by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
In the prelude to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a massive artillery barrage managed to take out much of the enemy's artillery. As a result of the lack of German artillery, the Canadian Corps was able to achieve most of its objectives within hours. The battle would last another three days, but by April 12, 1917, Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands. The cost was high as 3,598 men were killed and 7,004 were wounded. It was a stunning defeat for the Germans since Vimy was the linchpin of their defensive line, and paved the way for future Allied successes.
After the victory at Vimy, Sir Julian Byng was promoted to command one of the five British armies on the Western front and Sir Arthur Currie then took over sole command of the Canadian Corps, an army of four divisions in the field totalling some 120,000 troops. The amateur and former real estate agent from Victoria, B.C., who had learned his soldiering from reading books before the war, had become a seasoned field commander. As a general, the real estate he would now attempt to acquire would be valued in human lives not dollars and cents.
“I am a good enough Canadian to believe,” said Currie, “if my experience justifies me in believing, that Canadians are best served by Canadians.”
But Currie's appointment was not without controversy. Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden wanted Currie to send a strong message favouring conscription, the controversial bill opposed by Western farmers, who wanted their sons home to till the land, and Quebecers, who opposed fighting in what they called a “foreign imperialistic war.” Borden also wanted Currie to give a Canadian division to Garnet Hughes to quiet his cantankerous father, the Canadian Militia Minister Sir Sam Hughes. But Currie was unmoved, he had appointed Brigadier-General Archie Macdonnell to head the 4th Division.
Near the end of a three-hour shouting match in London, Sir Sam Hughes yelled out, “I’ll get even with you before I’m finished with you.”
Currie gave his support to conscription, but refused to advance Hughes’ son. As Canada’s most successful general, Borden acceded to this and Currie returned to the front lines from London.
The British wanted to take Lens, a coal mining town they had failed to capture in 1915. On July 7, 1917, Haig ordered Currie to take Lens.
“Currie went out and climbed a hill behind the Canadian lines, the Bois de l’Hirondelle, and lay there for a morning, examining the ground,” wrote Desmond Morton and J.L. Granatstein in their book, Marching to Arageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919. “What he saw made him think. The Canadian troops could fight their way through the rubble of Lens but they and their supporting guns would be on low ground, easily commanded by Germans on the two hills (Hill 70 and Sallaumines). The smart answer was to seize one of the two hills, preferably Hill 70 to the north, and waste their men trying to take it back.”
“If we are to fight at all,” said Currie, “let us fight for something worth having (Hill 70).”
Haig predicted the Canadians would fail, but approved Currie’s plan.
At dawn on August 15, 10 Canadian battalions attacked and within 20 minutes, the Canadians who had survived the German barrage were on top of Hill 70. Counter-attack after counter-attack, often resulting in hand-to-hand fighting, assailed the Canadians — 21 in all — but they held.
Currie had an answer to the “maze of cellars, trenches” that would provide cover for German counterattacks, wrote Granatstein and Morton. “His new machine-gun companies (another Canadian innovation) would follow the assault waves, dig into the hard chalk surface, and wait for the counter-attacks. His artillery, better and heavier than anything the British had had in 1915, would be waiting for the Germans in a killing ground of his choosing, not theirs.”
Lens was not captured, but the Canadians commanded the heights. They were then ordered to another sector of the Western Front.
Haig had his sights on preparations for the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, three kilometres west of the Belgian town of Ypres. Haig had visualized the battle as the first major breakthrough of the war with the eventual objective being the Belgian seacoast and the capture of the German submarine pens. In the summer of 1917, German U-boats were ravaging Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic, the North America’s industrial and agricultural lifeline to Britain. British Admiral Sir John Jellicoe advised Haig and the British government that the losses incurred by the merchant fleet could not be sustained and something had to be done.
Haig’s answer to relieving the pressure on the fleet was not enthusiastically greeted by British Prime Minister Sir David Lloyd George, who believed Passchendaele was a foolish undertaking. Yet, no one else had come up with a credible alternate plan, so Lloyd George reluctantly gave his approval.
The battle had started in June and was still raging with little results when Haig suddenly appeared at Canadian headquarters on October 3, 1917. The battle was turning into a mess, both figuratively and politically. The Allied troops were hopelessly mired down in the mud. Similar to the Somme, the battle was turning into a killing field.
In his memoirs, Haig cited another reason for continuing the battle after its bloody first days: the widespread mutiny raging in the French army resulting from the carnage in its ranks due to the Neville Offensive, named after French General Robert Neville, who ordered the battle to proceed despite massive losses.
Haif said Marshal Phillipe Pétain had urged continuation of the Ypres offensive to prevent the Allied war effort from collapsing — an after-the-fact agrument that carries little weight with historians. In fact, Pétain had already crushed the mutiny by selectively punishing the ringleaders, improving conditions along the front and providing more leave to soldiers.
Currie protested his orders, saying prophetically that it would cost 16,000 Canadian casualties.
The Canadian general said, “Passchendaele is not worth a drop of Canadian blood.”
All Haig would say was that Passchendaele must be taken and some day he would tell Currie why. It was a promise that was never fulfilled.
Currie told Haig he had his own conditions that had to be met before the Canadians would participate in the battle. For one, the Canadians would not serve under British General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough’s 5th Army, as the Somme and Gough’s hopeless attacks were still fresh in Currie's mind. Currie insisted the Canadians would replace the Australian Corps under British General Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer, who was noted as a very capable military commander, in the line. He also called for more time to prepare for the battle.
“No one of us,” wrote Sir David Watson, the commander of the 4th Division of the Canadian Expeditionary (CEF), “who had previous experience of the Ypres Salient fighting, could anticipate without horror and dread, the orders received ... The approaches to the front, and on beyond, were simply beyond description. Wastes of mud, destroyed houses, roads torn up by constant shelling and above all, the vile weather conditions, that made life a burden.”
The German defenses were circular concrete pillboxes with 1 1/2-metre-thick walls which provided interlocking fire support. To assault these formidable fortifications, the Canadians built roads, duck-board pathways, drainage ditches, new gun platforms and collected supplies.
Currie planned for limited advances to be covered by artillery. At each stage, the infantry would consolidate their positions and guns would be brought up to support the next advance.
On October 26, the Canadian troops struggled through the mud and by nightfall had lost 2,481 men. Fresh troops were brought forward for the advance on the 30th and on November 6, the third and final advance was to take place. An adjoining British attack on their flank failed but the Canadians penetrated to their objective. The British failure meant their flank was exposed, which prompted an Australian to comment, “If the Canadians can hold that, they are wonderful troops.” They held and on November 14, British troops took over the Canadian lines.
As Currie had predicted, the Canadians suffered 16,000 casualties.
Speaking about Passchendaele on December 1917, Lloyd George remarked to C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian and a political ally, that: “If people really knew (about the casualties), the war would be stopped tomorrow. But, of course, they don’t know, and can’t know.”
In London, Lloyd George was starting to notice Currie, who had been recently knighted and became Sir Arthur Currie. The British prime minister even contemplated replacing Haig with Currie. Lloyd George called Currie a “brilliant military commander.”
Lloyd George claimed to his biographer that had the war continued into 1919 — as was believed in late-1917 as extremely likely — he would have sought to replace Haig with Currie, and Australian general, John Monash, would serve as Currie's chief of staff. If the change was made, a Canadian would command five British and Dominion armies of over a million men.
Lloyd George later said he didn’t sack because during the critical days of the war it was important not to undermine public confidence in the commander-in-chief, “but I never concealed from myself or my colleagues that I thought Sir Douglas Haig was intellectually and tempermentally unequal to the command of an Army of millions ...”
Politically, Lloyd George knew that Currie as a “colonial,” despite his brilliance, would never have been accepted by United Kingdom voters as the commander of British troops.
While he didn’t become the overall commander, Currie still led his Canadian troops to other victories for the Allied cause.
In May 1918, the Canadians were pulled out of the lines to train and rest in anticipation of coming battles. Marshall Foch, the French field marshall and overall commander of the Allies, was planning a great offensive to end the war. The British were to attack at Amiens and the Canadians were to lead the attack.
The troops had to be moved 64 kilometres to the new staging ground. This had to be done in secrecy, since any Canadian presence would alert the Germans that an attack was eminent. By this time, the Canadians had gained the reputation of being the Allies’ shock troops and as a result, their presence was felt by the Germans to be the signal for a battle to commence. All movements were at night. The secrecy held. On August 8, 1918 Canadian and Australian troops led the initial assault. General Erich Ludendorf, the German commander-in-chief, called August 8, “the blackest day of the German Army.”
In four days, the Canadians had gone over 22 kilometres, a vast distance compared to past successes measured in metres. With the Canadians penetrating so far into previously German-held territory, the offensive was stopped to allow a consolidation of the new positions.
The initiative was remounted on August 26 at the Arras front. After days of heavy fighting, the Canadians were poised to cross the Canal du Nord. Currie's plan was to attack the only dry crossing, using his engineers to bridge the gap.
His plan supposedly broke all the rules of so-called “good generalship.” The aim was to go through a narrow passage and then fan out behind the German defenses which would require artillery barrages going forward, back and sideways. The British generals were skeptical, wanting Currie to devise a simpler frontal assault. Currie was equally adamant that his plan was the only way to reduce losses.
After Byng reviewed the plan, he gave it his approval with the provision that Currie “deliver the goods.”
Covered by a barrage, the infantry edged toward the canal and then toward another victory. “On this day (September 27), we buried all our hopes for victory,” wrote the diarist of the 188th (German) Regiment.
A further advance by the Canadians resulted in heavy casualties, although one in seven compared to the one in four at the earlier Battle of the Somme.
The Germans withdrew behind the Hindenburg Line to consolidate their positions and put up more resistance. But in seven days in the Argonne, the French and Americans — the U.S. entered the war in April 1917 but it took months to train and sail troops to France — advanced eight kilometres and Byng's troops broke down the German line near Cambrai.
On October 6, Currie received his orders calling for the Canadian Corps to take Cambrai, which they did. The German lines were in collapse and the Allies were now in pursuit. By the last day of the war, November 11, the Canadians had liberated Mons, where the war had begun in 1914 for the British.
In the Allies' 100 Days leading to the end of German resistance, the Canadians had captured 31,537 prisoners and advanced 130 kilometres, the furthest Allied offensive of the war.
But it had not been without cost to Currie. He was accused of pursuing objectives when the war was known to have been won. The man who had so successfully led Canadian troops to victory after victory would be battered in the press for his actions in the last three days of the war. To be fair to Currie, neither he nor his troops had an inkling of the terms that led to the armistice, but they had to have known that the collapse of the German army was inevitable.
“The peace, when it comes, must last for many, many years," Currie said. “We do not want to have to do this thing all over again in another 15 or 20 years ... German military power must be irretrievably crushed. This is the end we must attain if we have the will and guts to see it through.”
Canada’s General Arthur McNaughton was even more adamant about the ill-timing of the armistice. “What bloody fools!” he exclaimed. “We had them on the run. Now we shall have to do it all over again in 25 years.”
What Currie and McNaughton warned about came to pass 21 years later when Hitler and the Nazis attacked Poland and launched the Second World War.
After the war in 1920, Currie became president of McGill University in Montreal. But the ghost of his old nemesis, Sir Sam Hughes, who died in 1921, still lurked in the shadows. A Cobourg, Ontario, newspaper, the Port Hope Guide, in 1928 reported Hughes’ old claim that Currie was just as much a “butcher” as Haig. Currie sued W.T.R. Preston, who wrote the article entitled Mons, and F.W. Wilson, owner of the newspaper, for libel, asking for $50,000 in damages. Currie won, but received just $500 in damages. The two men alleged that Currie had allowed unnecessary casualties in taking Mons, which was occupied by the Canadians on November 11, the day the Armistice ending the war came into effect.
Preston and Wilson appealed the jury verdict, but the judge rejected their case, saying, “A great many things that Sir Sam Hughes said could not be regarded as evidence in the court.”
Actually, Mons was taken on November 11, 1918, without any casualties. The sole man killed on that day was Private George Price, who was killed just two minutes before the Armistice was to come into effect, by a German sniper in the small village of Havré. He died at 11 a.m. and was the last Canadian killed in the First World War.
But in the previous two days leading up to the capture of Mons, there were numerous casualties, although only a few were killed.
The effort of defending his name wore Currie down and was said to have contributed to his death on November 30, 1933.
What happened to Currie supports the old adage that Canadians elevate heroes only to later tear them down.