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Reviewed by:
  • The Selected Papers of Sir Arthur Currie: Diaries, Letters and Report to the Ministry, 1917 - 1933
  • Desmond Morton (bio)
Mark Osborne Humphries , editor. The Selected Papers of Sir Arthur Currie: Diaries, Letters and Report to the Ministry, 1917 - 1933. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 406. $34.95

Arthur Currie remains Canada's most successful army general, not to mention his postwar principalship of McGill University during some of its halcyon years. Born on a farm near Strathroy, Ontario, he was a big [End Page 380] but uncoordinated boy, with limited athletic ability and a taste for practical jokes. He moved west to Victoria, qualified as a school teacher, but switched to selling insurance and real estate. His real avocation was the volunteer militia. He joined the 5th Regiment of Artillery and, as his fortune grew, rose to its command. When his term expired, he took command of a newly created 50th Regiment of Gordon Highlanders. When he refused to let its band play at a Conservative party rally, he faced down his new minister, an enraged Sam Hughes, perhaps because Sam's beloved son, Garnet, was Currie's second-in-command. In 1914, when BC's prosperity collapsed, Currie was at Nanaimo, managing militia on strike duty. His fortune vanished. When Ottawa sent him $10,500 to pay for his regiments' kilts, Currie averted ruin by putting the money in his own account. A few days later, the Great War began and he and Garnet boarded a train for Valcartier.

Sam Hughes found it convenient to add a BC officer with Liberal leanings to the Tories who dominated his slate of officers for the First Contingent. At Ypres, in April 1915, Currie's 2nd Brigade held its ground against German infantry, artillery, and chlorine gas. The adjoining 1st Brigade was wiped out while Brig. Gen Richard Turner VC and his brigade major, Garnet Hughes, hid safely in their dugout. Currie never forgot or forgave their conduct though he, himself, had committed the faux pas of leaving his brigade and going back to find reinforcements. A British general sent him back amidst a flood of abuse, while the future British official war historian looked on. By the autumn, Currie commanded the 1st Division; Turner inherited the newer 2nd Division and led it to a disastrous baptism of fire at the St-Eliot craters. Currie's rise to command the entire Canadian Corps became inevitable, particularly after his division avenged a Canadian setback at Mont-Sorrel with the carefully planned and rehearsed assault that would be Currie's battlefield trademark.

Currie's doctrine of 'thoroughness' was not apparent to the 24,000 Canadian dead on the Somme in the autumn of 1916 but it dominated preparations for capturing Vimy Ridge in April 1917, and it was the secret of the unbroken series of victories, from Hill 70 to Valenciennes, which form the double core of Professor Humphries's collection of Currie's diaries and letters and his official report to the minister of overseas military forces of Canada for 1918.

While military history buffs might wonder why they should buy a book composed half of accessible archives and half of a plodding government report, the two sets of documents form a fascinating combination. While Currie's soldiers were fighting the Germans with consistent and remarkable success, engaging and defeating a quarter of the Kaiser's divisions, leaving the rest for the Americans, Belgians, British, and French, their commander was waging a less successful [End Page 381] struggle for their reputation and his own. The year of victory coincided with Canada's heaviest casualties, a burden bearable only because of Borden's imposition of conscription, and the breakup of Canada's 5th Division, created by Sam Hughes for Garnet to command. Currie's first 1918 battle was to protect the Canadian Corps from a reorganization inspired by Britain's manpower shortage and by the dreams of ambitious but inexperienced surplus Canadian officers in England, encouraged, Currie believed, by his rival, Sir Richard Turner. This is the human story that binds this divided book into a single, passionately human story. Why won't Sir Robert Borden or his minister defend his field commander...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 380-382
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-07
Open Access
No
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