Saturday, November 3, 2007

Sir Arthur Currie-Hero or Villain?


Sir Arthur Currie

A question which had dogged Canadian Military History enthusiasts regards Sir Arthur Currie. What is it about this man which is so mystifying? He became arguably the best general Canada has ever put in the field of battle and perhaps the best General in the Great War, yet few Canadians know of him. Canadians know more about his British and American counterparts than him. Is it because of his 'shady' past, or is it, perhaps because we are so hesitant to tag anyone of our countrymen with the title of 'hero'.
Currie was a land speculator in Victoria B.C. During what might have become a depression , spreading across the world from 1912 to the start of the Great War, his investments plummeted in value and left him on the verge of bankruptcy. Some might say the coming of war saved him from financial ruin. That might be partially true, but what it also proved is Currie was a man who saw opportunity. Canada going to war was an opportunity. Currie's long career as a militia officer paid off and he was offered a position as one of the Brigade Commanders for the Canadian First Division. He accepted, and, as they say, the rest is history.
It was a storied military career, as compared to some. Outstanding performances at 2nd Ypres where he lead the 2nd Brigade magnificently and, some might argue, single handily prevented the fall of the east end of the beleaguered salient; at Festubert where, once given the reins to design and carry out an attack, he did so to perfection; at Mount Sorrel he again was given complete control over an attack, resulting in another complete success.
The list goes on.
He was given command of the 1st Division in the fall of 1915; command of the entire Canadian Corps in the spring of 1917 and from many accounts, it was British Prime Minister Lloyd George's intention, should the war continue into 1919, to have Currie command all British forces in Europe. Quite an accomplishment!
So why don't Canadians know this guy?
Why do we celebrate 'Monty' (British General Montgomery, World War II) or MacArthur (American General MacArthur "I shall return")? Currie has all the criteria of a hero. If he'd been an American, he'd have been president and at least half a dozen movies would have been created in Hollywood about him.
But not in Canada. Not for Currie. Why?
That brings us to our topic: Sir Arthur Currie-Hero or Villain? You see, the story doesn't stop with his tremendous war record. The story started before the war did.
It starts with Currie's embezzlement of just over ten thousand dollars from his Militia Regiment; money, ear-marked for the contractor making the regiment's uniforms. It was money he needed to keep the creditors away, at least for a time. This was, from all accounts, a haunting secret, one which kept Currie awake many nights. Even while fighting in Europe, the knowledge of the money, which he had essentially stole, was never far from his thoughts. As he expected, the government did discover the missing money and to avoid a scandal, he was loaned the money from two of his wealthy subordinates. The debt was paid off, but was the secret forgotten?
Was this a serious item which should turn him away from the annals of our nations list of important Canadians?
No less significant was the entry into Mons by the Canadians on November 11th 1918. Yes, that is known as Remembrance Day, and it was the last day of the Great War. On that particular day it was known by headquarters that an armistice would go into place at 11am that day. On the morning of the 11th , the Canadians advanced, and they took Mons. A glorious achievement to have retaken the town where the British had first been attacked at the war outset in August 1914 and driven back. It was a substantial feather in the Canadian Corps cap, but one which is rarely celebrated.
The argument from that day forth by some, including the men who fought that final battle was: were the losses worth the victory?
So, was Currie a hero of villain? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let's start talking about our Canadian military hero's!!
Suggested reading:
  • The Last Day, the Last Hour (The Currie Libel Trial/Robert Sharpe)
  • Sir Arthur Currie, A Biography (Daniel Dancocks)
  • General Sir Arthur Currie, A Military Biography (A.M.J. Hyatt)
Bill

2 comments:

Charles said...

Hi Bill, a very interesting article, many things I didn't know about General Currie.
I'm sure with your great knowledge of the Canadian military that we can look forward to more informative entries.
Charles

John P Sargeant said...

Hi Bill
I got your blog through the 21sters web site. I am the moderator and welcome aboard.
I've also read the Sharpe book on the libel trial and think he made a reasonably even handed job of the situation. I got from the book that the Canadian public often mix up the misplacement of funds in BC with the libel trial and they, as you point out are two different things.
As far as the money is concerned, I have often wondered what the fuss was about. Apparently he just put it in his account to "safe keep" it, with no intention of keeping it but then never got to put it back. Certainly his well to do friends thought enough of him to "bail him out". I guess we Canadians like to pick fault with our heroes.
Respecting the libel trial, I think people need to know that it was Currie suing The Port Hope newspaper that had published the libelous editorial about the last days of WW1. He was successful, but the feeble amount awarded didn't even pay for the cost of the trial and funds had to be found to pay that bill. Certainly no way to treat such a Canadian hero.
I guess the thing that gets me the most is that on his return to Canada, he was not lauded in any great fashion. Where is Currie Day on the Canadian Calendar?
Finally, I've put some pictures of his Strathroy background on the web at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11755
Having said that, the Town of Strathroy has done nothing to laud their native son. There is no notice on the town sign as you reach the outskirts, there is no town plaque, but the memorial plaque is out at the high school in an industrial subdivision. His home just outside of Strathroy is not marked and generally most folks don't know of his early years in Strathroy. It appears the local museum did a display on him some years ago.
Sarge