The majority of Canadians likely can’t name too many generals in Canadian history, at least post-Confederation.
There are several famous ones, but few reach the level of fame that Sir Arthur Currie enjoys. In fact, it could be said that his fame and mythology has only grown since the First World War, and especially since his death in 1933.
So, this week we are looking at the man who is synonymous with the First World War, Sir Arthur Currie.
The story of Sir Arthur Currie begins in Adelaide, Ontario on Dec. 5, 1875 when he was born to William Garner Currie and Jane Patterson. The third of eight children, he grew up on the homestead of his grandparents who arrived from Ireland in 1838. Their last name was Corrigan but they changed it to Curry with a Y.
His grandparents led a hard life, and of their nine children, only four survived to adulthood. William was one of those children, and in 1868 he married Jane. Seven years later, Arthur was born.
In his home, it was a strict Methodist environment that he often pushed against. Later in his life he converted to Anglicanism.
At school, he was a good student and had plans to pursue law and medicine. As a student, he was known for his playful side and was a gifted speaker. Many felt that his desire to be a lawyer was a perfect fit for him.
After the death of his father in 1891, he had to help support the family and pursued teaching but was unable to secure a job. His dream of becoming a lawyer was put to the side so he could ensure the family had money.
After going to British Columbia to take advantage of the financial boom thanks to the building of the railway, he instead took a teaching position in Victoria.
On May 6, 1897, he joined the Canadian Militia as a part-time gunner with the Fifth Field Artillery Regiment. This was the lowest rank in the militia.
It was in 1897 that he changed his last name from Curry with a Y, to Currie, with an IE. It is not known for sure why he did this but some believe it was because of people mocking his last name as it was the same spelling as an spice from India.
Three years later, he was given the rank of corporal and then offered an officer’s commission.
In 1899, he had a stomach ailment that put him in the hospital, but he soon recovered from that.
In February 1900, Currie left his teaching position to become an insurance salesman.
On Aug. 14, 1901, he married Lucy Chaworth-Musters.
As an officer, Currie attended every course offered by the British Army Contingent on Vancouver Island, practiced at the shooting range every Saturday and ordered military texts from London. He quickly rose through the ranks and became known as an excellent marksman, and a disciplinarian.
In November 1901, he was promoted to captain, and then became a major in 1906.
By September 1909, he was a Lt. Colonel, commanding the Fifth Regiment. As commander, his regiment won the Governor General’s Cup for Efficiency four times in competitions with other artillery units.
At this point, his insurance career was going well, and he was the head of the Matson Insurance Firm. He soon began investing heavily in the real estate market but the good times would not last as property prices fell. This would become a major issue in the coming years for Currie.
On Aug. 15, 1913, the government formed the 50th Regiment Gordon Highlanders of Canada and Currie was offered command. He initially turned it down due to the cost of the uniforms and mess bills, of which he had to pay. His finances were hurting, but he eventually took the position in January 1914. One of his junior officers was Garnet Hughes, son of Sam Hughes, who had quite the impact on his life.
Hoping to avoid bankruptcy, which would have forced him to resign his commission, Currie decided to do something that would come back to haunt him.
Given $10,334.34, about $255,000 today, to buy new uniforms, Currie used the funds to pay off his own personal debts. William Coy, the honorary colonel of the regiment had promised to underwrite $35,000 for the regiment and Currie was going to use that to pay the uniform contractor. Coy didn’t do that and Currie was left with the fact he had embezzled money.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Currie’s life was about to change. Originally offered the position of commanding officer of the west coast military district, he turned down this desk job.
In September 1914, Currie was made the commander of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade. Traveling to Valcartier Camp near Quebec City where 35,000 soldiers were being formed into divisions and brigades, Currie met with Prime Minister Robert Borden for the first time.
Borden stated he was impressed, adding,
“He spoke with evident emotion, with apt expression and a thorough appreciation of the duty that lay in front of him and his men. From the first he was an outstanding man among the Canadians.”
Prior to leaving Canada, Major Cecil Roberts wrote him asking about the status of the uniform grant. Currie simply ignored the letter.
In October 1914, Currie went across the Atlantic and arrived in England where he spent the winter living and training in Salisbury Plain.
Currie’s brigade would not see its first action until April 1915, when it participated in the Second Battle of Ypres. This battle saw the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans. The battle resulted in Currie’s brigade losing half its strength but also raised his profile in the army.
After the left flank of French Colonial troops broke, a seven-kilometre gap in the Allied line opened. Currie began issuing commands from his brigade headquarters while it was under fire, and then put together a defence and counterattacked. After several days of fighting, the Allies established a stable defensive line.
At the Battle of Festubert, Currie’s brigade was heavily hit and suffered 1,200 casualties over just a few days.
After British general E.A.H. Alderson was put in command of the Canadian Corps, Currie was made the commander of the First Canadian Division in September 1915 and promoted to major general. Alderson was a fan of Currie, stating,
“Currie out and out the best.”
Currie now had command of 18,000 troops in the division, with three infantry brigades, gunners, engineers, medial staff and support units.
The battles in the previous months had shown Currie that the infantry was the sharp end of the knife that was served by artillery. He reasoned that it was best to bombard enemy positions with high explosives and shrapnel to clear obstacles, destroy strong points and keep the enemy away from the firing line.
As a commander, Currie didn’t fit the image of what the British saw as a commander. He was overweight, he didn’t have a moustache, and he encouraged an interchange of opinions. He was well liked by his officers, and comfortable with his staff. He had issues with his soldiers though, who found him stiff and abrupt and sometimes insulting. Discipline was important to him to maintain the soldiers in large divisions. He insisted on salutes, polished buttons and more.
Currie became known for his thorough planning and preparation, which many felt was because he wanted to avoid needless casualties. Andrew McNaughton, who would later command the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery in 1918, wrote,
“Currie used organization and covering support of all kinds to the maximum in order to ensure the lowering of the cost of lives.”
That being said, Currie was fine with putting his men into action when needed. It was his division that became the first Canadian one to conduct a trench raid, which were often highly dangerous.
Alderson remained in command until May 1916 when Sir Julian Byng took over command of the Canadian Corps.
At the Battle of Mount Sorrel, Currie’s division took part in the successful counterattack against the Germans. To prepare, Currie gathered over 200 artillery pieces and had his infantry practice for days to get ready.
Throughout the Battle of the Somme, Currie’s First Canadian Division suffered heavy losses. Byng ordered Currie to study the Battle of the Somme and advise what lessons could be taken from it. Currie questioned senior French officers, but also junior officers and noted the discrepancies between the beliefs of the senior officers and the actual experiences of the junior officers. As a result of this, organizational changes were made to the platoon structure.
During the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Currie successfully executed the victory that was orchestrated by Byng. The Battle of Vimy Ridge would go a long way to building the myth of Currie. Today, he is often misidentified as the architect of the successful battle. He did not orchestrate it, but he did play an important role, along with the other divisional commanders.
After Byng was made a commander of one of the British armies, he recommended Currie replace him. On June 9, 1917, Currie was made the commander of the Canadian Corps, and knighted. He was also promoted to Lt. General.
Throughout the war, Currie had shown incredible stamina and pushed himself hard. He was known to stay up past midnight, and wake up only a few hours later, lighting his pipe and getting back to work. Of course, this often led to exhaustion and those around him learned to stay away from him when he was tired as he would often explode in anger and profanity.
Sir Sam Hughes, who was no longer the Minister of Militia and Defense, told Currie to appoint his son Garnet to the command of the First Division. Currie refused to do so, appointing Archibald Cameron Macdonell instead. Currie believed Garnet Hughes to be incompetent. At this point, Currie no longer had any friends in the Hughes family.
Currie would write that Hughes,
“never ceased to blackguard me and to minimize my influence and authority with my own men. The things to which he and his associates resorted would bring a blush of shame to the face of every decent citizen of this country.”
Unfortunately, around this same time, the rumours about Currie taking $10,000 in funds began to appear.
The rumours reached the ears of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. By this point, Currie was arguably the most famous soldier in the Canadian Army and Borden refused to court martial him.
Currie borrowed money from wealthy friends David Watson and Victor Odlum to repay the funds, but the damage was done to his reputation among politicians. That poor reputation was contrasted heavily with the reputation he had on the battlefield as a leader.
In August 1917, Currie and the Canadian Corps won a victory at Hill 70, and then joined the Passchendaele campaign. For that campaign, Currie planned a four phase attack that took place from Oct. 26 to Nov. 10, 1917.
The battle was a success for the Canadians, but it resulted in 9,000 casualties for the Canadians.
At this point, Currie was seen as an adept leader in command of a hard-hitting fighting force that delivered results on the most difficult of battlefields.
Currie gave praise to his troops for this, stating that the achievements,
“testifies to the discipline, training, leadership, and fine fighting qualities of the Canadians. Words cannot express the pride one feels in being associated with such splendid soldiers.”
Sir Henry Sinclair Horne, the commander of the First British Army, stated,
“The First Canadian Division is the pride and wonder of the British Army.”
Brigadier General Victor Wentworth Odlum stated that Currie,
“earned a reputation among the Members of the High Command as one of the most careful and human leaders in the field.”
Seeing the meat grinder of the First World War led Currie to publicly support conscription, itself a major issue in Canada. I’ll be talking about the Conscription Crisis on April 10. Currie for his part wanted to avoid being involved in political disputes. When he did support conscription, Liberal candidates called him a butcher on the battlefield.
At the start of 1918, the Canadian government wanted to expand the Canadian Corps by forming a Fifth Division, but the British wanted the Canadian Corps reorganized to mirror the British divisions. Currie opposed these measures, and integrating American troops into the Corps, and he was successful in preventing the changes.
During the 100 Days Campaign from Aug. 8 to Nov. 11, 1918, Currie further cemented his legacy and myth for his planning and leadership during the campaign.
Under the leadership of Currie, Canadian soldiers won several victories including at Mons, Cambrai and Valenciennes. These victories came at the cost of 45,800 casualties.
Currie wrote to Borden,
“To my mind, no force of similar size played anything like so great a part in bringing the proud enemy to its knees.”
The high cost of the casualties, and the constant meddling of Hughes in lowering Currie’s reputation, damaged the view of Currie around Canada as casualty numbers mounted.
By the time the war was ending, the strain of leadership had taken its toll on Currie. Despite being only 41, his face was lined with stress marks, he had put on more weight than he had at the start of the war, and his hair had thinned heavily.
The high casualties, and his support of conscription, led to troops and politicians accusing Currie of being cold-hearted, and a man who sacrificed Canadian soldiers for the sake of his own reputation.
On the last day of the war, Currie’s superiors ordered him to press on despite his troops being exhausted. At Mons, Belgium, he was ordered to capture the city. This was nothing more than a symbolic victory as it was where the British army had started its retreat in August 1914.
After the battle, 280 Canadians were killed, wounded or missing.
Despite being ordered to take the city, Currie was hated by some of his men. One soldier stated,
“This war’s over tomorrow and everybody knows it. What kind of rot is this?”
Another soldier, who lost his brother in the battle, said he would shoot Currie if he ever saw him.
There was still high praise for Currie, one newspaper wrote,
“He laboured hard training reinforcements and infusing through all ranks the theory and spirit of the offensive. His formations were large, but they were mobile.”
When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Currie left the battlefield with the reputation as one of the top generals of the war. He was widely respected for his planning and preparation, and the fact he recognized the importance of artillery to trench warfare.
Prime Minister Borden said that Currie was a brilliant military commander.
When Currie returned to Canada, there was no fanfare for him, and when he met the Canadian Parliament at the Victoria Memorial Building, he received a lukewarm reception. When his name was spoken, several women hissed at him from the gallery.
Currie still had no friends in the Hughes family and Sam Hughes said in the House of Commons on March 4, 1919 that Currie needlessly sacrificed the lives of Canadian soldiers.
Hughes stated that any general who ordered an assault on Mons on the last day of the war should be,
“tried summarily by court martial and punished so far as the law would allow.”
Borden spoke out in favour of Currie, stating,
“No criticism could be more unjust.”
Newspaper and veterans groups reacted harshly to the accusations against Currie.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote,
“A sensitive man, and one who loved the soldiers under his command with an affection that was deep and real, he was forced to stand by while his enemies reviled him.”
On Aug. 23, 1919, Currie was made the inspector general of the militia forces in Canada.
In May 1920, he left his inspector general position to become the vice-chancellor of McGill University. He held this position until 1933. As vice-chancellor, he launched a fundraising campaign that brought in $6.5 million and helped to revitalize the university.
Through the rest of his life, Currie rarely responded to accusations that he was a poor general who put his men’s lives on the line for his glory. One of the rare times was in 1927 when the Evening Guide, a small newspaper in Port Hope, Ontario, called him a butcher.
Currie sued the paper for libel, and the court case vindicated him in the eyes of the public. Many of Currie’s senior officers testified that he advised them to advance with caution to avoid unnecessary casualties. The trial lasted 16 days and was covered by newspapers from throughout Canada, the United States and the British Empire. After four hours, the jury found the newspaper guilty of libel but awarded Currie only $500.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote,
“He was big enough to stake his reputation as a man and as a soldier against the violent criticisms of lesser mortals, and he was content to wait until history and truth should vindicate his decisions.”
After the trial, Currie suffered a stroke and spent the last years of his life in poor health. In his last years he spoke in favour of disarmament and the need for international dialogue.
On Nov. 5, 1933, he suffered another stroke and on Nov. 30, 1933, he passed away.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote,
“The indomitable will which carried him through the days of the war, and on to victory culminating with the entry into Mons on Armistice Day, 1918, fought for Sir Arthur through three weeks of critical illness.
William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary that day,
“I regard Currie as a fine man, a really fine good man, simple and earnest, and one who has really rendered his country and fellow men great service.”
His funeral on Dec. 5, 1933 in Montreal was the largest funeral to that point in Canadian history. The Times wrote,
“It was, by common consent, the most impressive funeral ever seen at Montreal.”
Former Prime Minister Robert Borden stated it was,
“perhaps more elaborate than at any state or military funeral in the history of Canada.”
Even though it was cold, with rain and wind, an estimated 250,000 people lined the streets to watch the procession and the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission broadcast it across the country. The funeral included a 17-gun salute and a service was held at Westminster Abbey on the same day. At Arena Gardens in Toronto, 7,000 people attended a memorial service for Currie.
Elsewhere in Montreal, war veterans, as well as militia unit personnel, took up formations along the route to his final resting place. Thousands of wreaths from across the British Empire were also sent to Montreal and put around the cathedral.
Several schools are named for Currie, as is Mount Currie in Banff National Park. In 1934, he was designated a Person of National Historic Significance. In the novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein named a training facility Camp Arthur Currie. He also received 19 honorary degrees during his life.
When CBC did its ranking of the 100 Greatest Canadians in history, Currie ranked 24th.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian War Museum, Biographi, McGill, Wikipedia, Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa Citizen, The Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Province,