James Robert Johnston (1898-1976) grew up on a farm at Notre Dame, New Brunswick. Knowing nothing about the army, he enlisted in April 1916, when he was 18, and was posted to the transport section of the Canadian machine gun corps. Johnston served at Vimy, at Hill 70, Lens, Ypres, Valenciennes and other places, and finally at Passchendaele. He was gassed, watched Billy Bishop give a flying demonstration, and saw the bodies of 200 young soldiers in a neat line, killed to a man as they went "over the top." By chance, Johnston arrived in London on leave on November 11, 1918. After the war, back home in Moncton, Johnston spent most of his postwar career working for the Canadian National Railway and as an independent surveyor. In 1964, he toured the battlefields he remembered so vividly. The memoir he wrote during that tour has become Riding into War, his unique tribute to the dependence and affection between men and horses, heroic partners in the War to End All Wars.
Riding into War: The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919by James Robert Johnston
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On the ghastly battlefields of the First World War, Jimmie Johnston drove teams or pack horses carrying ammunition and hauling guns to the front lines. One night, Johnston was hauling guns back from the front line. Suddenly, in the darkness and pouring rain, he, his team, the wagon, and the guns pitched into an old trench. After disentangling the horses from their harness, Johnston found a trenching tool, dug away the side of the trench, and led the horses out of what had become a sea of mud. Then he harnessed them again, took them back to camp, cleaned them up, and returned to the trench to find the wagon blown to bits by German fire. Jimmie Johnston, the farm boy, endured nearly three years under constant artillery fire. Two decades after the war ended, he wrote this memoir of his wartime experiences on a trip back to Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. In Riding into War, Johnston marvels at how jokes and pranks and the funny side of even the most terrible events have stuck in his mind. Yet, even in the face of horror and suffering, his sense of humour rarely deserted him. The scenes he relates destroyed many menâ€™s sanity, but Johnstonâ€™s ability to laugh and the practical need to care for his horses no doubt contributed to his recovery. After the war, he says, â€œmy nerves were not too good, and I remember a lot of nights I would get up when no one else was around and have to go for a long walk.â€ But, he concludes, â€œAfter some time, this seemed to wear off and soon back to a new life again.â€
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