It was dubbed the “Pimple,” officially known as Hill 145, locally referred to as Vimy Ridge, and it cost the lives of 3,500 Canadian soldiers in April 1917. The seven-kilometre-long hump in the otherwise flat land that surrounded it seemed to be impregnable. Three divisions of the German 6th Army had dug themselves in deeply with three layers of trenches, barbed wire and a network of tunnels and natural caves. Its capture was essential if any progress was to be made in the British-led Battle of Arras and the simultaneous French Nivelle Offensive.
The ridge provided a wide natural overview of the surrounding terrain, making it impossible for any Allied advances in the region, without becoming immediately exposed and vulnerable. Near the beginning of World War I, the ridge fell under German control and in 1915, contingents of the French Army attempted to capture it but were repulsed with about 150,000 casualties. In 1916, the British Army relieved the French, but their efforts were equally futile. In October 1916, almost 100,000 men of the Canadian Corps moved into the area. This was the first time that all four of the Canadian divisions were to fight side by side, with Arthur Currie as the Commander of the 1st Division.
Arthur Curry, born in Ontario in 1875, was from an unimpressive background and received only minimal post-high school education. He moved to Victoria at 19 to teach school, first in Sidney and later in Victoria’s Central Boys’ School. While here, he changed the spelling of his name to Currie. His teaching career was by no means stellar and he soon found himself caught up in the frenzy of local business ventures following the Klondike Gold Rush that were the hallmark of Victoria in the early 20th century. But his foray into the world of commerce was a failure and he lost heavily. He had joined the local militia as a gunner when he first arrived in Victoria and it took him six years to make corporal. Then, he was offered a commission that would have enhanced his social position considerably, but he soon discovered that to receive a commission was an expensive proposition. Furthermore, he was engaged to Lucy Chaworth-Musters and the paltry salary of a teacher would by no means achieve his goals. At first, it seemed that the financial world was going to suit him well and he rose to become provincial manager of the National Life Assurance Company. At the same time, he continued to shine in his position as a part-time militia officer, and became a superb marksman and military tactician. He was promoted to captain in 1902 and then to major four years later, at the age of 31. Along with his military promotions were his increasingly risky business ventures and land speculations. In September 1909, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, but four years later, Victoria’s real estate boom collapsed, leaving Currie holding worthless property and heavily in debt.
Facing inevitable bankruptcy and disgrace, he yielded to temptation and misappropriated over $10,000 of military funds to pay his debts. When the war broke out in Europe in 1914, Currie was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general through the influence of powerful political friends and was sent overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His financial indiscretions were unfortunately discovered and reported to Prime Minister Robert Borden. But in view of the impending world conflagration, Borden chose to keep quiet.
The Canadians soon found themselves in the thick of the fighting and Currie quickly saw that the traditional tactics of warfare were ineffective. He was particularly appalled by the catastrophic “over-the-top” method of trench warfare, where wave after wave of soldiers were led out of the trenches and flung right into the face of enemy machine guns. Currie threw away the textbooks and spontaneously developed saner and better ways to deal with the enemy. His methods, though unorthodox for the time, were effective. However, it wasn’t long before Currie found himself out of favour with his colleagues in the other Allied armies for abandoning the traditional methods of warfare they all espoused.
Then came Vimy. The Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch reluctantly had to give Currie credit for his successes where others had failed. Fortunately, the British General Byng, now Currie’s immediate superior, shared Currie’s opinions and both agreed that the secret of success would be in carefully planned tactics. Currie spent countless hours analyzing the situation and then gave a series of lectures to his officers on how the battle could be won. Soldiers began their training immediately along the lines of Currie’s new strategies. It was a wearying procedure, covering every possible angle from unique ways to walk to the laying of water pipes, railway tracks, plank roads and buried telephone lines that could not easily be severed by the enemy.
At 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, all was ready and Currie went into action. Thirty thousand Canadian soldiers climbed out of the trenches into a blinding snowstorm. Three days later, Canadian soldiers stood on the top of Vimy Ridge, having won a resounding victory. In spite of all Currie’s careful planning, there was still a terrible toll paid. Almost 4,000 men lost their lives in those few short days, but it was a far smaller price than had been paid by the abortive attempts of other Allied troops who had tried before. Sadly, it achieved little in the progress of the war because the British and the French contingents on either side of the Canadians, still relying on the old tactics, were driven back.
However, Vimy was an enormous boost to Canadian morale. To honour the man who had been primarily responsible for achieving the first major Allied victory in WWI, King George V knighted Sir Arthur Currie. He also received the highest military awards from both the French and Belgian governments. The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was heard to remark that he wished Currie were the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe because then the war would soon be over.
Currie’s financial indiscretions continued to haunt his conscience for the rest of his life, in spite of the fact that his friends came to his rescue and made good the money he had fraudulently taken. While greatly admired, he was never a warm man, dubbed “old guts and gaiters.” He died at the young age of 58, heralded as “Canada’s greatest general of all time.” To his generation, he was a man who gave Canada a sense of national pride and unity.
MAY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND