Arthur Currie was born, 5 December 1875, near Strathroy, Ontario. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Victoria. He secured a position as a school teacher, later working in insurance and real estate.
He joined the local Militia, serving first in the Artillery and then in the Infantry. An energetic officer, he quickly rose in rank and, by 1909, commanded the 5th Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery. In 1913, he transferred to command the 50th Regiment, Gordon Highlanders.
In August 1914, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Valcartier, gaining command of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. After training in England, his brigade deployed to France as part of the 1st Canadian Division. Although previously, he had commanded only a few hundred militiamen. He was recognized quickly as an accomplished student of war.
On 22 April 1915, the Canadians manning the Ypres salient found themselves consistently exposed to enemy fire. The enemy launched the first major gas attack on the two French divisions on the left. Their panic-induced flight left the Canadian flank dangerously exposed. Two days later, the Canadians were gassed, instead of falling back, they drove off the attackers. At the height of the battle, when his brigade was feeling overwhelmed, he walked over a shell-swept road to divisional headquarters to plead for reinforcements. Although the brigade on his left had retreated, the 2nd Brigade grimly held to its forward position. After losing more than half his brigade, he ordered his men to withdraw to the Gravenstafel Ridge. That night they were relieved by British troops – the Canadians had held!
His leadership attracted immediate attention. He repeatedly identified the enemy’s intent and took steps to counter the threat. He was everywhere, maintaining personal contact with his forward battalions and with flanking units.
After the battles of Festubert and Givenchy, he was promoted Major-General, at age 39, he became one of the youngest to hold that rank in the British Army. With the formation of the 2nd Canadian Division, Canada fielded a Corps. A Canadian Commander was necessary for this prestigious national symbol. After the success of Ypres, he was chosen to be the Commander of this new division. In a few short months, he had risen from an obscure militia colonel to one of the most senior posts in the British Army.
As Divisional Commander, he was no stranger to the front lines. The men appreciated his willingness to share their danger. He disapproved loudly of the popular notions of hasty, unprepared counterattacks, large-scale trench raids and frontal assaults. Only when the preparations were complete, and massive bombardments finished, did he commit soldiers.
The Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was planned meticulously. “Silent” batteries were deployed, and infantry platoons were reorganized into self-contained combat units. Detailed maps and plasticine models were used to brief the men. Each soldier knew what he was expected to do. Vimy Ridge fell to the Canadians on the first day, Easter Monday, 1917, with relatively light casualties. Soon after, he was knighted and given command of the Canadian Corps.
When the Canadians were assigned the capture of Passchendaele, he protested, advising Field Marshall Haig of impossible conditions, doubting the value of the operation and expecting high casualties. The ultimate cost of Haig’s decision was 15,654 casualties, to achieve a mostly symbolic victory. Plans were made to split the Canadian Corps to reinforce British formations – again, and he protested, this time he won.
He returned to Canada, 17 August 1919. It was not the hero’s welcome one might expect. Public resentment was evident in caustic remarks by Sir Sam Hughes, accusing Currie of incompetence, glory-seeking and alleging that Canadian lives had been squandered.
Much controversy surrounded Currie and much remains. His accomplishments are unparalleled, and he was unquestionably the embodiment of the Canadian people larger than life. He was direct and forthright, a civilian-soldier, just the right man to lead a nation at war.
He died in Montreal, 30 November 1933, at the age of 58.