Riding Into War

by James Robert Johnston
ISBN: 0864924127

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A Review of: Riding Into War: The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919
by James Roots

"Little did I think when we were young, and all things around us were gay, that some fine day our monarch would say, it's up to every person to do his duty. After living for so many years in peace and happiness, it was cruel for such a war between so many countries to start. Little did we think that it would mean the calling of so many human beings together to be slaughtered like sheep for the sake of a few individuals who thought they could conquer the world. Alas, they did not consider the individuals in the Colonies who were willing to aid the motherland."
Private Bert Cooke's initiation of his World War I diary encapsulates the importance of the surprising number of Canadian soldiers' diaries that have been receiving their first commercial publication as we lurch through the ninetieth anniversary of the Great War.
For practically all of those ninety years, we have been told the day Canada held the line at Ypres, or advanced on the Somme, Vimy Ridge, or Passchendaele, was the day we truly became a nation. What the diaries of Cooke, James Robert Johnston, and those of others show us is that this clich is absolutely true; and that, moreover, the soldiers who fought at those fronts realized it even as it was happening.
Cooke, Johnston, and others like them either observed or participated in all of the great Canadian battles except Ypres: Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Hill 70, Lens, Amiens, Arras. All of them entered the Army in 1915-16 as patriotic members of the British Empire. All of them reveal the maturation of national self-awareness that they experienced as the Canadian Expeditionary Force was molded under fire into the elite shock-troops of the Allied Powers.
Johnston's Riding Into War is likely the only published war memoirs of a horse transport driver. As such, it gives us a whole new perspective on the battleground. "Very little has been said about the horses and mules that were used," he notes, "and what they suffered is beyond all description." Indeed: in one fairly typical day of fighting, the horses delivered 160,000 rounds of ammunition, then came back and delivered another 500,000 rounds the following night. When they were injured, they were treated hastily and tossed back into duty just like the soldiers, even though they might be shell-shocked or blinded. They had a life expectancy of only six days at the front.
Long marches are a favourite complaint of all of the diarists. All three writers stress the importance of sport and entertainment, such as The Dumbells, away from the trenches. They record endless searches for drinkable water and comfortable sleeping-holes, relentless training on every leave, and the surprising traffic-jams of troops and resources constantly on the move.
They present themselves as good boys: they never mention sex, each claims to have gotten drunk only three times; they never swear or record others as swearing, and they all go to church whenever they get the chance. In Johnston's case, at least, this is a real joke, because he starts out as a complete backwoods innocent but within a year is smoking, drinking, and running an illegal floating gambling den. All have a mordant sense of humour. Cooke reports that the voyage from Canada to England was so rough, seasick soldiers were "feeding fish with scraps of food eaten the day before," and "as the ship rolled, a wave disturbed us causing a few of us to change our underwear." As a raw recruit, Johnston tells a grizzled vet he doesn't drink, and the vet nearly collapses: "I guess he thought they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel for new recruits and were now sending the crazy ones over."
Each diarist also has tales of horror to tell. Johnston watches a group of about 200 very young soldiers go over the top by mistake on their first action and get mowed down in a perfect line. Cooke tells of two of his own men picking up a metal bar to use in heating tea; it turns out to be an explosive that "blew them to atoms They found minute body parts of the two men and put them in a small bag and buried them."
And perhaps the most poignant similarity all of these diarists share: all of them confess that, although they survived, the War destroyed their nerves. They never got over it.

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