General Sir Arthur William Currie GCMG, KCB (5 December 1875 – 30 November 1933) was a Canadian military commander during World War I.
He had the unique distinction of starting his military career on the very bottom rung as a pre-war militia gunner before rising through the ranks to become the first Canadian commander of the four divisions of the unified Canadian Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was the first Canadian to attain the rank of full general.
Currie’s success was based on his ability to rapidly adapt brigade tactics to the exigencies of trench warfare, using “set piece” operations and “bite-and-hold” tactics. He is generally considered to be among the most capable commanders of the Western Front, and one of the finest commanders in Canadian military history.
Currie was not afraid to voice his disagreement with orders or to suggest strategic changes to a plan of attack, something his British Army superiors were unused to hearing from a former militia officer from the colonies. Often these disagreements were taken all the way up to the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
Haig sometimes agreed with Currie: he allowed a strategic change to the attack on Hill 70 outside Lens, and approved Currie’s audacious plan to cross the Canal du Nord. But Haig also insisted on the Passchendaele attack despite Currie’s objection that the strategic value did not justify the expected casualties.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George claimed to his biographer that had the war continued into 1919, he would have sought to replace Field Marshal Haig with Arthur Currie and have Australian general, John Monash, appointed as Currie’s chief of staff.
Arthur Currie (his surname at birth was spelled “Curry”) was born in the hamlet of Napperton, Ontario, just west of Strathroy, the son of William Garner Curry and Jane Patterson. The family home still stands, although privately owned and in a poor state of repair.
He was educated in local common schools and at the Strathroy District Collegiate Institute, and briefly attended the University of Toronto before moving to British Columbia in 1894.
For five years, he taught at public schools in Sidney and Victoria. It was during this period that he changed the spelling of his surname to “Currie”.
On 6 May 1897, he joined the 5th Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery (C.G.A) as a gunner, and by 1900, he had achieved the rank of corporal. At this point, he was offered an officer’s commission, which would give him a much higher status in the social circles of Victoria.
However, a commission was an expensive proposition, since officers were expected to provide their own set of tailored uniforms and to donate their pay to the officer’s mess. In addition, Currie was engaged to be married to Lucy Chaworth-Musters. Clearly a teacher’s meagre salary would not suffice, so he entered the lucrative and socially acceptable world of finance, eventually becoming provincial manager of the National Life Assurance Company.
The young businessman also took on his role as militia officer seriously, and showed an intense interest in artillery, and especially in marksmanship.
He was promoted to captain in 1902, and then to major in 1906. He continued to be active in business and, with a land speculation boom in full swing, Currie and R. A. Power formed Currie & Power, and Currie invested heavily in the real estate market. By September 1909, he had risen to lieutenant-colonel, commanding the 5th Regiment C.G.A.
In 1913, while he was helping to raise a new militia regiment, the Victoria real estate boom went bust, leaving Currie holding worthless properties and financially over-extended. At the same time, he was offered command of the newly formed 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders of Canada) as lieutenant-colonel, and the cost of the new uniforms and mess bills only added to his financial problems.
Facing personal bankruptcy and a disgraced retirement from the militia, Currie diverted government funds of $10,833.34 that had been earmarked for regimental uniforms into his personal accounts to pay off his debts.
As historian Pierre Berton noted, the Gordon Highlanders’ honorary colonel, William Coy had promised to underwrite the regiment to the tune of $35,000, and Currie used the government money to save himself from bankruptcy on the understanding that Coy’s money would be forthcoming almost immediately to cover it. Unfortunately for Currie, Coy did not follow through, leaving Currie’s accounting sleight-of-hand potentially exposed.
In the midst of this, he attended the Militia Staff Course, and qualified in March 1914.
After the war, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George claimed that he wanted to promote Currie to commander-in-chief of all British and Empire forces on the Western Front in place of Sir Douglas Haig. On other occasions, similar claims have been made about Currie’s Australian counterpart, General John Monash. However, this claim is not taken seriously by historians.
For example, Robin Neillands praises Currie and Monash highly (subject to the caveat that they commanded nationally-homogenous forces, rather than having units constantly shuffled in and out throughout the war like other corps), but points out that each man had only commanded a handful of divisions, and his ability commanding a force of around 60 divisions “remains untested”. Neillands dismisses the claim as “a myth … without foundation except in Lloyd George’s memoirs”.
Currie was Mentioned in Despatches nine times. In addition to being named a Companion of the Order of the Bath after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and his appointment as KCMG in 1917, Currie was also promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the 1918 New Year Honours, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the 1919 New Year Honours, and also received the French Légion d’honneur and Croix de guerre (with Palm), the Belgian Croix de guerre and the Order of the Crown, and the US Distinguished Service Medal.
Upon returning to Canada, Currie was promoted to general, the first Canadian to hold that rank, and was made inspector-general of the Canadian Army.
Although he only held a high school diploma, Currie was offered the position of principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in Montreal. He held this post with distinction from 1920 until his death in 1933.
Honorary degrees were conferred on Currie by many British and American universities, and he became a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation.
The strain of decades of personal attacks took their toll, and General Currie died a few days after the 15th anniversary of the Armistice, at the relatively young age of 57. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter. The Times wrote of his funeral: “It was, by common consent, the most impressive funeral ever seen at Montreal”.
Those attending included Lord Bessborough, at the time the Governor-General of Canada; important politicians from both Ottawa and Quebec; foreign diplomats; and representatives of McGill University.
The service was conducted by the Bishop of Montreal, and other clergy including the former chaplain of the Canadian Corps. Eight general officers acted as pallbearers, and many other soldiers, both serving and veterans, were in attendance.
The funeral procession received a 17-gun salute. Currie had lived in the Golden Square Mile and was interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec.