||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
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
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.