalion.
On the right flank a most interesting situation had developed. In the village of Le Quesnel, a very large body of the enemy, surprised by the speed of the advance, were frantically endeavoring to get their transport loaded and get away. Menaced by the swiftly-advancing Kilties, they flung out a very strong rearguard force in front of “A” Company’s right flank. “A” Company swung to the right and attacked the rearguard. The enemy fought desperately, and it was only the magnificent dash and initiative of our men that enabled them to crumple up the flank of the resistance and cause it to fall back in disorder on the village of Le Quesnel. During the fight Lieut.-Col. J. A. Clark, D.S.O., Lieut. J. McGregor, M.M., and the latter’s platoon, carried out a dashing operation against the enemy’s left flank – an operation which considerably precipitated his retreat. This party attacking over the open with absolutely no cover captured two machine guns and either killed or wounded all their crews.
Lieut.-Col. Clark would continue to command the 72nd Battalion until September 12th, when he was promoted to Brigadier-General and Officer Commanding the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division at the age of thirty-two. Clark’s remaining two months of military service culminated with the capture of the Belgian city of Mons on the last day of the Great War, November 11th 1918.
Following the armistice, General Clark returned to Vancouver to resume his civilian career as a successful lawyer and as a Member of Parliament representing the riding of Vancouver-Burrard throughout most of the 1920s. In the post-war period Clark continued to serve with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada as a Honourary Lieut.-Col. and honorary president of the 72nd Overseas Battalion club. Clark also leveraged his political and military achievements to secure federal government funding for construction of the Burrard Street Armoury, which the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada continue to call home today. In the decades between the First and Second World Wars General Clark presided over the regimental selection committee, charged with approving the appointment of officers, including the young Bert Hoffmeister, a future Lieut.-Col. and regimental commander of the Seaforths. Clark passed away in 1976 at the age of ninety. In the words of one of his former officers, Capt. Wilson Herald, M.C., ‘Colonel Clark... was a wonderful commanding officer, admired by everyone in the battalion. He is a most thorough man, absolutely tireless, never tolerating anything that was not the very best in the officers and men. He was a soldier through and through.’