Sir Arthur Currie
General Sir Arthur Currie was Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Corps during the First World War, and is considered Canada’s greatest military commander.
Arthur Currie displayed his abilities as a military tactician early on during the 2nd Battle of Ypres where Currie, as Brigade commander, held out against a determined German attack to prevent the front lines from breaking.
General Currie became Commander of the Canadian Corps in 1917, and continued this tradition with victories at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and the Last Hundred Days, eventually leading to the Armistice in 1918.
Arthur William Currie was born near Strathroy, Ontario on 5 December 1875. He began his working life as a school teacher in Strathroy, but later moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where he became a businessman involved in real estate and insurance and also served in Canada’s Militia as an artillery officer.
When the call to arms came in 1914, the 1st Canadian Division was formed in Valcartier, near Quebec City. It was there, on 29 September 1914, where Lieutenant-Colonel Currie, who had answered the call to arms, was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, which sailed for England in October 1914.
The First Division’s first action was at the battle for the small village of Neuve Chapelle in France during which 68 Canadians were killed and 210 wounded.
Then in early April 1915, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Brigades, commanded by Brigadiers Currie and Turner respectively were ordered to replace a French Division on the battle front north and east of the ancient Belgian city of Ypres.
The Second Battle of Ypres
On 22 April 1915, the Germans launched a massive attack against the French and Canadian positions. Preceded by a gas attack aimed directly at French colonial troops, it was the first use of poison gas in the war.
Followed by wave after wave of German infantry, supported by artillery, the Canadians held their ground while the French, directly affected by the gas, retreated. The Germans pressed their attack through Kitchener’s Wood and on to St. Julien, where General Currie’s 2nd Brigade continued to hold its original position.
Currie himself, sensing near defeat, left his headquarters to seek reinforcements, an action for which he was criticized; however, he was able to return to his lines with 300 survivors of his 7th and 10th Battalions.
This action may have been instrumental in holding the line on Gravenstafel Ridge until April 25th at which time the Canadians were ordered to withdraw. The Germans had made a small gain of up to three miles in the Battle of Ypres, but their decisive breakthrough was held up, primarily because of General Currie’s tenacious refusal to retreat.
The Command of Sir Arthur Currie
In September 1915, Currie was promoted to Major-General and appointed Commander of the 1st Canadian Division. While the Canadians had passed their first test under a massive German assault, General Currie was greatly concerned about the welfare of his men.
He was a general who valued the lives of his soldiers and made every effort to quickly learn and apply tactics that would minimize casualties by using surprise and firepower to overcome the enemy before sending men into battle. He was personally brave and was very confident in the abilities and fighting skills of his men.
His one shortfall may have been his reserved personality, which tended to separate him from many of his troops, but those officers and soldiers who worked closely with him came to respect and admire, if not love him. Before every battle, General Currie insisted upon personally carrying out a reconnaissance of the ground. He learned that he could not trust the maps of the day.
He also learned and applied many of the French army’s tactics, such as the use of small manoeuvrable platoons or sections to carry out hit and run guerrilla-style night raids and use sniper and machine gun positions correctly and strategically.
In addition, the use of artillery was carefully planned and under Currie, was always used immediately before an infantry assault, not during the attack, as was the British practice. Furthermore, Currie always made it a point to interview trusted officers and NCOs after every battle, in order to learn from mistakes. He became a military commander of great skill and tenacity. He was highly principled and morally courageous in military matters.
His orders and instructions were clear and concise. His soldiers were well briefed, his plans meticulous and based on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. His strategy was always drawn from the lessons learned from earlier battles or enemy attacks and personal observations of the battlefield. All of the lessons that he had learned at the Battle of Ypres would be carefully and correctly applied.
At the Battles of Mount Sorrel, the Somme, Courcelette, Thiepval Ridge, Regina Trench, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Amiens, the men of the First Canadian Division under General Currie, became accustomed to winning. In fact, the Battle of Vimy Ridge confirmed the valour of the soldiers of the Canadian Corps.
Vimy Ridge was a formidable objective, which both the French and British Armies failed to capture. The Canadian Corps, at the time under the command of Lord Byng, but using tactics initiated and perfected by General Currie, secured Vimy Ridge in April 1917 in three days.
The battle established the Canadian Army as warriors who never failed and gave Canada its first sense of identity as a nation.
Currie was promoted to Lieutenant-General and knighted in 1917. He was also given command of the Canadian Corps on 9 June 1917, which he retained until the end of the war.
Currie is perhaps best remembered for his planning and leadership during the Last Hundred Days of the War, beginning August 8 and lasting until 11 November 1918, when the Canadian Corps, under Currie’s leadership advanced further, faster and with fewer casualties than any other Allied operation of the War.
This offensive ended with the capture of Mons, Belgium and is viewed as the most successful of all Allied offensives during the War.
Following the war and his return to Canada, Currie was promoted to full General (the first Canadian ever to be so appointed) and was appointed Inspector General of Militia, a position he held until his retirement from the Army in 1920.
That same year, Currie accepted the position of Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University in Montréal, a position he held until his death in 1933, at the age of 58.
Without benefit of post-secondary education himself, he was extraordinarily successful as a university administrator at a time of particular importance in McGill's development. He is buried at Mount Royal Cemetery in Montréal.
Arthur Currie was the best soldier that Canada has produced. Under his command, Canada’s Army became the finest and most professional this nation has ever sent to the field.
He has been honoured in death by having several buildings and awards named after him. Currie Barracks, the former Army base in Calgary, was named in General Sir Arthur Currie’s honour in 1933.