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Maligned hero – General Sir Arthur Currie, the first Canadian Commander of the Canadian Corps

July 2018

General Sir Arthur Currie, GCMG, KCB, has the unique distinction of being the first Canadian soldier to command the Canadian Corps, a post he was elevated to in 1917. Making this accomplishment even more significant is the fact that he rose to this position after beginning his military career in the Canadian militia in 1897 as a Gunner (artillery Private).

Known as “Guts and Gaiters” by his men, he is considered one of the best commanders in the history Canada’s Armed Forces, often credited to his brilliant tactical skills that helped reduce casualties, his cool-headed judgement, inspirational leadership and excellence as an administrator. Currie was able to adapt brigade tactics to the necessity of trench warfare using bite-and-hold tactics in a carefully planned sequence of operations. He understood the importance of pre-battle preparation, leading him to study carefully the lessons of past battles so as to not make the same mistakes.

According to historian Jack Hyatt, Currie lived by the slogan, “Pay the price of victory in shells, not lives,” and he is often credited with accelerating the end of World War I.

Currie was also not beyond abandoning one of his own plans if a subordinate proposed something he deemed better.

In his civilian life, Currie worked as a teacher and later as an insurance salesman and real estate speculator. As a militia soldier, Currie quickly rose through the ranks. He was commissioned in 1900 and by 1906 had been promoted to Major.

In 1909, he assumed command of 5th Regiment and in 1913, the newly formed 50th Regiment, Gordon Highlanders of Canada. Currie would soon find himself in a spot of trouble due to losing money in his real estate holdings. Deeply in debt, Curry embezzled $10, 000 from the regiment’s uniform fund.

With the outbreak of World War I, Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes appointed Currie as commander of the 2nd Canadian Brigade. This was followed by promotion to Major-General following the Second Battle of Ypres and to the post of commander of the 1st Canadian Division in September 1915.

Currie was further honoured when he was invested as a Companion of the Order of Bath (elevated to Knight Commander in 1918) and a Commander of the French Legion d’Honneur.

After his success in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Currie was promoted to Lieutenant-General and assumed command of the Canadian Corps on 9 June 1917, five days after he was knighted by King George V and appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG).

It was also around this time that Currie’s embezzlement from the 50th Regiment came to light. The Canadian Cabinet, wishing to avoid any embarrassment, allowed Currie to borrow money from two wealthy subordinates to repay the money.

Another one of Currie’s significant accomplishments during the war was when he was ordered by British High Command to capture Hill 70, near the town of Lens, France, on 15 August 1917, just four months after the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Currie had originally been ordered to capture the town itself, but suggested to command that Hill 70 was a better target.

Sometimes called “Canada’s Forgotten Victory”, this was the first time Canadian troops fought independently under a Canadian commander and the Canadian victory that day was accomplished using newly-developed combat tactics.

On 10 December 1919, Currie was promoted to General and made Inspector-General of the Canadian Army, but this would be short-lived. Currie had intended to reform the military, but post-war budget cuts and bureaucratic resistance to his proposed changes left him disillusioned. As a result, Currie retired from the Army in May 1920 after 23 years of service.

However, Currie’s military service didn’t quite end there.  Currie was appointed Honorary Colonel of his regiment, the 5th (BC) Artillery Regiment on 7 Aug 1919, and he would hold that  position until his death. He once said of CEF soldiers: “They served till death, why not we?”

Outside of the military, Currie quickly accepted an offer from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, to serve as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the university, an honour that was very significant in that Currie was only a high school graduate. It was Acting-Principal Frank Dawson Adams who recommended appointing Currie due to his “exceptional powers of organization and administration” and his “capacity for inspiration and leadership.”

Just as he had been an effective military leader, Currie proved to be exceptional in his new role. Traveling across Canada, Currie successfully raised around $6.5 million much needed cash for the university.

During his tenure, McGill established the Faculty of Music, the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, the School for Graduate Nurses at Royal Victoria Hospital, a faculty he successfully saved from elimination in the early 1930s, and was able to double the university’s income despite the economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression.

In addition to his duties at McGill, Currie also served as President of the National Conference of Canadian Universities from 1925 to 1927, as an elected trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1927, as the Dominion President of the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League from 1928 to 1929 and as President of the Last Post Fund from 1924 to 1932.

Despite being such a successful commander, Currie was the subject of much scorn and attempts to impugn his reputation in the post-war years. British official historian James Edward Edmonds attempted to portray Currie and the 2nd Canadian Brigade’s performance at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 as poor, an assessment that was strongly disputed by Currie and Canadian official historian Colonel Archer Fortescue Duguid.

Edmund made great note of the fact that because Currie had initially order a retreat in the confusion created by chlorine gas and fierce attacks by German infantry. Currie and Duguid countered by pointing out that it was 3rd Canadian Brigade Commander Brigadier-General Richard Turner’s decision to retreat without orders that left Currie’s left flank exposed and vulnerable. Currie’s effectiveness as a combat officer was shown by his correct tactical assessment and the cool-headed manner in which he issued his commands from his brigade headquarters, even as it was gasses and destroyed by fire.

It was also pointed out by Canadian historian Timothy Travers that Currie’s 1st Canadian Division occupied a position that was difficult to defend and made even more difficult by the first use of poison gas on a mass scale and the withdrawal of the French troops on his left flank.

In the end, the 2nd Canadian Division held its ground at Ypres, but at a heavy cost, with a 46% casualty rate over the two days of fighting.

Currie was also heavily criticized by the Port Hope Evening Guide, a newspaper that was a supporter of Sir Sam Hughes, in June 1927 in a front-page editorial over the deaths of his soldiers in the campaign to take Mons in the final days of the war. Currie responded by suing the Evening Guide for $50, 000 on the basis that he was under orders from Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch to pursue the German Army, pointing out that to refuse such an order would be tantamount to treason.

The resulting trial found in favour of Currie, but only awarded him $500, plus legal expenses. Although victorious and his reputation restored, the trial had taken a severe toll on Currie’s health, causing him to have a stroke in 1928.

Currie’s health over the next five years continued to decline and he suffered a second stroke on 5 November 1933.

General Sir Arthur Currie died 25 days later on 30 November at the age of 57 at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal from complications brought on by pneumonia.

Currie’s funeral was held on 5 December 1933 in Montreal, the largest in Canadian history at that point with approximately 150, 000 people lining the streets to pay their final respects. A memorial service was also held at Westminster Abbey in London, England, which was also at capacity. Eight General officers served as pallbearers at the funeral.

Currie was originally interred in the family plot at Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal but three years later his body was moved to a more prominent site with a cross of sacrifice a top his grave.

Currie received many awards and honours during his lifetime. During WWI, in addition to the awards already mentioned, he was Mentioned in Dispatches nine times during the war, awarded the French Croix de guerre (with Palm), the Belgian Croix de guerre and the Order of the Crown and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal.

In the post-war years, Currie received 19 honourary degrees, had a new elementary school in Richmond, B.C. named after him (General Currie Elementary School), a mountain (Mount Currie) and a new army barracks in Calgary, Alberta (Currie Barracks).

Posthumously, he was honoured with the naming of Currie Building and Currie Hall at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, Arthur Currie Lane in Victoria, B.C. and Currie Hall at the University of Victoria and the Currie Memorial Gymnasium at McGill University.

London, Ontario, also has a school named after him (Sir Arthur Currie Public School).

In Strathroy, Ontario, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #116 is named in his honour and a statue to him was erected outside the Strathroy Museum, beside the Cenotaph, in August 2014.

In Ottawa, Currie was one of five people honoured with a life-size statue and one of fourteen in the Valiants Memorial in 2006.

Currie was even honoured by science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his novel “Starship Troopers”, who named one of the basic training facilities in the story “Camp Arthur Currie.”

 

 

 

 

Sources:  https://www.strathroymuseum.ca/en/visitus/Currie-Memorial.asp, https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/people/generals/sir-arthur-currie/, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sir-arthur-currie/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Currie, http://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/military-war/history-idol-sir-arthur-currie, https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/canada-s-forgotten-victory-1.3029716, http://www.calgaryhighlanders.com/history/10th/history/hill70.htm, information provided by MGen (Ret’d) Stu McDonald, HCol (Ret’d) The 5th (BC) Artillery Regiment RCA (2018).

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About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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