Donald MacLeod, the son of a veteran, is a lawyer and business executive in Bedford, N.S.
“Lions led by donkeys” and “Generals die in bed” are expressions often used to describe the generals of the First World War. They were generally old men fighting a modern war based on tactics from the previous century. Two exceptions to this general rule were Canadian Arthur Currie and Australian John Monash.
On a recent visit to Australia, I picked up a book, Maestro John Monash by Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister of Australia. I learned that Sir John Monash rose through the ranks to lead the Australian Corps, much in the same way that Sir Arthur Currie became commander of the Canadian Corps.
Mr. Fischer makes the case that Monash has not been properly recognized or credited for the important contribution he made to the Allied cause in the First World War. Throughout the book he draws comparisons between Monash and Currie. Both were in businesses before the war that almost went broke, were citizen soldiers in the militia, rose through the ranks entirely on merit to command national armies, were involved in libel litigation after the war and were not adequately recognized or celebrated by their own governments.
Mr. Fischer is leading a campaign in Australia to have Monash posthumously promoted to the rank of field marshal.
Fischer’s book got me to thinking about Currie and his role in the national conscience of Canada. Like Monash, Currie has never been given the proper credit for the critical and singularly important role he played in the Allied victory of the First World War.
On the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, it is time to celebrate the role of Canada’s most illustrious general and give him due accord. Currie did not cut a dashing military figure. He was big, bulky and out of proportion – much like the geography of his home country. But he was a brilliant tactician who vocally and successfully argued for the retention of his Canadian troops as a single coherent fighting force. He also viewed his men as a precious commodity not to be squandered.
As a divisional commander at Vimy, he was largely responsible for the preparation, training and execution of the assault. The reforms introduced to the Canadian Corps at Vimy, including a new platoon structure, indirect machine gun fire, anti-battery artillery fire, the rolling barrage and meticulous preparation, planning and training for all ranks from private to the most senior officers in advance of the battle, laid the foundation not only for success at Vimy but an unbroken string of victories in 1918.
While Vimy holds a special place in the consciousness of the nation because we did what the super powers of the day could not, it was what the Canadian Corps and Currie did after Vimy that made a difference to the outcome of the war.
Currie took over from General Julian Byng as corps commander after Vimy and it was at Hill 70, the first battle after assuming command, that he won victory by really putting his own stamp on the action.
He had been directed by his military superiors to attack the French city of Lens and take it by way of a frontal assault. Currie countered with a courageous alternative approach that involved taking the high ground above Lens designated as Hill 70. He figured that if the Canadian Corps could take Hill 70, the enemy would bleed itself dry trying to retake it – and that is exactly what happened.
My great uncle, Captain James D. MacLeod M.C., wrote to his mother from the front on Aug. 19, 1917, about Hill 70:
“You will have read in the papers home that the Canadians added another laurel to their glory in a battle near Lens. I heard from a General who is also an Army Commander that it was one of the most successful battles ever fought on the Western Front – not on account of the ground it captured so much as the number of Bosch we killed. It has been really wonderful shooting, they say – actually mowing them down by the thousands. The Bosch has counter attacked without number, but never succeeding in getting to our trenches …”
About a year after Vimy and Hill 70, the tactics, planning and preparation instituted by Currie in these battles would be coupled with the effective use of tanks and air cover to achieve the long sought-after breakthrough at Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918. There, Currie and the Canadians, together with Monash and his Australians, attacked side by side. General Erich Ludendorff described it as “the black day of the German army.” This defeat spelled the beginning of the end for Germany and over the next 100 days, the Canadian Corps played the role of shock troops in battle after battle leading to victory in Mons on Nov. 11, 1918.
So why does every schoolchild know the name of Vimy but not Hill 70, Amiens or Cambrai?
It can be argued that Currie was the architect of the Canadian victory at Vimy and the driving force behind the Canadian Corps in victory after victory to the end of the war.
Currie’s mantra was, “Pay the price of victory in shells – not lives.” Is Currie not the type of person we should hold in high esteem and celebrate? A Canadian nationalist, a leader who had the interests of his soldiers at heart above all, a person who made an impact on the world stage based on merit and skill, the architect of victory at Vimy, Hill 70 and Amiens?
I say yes, we should celebrate Sir Arthur Currie and, perhaps, take a cue from our Australian cousins and consider promoting him to the rank of field marshal in the name of the soldiers of the Canadian Corps he led.