BORN: Napperton, Ontario • 5 December 1875
DIED: Montreal, Quebec • 30 November 1933
HE DID NOT LOOK LIKE A SOLDIER. He HAD A SMALL head perched on a large, indeed fat, torso, the whole supported by pipestem legs. His smooth-shaven, weak-chinned face stood out in contrast with the mustachios and firm jaws of the empire’s field marshals and generals.
But Arthur Currie could think clearly, understood war, and believed in trying to preserve the lives of his men. By the standards of the Great War, that made him an extraordinary commander, one who largely founded the Canadian military tradition.
After schooling in Strathroy, Ontario, Currie moved to British Columbia in 1893. He taught school, then ran a successful property speculation and real estate business in Victoria until it collapsed in the crash of 1913. The bright spot in his life was the militia, where he established a reputation both as a trainer and for his military good sense.
In August 1914, when war broke out, the fortunes of this obscure lieutenant-colonel began to change.As a friend of Garnet Hughes, the son of Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes, Currie was named a brigade commander in the first Canadian division to go overseas.
He led his men into the maelstrom at Ypres in April 1915, became confused and possibly even fearful under the weight of the enemy attack, and did not do well. But he learned,rebuilt his confidence, and took over the division in September. Under his command, the 1st Division became widely recognized as one of the premier fighting units on the Western Front, despite fierce fighting and heavy casualties at the St Eloi Craters and the Somme.
In April 1917 the Canadian Corps, by now four divisions strong, prepared to attack the formidable German position on Vimy Ridge. Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, a British officer, commanded the corps, but his plan of attack was based on Currie’s thinking. The Canadian had studied recent French operations closely.
His recommendations on reconnaissance, tactics, and artillery preparation, together with the briefing and rehearsal of all participants, down to the lowest private, shaped the corps’ attack. The resulting success, one of the few in a hitherto bleak war for the Allies, established the Canadians’ global reputation.
Currie’s, too. Within a few months, Byng took command of an army and Currie became corps commander. An imperialist, Currie turned himself into a nationalist who resisted British efforts to break up his corps and parcel out its divisions. A sensible man, he resisted as much as he could the government’s efforts to use him in its conscription election in December 1917.
An experienced commander who understood the qualities of mind it took to lead men in war, he fought against political efforts to give his old friend Garnet Hughes a division at the front.Currie built on Byng’s work to make the Canadian Corps—with the Australian—one of the two best Allied formations, an efficiently run, ably directed fighting machine that was fierce in attack and stubborn in defence.
Although his staff swore by him, he was never personally popular with the troops, perhaps because he didn’t look the part and because he was aloof, shy, and cold. Currie’s habit of winning battles nonetheless fostered an extraordinary spirit in his corps that his division, brigade, and battalion commanders reinforced.
To many historians, in fact, Canadian nationalism was born at Vimy and, if so, Currie was its father. Through the abysmally foul conditions of Passchendaele and the open warfare of The Hundred Days that defeated and drove back the Germans in the last months of the war, Currie made his name as Canada’s greatest soldier.
His reputation, however, suffered in Canada, a land that treats its heroes harshly. He was attacked by the crazed Sam Hughes, who never forgave Currie’s refusal to give his son a division in France. Others criticized him for throwing men’s lives away needlessly, a grotesquely unjust attack on a commander who used his guns and his brains, rather than human flesh, to win battles.
In 1928 Currie launched a libel suit to clear his name and, although he won $1 in damages, the pyrrhic victory did him further damage.Even so, Currie stands out as the man who made the Canadian Corps the embodiment of the nation. He rose from the inefficiencies of the Canadian Militia to beat the British professional soldiers at their own game.
His intelli¬ gence and his ability to grasp the lessons of trench warfare gave him the tools he needed to master the horrific battle¬ fields of France and Flanders. After the war, he tried to keep the best of his officers in a soundly organized army, but his efforts were largely confounded by politicians, anxious to cut costs and forget the war. In 1920 McGill University made him its principal, a post he filled with distinction until his death.