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Arthur Currie

Sir Arthur William Currie GCMG, KCB (December 5, 1875November 30, 1933) was a Canadian general during World War I who had the unusual distinction of starting as a pre-war volunteer 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, as well as becoming 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; as such, he is generally considered among the most capable commanders on the Western Front, and one of the finest commanders in Canadian military history.

Under his leadership, the Canadian Corps evolved from a single division of untested volunteer colonials into four divisions of battle-hardened and effective shock troops that spearheaded the final series of battles that ended the war. From their baptism under fire and gas during the Second Battle of Ypres until the end of the war, units under Currie never failed to take their assigned objectives, and often did so with startling rapidity and lower than expected casualties.

Early life

Currie was born in the hamlet of Napperton, just west of Strathroy, Ontario, the son of William Garner Currie and Jane Patterson. The family home still stands, although privately owned and in a poor state of repair.

Currie was educated in local common schools and at the Strathroy District Collegiate Institute. He briefly attended the University of Toronto before moving to British Columbia in 1894.

Businessman and Gentleman Soldier

For five years, Currie taught at public schools in Sidney and Victoria. He also joined the non-permanent militia at the age of twenty as a gunner in the 5th Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery (C.G.A), 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. 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.

With a land speculation boom in full swing, Currie and R. A. Power then formed Currie & Power, and Currie invested heavily in the real estate market.

Currie was a energetic soldier, and he rose to become colonel of the 5th Regiment C.G.A. However, in 1913, 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 Battalion (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 $10,833.34 from regimental funds into his personal accounts to pay off his debts.

World War I

Currie's third-in-command in the "Gay Gordons" was Garnet Hughes, and through him, Currie became personally acquainted with Garnet's father, Sam Hughes, the MP for Victoria and Canadian Minister of Militia in Robert Borden's government.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Sam Hughes personally gave many plum commands in the nascent Canadian Expeditionary Force to his cronies and acquaintances. Since Currie was his son's commanding officer, Hughes offered Currie command of the 2nd Brigade in the 1st Division. However, Currie considered turning down the offer and staying behind in Victoria so he could attempt to solve his financial woes. He only changed his mind at the urging of Garnet Hughes. It is ironic that both Sam and Garnet Hughes were responsible for Currie's overseas command and subsequent success, since Currie and the Hughes would be implacable enemies by the end of the war.

Second Battle of Ypres

Currie's financial predicament was brought to the attention of Prime Minister Robert Borden as the 1st Division reached England, but unwilling to bring Currie home, Borden chose to do nothing about it for the time being.

The 1st Division spent the winter of 1914-15 training in England, and were sent to France in February 1915. After a period of indoctrination about the realities of trench warfare, they took control of a section of trench in the Ypres Salient on April 17, 1915. Only five days later, the Germans used poison gas gas for the first time on the Western Front, sending clouds of chlorine wafting over the Allied trenches. French colonial troops on the Canadians' left flank broke, leaving an enormous hole in the Allied line. In the chaos that followed, Currie proved his worth as a combat officer, coolly issuing commands from his brigade headquarters even as it was gassed and then destroyed by fire. Faced with a situation that doctrinaire tactics could not deal with, Currie threw away the tactical rule book and cobbled together a fluid defense and counterattack that bent but did not break. At one point Currie personally went back to the rear and brought up two regiments of British reinforcements that had been unwilling to move forward. After several days of fierce fighting, the Canadians' counterattacks at St. Julien and Kitcheners Wood re-established a stable defensive line, denying the Germans the breakthrough they had sought.

The Second Battle of Ypres proved to be the making of Currie. His superiors noted his natural instinct for tactics, and his coolness under fire. He was promoted to major-general, and given command of the entire First Canadian Division. He was also invested as a Companion of the Order of Bath (CB) and as a commander of the Legion d'Honneur.

Garnet Hughes, however, had proved to be unreliable under fire, a fact noted by Currie.

Battle of the Somme

Although the Canadians did not take part in the infamous British offensive on the Somme on July 1, 1916, they did eventually move into the line in the fall to aid the slow crawl forward. In a battle where every foot of ground was fiercely contested, Currie's talent at preparing set-piece assaults using "bite and hold" tactics became apparent as did his almost obsessive unwillingness to squander men's lives in costly frontal assaults. When the battle finally ground to a halt in the mud of November, the Canadians had taken every objective ordered of them, although at the cost of 24,000 casualties.

It was at this time that Currie lost favour with former friends Sam and Garnet Hughes. Sam Hughes wanted Garnet promoted to command of a division, but Currie, having seen Garnet in action at the Second Battle of Ypres, believed Garnet to be an incompetent officer, and refused. By this time, Currie's reputation was on the rise, and Hughes did not have the necessary leverage to force Currie to obey. From that point until his death in 1921, Hughes began a personal vendetta, using his seat in the House of Commons to verbally attack Currie and his record, although he was careful never to repeat his words outside the House, where he was not protected by parliamentary privilege.

Battle of Vimy Ridge

By late 1916, four Canadian divisions were in France, gathered together as the Canadian Corps under the command of Sir Julian Byng. The British High Command informed Byng that the Canadians would have a central role in the upcoming spring offensive at Arras.

Near the French villages of Vimy and Petit-Vimy, a high chalk ridge dominated the flat Douai Plain. When the war had bogged down in 1914, the Germans had driven the French from the ridge, and had strongly fortified it. Offensives by both the French and British had failed to dislodge the Germans from the high ground. Now as part of a major British operation in April designed to achieve a breakthrough at Arras, the Canadians were expected to do the impossible--take the ridge in just 8 hours.

Both Byng and Currie were firm advocates of analysis and preparation. Byng first ordered Currie to examine the Battle of the Somme and advise what lessons could be taken and used. Next Byng sent Currie to Verdun to interview French officers about the grinding battle that had taken place there. Currie not only questioned senior French officers, he then sought out junior officers and asked the same questions, carefully noting the discrepancies between the senior officers' beliefs and the junior officers' experiences. On January 20, 1917, Currie began a series of lectures to the generals of the Canadian Corps based on his research, and he set out what he believed would be the keys to the battle:

  • overwhelming artillery on a narrow front to soften up the German lines and destroy barbed wire;
  • the creeping barrage, a tactic used ineffectively for several years, had to be perfected;
  • every soldier had to be trained in exactly what to do and where to go so that he could take command of his platoon in case his NCOs were killed;
  • counter-battery operations--the tactic of spotting and silencing enemy artillery--must also be perfected;
  • the soldiers must be allowed to get as close as possible to the enemy lines before the start of the actual assault.

Training of the Canadian soldiers started immediately. As Currie had dictated, every soldier was shown maps of the battlefield, was taught his platoon's objectives, and was given a small map of his part of the battlefield. Distances from Allied to German trenches were carefully taped out on practice battlefields, and the soldiers endlessly rehearsed the slow walk that would keep them only paces behind the creeping barrage.

Tunnels into the soft chalk were dug towards the German lines so that Canadian soldiers could move as close to the German lines as possible before the actual assault. In addition, ammonal mines were set under German strongpoints.

Canadian engineers laid of water pipes, of railway track, of plank road, and they also maintained and repaired of local roads, which had been shelled heavily by the Germans during previous battles. In addition, the Corps signallers buried of telephone cable and laid another of surface cable.

The preparatory counterbattery work under the command of Major Andy McNaughton was brilliant, and Allied artillery destroyed 83% of German guns before the battle started.

At 5:30 a.m. on April 9 (Easter Monday), the largest artillery barrage of the war to date began. Thirty thousand Canadian soldiers climbed out of trenches and tunnels in the middle of a snowstorm to slowly walk behind a curtain of artillery shells that destroyed everything in its path. German soldiers were captured while still hiding in their bomb-proof dugouts. Primary, then secondary and tertiary trenches were rapidly taken. By 12:30 p.m., Canadian soldiers stood on top of Vimy Ridge.

By the end of April 12, the ridge was completely in Canadian hands , at a cost of 12,004 casualties, including 3978 killed.

Although the overall Battle of Arras was a failure--British regiments on the Canadians' right flank failed to reach their objectives, making a breakthrough impossible--the four Canadian divisions had worked as one unit to score a nation-building victory.

Currie was recognized as the architect of this triumph, and was knighted by King George V. When Byng was promoted to General in command of the British Third Army in mid-1917, Currie was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general and given command of the entire Canadian Corps.

Just as he was taking command of the Corps, word reached Currie that news of his embezzlement had reached the Canadian cabinet, and in order to avoid news of the scandal from breaking, Currie borrowed money from two wealthy subordinates, David Watson and Victor Odlum to finally pay back the money he had "borrowed" from the 50th Regiment.

Hill 70

The British High Command needed a diversion to take German attention away from their preparations for the Third Battle of Ypres. As Currie's first objective upon assuming command of the Canadian Corps, he was given the task of taking the city of Lens, which was strategically important to the Germans due to its nexus of rail lines. After examining the area, Currie instead proposed to take the high ground outside the city (marked on Allied maps as Hill 70). The Germans would be forced to counterattack to retake the high ground or lose operational control of the city. During their counterattacks, the Germans would have to cross killing grounds in front of the Canadian lines, enabling the Canadians to inflict enormous casualties. Sir Douglas Haig finally approved the change in plan, but predicted the Canadians would fail. It was not an idle comment since Hill 70 was defended by pillboxes with overlapping fields of fire, deep dugouts and trenches fronted by coils of barbed wire.

Currie insisted on the same level of preparations as had been used at Vimy Ridge. Once again, the men studied maps of their objectives, and practiced on fields marked with tape that indicated trench lines, and a complex artillery barrage was planned.

At 4:25 a.m. on August 15, 1917, after several hours of precise artillery fire to destroy barbed wire and plaster the German trenches, men of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions went over the top. (The 3rd Division was held in reserve.) Walking slowly behind a creeping barrage, the Canadians took the hill in a mere twenty minutes and immediately began to dig in. As Currie had predicted, the Germans realized that they could not operate in Lens with the Canadians occupying Hill 70, and the first counterattack took place by 9:00 a.m. Over the next three days, the Canadians repulsed twenty-one German counterattacks, which saw the Germans use both mustard gas and flamethrowers. By August 18, the Canadians were low on rations, water and ammunition, but the Germans, having suffered thousands of casualties trying to retake the hill, were unwilling to expend more resources. Although the city of Lens itself was not taken, German operations inside the city were compromised as Currie had predicted, and the city lost its strategic importance.

Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres, known to history as Passchendaele, was Sir Douglas Haig's attempt in the summer of 1917 to break through the German lines. His objective was to take the village of Passchendaele, which lay just behind a long ridge overlooking the Ypres Salient. From there, Haig envisioned a quick march to the Belgian ports in order to stop submarine depredations in the English Channel. However, the preliminary bombardment of the low ground in front of the ridge destroyed canals and ditches that drained the fields, and an unusually heavy rain the night before the first assault turned the low ground into a quagmire. The attack quickly stalled. Tens of thousands of casualties moved the British line forward a few hundred feet during the summer months. Use of Anzac troops finally took the ridge, but the attack again stalled as the Anzac forces were bled white. Haig turned to the Canadian Corps for the final push.

All fall, unseasonably hard rains had fallen, and the battlefield had become a vast sea of liquid mud. Wooden duckboards were the only way to traverse the ground, and soldiers who slipped off drowned. The Germans were by that time using a more flexible defense, including dozens of pillboxes made of reinforced concrete that were set up to enfilade. Able to withstand direct hits from artillery and hard to pick out in the drab brown landscape of mud, these had to be found and attacked at close range by flamethrower or Mills bombs. Attacking one pillbox inevitably drew deadly machine gun fire from two or three others. After examining the battlefield, Currie protested, saying that the village could only be taken at a cost of 16,000 Canadian casualties, and was not strategically significant. However, Haig overrode his objections and ordered an attack.

Currie insisted on time to prepare, and it wasn't until October 20 that the Canadians' offensive began. Rather than one battle, Currie designed a series of well-prepared, sharp attacks that allowed the Corps to take an objective and then hold it against the inevitable German counterattacks. By October 30, the Canadians, aided by two British divisions, gained the outskirts of the village in a driving rainstorm, and then held on for five days against intense shelling and counterattacks, often standing waist deep in mud as they fought.

The Germans withdrew from the battle on November 11, 1917, but Haig's breakthrough never materialized. The German's doctrine of "defense in depth" meant that there was always another set of trenches waiting for them to fall back to. The Canadians' Pyrrhic victory came at the cost of 15,654 casualties, including 4,028 killed. Currie's prediction had been amazingly—and sadly—accurate.

Hundred Days Offensive (also known as Canada's Hundred Days)

In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a major Spring Offensive, but by the summer, it had been contained, and it was the turn of the Allies to counterattack. German intelligence always kept a close on the whereabouts of the Canadian Corps since their move to a new sector usually indicated an imminent attack. Therefore in August 1918, when Currie was ordered to move the Corps south to Amiens to join the Australians under General John Monash, the Canadians took pains to camouflage their move. This included sending a radio unit and two battalions to Ypres as a diversion. With no preliminary artillery bombardment to warn the Germans, the attack on August 8 was a complete surprise. Currie's usual careful planning paid off as the Canadians and Australians opened up an enormous hole in the German lines and advanced on the first day, although suffering enormous casualties. After three days of continued Allied advances, the Germans abandoned their lines at Amiens and fell back to their prepared defences on the Hindenburg Line.

The Canadians were withdrawn from the line, and moved to the Somme, where they next attacked the Hindenburg Line at the powerful Drocourt-Quéant Switch on September 2. The Corps smashed a hole in the "invulnerable" line, forcing the Germans to fall back behind the flooded Canal du Nord.

Currie took three weeks to prepare for the next attack. In what was perhaps Currie's most audacious plan, he proposed to have the entire Corps cross a dry part of the canal using bridges that would have to be built by engineers while under fire. Currie's superiors refused to approve the plan, but finally Douglas Haig gave it assent. On September 27, covered by the most massive artillery bombardment of the war, the entire Corps moved across the canal as planned, and zig-zagged through the German lines in a move planned to confuse the Germans. They broke through three German lines, as well as taking Bourlon Woods. Forced out of the Hindenburg Line, the German army now staged a controlled retreat.

Currie was next given the task of taking Cambrai, and the Canadian Corps achieved that on October 11. Further action at Valenciennes and Mont Houy denied the Germans any chance to stop and reinforce their defences in the face of the determined Canadians.

On November 10, in what was to be his most controversial decision, Currie, under orders to continue to advance, ordered elements of the Corps to liberate Mons, although there were rumours that an Armistice would be signed the next day. On the morning of November 11, as Currie received orders that confirmed there would be a general armistice at 11:00:00 a.m., the capture of Mons was completed. At 10:58 a.m., George Lawrence Price was killed by sniper fire, the last Canadian, and possibly the last Allied soldier, to die in the Great War. Two minutes later, the war ended. The liberation of Mons on November 10-11 cost the Corps 280 casualties.

In later years, Currie defended his decision to attack Mons by pointing out that not only was he under orders to continue to advance, but that during the last two weeks of the war, rumours of an imminent Armistice had proven to be false several times. In addition, even when the exact hour of the cease-fire was announced early on the morning of November 11, the terms of the proposed Armistice were unknown; many Allied commanders continued to press forward and German commanders continued to defend tenaciously because they believed that post-war boundaries would be drawn where the armies stood when the Armistice was declared.

Occupation of Germany

The 1st and 2nd Divisions of the Corps were made part of the Army of Occupation, and in December 1918, Currie took the salute as the Canadians crossed over the Rhine into Germany.

After the War

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. Despite the fact that he only held a high school diploma, Currie became the President and Vice Chancellor of McGill University in Montreal. His legacy at the university remains in the Currie Gym and the Montreal Neurological Institute under Wilder Penfield.

Libel Suit

During the war, Currie had continued to deny Garnet Hughes a combat post, believing Hughes would be a danger to the men in his command when under fire. Although Hughes attained the rank of brigadier-general by 1918, he ended the war in an obscure administrative posting in London. Garnet's father, Sir Sam Hughes, was removed from the cabinet in 1916, but he continued to use his seat in the House of Commons to attack Currie's reputation. Although Sam Hughes died in 1921, Garnet Hughes continued to attack Currie's reputation through newspapers owned by his family.

In 1927, the Hughes-controlled Port Hope Evening Guide accused Currie of "wasting lives" at Mons. Currie sued the newspaper for libel, and in 1928, a jury found the newspaper guilty. However, it was a Pyrrhic victory for Currie, since the jury only awarded him $500 in damages, rather than the $50,000 he had asked for.

Postwar career and honours

In addition to being knighted in 1917, Currie was also honoured with the British Knight Commander Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the French Légion d'honneur and Croix de Guerre, and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal.

The strain of decades of personal attacks on him took their toll, and General Currie died at a relatively young age, shortly after the 15th anniversary of the Armistice, on November 30, 1933. He is interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec.

Legacy

Canadian historians including Pierre Berton and J.L. Granatstein have frequently described Currie as Canada's greatest military commander.

While Currie was not loved by his men, who referred to him has "Guts and Gaiters", he had their respect.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George revealed to his biographer that had the war continued into 1919, he would have replaced General Douglas Haig with Arthur Currie, with Australian general John Monash as Currie's chief of staff.

Currie was designated as a National Historic Person of Canada in 1934. This designation was plaqued in 1938 in recognition of his role as Commander of the Canadian Corps, the First Canadian Division, and the Second Brigade.

The Currie Building and Currie Hall at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario were subsequently named in his honour. The Currie Barracks in Calgary, which opened in 1933, the year of his death, were named in his honour.

In Richmond, BC, General Currie Elementary School was built and named after him in 1919. At the University of Victoria, an on-campus housing building is named Sir Arthur Currie.

In the Officer's Mess of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, the favourite chair of Sir Arthur Currie is reserved for the Commanding Officer of the Regiment to sit on.

In his hometown of Strathroy, Ontario the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion bears his name.

At McGill University, the gymnasium is named in his honour.

A history room at his old high school, Strathroy District Collegiate Institute, has been named in his honour.

His grandson, Captain Arthur William Currie is a member of the Canadian Forces in the Cadet Instructors Cadre as the Commanding Officer of 2870 Cadet Corps in Ottawa, Ontario.

Sir Arthur Currie donated a statue and war memorial to the city of Saint-Lambert, Quebec.

The futuristic Robert A. Heinlein novel Starship Troopers features a fictional Camp Arthur Currie located in Western Canada as an incredibly tough boot camp for aspiring Mobile Infantry soldiers.

The comic book superhero Aquaman's secret human identity is Arthur Curry, inspired by this general.

In addition, Canada has honoured him as part of 14 valiant heroes in 2006, and he was one of five people who had a life-sized statue.

Quotations

Currie wrote that the "spirit" of the Royal Military College of Canada's graduates, "no less than their military attainments, exercised a potent influence in fashioning a force which, in fighting efficiency, has never been excelled." Currie was a staunch believer in rigorous training as said in the following quote, "Thorough preparation must lead to success. Neglect nothing."

Special Orders

Currie utilised special orders to try and get positive publicity for the Canadian Corps, while it was being successful in the Hundred Days' War. This was because the London press had ignored the Canadian contribution in their articles, but they had produced their casualty lists, and the Canadian papers simply republished the London articles, which caused thoughts that the casualties were unnecessarily heavy. In addition, Currie had also issued a special order to console himself when the Canadian Corps was being split up to help defend against the German Spring Offensive. In addition, the special order quoted below also inspired Douglas Haig to write his own order to try and inspire the troops.

"To those who fall I say; you will not die but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have bourne such sons. Your names will be revered for ever and ever by your grateful country, and God will take you unto himself. Canadians, in this fateful hour, I command you and I trust you to fight as you have never fought with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage. On many a hard fought field of battle you have overcome this enemy. With God's help you shall achieve victory once more."

References

External links

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