By Bob Gordon
General Sir Arthur Currie. The Canadian Corps’ first and only Canadian commander. The first full general in the Canadian Army (1919). Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (Britain); Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and Croix de guerre (France); Knight of the Order of the Crown and Croix de Guerre (Belgium); Distinguished Service Medal (United States).
A century later, the accolades still echo. Royal Military Academy Sandhurst instructor Christopher Pugsley describes Currie as “perhaps the most brilliant corps commander of the war,” who led “the most effective fighting formation among the British armies on the Western Front, superior in performance to its vaunted Australian contemporary in terms of organisation, tactical efficiency and staying power.”
This “most effective fighting formation,” the Canadian Corps, first took to the gas-soaked fields of the Ypres salient in April 1915. During the last hundred days, they spent three months at the sharp end as the shock troops of the Empire. Their route from novice to master of the arts of Ares was once seen as a simple, linear progression with the Canadian forces consistently and persistently growing in combat effectiveness. More recently, the variability, inconsistency and irregularity of change have been emphasized. Evolutionary dead ends, explored and abandoned, have been identified. Periods of sudden and revolutionary change (January to April 1917) are also evident. Today, historians concur the march to the final Hundred Days Offensive was anything but straight for the Canadian Corps.
Its leader, General Sir Arthur Currie, the man under the uniform, has never been granted a similar, measured reappraisal. In the immediate wake of the Great War, former Minister of Militia Sam Hughes slagged Currie, all but branding him a vainglorious butcher. Initially, much attention was directed at dismissing these accusations as baseless. More recent analyses have focused on his achievements as he progressed from brigadier to corps commander. The narrow focus has been on his military career, and one such assessment is even subtitled “A Military Biography.” Moreover, as was once the case with the corps itself, they suggest an unvarying and inexorable rate of ascent: A career simply destined to greatness.
From whence this apparent military genius arose has remained unexplored or, like an elephant in the room, been politely ignored. Was he a failed land developer and embezzler? A frustrated lawyer? A dedicated militia officer and daring entrepreneur? A chance confluence of man and circumstance? Was he all of the above or none of the above?
This series will tack this way, exploring Currie’s civilian life from his youth in Ontario through his financial coming of age in Victoria. This portrait of Currie to age 40 in 1914, when his military, as opposed to militia, career commenced will provide a lens through which his military biography will be reinterpreted. Currie was hardly wet behind the ears when he went to war. He was approaching 40. He was on the verge of retiring from the militia. He was a self-made man of considerable influence socially, politically and financially, precarious as the latter may have been by 1914. These life experiences were foundational to Currie’s success with the Canadian Corps.
According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: “Arthur Currie’s paternal grandparents, John Corrigan and Jane Garner, a Roman Catholic and an Anglican, fled religious intolerance in Ireland to farm in Adelaide Township, Upper Canada. Upon their arrival in 1838, the Corrigans changed their name to Curry and became Methodists ... The elder son, William Garner Curry, married Jane Patterson in 1868.” William Curry was relatively affluent and held numerous local government positions. Born from this union on December 5, 1875, on the family farm near Napperton, six kilometres west of Strathroy, in Adelaide Township, was William Arthur Curry. He would not change his name to Currie until he was a militiaman and, reportedly, tired of the jokes about spicy food that were told at his expense in the mess and orderly room.
Curry began his education in a one-room schoolhouse in Napperton, Ontario. Apparently a promising student, he moved on to Strathroy Collegiate at the age of 14. On October 23, 1891, 15-year-old Arthur’s father, William, unexpectedly died from an “inflammation of the bowels” at the age of 46. The [Strathroy] Age, describing William Curry as “well known” with “numerous friends,” noted that “the funeral on Sunday last was one of the largest ever seen in the township, 165 rigs being in the procession.” Not surprising, considering that William had served as a township councillor, school board trustee, was deputy reeve at the time and owned a 300-acre farm.
In the wake of this tragic event Curry left Strathroy Collegiate and entered the Model School, earning a 3rd Class Teaching Certificate. His biographers imply that this abandonment of his dream of becoming a lawyer was necessitated by strained financial conditions following his father’s death.
However, circumstantial evidence tends to undermine this assertion. The Currys were a reasonably affluent family and they seem to have remained financially stable and secure following William’s death. Crystal Loyst, Museum Collections and Research Coordinator at the Museum Strathroy-Caradoc, has stated that, “As for the farm, the original plot was divided into two – William Currie [an older brother of Arthur’s] lived on the west half of the west half of lot 15 con 5 SER and his brother T.O. Currie lived on the east half of the west half of lot 15 Con 5 (by the map, however other records state Lot 14) … Arthur’s cousin Harold owned the property next door.” Under these conditions, it is difficult to see penury driving Arthur out of school.
Regardless, leave he did, only to discover positions for a novice pedagog with a 3rd Class Teaching Certificate were few and far between. By November 1892, he had returned to the Collegiate hoping to achieve his honours and qualify for admission to a university.
As treasurer of the Strathroy Collegiate Institute Literary Society he took an active role in debates as both a disputant and a judge. In November 1892 he failed to demonstrate that “The Indian in North America has suffered more injustice than the Negro.” Four months later, Curry decided against the resolution, “War has caused more destruction and misery to the human race than intemperance.” A story published in his hometown newspaper, The Age Dispatch, on February 27, 1930, headlined “Sir Arthur Retreated Like a Good Soldier,” affirmed his debating prowess. It details his youthful determination to finish his arguments leading him to depart the podium, but circumambulate the room at a slow march, spitting out arguments, before resuming his seat.
Other schoolmates’ reminiscences, published in the Age Dispatch on April 17, 1919, affirm young Curry’s energetic and independent disposition. The article describes him as “the recognized star of the large class of which he was a member,” taking note of both his wit and pugilistic prowess. Proof of the former is provided by the pleasure he took, in later life, as Principal of McGill University, sharing a dram with an economics professor on the faculty by the name of Stephen Leacock. Coincidentally, as a young student teacher Leacock had done a brief placement at Strathroy Collegiate and taught Curry in the early 1890s.
Between Curry’s grades and his extracurricular activities, biographer, and former subordinate on the staff of the Canadian Corps, Hugh Urquhart asserts that the principal regarded his attaining “honours” as a given. Regardless, in May of 1894, weeks shy of graduation, Arthur Curry dropped out and headed west to Vancouver Island. Purportedly, the rather rash decision was precipitated by a dispute with a teacher. Contradicting himself, Urquhart then asserts that it was a premeditated excursion with a total of six young men participating. What is clear is that enough planning was required for Curry to have secured the $25 train fare.
While the timing of Curry’s exodus may have been impetuous, it was hardly Quixotic: he left with a well-defined destination. In Victoria he had arrangements to stay with a maternal great-aunt, Mrs. Orlando Warner, and her husband, a master shipwright from Pugwash, Nova Scotia. He promptly settled into their large house on Alston Street, overlooking the harbour. The welcome was warm enough that Curry remained for 16 months while he qualified for a BC teaching certificate at which point he took a position teaching in Sydney that paid $60/month. The local trustees were impressed with his abilities, noting particularly his classroom management along with his students’ deportment and discipline.
As soon as possible, upon securing a job at Victoria Boys’ Central School, he returned to the city. One year later he moved to Victoria High School. This apparently lateral move was actually a step up for Curry as the high school had a more prestigious reputation and drew its students from the most affluent and influential families in Victoria. Curry would remain there into a fourth school year. It was during this period that he began spelling his name Currie.
In the winter of 1899–1900, Currie’s teaching career was interrupted by a prolonged illness. Apparently, Currie used the down time to contemplate his future. Probably with an eye to marrying, he left teaching, concluding it offered prestige but not pounds sterling. In the spring of 1900, presumably capitalizing on connections made with students’ parents, Currie reinvented himself as an insurance salesman joining Matson and Coles, a prominent Victoria firm.
Liberal Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier claimed the new century for Canada: “As the 19th century was that of the United States, so I think the 20th century shall be filled by Canada.” Currie, a life-long Liberal, set out to personify this dictum in the century’s first dozen years.
Next month: Currie’s affluence, influence and profile all grow exponentially. Ascending to the top of Victoria society, Currie is staring into a financial abyss when European rivalries and violence erupt into global war in the summer of 1914.