by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Sir Arthur Currie wasn’t your run-of-the-mill REALTOR®. In fact, he is now regarded by most historians as Canada’s most successful general of the modern era.
“He was cool, innovative, with an instinct for ground and tactics," wrote Desmond Morton and J.L Granatstein in Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914- 1919. "A big, flabby, real-estate promoter could also be a great field commander. "
It was Currie who devised the tactics which led Canadians to major victories at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and in the last 100 days of the First World War. It can also be argued that he was actually the most successful Allied general of the war based upon his battlefield record.
Even though Currie was a superior general during the First World War and never believed his men were expendable, the troops he commanded didn't particularly take a shine to him. This can be explained by his shyness, which made him appear to be so aloof that his men referred to him as “Guts and Gaiters.”
Despite his reputation as a general, Currie was not without his faults and his detractors. As a militia commander in pre-war British Columbia, he had embezzled $10,000; gained the wrath of Canadian minister of militia Sam Hughes for refusing to promote his son, Garnet, whom Currie believed was incompetent; was judged a coward at the Second Battle of Ypres with one British general remarking that if he was a British officer he would have been taken out and shot; had been accused in the later stages of the war of unnecessarily sacrificing men; and in his last years of life had to defend his reputation during a libel trial.
Currie was born on December 5, 1875, in Napperton, Ontario. He served as a teacher in Strathroy, Ontario, until he moved west to Victoria, B.C., in 1893, embarking upon a career in insurance and real estate.
While in Victoria, he joined the militia and then the army with Garnet Hughes, the son of the man who later became Currie’s bitter enemy. With the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Currie, now a lieutenant-colonel, was shipped overseas in 1914, following the outbreak of war. Primarily because of his friendship with Garnet, Sam Hughes gave Currie the command of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
The First World War was different than any other war that had preceded it. It started out with the assassination of a single archduke in Sarajevo and ended with millions of troops and civilians slain.
The advancing Germans had initially swept westward with ease, capturing all of Belgium except a tiny sliver and a significant chunk of France until they were stopped at the Marne River. The German advance had actually been too rapid, and as a result, they outstripped their supply lines, forcing them to cut short the plan of attack developed by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905. The Schlieffen Plan called for a scheme to prevent Germany from having to fight a two-front war by first quickly defeating France and then throwing its full weight against Russia.
At the Marne, the French had gathered enough reserves to stop the German advance. The British and Germans then slugged it out at Ypres.
The days of rapid advance had ended and a stalemate prevailed. The trenches, some not more than metres apart, would stretch for 800 kilometres to the Swiss border.
The unique thing about this trench warfare was that there were no flanks to go around, which stumped many generals as they had been trained that a brilliant cavalry charge to outflank the enemy would bring victory. In this new type of warfare, every attack was a frontal assault against men armed with the newest technological innovations, such as rapid-fire artillery, machine guns and barriers of barbed wire, all of which favoured the defender. The French and British generals sent wave after wave of attackers forward, who then became entangled in the barbed wire and while held fast were easily targeted and mowed down by machine-gun and artillery fire.
For example, on July 1, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, 21,000 British attackers were killed, mostly by machine-gun fire. British commander General Sir Douglas Haig refused to give up on a futile attack and for two months threw men at the German positions with little effect except for hundreds of thousands of casualties. Among the casualties were 24,029 Canadians, either dead or wounded. One of the great tragedies of this bloody sacrifice of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment — Newfoundland didn't become part of Canada until 1949 — at Beaumont Ridge. Of 801 Newfoundlanders sent into battle, there were 684 casualties with 310 killed. By the end of the battle of the Somme, Allied dead and wounded totalled 623,907. The Germans had 465,525 casualties.
Haig insisted the only way to defeat the Germans was by attrition. His belief was that three or four waves of men attacking in earnest would overcome any defense. The Germans, seeing this strategy, simply allowed the waves to go through intentional gaps, channelling the attacking force into a killing field.
Men such as Currie, who were able to learn and adapt, stood out head and shoulders above those who failed to adjust to the new reality.
According to Schlieffen, “A man is born, and not made, a strategist,” which aptly describes the battlefield success of Currie.
Unfortunately, the casualties on the Allied side always exceeded the German side, until the tactics of Currie, Julian Byng and Herbert Plumer were used. In the latter instance, the British general commanding New Zealanders, Australians and Brits accepted that small gains, which were reinforced before going on, made more sense than sacrificing waves of men in the futile attempt to make a breakthrough.
On the other hand, the tactics of French general Robert Nivelle led to a mutiny. Nivelle had been regarded as the darling of the politicians, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, because he promised victory in two weeks. By December 1916, he was placed at the head of the French army. In a familiar scene to the British disaster at the Somme, Nivelle advocated massive artillery barrages followed by infantrymen hurling themselves at the enemy's lines.
“The battle began at six, by seven it had been lost,” was how one commander saw it. With the battle a failure, Nivelle was fired on April 28 and sent into exile in North Africa. He was not the brilliant tactician hoped for by the politicians.
Currie received his first real baptism under fire at the Second Battle of Ypres, while with the 1st Canadian Division. On April 22, 1915, the Germans launched the first gas attack of the war, catching the French colonial division of Algerians to the left of the Canadians by complete surprise. The chlorine gas also spilled into the Canadian ranks, but the brunt was born by the Algerians who abandoned their positions, exposing the Canadian flank. The Canadians formed a thin line of defence on the Allied front.
On the 24th, the gas was unleashed on the Canadian lines. Scores of Canadians withered in agony, despite using cotton bandoliers soaked in urine to keep the gas out of their lungs. Yet they kept their positions for as long as possible, fighting off German attacks, and then withdrew 3.2 kilometres, but didn't break.
“The Canadians had many casualties but their gallantry (four Victoria Crosses, the British Empire's highest award for valour, were given to Canadians) and determination undoubtedly saved the situation,” read the official British communique after the battle.
Currie lead the 2nd Brigade, but left them on the morning of April 24 seeking reinforcements for his left flank. According to the official British historian of the war, Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds, Currie had ordered elements of his troops to fall back three times, but they didn’t obey.
Actually, the order was cancelled after the officers in the front lines called headquarters and told them they could hold out. The officers couldn't reach Currie as he was away seeking reinforcements.
There was a gap in the Canadian line which was not Currie's fault. When he asked British 27th Division commander Major-General T. Snow for men, he received a dressing down.
“Have you come here to teach me my profession and dictate to me how I shall handle my division,” Snow is reported to have said. “Do you expect me to wet nurse your brigade. You have got yourself and your men into a mess and you will have to get them out as best you can.”
Snow then ordered Currie to get out of his headquarters.
It wasn't Currie's finest hour, but he survived this brush with his British superiors. In later days, he would be confident enough to oppose British plans that he felt compromised his men’s ability to gain an objective with the least possible casualties.
Currie’s major break came with the arrival of Sir Julian Byng, the British general appointed to command the Canadian troops. The Canadians affectionately referred to themselves as “Byng’s Boys.” He believed Currie was his best Canadian general and thus gave him greater responsibility.
On June 2, 1916, the Germans attacked a key sector called Mount Sorrel and Observatory Ridge. At Sanctuary Wood, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry lost more than 400 men holding their flank from the German attack. The Germans had Ypres within sight when Byng ordered “all ground lost today will be taken tonight.” But more ground was lost. Haig fired corps commanders who gave up ground and then Byng turned to Currie to at least save the day by retaking Mount Sorrel.
Currie reorganized his troops, learned the terrain and withdrew for a dress rehearsal of the coming battle. Before the attack, Curie four times allowed the artillery to reach a peak and than fall off. The breaks in fire caused the Germans to believe an attack was eminent and so rose from their shelters to meet the expected assault. The Germans were mowed down by the following artillery barrage. When the Canadians attacked on June 12 at 8:30 p.m., there was little resistance and the hill was retaken. Each German counterattack was met and repulsed.
The result of 10 days of fighting was 8,000 men lost by the Canadians, although they still felt victorious. But, then came the Somme.
In 1915, Haig had said that, “The machine-gun is a much overrated weapon.” The Battle of the Somme proved that Haig's remarks about the machine-gun were completely misplaced.
“The nation must be taught to bear losses,” Haig said just before the battle. “No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives.”
Sacrifices on an unimaginable scale resulted from Haig’s battle plan, but Bing and Currie would soon prove that training, skilled commanders and superiority of arms and ammunition did translate into victories.
Vimy Ridge would be the first real Allied triumph of the First World War and it was orchestrated by Canadians fighting as a single corps for the first time in the war. The capture of Vimy Ridge, which had before April 9, 1917, cost tens of thousands of British and French lives, would be seen as the passage of Canada from colonial subservience to true nationhood by both the soldiers who fought the battle and those at home.
There were a number of innovations developed as part of the preparations before the attack.
After reviewing other battles, especially Verdun under Nivelle, Currie came back to Byng with a number of recommendations. Attacking in waves should be abandoned, he reasoned, in favour of smaller platoon units which would be assigned clear objectives and trained accordingly. Infantry companies were also to be given more freedom of movement. The aim would be to reinforce success on the battlefield rather than failure, as had been the practice in the past.
Canadian Major-General Edward Morrison took what was observed from the French and developed new technical skills for artillery. Counter-battery techniques would target enemy batteries before the commencement of an attack. Enemy artillery positions were identified using aerial photography and balloon spotters as well as scientific data, such as computing the location of artillery using the sound of shells.
Above all, the troops were prepared beforehand to visualize their objectives. They were trained using models of the battlefield and taught how to follow a creeping barrage. Artillery shells would land at 100-metre intervals, with each interval timed at three minutes. The men marched behind each barrage. When the barrage lifted after three minutes and re-engaged 100 metres further up the battlefield, the men proceeded behind. The march used had to be perfectly timed to prevent the troops from falling victim to their own artillery. The idea behind creeping barrage was to keep the Germans down in their trenches, create confusion and mask the advance, thus protecting troops.
(Next week: part 2)