LIEUTENANT--GENERAL SIR ARTHUR CURRIE (A brief account of the battle of Passchendaele) Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie was the most capable soldier that Canada has produced. Certainly, he did not look like the great soldier he had become. A very tall man, at six-foot-four, he was also somewhat overweight. Through his successes as the Commander of the Canadian Corps, he knew how to delegate authority and stand by the decisions of his subordinates.
Currie, however, was not a professional soldier. He was born in Strathroy, Ontario, on December 5, 1875 and raised, he had moved to Canada's west coast in his late teens. As an adult, he movedto Victoria, British Columbia, he had become a schoolteacher, and insurance salesman, and, a real-estate speculator, an occupation that made him one of Victoria's leading citizens. Like all goodCanadian businessmen at the time, he joined the Canadian Militia. In 1897, he had enlisted as a lowly gunner in the 5th Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery; by 1909, he was the lieutenant-colonelcommanding the regiment.
In late 1913, Currie accepted the challenge of raising and training an infantry unit, the 50th Regiment, Gordon Highlanders of Canada.
When the war broke out in August 1914, the highly regarded Currie was commanded of an infantry brigade. Currie fought with exceptional composure at Ypres in 1915 where his 2nd Brigade made a remarkable stand against the poison gas. Having impressed his superiors, Currie was promoted to command the "crack" 1st Canadian Division. He led the "Red Patch" at Mount Sorrel, through the horror of the Somme in 1916 and at Vimy Ridge, Arleux, and Fresnoy in the spring of 1917. In June, Currie had been knighted and named commander of the Canadian Corps, now four divisions strong.
One of Currie's most impressive and important achievements had come during the winter or 1919-17, while he was still a divisional commander. By analyzing the fighting he had witnessed on the Western Front, Currie had drawn up what proved to be a blueprint for tactical success. In a paper, Currie synthesized the best of British and French concepts, and with many of his own beliefs based on personal experience. Under Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps emerged as an outstanding formation on the Western Front. No force--British, Australian, French, American, of German--could match its marvelous, record, a series of successes without a single setback, by the end of the war.
Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Curries was not pleased at the prospect of going to Passchendaele. Currie, like many Canadian soldiers, had grim memories of the Ypres salient, and grim memories to he Ypres salient, and admitted that his "experience in the salient in 1915 and in 1916 were such that I never wanted to see the place again." Unfortunately, on 3 October, Currie was warned that the Corps might be sent north, to take part in the offensive in Flanders. Currie could make no sense of Passchendaele, and he was furious. "Passchendaele!" he raged in front of his staff. "What's the good of it? Let the Germans have it--keep it--rot in it! Rot in the mud! There's a mistake somewhere. it must be a mistake! It isn't worth a drop of blood." Although Currie was not at all happy that the Canadians had been told to take Passchendaele. One of Currie's first moves was to assign intelligence officers to the various headquarters with which the Canadian Corps would be associated: Second Army, II Anzac Corps, which was responsible for the sector the Canadians would be taking over, and its front-line divisions, the New Zealand and 3rd Australian. These officers, and the general staff were to acquire early and thorough information as regards to details of German defenses and dispositions, and especially for the purpose of arranging the daily programme of bombardment. These preparations was a sparkling success. On the other hand, at the Canadian Corps headquarters, planning for the attach was well under way. By 16 October, just three days after receiving his orders, General Currie had completed his preliminary plans, which he described in a letter to the Second Army's Sir Herbert Plumer. The operation will be carried out in three stages, the objective of each stage being...
The RED, BLUE and GREEN lines...It is proposed to employ the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions for the capture of the RED and BLUE lines (4th on the Right--3rd on the Left), keeping the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions for the capture of the GREEN line and any subsequent operations it may be decided to undertake. It is considered that a pause of three days will e necessary between the 1st and 2nd stages, and a pause of 4 or 5 days between the 2nd and 3rd stages.
By 19 October, Currie had tentatively set dates for these operations: 28 and 31 October and 6 November. A fourth phase, if required, could be carried out on 10 November.
The Battle ended with the attack of November 10th. The Canadians began leaving the salient on Wednesday, 14 November. Four days later, General Currie handed over responsibility for the Passchendaele sector to Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston and his VIII Corps. The same day, 18 November, Currie departed for the Vimy Ridge front.
Passchendaele had been a painful experience for all concerned. It will be recalled that General Currie predicted that it would cost the Corps 16,000 casualties to take Passchendaele. His forecast was incredibly accurate; the actual toll was 16,654. Casualties of 50 per cent or more were not uncommon among the attacking battalions, particularly during the first two phases of operations.
Exhaustion was rampant. " One can never forget the haggard looks of the men and officers almost helpless with the fatigue or their work," commented Lieutenant- Colonel J.N. Gunn of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance. Many were angry. "Passchendaele was absolutely the height of stupidity," recalled E.O. Anderson of the 49th Battalion.
London warmly welcomed the Canadians. The capture of Passchendaele had, after so many weeks and months of bad news, come as a great relief, a feat which received much play in he press. A Canadian living a in England, Charles Armstrong, wrote Sir Arthur Currie on 12 November: "Everybody here is talking about it & it makes one feel very proud of the Corps." Certainly, no one was prouder than General Currie. The Canadians, he later wrote, had taken Passchendaele "by superhuman efforts." His men had " never worked so hard or fought with such grim determination. " He also confessed that I do not know which branch of the service is entitled the most praise. The Infantry who stormed the hostile trenches and beat off the counterattacks, the Artillery who prepared the way for he Infantry and who supported the attacks, the Engineers and Pioneers who made the roads which enabled the guns to be brought forward, and thus made victory possible, the Medical Services who have always done so well but who excelled all past performances in these battles, the Supply people who never failed once in getting forward the rations, engineer material and munition of all kinds, all gave evidence of the highest soldierly qualities and the determination to win. Concluded Currie: "I firmly believed that the Canadians were the only troops that could have taken the position at that time of the year and under the conditions under which the attack had to be made." It was not until after the war that General Currie was told why Passchendaele had to be taken. in Paris for the Versailles peace conference, Currie met Sir Douglas Haig on 12 February 1919 in the lobby of the Hotel Jajestic, the headquarters of the British delegation. Taking Currie aside, Haig explained his reasons for pursuing the Passchendaele opeeration. Currie late recounted there meeting: It was then I learned for the first time the true proportions of the mutiny in the French Army in 1917 and the strength of the Peace party in France and also in England in that year. He pointed out that after the victories of Vimy and Messines in April and June the British Army had to continue the offensive, in order to keep the enemy from launching an attack against the French... In order to raise the morale of the French Army and the British Army, and the French Government and the British Government, the Chief decided that the Ridge must be captured. Currie was not completely convinced. For years after ward, he continued to question "whether it was wise to choose the Ypres district as the battleground, " and believed that Passchenadaele "may have assumed unduly magnified proportions in the minds of many." Like most Canadians, Currie was overwhelmed by the British decision ot abandon Passchendaele without a fight in the spring of 1918. He felt betrayed, and for a time he allowed his emotions to get the better of him. On 20 April, four days after the ridge was abandoned, Beneral John J. Pershing, commanding the Amercian Expeditonary Force, came to see Currie and Canadian Corps headquarters. General Pershing was impressed with Currie's anger and frustration: "General Currie deplored the fact ath the British had so easily given up Passchendaele Ridge, which the year before he had been told must be taken at all costs, and for which the Canadians made the tremendous sacrifice of 16,000 casualties." Currie's bitterness remained untill he had finally found a forum for his complaints about he British army in June 1918. Prime Minister Borden later sought a meeting with Currie, and Currie was happy to oblige, "It had no useful result, as the British Army immediately went on the defensive and the campaign ceased for the year. No advantage in position was gained and the effort was wasted, particularly when the ridge was simply handed back to the enemy six months later. The venture was by no means worth the cost; and that is was won to save the face of the British High Command who had understaken all thought he autumn most unsuccessful and highly disastrous attempts." Prime Minister Lloyd George asked his Canadian couterpart to arrange a meeting with General Currie. Lloyd George liked what he saw and heard about Currie. " I was greatly impressed with Currie's views," he was delighted. But it was such an irony that Lloyd George chose to interpret Currie's comments as criticisms of Sir Douglas Haig; such was not the case. Currie, who admired and respected Haig Whether or not Sir Arthur Currie could have been a successful commander in chief of the BEF is a matter of speculation. The odds would have been stacked against him: not only was he a mere colonial, he was a non professional to boot, and he was much younger that th earmy commanders who would have reported to him. Far from demonstating his carelessness over casualtiles, Passchendaele proved Currie's concern for he preservation fo the lives of the men under his command; indeed, Currie's actons throughout th war stand as strong evidence of his desire, and ability, to win battles only at the least possible cost. A lot of Canadians, veterans and conscripts alike, had little regard for General Currie. Passchendaele convinced many of them that victory was his old consideration.
Charges of this nature dogged Currie for the rest of his life. Political enemies, took up the cry as the war wound down. He was being accused as a Canadian commander of deliberatley sacrificing the lives of his men in the pursuit of his own personal glory. His death five years later, in 1933 at the age of fifty-seven, may be attributed, at least indirectly, to the lawsuit. His funeral was a major event in Montreal and thousands lined the streets to honour the "Great Leader" of the Canadian Corps. He is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal.