The accounts of the Battalion in which John Lewis Moilliet served in 1916 and 1917 as recorded in a history of the Seaforth Highlanders by BERNARD McEVOY AND CAPT. A.H.FINLAY, M.C. published by Cowan and Brookhouse in Vancouver in 1920. Uncle Jack, as he was known, was in Company ‘D’.

The battalion landed in France in August and found itself in the The Somme by October and November and were involved the digging trenches and conducting raids. The history account states Company ‘D’ “Distinguished itself by gaining 300 yards with practically no losses”. By late November the Battalion was in the area of Vimy. Vimy is a ridge of over 400 feet ranging from Arras on the north to Lens further south. Here the 72nd prepared for the spring offensive.

The Battle for Vimy Ridge.

On March 30th the Battalion relieved the 73rd Battalion the frontline in trenches, the 47th Battalion being on the left and the78th Battalion on the right. During this tour patrols were very active, as were both artilleries. During this tour also the Battalion took over an additional 250 yards of the front from the 47th Battalion. On April 4th the Battalion was relieved by the 73rd Battalion and moved back to Brigade Reserve at Chateau de la Haie after a difficult tour during which the enemy artillery was particularly active.

On April 7th the Battalion held a Decoration parade, when decorations were presented by Major.-General Sir David Watson. On April 8th, Easter Sunday, the forth coming attack was finally rehearsed. Church parade was held, at which Major A.D. Wilson was presented with the Distinguished Service Order, which he had been awarded in connection with the raid on March1st. Several other officers and other ranks also received their decorations on this occasion.

On that evening the Battalion moved into Gobron Tunnel on Vimy Ridge in readiness for the final attack. The Gobron tunnel was 275 metres beyond Coburg Subway and situated well up the slope of the ridge. (These two ‘subways’ were at the extreme north end of of the Canadian positios. – ed.) The tunnel, which was on the right of the Company’s front, was 618 feet in length and it had a 50’ X  9’ X 6.5’ Medical Aid Post fitted up with brackets to hold a double tier of stretchers placed longitudinally along each side. There was an apartment for the M.O. and his supplies and an operating table. The subway also contained a battalion H.Q., a station for an electrical generating plant, a bomb (grenades) store near the forward exit. A chamber for water tanks and 8 recesses for urinals were spaced evenly over its entire length. It was eventually found the power plant was not available so the subway was lighted with hurricane oil lamps situated at 4’ intervals, protected by guards of expanded metal. The tunnel was provided with two entrances and three forward exits.

The culmination of months of tireless effort, of difficult raids and patrols was now in view. A winter spent under the most trying conditions was to show results. That the72nd Battalion had paid the price was to be seen in the fact that wastage and casualties had so far reduced its numbers that 400 of all ranks was the total number assembled in the tunnel on that evening.

The Canadian lines had been shortened to a front of about 7000 yards. To the 72nd was given a place of honour. They were too occupy the left flank of the whole attack a most difficult and dangerous position. The preliminary work had begun nearly three weeks before when systematic artillery destruction of the Boche lines was opened in earnest. An enormous number of guns had been accumulating for the blow. New shells were being used, armour-piercing and delayed-action shells which penetrated deep into the ground, blowing up deep dugouts. The chalky country around Vimy lends itself to mining, and mines had been prepared.

Hot soup and other refreshments were supplied to the waiting men and were much appreciated. Zero hour was 5:30 a.m., when, in addition to a terrific artillery and machine gun barrage, two heavy mines were to be sprung under the enemy trenches opposite to the 72nd front. At about 5a.m. on this Easter Monday, April 9th, the Battalion quitted Gobron Tunnel and filed into the assembly trenches. It was a most inclement morning of sleet and snow which the west wind fortunately drove into the faces of the foe. The Ridge itself, churned out of all semblance to its former self by the rain of shells it had received intermittently through the winter, and without respite during the past ten days, seemed nothing but a vast expanse of small lakes formed by the linked-up shell-craters. Progress across this ground under the most favourable conditions would have demanded great exertion.

As the hands of the officers carefully synchronized watches came to the stroke of half past five on that fateful morning, the western sky seemed to leap into a gigantic flicker of sheet lightning, as the immense concentration of guns began their final smashing of the doomed German positions. Simultaneously with the opening of the barrage the two mines under the Boche right front were exploded, and the 72nd moved forward to the attack, as promptly and with angry violence, in answer to frantic S.0.S.rockets, the German protective barrage came down on No Man’s Land and on the trenches which the Battalion had just left, being particularly heavy in the vicinity of Montreal Crater, which was the left centre of the Battalions front. There was also intense machine gunfire, particularly from a small hillock of the Ridge to the left of the Battalion which bore the name of the Pimple. The Battalion quickly over ran the enemy front line, hounding the Boche from the remains of his shattered dugouts and from the easterly lips of the group of mine craters.

Strenuous resistance was encountered from the triangle of trenches formed by Clutch and Cluck trenches, and great difficulty was experienced in keeping direction in the blinding sleet and over the maze of water-filled shell-holes. Some of these were 20 feet or 30 feet across and six or seven feet deep.

The battle in which the Battalion was now bearing its part, facing the long and sinister slope of Vimy Ridge was a very comprehensive and tremendous assault in which there were roughly 120,000 men in the storming line with 40,000 advancing behind them. But it will be worth while just here to record the gallant exploit of Lieut. D.0.Vicars, D.S.O., and Pte. McWhinny (later Lieut. McWhinney, D.C.M.).

While the 72nd attacked, more or less frontally, the triangle before mentioned, Vicars and McWhinney together with a mere handful of men worked around to the right flank of Clutch trench. Almost all of Lieut. Vicars men were casualties by the time he reached the trench, but Vicars, accompanied by McWhinney and Cpl. Hat Matthews, began what was one of the most memorable feats in the Battalion's history. Armed chiefly with bombs (grenades - ed) which they manipulated with unerring efficiency, the three proceeded to take, unaided, about 400 yards of the strongly held German support line. Slipping from traverse to traverse along the trench, the dauntless trio advanced, clearing or partially clearing each bay by throwing bombs into it before entering and finishing the job with revolver and cold steel. Time after time Boches braver and more cunning than there stated tempted to way lay them by lying in wait in the doorways of their dugouts, only to be met by a courage and resource more deadly than their own.

Pushing the now thoroughly demoralized Boches before them, the three continued their advance until practically the whole trench on the Battalion front was cleared. Aided by the arrival of the frontal attacking troops they drove the completely routed Bavarians to their destruction in the heavy ‘standing barrage’ ,  which was protecting the left flank of the attack.

This is but an example of what was done on that glorious and eventful day. Of the heroic work of the rest of the Battalion no praise can be too laudatory. Stumbling through the maze of shell craters, and lashed by machine gun fire they had continued to advance, and while Clutch trench was being cleaned out they had been grimly fighting their way towards the hotly contested triangle of trenches, and here it may be said that there was a demonstration of the fact that no evil is without its compensations, for the heavy and deep mud which the troops had not been in the habit of regarding with pleasant feelings, now played its part. Many miraculous escapes were probably due to its negative capacity in absorbing and muffling shell-bursts. The Battalion may be pictured at this time as having changed the wave and line formation of the commencement to one better suited to meet existing conditions. It could be seen moving in small groups that twisted their way among the shell-craters, now firing and again for a moment taking cover. Many were the grim hand-to-hand fights as Canadians and Bavarians struggled for supremacy. The magnificent dash and initiative of our men was unmistakable, as , despite the treacherous conditions of the fighting ground, and the stern resistance encountered, the Battalion pushed its way forward towards the summit of the sloping Ridge.

Desperately conscious of what the loss of this position of vantage would mean, the Bavarians fought like tigers. But their star was on the wane. Their line, the imaginarily impregnable Vimy Ridge defences, with their miles of trenches and barbed wire; their deeply-buried tunnels and dugouts manned by their much vaunted troops was smashed between Arras and the Souchez by a stroke of arms destined to ring round the world. Establishing touch (contact) with the unit on their right, the 72nd settled down to consolidate their gains. But if the victory had been a great one, it was won at heavy cost, there being but 62 of all ranks who did not become casualties. Many gallant men had made the supreme sacrifice. Among the officers the casualties were unfortunately high, eleven out of the thirteen participating having suffered, of whom eight were killed. Among the latter was the brave and beloved commander of ‘C’ Company, Major Jack Sweet.

It is impossible to chronicle all the gripping stories that might be told of personal gallantry and self-sacrifice. Those which are given are merely illustrative incidents of what took place. No one who was there can forget, for instance, the wonderful work of Capt. S.B. Birds, who, with that uncanny coolness which was a source of wonder to all ranks, led his own Company at the start, and later directed affairs on the spot with a disregard of danger that seemed almost fatalistic. Nor must the work of the stretcher-bearers be left out of this narrative. Shot at, but unable to shoot back, they went about their merciful work. It is the highest possible praise to them to record that by 4 p.m. on that fateful 9th of April all the wounded had been cleared from the field despite the still heavy shell-fire and the ever present mud.

Such an attack as has been described, tumultuous and be wildering as it was, was no haphazard chapter of accidents. The whole had been the subject of careful preparation and forecast of probabilities. Behind all this antecedent business was the cool and judicious brain of the Battalion’s gallant commander, Lieut.-Col. J.A. Clark. Gradually the eventful day drew to a close. Working desperately, the Battalion consolidated its defenses. Blocks were pushed out and established in the trenches leading into the new German positions, and the shattered ditch that had been the main enemy support line was put into a state of defense in readiness for any counter-attack which might develop. During the night parties of the attacking troops were relieved by detachments of fresh men who had been kept in reserve in Gobron Tunnel. Sullenly the Boche batteries to the north, with shortened range, continued to hurl high-explosives onto their old positions, while the unceasing flares that soared skywards, betokened the nervous apprehension of the defeated enemy.

The morning of the 10th of April was heralded by another furious outburst of drum-fire as a fresh brigade lunged forward through the sleet and rain, its objective being the ‘Pimple’ on the Battalion’s left. (John Lewis Moilliet’s war records indicate he was wounded in the jaw by shrapnel on April 10 thus it seems likely he was involved in taking the ‘Pimple”.  – ed ) The taking of this hillock relieved the 72nd of the galling and costly enfilading fire to which they had been subjected during the previous day. Reconnaisances carried out during the 9th and 10th found the enemy to be holding in force a position along Claude Trench, a line roughly parallel to and about 250 yards in front of the Battalion. Reports from the Division on the right were most favourable, and indicated a break-through. Everywhere the attack had been a complete success, and along the whole front the allotted objectives had been gained. For three days the fighting smouldered along the entire front, while units gathered themselves for a final effort, and the guns, terribly hampered by the enveloping mud, were moved forward to cover a fresh advance. How these guns were moved at all will always be a thing to be wondered at, but by means of tremendous effort and the use of horses and tractors the arduous work was accomplished. For the 72nd the fighting flared into flame again on the morning of April13th. Led on this occasion in person by their Commanding Officer, the Battalion flung itself against Claude Trench. The enemy’s left flank and centre had been shattered by the fighting of the previous four days and he now collapsed under this spirited attack. The Kilties swept down the eastern slope into the promised land beyond. Here may well be mentioned the outstanding work of Lieut. Col. Clark, D.S.O. Accompanied by Lieut. Grey, one or two runners and a Lewis gun-crew, he out distanced the more heavily encumbered Battalion and entered the village of Givenchy, well in advance, and almost treading on the heels of the now thoroughly routed enemy. Pushing rapidly through the streets he entered the Vimy-Angres trench system beyond the village almost a mile in advance of his Battalion and in imminent danger of being cut off by stray parties of the enemy, the gallant C.0. and his few men, fired by their first taste of open warfare after the depressing weeks of trench fighting, commenced careful reconnaissance of this line, and discovering that the Vimy-Angres system was now clear of the Boche,  Colonel Clark was able to send back most valuable information. Coming close after him were the remnant of the 261 Highlanders, who had gone into action on the 9th a few over100men. The exhausting effect of their recent strenuous work was forgotten in the exhilaration of the advance, as one of them said afterwards: It acted like champagne to get Heinie on the run at last!

During the morning of the memorable April13th, while pushing forward in the vicinity of Givenchy, Lieut.-Col. Clark met the gallant commander of the 12thBrigade, Brig.-Gen .J.H. MacBrien, D.S.O., well in front of his advanced troops, and apparently intent on ‘doing a bit on his own’. After the exciting events of the morning, as before described, these two officers, in order to determine the extent of the German withdrawal, proceeded north through the Vimy-Angres line over the Hirondellespur to the northeast of Givenchy. On reaching the crest of the spur, they encountered a party of some 50 of the enemy, apparently undecided whether to stand or retreat. The general and the colonel at once opened a brisk fire with their revolvers, and the enemy, his mind apparently made up, vanished in the direction of Angres. It was at this juncture that a fresh brigade of our men were advancing in open order some 600 yards behind the scene of this fight, and mistaking the two officers for the enemy, they opened fire with the unfortunate result that Gen. MacBrien was shot through the arm, and, very much against his will, forced to leave the field for about two weeks. It may be imagined what this sudden and brilliant advance meant to those who for months had been subject to the soul numbing monotony of trench warfare. To have left that ghastly shell-pocked Ridge behind them and to have burst into the as yet unsullied country beyond, was a thing to remember. Late in the afternoon the Battalion was relieved by a unit of an Imperial Division, who swept through their lines in open order on their way to LaCoulotte and the Mericourt Switch Line which barred the road to Lens. The capture of Vimy Ridge was a thing accomplished. It will forever be a prominent event in the calendar of history. In an especial manner it will forever stand out in the annals of the 72nd Highlanders of Canada. For the whole of the Canadian Divisions it was a great triumph and the gain was great. The prisoners that fell to the combined forces were 3342, including 62 officers, while the guns taken totaled 30. The key of one of the most important sections of the North had been secured.

The account of the taking of the German trenches at Avion, France in late June 1917

"The Battalions first night attack came on June 27th when, after 24 hours wire-cutting, fire on the defenses of Avion trench and the Eleu spur, the 72nd fronted a definite objective. This was that portion of Avion trench that lay between Patrick communication trench on the right and another about 800 yards off on the left.

The72nd knew all about the hostile position through the efficient work of its scouts and observers, and the C.0. decided to put only one company into the attack. The honour fell to 'D' Company, plus squads from 'A' and 'C', and after the assembling, partly in Quebec trench, but mostly lined along tapes stretched into No Man’s Land on the left flank along a line roughly paralleling Avion trench and about 400 yards distant from it 'D' Company jumped off following a rolling barrage at 2:30 a.m. on June28th. Despite the almost absolute darkness, and the fact that the troops used had never seen the ground in daylight, owing to their being in support during the previous attack, the assault was a complete success. The highest praise is due to Lieut. W.G. Mclntosh, and those of his officers and N.C.O.s who had seen the position on the previous day and were thus able to keep direction the most difficult of all things in a night attack over unfamiliar ground. But the determined valour of the men they led was amply witnessed to when the breaking light of June 28th revealed the slaughtered and vanquished foe in Avion trench. For the Kilties had swept through the darkness into that trench with irresistible force. The bayonet, the bomb and the clubbed rifle did their work.The objective was cleared and the morning found 72nd men in complete possession.

It was one of the cleanest-cut, intensest little operations in the Battalions history. During the morning following, Saskatoon road, a sunken thoroughfare full of deep dug outs, paralleling and some 250 yards in advance of Avion trench was taken by this company, while at 6 p.m., in conjunction with flanking units, these indefatigables pushed on and cleared the enemy from the southern purlieu of the Eleu trenches on the south-eastern slope of the Eleu spur.

On the morning of the 29th the Battalion held these positions, looking over the floods of the Souchez at the serried pit heads and slag-heaps of Lens. It was a position the72nd was destined to hold at short intervals throughout many long months. It is significant to note that the German official communique, in dealing with the Canadian attacks at this time, stated that "near Avion the attack was led by specially picked assaulting troops". The splendid support given during this attack by the flanking units, the 38th and the 85th Battalions, deserves special mention here as it contributed very materially to the success of the 72nd.

The remainder of this memorable tour passed quietly and was devoted to the consolidation of the captured positions.

(An observation by the author later in the history prior to the regiment's involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele.)
"It will have been seen from the result of the attack on Avion trench on June 28th, how invaluable was the information obtained by the day light reconnaissances carried on by the scouts previously, as these enabled the commanding officer to put only one company into the attack, whereas, had he not been absolutely certain of the enemy's dispositions, it would have been necessary to put at least three companies into the assault and thus have trebled the casualties to produce the same result.