Canadians accept a national stereotype of being boringly reasonable. No one would make that claim for the two most prominent Canadians in the Great War, 1914-19. Sam Hughes may have been, as Cook insists, the leader we needed for our unreserved commitment to total war in 1914 but posterity will remember Cook’s description of Hughes’s vitriolic, merciless and utterly dishonest assaults on anyone, civil or military, who tried to resist his folly. Though not faultless in Cook’s view, Arthur Currie became the ablest and one of the most compassionate generals Canada has yet produced. Cook shreds the claim that David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, might have dismissed Sir Douglas Haig and put Currie or his Australian counterpart, Sir John Monash, in command of the British Expeditionary Force. He could certainly have done worse.
As our best-known popular historian of Canada’s role in the First World War, Tim Cook is the Great War historian at Canada’s young War Museum in Ottawa. Having devoted two thick volumes to Canada’s war in the trenches of France and Flanders, Cook has now offered us a painstakingly balanced view of both Hughes and Currie. Yes, Hughes was psychotic and probably insane, but, Cook keeps insisting, there may be some core truth in Hughes’s vicious slanders. Eventually, Cook’s balancing of pro and con loses credibility. Did the man who insisted on sending “his boys” to war with the Ross Rifle and the McAdam “shield shovel” really care for soldiers’ lives and welfare. Were his venomous and lying assaults on anyone who tried to repair his damage helpful to anyone but Kaiser Wilhelm?
Currie, too, had defects. He easily won the respect and affection of senior officers and his fellow generals but his insistence on the outward and visible signs of taut discipline, smart salutes and shiny buttons won him little love from Canadian rank and file. While Currie may have exceeded most generals in his concern to save soldiers’ lives, the news seldom reached the men in the ranks. Nor was Currie a military genius. Like most of us, he made mistakes; unlike most of us, he did not make them twice. His worst mistake, to judge from Cook’s repeated references, was embezzling a $10,000 government cheque sent to pay for his militia regiment’s kilts. Only when he was promoted to command the Canadian Corps did he reimburse the government, largely by extracting loans from two wealthy subordinates.
Much of this mildly overweight book is devoted to undermining Hughes’s charge that Currie had butchered “his boys” to win personal glory, at Lens, Passchendaele, in the bloody but victorious battles that ended the war at least a year earlier than anyone had expected, and most abominably, by attacking Mons on the very last day of the war. However absurd the charges were to officers who worked with Currie and understood the orders he received, Hughes’s cunning told him that they were charges civilians and particularly next-of-kin would believe. In fact, Currie’s British superiors learned to yield when Currie demanded delays to achieve the “thoroughness” he needed to prepare, or to stop battles when German resistance hardened. Hughes’s charges were fed by grumblers in the ranks and by the reluctance of a wartime government to spend political capital defending its top general.
In time, Currie would overcome. Robbed by his absence overseas of any chance to meet Hughes’s allegations, Currie took his chance in 1927 when a former Liberal organizer, W.T.R. Preston, repeated the lie Hughes had used in his most vicious assault on Currie, the Canadian capture of Mons. Even at the time, Hughes’s lie had been shattered by Currie’s fellow British Columbian, Lt. Col. Cy Peck V.C. He had shared the battle and insisted that Currie’s tactical ingenuity at Mons, as elsewhere, had virtually avoided any casualties. Preston, who had his own grievances against military brass, used the same falsehoods in an editorial in the Port Hope Guide. Against much advice, Currie fought back with a libel suit. Liberals in power denied both sides access to the war records but Currie got the facts from the Canadian Expeditionary Force official historian, Colonel A.F. Duguid. When Frank Regan, Preston’s lawyer, adopted the Hughes’s style of veracity, a jury offered Currie $500 in damages.
Shaken and exhausted, Currie had, in Cook’s words, “finally pried loose the dead hand of Hughes from his throat.” CEF veterans elected Currie president of the Canadian Legion though he was now too ill to participate in its conventions and struggles for pension reform. Within six years of defeating Hughes’s most vile allegation, an exhausted and ailing Currie was dead.