Clifford Asa Johnston was born on the family farm in N. Plantagenet Township, Prescott County, Ontario, on November 15, 1893, to James Johnston and Isabella Muir Johnston. He was baptized in the Presbyterian church at Pendleton. His early life was uneventful. He went to school and helped out on the farm a pretty typical rural existence. He was very much interested in how some of the French Canadian farmers turned some of the low ground which the Scots-Irish and English farmers avoided into productive vegetable patches a type of farming that is now called muck farming. It was something that he wanted to develop on a larger scale. He did develop one skill extremely well. He became an expert shot with a rifle, so good that people in the area called him Ace. Also, a neighbor, Florence Anderson, developed a schoolgirl crush on him, but kept it to herself as much as she could. Only time could tell how important she would become to him.
World War I broke out and Clifford enlisted on June 29, 1915, with the World War I Canadian Expeditionary Force, Canadian Field Artillery, in Ottawa, Canada.
Initially he was posted to the C. F. A.'s 26th Battery, and landed in Plymouth, England, on August 18, 1915. On January 16, 1916, he embarked for France with the rank of Gunner. His nickname "Ace" followed him from Canada. On March 3, 1917, he received a field promotion to Acting Bombardier. On March 19, 1917, he was transferred from the 7th. Howitzer Brigade in France to the 5th Brigade (also known as the "Amen Brigade") of the 17th Battery, C. F. A., France. Additional field promotions were to Bombardier on November 8, 1917, when Bombardier Arthur Webber died from wounds and to Corporal on December 6, 1917, when Vice Corporal Davidson was promoted. Corporal Johnston left on November 9, 1918, to attend the Canadian Corps field artillery school, and he returned to the front on December 15, 1918. He returned to Canada aboard the ship Saturnia from Glasgow, Scotland, on May 5, 1919. There appears to be a slight discrepancy here in the return dates. The military records show May 5 while the Anchor-Donaldson Line records indicate May 22. He was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on May 22, 1919, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
WWI put Clifford in the midst of some of the worst battles in the history of mankind: the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Passchendaele among others. He manned his artillery piece in the reduction of Courcelette into rubble. His namesake has several British War Museum archive photos of the battlesite, one of which is of a German mustard gas shell exploding just short of the Canadian lines. Courcelette was the first time that tanks were used in battle. Several times he was in areas where German mustard gas shells exploded. They took their toll on him. Eventually the poisonous gas would lead to his death. No daily orders could be found of his rotating to the rear for a rest as did other artillery men. Perhaps after the pack-horse incident (described in the following paragraph) he felt that if he were going to die that he would rather die shooting back at the Germans than passively leading a pack-horse. He remained by his field piece and helped to keep the pressure on the enemy.
One incident played on his mind regularly. During a nighttime mission he performed an act of bravery. His sergeant threatened him, pulled rank, took credit for the action, and as a result was rewarded with the medal that should have gone to Clifford. Clifford was known to have cursed the sergeant on more than one occasion for having taken the recognition that should have been his.
While fighting in France and Belgium Clifford had several narrow escapes from death. Canadian Field Artillery personnel had to bring their own live shells up to the front lines. This was done using packhorses. A canvas saddlebag carrier with 4 pockets on each side of the horse (8 shells per horse) was used. The horses with their live ammunition and their handlers went to the front in single file, a formation known as a transportation train. One day while transporting live shells to the front, the soldier and horse immediately behind Clifford were killed by German artillery fire. Minutes later and directly in front of him the soldier and packhorse were killed by a second German shell. It is said that after that incident Clifford preferred to stay on the front lines where he had at least a fighting chance and could return enemy fire.
On another occasion a shell explosion from enemy artillery killed everyone else on his field piece, leaving him unconscious with a head wound for several hours as the Germans first overran his position and then retreated. One story has the Canadian troops regaining the lost ground, discovering Clifford still alive under a mostly demolished tree, trying to make him comfortable, and propping up a dead German soldier nearby with rifles and bayonets so that he pointed to Clifford. This was done as the soldiers had to continue advancing, and they wanted to gain the attention of the medical corps who were following. Evidently Canadian soldiers felt a sense of satisfaction in using dead German soldiers as markers for Canadian survivors, and this use was not uncommon. This war anecdote was told to Glen Johnston as a youngster by his Dad before he died. In spite of this ordeal and being gassed there are no records that he was ever hospitalized. He was simply patched up and returned to the front. In this action he received a permanent momento - a scar in the center of his forehead from a German artillery shell fragment. One source indicated that the German artillery shell that injured Clifford had struck the barrel of their field piece leaving Clifford as the only survivor. While at the Imperial War Museum in London, England, in the summer of 1998 his namesake looked through all of the photographs of the Canadian Field Expedition and saw 2 pictures of a Canadian field artillery piece that had received a direct hit on its barrel from a German shell. It was during the battle for Hill 70. As he was not aware at the time that Clifford had participated in that battle he thought little of it. Now he finds himself wondering. Was that his field piece? Probably. Out of thousands of photographs this was the only one of its type, and it was described to me by a curator as unique the only one we have like that.
Hill 70 is one of many almost forgotten footnotes in history, but you can find it if you persevere. In Canadian military history it should go down as one of the Canadian Field Artillery's finest moments. The Brits had taken Hill 70 in 1915 and had lost it shortly thereafter. Now in 1917 they hoped that the Canadians would be successful where they had failed. Or did they give the task to the Canadians fearing too many British casualties and bad press at home if they failed again? It was an acknowledged fact by the English politicians that the deaths of Colonials were always reasonably well accepted with little political backlash by the English public. English deaths were a different matter though. Canadian General Currie took the British battle plan, modified it (something that the British commanders never dared to do), and the Canadian forces proceeded to do the impossible. The Germans used two of their new weapons, flame throwers and mustard gas. The mustard gas "cost two artillery brigades 178 casualties after gunners had yanked off their masks to see what they were doing. Somehow, the survivors kept the batteries firing." Wave after wave of German counter-attacks were beaten back. The Canadian field artillery used wireless radios for an historical first time in battle to spot and zero in on advancing German columns. Out of the carnage the Canadians emerged with the victory. 5,843 of them lost their lives in the onslaught. 5 won Victoria Crosses, the highest military honor, during the battle for Hill 70. The Germans lost 20,000 men in the slaughter. I believe that it was during this battle that Clifford received his head wound. As there is no record of his having been sent to a field hospital, it is probable that he was triaged as being unsalvageable. He then recovered and kept fighting. Interestingly, his medical record indicates no scar in the center of his forehead upon entering the CFA. Upon his discharge there is an entry made that the scar was acquired in an accident before the war. It is of more than a passing concern to our family how the Canadian military tried to distance themselves from any responsibility to many wounded veterans. In fact when Cliffords wife applied for a widows pension she had to engage the services of an attorney to prevail.
One of the sadder stories has to do with one of his first cousins, John McQueen Johnston, who was a sergeant with the Divisional Ammunition Column. As John helped to supply the shells that Clifford fired at the Germans it was possible for them to get together on occasion to visit behind the front lines. On the 12th of July, 1918, toward evening, John wanted to take a better look at the German lines. He worked his way closer to the front using trenches whenever possible. He paused for a cigarette. An officer knocked it out of his hand and berated him for his stupidity - standing up in a trench, lighting a cigarette, and becoming a potential target for German snipers. The words were harsh. The officer turned and continued on his way. He hadn't walked more than 15 to 20 feet when he heard the sharp crack of a distant rifle shot pierce the still air. He turned around to see John collapse. John had ignored the officer, tried to light another cigarette, and paid the supreme price for his insubordination. A German sniper had shot him through the head. John died instantly. Later that evening Clifford went to the medical treatment area. Along the way he asked for the whereabouts of his cousin, Sgt. John McQueen Johnston. Someone pointed in the direction of several blanket-covered bodies on the ground. Clifford had the sad task of verifying the identity of his now dead cousin. He gently lifted the blanket off the body's face, and there was no mistaking him. After the war Clifford visited John's home and told Uncle Atty and Aunt Anna that John had died instantly from a bullet to the head. He had seen the wound and had talked with the soldiers who were near John at the time of his death. His aunt and uncle seemed to take great comfort from the knowledge that their son had not suffered a painful, lingering death. They thanked Clifford for the information. John used to carry a small bible in his breast pocket. It is stained with his blood and is still in his family. We are unsure of its location as of now.
Clifford shipped home on the S. S. Saturnia on May 12, 1919, out of Glasgow, Scotland. As he boarded on May 11 as passenger #65, a very low number, it is likely that he was among the sick and the wounded who went on board first. On May 22 the Saturnia docked in Montreal, Quebec. Clifford was almost home. After a short train ride to Ottawa that same day Clifford was discharged from the service. He was home the next day. The departure and arrival dates used here are from the Anchor-Donaldson Line records. More research is needed here as they do not agree with the military record dates.
Christmas of 1919 found the 17th Battery at Bonn on the Rhine with the victorious occupational forces. His namesake has the Christmas card that was sent by Capt. H. W. Taylor, M. C., of the 17th Battery, 5th Brigade, C. F. A. to their wounded former battery mate, Clifford. Other officers listed are:
Lieut. S. C. Montgomery, M. C.
" H. Irwin
" J. Mc. L. Boyer, M. C.
" A. R. Wilson
" H. C. Snow
" J. E. Cohoe
" C. H. Wiseman
Major W. E. Lawson, Killed
Lieut. S. G. Fieldsend, Gassed
" G. F. Kuhring, Wounded
After the war Clifford married Florence Anderson who had been in love with him since before the Great War. Both the Anderson and the Johnston families were openly opposed to the marriage as they all had a feeling that there was something terribly wrong with Clifford since the war. The mustard gas and the head wound were taking their toll. Florence Anderson knew it too, but it made no difference to her. They eloped and married in Carleton. Clifford and Florence Johnston had 3 children, Glen, Evelyn and Orville.
His son, Glen, passed on the story of Clifford buying his farm and then setting about clearing it. Most people thought that it would take him forever; however, with his knowledge of explosives Clifford made short work of the tree stumps. He simply dug holes among the trees' roots, set explosive charges and blew the stumps out of the ground, quickly and easily. He left a few for later. Glen remembers very clearly taking care of the remaining trees. The blasts from the explosions and the tree stumps being blown out of the ground are still fresh memories for him. Clifford would then hitch up the horses and drag the stumps out of the way to burn later.
Over the years several relatives volunteered how they always enjoyed visiting Clifford, Florence and the children before Clifford took a turn for the worse in the autumn of 1924. Their home was always filled with laughter. They all noted how they could hear the laughter even as they approached the house. One of Clifford's favorite pastimes was to lay on the floor and play with his young son Glen. There were some good times filled with love and happiness; however, they were not to last for long.
On one occasion while Clifford and Glen were riding in the buggy, Clifford stopped the horses suddenly, told Glen to stay seated, jumped over the side of the buggy and crouched down out of sight for several minutes. Evidently he was having one of his seizures which were related to his war injuries. He didn't want his son to see him suffering during the attack.
Another story tells of his moving an old house owned by Alex. Wylie up by Glenburn. The Wylies had moved to Van Camp and had abandoned their old house. Clifford took the house apart board by board. His Uncle Fred Presley brought his wagon and team of Percherons to help. His brother Wellie also brought his wagon and his team of Percherons, and Clifford had his wagon and team of Clydesdales. Together the 3 of them assisted by Austin Presley and "supervised" by Clifford's young son, Glen, loaded the lumber on to the 3 horse drawn wagons and hauled it back to his farm. Along the way they stopped off at a friendly French farmer's house to rest and water the horses. It was a little out of the way but by doing so they avoided a steep hill that could have caused problems for the horses with the loaded wagons. They then continued on to Clifford's farm. He reassembled the house, board by board. That same house today is still lived in by Byron Johnston, the son of Alva Johnston (Clifford's brother) who bought the farm from Florence Johnston on November 25, 1932. Byron also still uses the barn that Clifford built.
Clifford owned and farmed with a team of 2 Clydesdale horses named Queenie and Maude. Interestingly his Scottish heritage shows through as one of ancient Scotland's great queens was referred to affectionately as Queenie Maude.
There are several stories from after the war about how even the shadow of a large crow would cause Clifford to dive for cover. The sound of an airplane overhead became more than he could cope with. It was a survival reflex ingrained by the German airplanes bombing the Canadian Field Artillery during WWI.
Years later after WWII while walking down the road with Glen to look at some property that he had bought recently, Glens Uncle Wellie related this incident to him. Perhaps the pint of rum that Glen had snuck past Aunt Maggie and they shared as they walked made it easier to talk about after all those years. In the summer of 1924 while walking in the fields with his brother Wellie, Clifford put the palms of his hands to the sides of his head and moaned, "It's getting to me. The pain is getting to me. Son of a bitch! It's getting to me!" His brother's exact words of anguish had remained with Wellie after all of those years. He could not forget them. In turn those words remain with Glen to this day.
During that same summer of 1924 while Clifford and his young son Glen walked the fields talking about whatever came to mind Clifford suddenly turned, went into an uncontrollable rage and beat Glen severely. There was great concern that Glen may have been even fatally beaten. He remained in bed for an entire week recovering slowly. After that the family had to keep an eye on Clifford at all times. They dared not leave him alone, even with his own children.
In the fall of 1924 Clifford realized that he didn't have much more time left at home. On October 29, 1924, he signed the farm over to his wife, Florence. The next month Dr. John Hampden McIntosh (1884-1947) drove up to Jim and Belle Johnston's farm in his new roadster. He was there at the request of Dr. Bohemier to examine Clifford as his seizures and violent spells were becoming more frequent and more severe. Something happened to upset Clifford, perhaps it was the realization that this would be one of his last weeks at home with his family. Perhaps it was the effect of the mustard gas poisoning. More than likely it was the sum total, the accumulation of all of the war's malevolent effects. It had finally gotten to him. He went into one of his violent rages and tore off the top of the doctor's new car with his bare hands. He was admitted to Ste. Anne's Military Hospital post haste. Only in 1998 did the family learn that sudden, inexplicable, violent outbursts of rage were the latter stages of mustard gas poisoning.
One day in 1998 Clifford's namesake was discussing family history with his Assistant Director of Nurses when he mentioned the mustard gas poisoning of his grandfather. The ADON then told him of her work as a hospice nurse with victims of mustard gas poisoning. There had been an accident at a chemical plant in Louisiana. Hundreds of employees had suffered from mustard gas poisoning. She had looked after 9 who were terminal. She nursed them for several years, and watched them inevitably die. She was able to give him a much greater understanding of the poisoning and how it affected its victims. The sudden, unpredictable violent rages were part of the mustard gas poisoning syndrome as well as the seizures. Some of her patients had stopped breathing during a seizure and died. Then within a month of this conversation an article appeared in the Houston Chronicle newspaper on Monday, August 24, 1998, entitled "Blistering Horror...Plant workers inexplicably exposed to mustard gas". Some quotations from the article follow: "Sulfur mustard was first used as a chemical weapon by Germany toward the end of World War I. (The term "mustard" was coined by Allied soldiers because of the compound's odor and the yellow cross imprinted on the canisters that contained it.) "'Gas' is a misnomer; under most conditions, mustard agents occur as oily sweet-smelling liquids." "You can get fully blasted and feel OK for a while. Then you begin to get burning, itching eyes. You get blistering, and destruction of the tissues that blister. It can be the lungs, if you inhale it, or it can be the eyes. Or, you can get skin cancer out of it." "It was like poison ivy broke out on me,...I started throwing up. I had diarrhea. Last year I really started going downhill. My eyes got progressively worse. I couldn't sleep. My bones hurt. It sends you into a total depression." "...awoke the day after his exposure with an extremely sore throat and blisters on his chest, arms and legs. Later came the neurological problems: headaches, memory loss, a hair-trigger temper, depression...threatened to kill his wife...no longer could be relied upon to perform the simplest tasks." "...sulfur...mustard agents can cause heart attacks and strokes and are especially hard on the lungs, reacting with water to form hydrochloric acid." "Basically, people die from mustard when their lungs fill up with fluid...They literally drown from the inside out." "Mustard gas also can cause cancer."
On November 21, 1924, Clifford entered Ste. Anne's Military Hospital in St. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, Canada, suffering from the effects of the war. On December 6, 1924, he "was transferred to a locked ward on account of being very resistive and violent."
Fred Presley, Jr., and I became acquainted in early 1995 via the telephone. He was living in Ottawa, Canada, and I was living in Stephenville, Texas. I remembered a conversation that I had had with my great aunt Ada back in 1975. She had talked with me affectionately about her nephew, Fred Presley, in Ottawa as I had been asking her for family information. She said that Fred was interested in the family history also. I filed that bit of information in the back of my mind. When I was feeling that I had reached an impasse in researching my family history in 1995 I called information and got his telephone number. As I explained my genealogy quest to Fred over the next several months and told him of all of the difficulties that I was having in getting even Clifford's death date from the government, Fred passed the following bit of family history on to me. I have filled in some details from Clifford's military records that were released to me piecemeal as I tracked them down during 1995-97. It took me some time to locate where the surviving records were stored and obtain copies of them. Unfortunately many records which could have given us much more information and much greater insight into Clifford's past were reported as follows: " The cover file bears a stamp dated 22 March 1951, which states, 'non-essential documents destroyed.'"
Clifford died on March 2, 1926. "At about 12:15 p.m. an attendant went to his room to give him his dinner and found him lying on the abdomen in his bed and dead." He had suffered a seizure and had stopped breathing, according to hospital officials. Interestingly, military records indicate that no autopsy was done and that no one had seen him since breakfast. A card found in a file in Ottawa had some words partially erased. We were still able to read them, "Meds. disp. prior to death". This is apparently in direct conflict with a statement from the hospital that no one had seen Clifford since breakfast. In addition, family oral history relates that when his body was shipped back home the family doctor, Dr. Bohemier, suggested examining the body as there were rumors of mistreatment of Protestant military patients by the Roman Catholic nuns and staff of St. Anne De Bellevue Hospital. Dr. Bohemier examined the body in the presence of John Weldon Johnston and Fred Presley, Sr.. Clifford was dressed in a blue suit with his arms crossed across his chest. The doctor moved Cliffords arms and unbuttoned his coat and shirt. An incision was found down the centerline of Clifford's chest. Part of the esophagus, the entire stomach and part of the small intestine could not be found. As Florence Johnston was grieving and had 3 small children to look after, the 3 men swore to keep the examination of Clifford's body a secret so as not to distress and burden her even more. John Weldon Johnston and Dr. Bohemier took the secret to the grave with them; however, Fred Presley, Sr., could not and told his grandson, Fred Presley, Jr., about the examination and findings shortly before he died. He told Fred, Jr., that if he should ever see the need to pass on the information to someone in the family then he should do so. John Weldon Johnston and Fred Presley, Sr., were members of the Loyal Orange Lodge #950, Pendleton, as was Clifford. They certainly could have exploited the findings, but out of a sense of decency and the desire to ease the widow's pain they chose not to. Just before the coffin was closed for the last time Clifford's little daughter, Evelyn, wanted one last look at her Daddy. She was not quite 3 years old and couldn't see up and over into the casket. Her uncle Ralph came over and lifted her up to see her father for the last time. Clifford was buried at the Glenburn Cemetery among family, fellow clansmen, and friends. There is a government marker on his gravesite in addition to the family one.
Government records (Proceedings of a Medical Board of Inquiry on Death of a Patient, St. Annes Hospital, March 3, 1926) indicate that no autopsy was done at the time of his death (item #16, "If Post Mortem was not held, state reason: Unnecessary in his case."). This statement would appear to be at least in partial conflict with the observations of Dr. Bohemier et al. In 1996 I had an interesting conversation with a retired hospital administrator (I'm a nursing home administrator). We were discussing the care of terminal war veterans with intractable pain, specifically WWI and Viet Nam veterans. I asked if euthanasia had been as controversial an issue then as it is now. The response took me by surprise. It was as if years of repressed silence had found an outlet at last. The information poured out quickly and with an expression of relief that someone who understood was listening. The heavy burden was being lightened by sharing the load with someone else who had a vested interest in it. It was a most extraordinary exchange. I learned that after WW I many of the soldiers who were suffering badly and had no hope for recovery were purposely overdosed with opiates - mercy killings. As the opiates effected changes in the lining of the stomach, part of the small intestine and a small portion of the esophagus, these were commonly removed and disposed of to avoid leaving incriminating evidence behind. It was a practice that was more common than anyone would admit. People just did it and kept their silence. This information coupled with the examination of Clifford's body by Dr. Bohemier and witnessed by John Weldon Johnston and Fred Presley, Sr., raises some serious questions as to the real cause of Clifford's death. Did he die from a seizure, or did he die as the result of a mercy killing? What do you think?
As I was going over Clifford's records in November of 1996 I noticed an application for the Memorial Cross on behalf of my grandmother, Florence Johnston. During a telephone conversation with my brother, Frank, he asked me if the Memorial Cross had ever been received by my grandmother. We had a copy of a notation of the application, but we did not have any record of her having received it. Accordingly, I wrote an inquiry to the Canadian government on November 4, 1996, requesting clarification. The response indicated that our grandmother, Florence Anderson Johnston, had not received the Memorial Cross. As she was deceased, there was only an abbreviated list of relatives who could accept it. My father, Glen Johnston, was the last surviving possible recipient. I prepared an application in his name and sent it off. After much waiting the Memorial Cross arrived - 70 years late. To our dismay Veterans Affairs Canada had sent the wrong Memorial Cross. It was a King George VI for World War II families, not a King George V. I returned it, and we waited until December, 1997, for its replacement. When it arrived it lacked the engraving of my grandfather's name and regimental number on the reverse. Not wanting to risk the wait of another year for a replacement I took it down to a local trophy shop to have the engraving done. When the owner heard the story about my grandfather and the Memorial Cross, he did the engraving for half price. I gave it to my father, Glen Johnston, at Christmas when my parents visited us. Before they left for home my Dad handed the Memorial Cross to me for safekeeping. At present I have 2 small pictures of Clifford in uniform, his boxed C.F.A. razor, his 2 World War I medals, his newspaper obituary (Orange Lodge paper), and his Orange Lodge ribbon framed in a shadow box. I now need to have a larger one made to include the Memorial Cross.