Skip to content

From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

A Battle for Reputation

The story of two Canadian military giants in fearsome personal combat

James C. Baillie

The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie

Tim Cook

Allen Lane Canada

472 pages, hardcover

In Canada at the start of World War One, there was almost no discussion of who should be given responsibility for the direction of the war effort. Sam Hughes, minister of militia and defence, rushed in and took charge. He banished Canada’s only professional troops to garrison duty in Bermuda, scrapped the mobilization plan that had been carefully developed by the permanent force and dispatched messages to more than 200 militia commanders across the country (most of whom he knew personally) asking that they recruit troops on an urgent basis and dispatch them for training to Valcartier, Quebec—at that time virtually open countryside, with no facilities to receive an influx of troops.

One of the three brigadiers chosen by Hughes to take charge of the troops at Valcartier was a militia colonel from Victoria, Arthur Currie. Hughes’s son Garnet was Currie’s second-in-command at Victoria. Currie was 38 years old, tall and strong but overweight and ungainly. He had never previously commanded in excess of 400 troops—and indeed had commanded troops only for brief training periods. His career had been in real estate and insurance, where he had recently encountered serious financial difficulties. Hughes was aware of the difficulties; it is not clear whether he was then aware that Currie dealt with them by embezzling some $10,000 from regimental funds.

These and the myriad other decisions taken by Hughes quickly and independently could have backfired, but cumulatively were remarkably successful. More than 30,000 recruits soon appeared and, by an extraordinary feat of construction, facilities were ready at Valcartier to receive them. Currie proved to be a capable and forceful military leader. After an inauspicious start at the Somme and the second battle at Ypres, he established his reputation at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Soon after, he was given command of the Canadian Corps and went on to lead the Corps in the stunning series of victories referred to as the Hundred Days that preceded the November armistice. All this had enormous cost in lives: some 60,000 dead and 170,000 wounded, including 45,000 killed and wounded during those 100 days.

Much of Tim Cook’s The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie is based on Cook’s immensely researched two-volume work on the history of the Canadian Corps during World War One, reviewed in the November 2009 issue of the Literary Review of Canada. In these former volumes, the Hughes-Currie relationship forms an important but subsidiary part of a far wider story, while in this retelling the relationship becomes the central focus. The book’s title, which reflects the clash between Currie (the butcher) and Hughes (the madman), highlights shock effect over accuracy. The two men had important similarities of outlook, including an ability to combine allegiance to the British Empire with a strong belief in Canadian identity and a desire to have that identity clearly recognized and accepted within the empire. Of the two, Currie had the less complex personality. He might have had a moderately successful business career had the war not occurred. He himself recognized that he was not brilliant as a military man, but compensated for this perceived shortcoming with a penchant for meticulous preparation. His talents did not go unnoticed.

Sam Hughes’s wartime record was far less consistent. Cook makes a serious effort to explain the contradictory elements of Hughes’s larger-than-life personality. Although endowed with extraordinary energy, Hughes was regarded by many, even political allies, as ludicrously vain and unhinged. Such traits had been visible as early as 1911, when he was the last Cabinet minister to be appointed to Robert Borden’s government, but as the war wore on they became ever more noticeable. “On matters which touch his insane egotism he is quite unbalanced,” Borden himself noted. “On all other matters able and sometimes brilliant.”

Hughes’s inspirational recruiting efforts comprised his greatest contribution to the war effort. But on virtually all other fronts he was a disaster. He alienated many and had no concept of delegation. He supported the ill-fated Canadian-made Ross rifle even after it was clear that the troops hated it. He initiated a Canadian munitions industry that grew extraordinarily during the war, but responsibility for it had to be taken away from him because of ill-considered interference. He indulged constantly in patronage, which although typical of the times was carried by him to egregious extremes. And he was not above nepotism. When the commander of a Canadian Corps division was killed in 1916, Hughes sent a cable to Corps headquarters: “Give Garnet [Hughes’s son] 3rd Division—Sam.” It was actions such as this that turned Currie, among many others, against him.

Both Currie and Hughes frequently played the Canadian card, demanding special consideration in light of Canada’s status as the British Empire’s senior dominion. But they played that card to different ends. Currie wished to maintain the Canadian Corps as a cohesive and effective unit, lobbying to influence military appointments, but always insisting on merit. At one point he refused to have the Corps put under a British general for whom he lacked respect, and did not quarrel with Field Marshal Haig’s comment that this might be regarded as mutiny. Above all, he pushed back against constant pressure from the British for rapid action and overly bold strategy, while resisting strategic initiatives that depended on in-depth assaults on entrenched enemy forces that risked moving infantry beyond the protection of the artillery. Instead, he preferred what he called a “bite and hold” strategy. The British frequently resented his use of the Canadian card, but respected him for it. Passchendaele illustrated the nature of his influence. His opposition to the strategy was unsuccessful, but his influence over the tactics was probably the major factor in the victory, although at appalling cost in lives.

Hughes employed the Canadian card to interfere with military appointments in London and in the field. The War Office in London did not resist these initiatives as much as it should have: Cook reports that the British were bullied by Hughes and mystified by the political dynamics in Canada. By November 1916 Borden’s patience with Hughes had run out. Hughes was dismissed from Cabinet, although he remained in Parliament. The demotion caused Hughes’s paranoia, which had always lurked not very far beneath the surface, to come to the fore. He launched attacks in all directions, but particularly, and increasingly, at Currie.

In Hughes’s retelling of the Hundred Days campaign, Currie had deliberately sacrificed the lives of his own men. On March 4, 1919, sheltered from action for defamation, Hughes stood in the House of Commons and delivered a vicious diatribe against Currie. He focused on the taking of the small village of Mons on the very last day of the war, characterizing it as a waste of troops, for which Currie should be “tried summarily by court martial and punished so far as the law would allow.” During all of this, Currie remained remarkably silent. Defences against Hughes’s accusations were mounted by some of his former subordinates, but Borden’s ministers did not defend him. 

Cook explains why Hughes’s criticisms fell on some receptive ears. Currie’s relationships with his fellow officers had always been close, but he had never succeeded in establishing a rapport with the rank and file. For many veterans, Currie’s seeming aloofness was a sign of class-based snobbery, as well as showing a lack of concern for the lives of ordinary soldiers. While other countries made much of their military commanders in the war’s aftermath, with votes of thanks and monetary recognition, Currie received neither. But despite the lack of official accolades, he was soon made principal of McGill University. Exhibiting the same penchant for organization he had shown during wartime, he was a success, particularly in fundraising and in establishing good relationships with faculty and students. 

Sam Hughes died in 1921, railing against Currie almost to the end. With his voice extinguished it seemed as though the attacks on Currie’s reputation might be over. However, six years later a small newspaper in Ontario’s Port Hope, with a circulation of hardly above 1,000, published an editorial written by a “political muckraker” (Cook’s apt description) and self-styled populist advocate named William Preston. This piece repeated many of Hughes’s allegations against Currie, in particular the waste of life he was alleged to have caused on the war’s last day in Mons. 

Ignoring the advice of many of his own supporters, Currie sued. This was a major decision. In a defamation action such as this, the defendants had to establish the truth of their allegations. They failed, but only after a highly publicized trial that ended with the jury awarding Currie just $500 in damages—far less than the $50,000 he had claimed. An extraordinary assemblage of senior military officers went to Cobourg for the trial, and Currie successfully withstood withering cross-examinations. In spite of that, it was a traumatic experience and provides a textbook example of why responsible lawyers generally advise their clients against suits for defamation. The Madman and the Butcher contains a riveting account of this trial, with a perspective that is broadly sympathetic to Currie’s case. In this, Cook’s differs slightly from the much more detailed version of the trial found in The Last Day, the Last Hour: The Currie Libel Trial, Robert J. Sharpe’s recently republished 1988 book, which provides an excellent and balanced account with both sides of the case. 

Cook argues from available evidence that Currie’s trial opponents were well aware of his embezzlement at the war’s start, and were intent on hinting to Currie and his legal team exactly what they knew. He had long before repaid the amount involved by borrowing from two of his junior officers, but that did not excuse the fact of the embezzlement. Luckily for Currie, the details of this potential scandal were not made public. But Currie was constantly concerned that the incident would come out in response to the questions pursued, particularly by Preston. That it did not may have been due to some fortunate rulings by the trial judge. 

Our courts are currently evolving an expansion of the available defences in a defamation trial so as to give greater latitude to responsible journalists. This is probably a worthwhile objective, but I hope what emerges will not accommodate irresponsible muckrakers such as Preston. 

With the Currie libel trial serving as its climax, The Madman and the Butcher relates the story of how the World War One experience established Canadians’ self-image as an independent nation. But Cook’s tale also exemplifies how personal ambitions and rivalries can take precedence over national interests, even in time of crisis. The book would have benefited from diagrams, maps and an index—all of which enhance Cook’s excellent two-volume Canadian Corps history. But this is a minor cavil. Overall, Tim Cook has made yet another substantial contribution to Canadian military literature. One can confidently hope that we will see many further volumes of this quality from him. 

James C. Baillie is a business lawyer, a director of Canada’s National History Society and a member of the Senate of the 48th Highlanders of Canada.

Advertisement

Advertisement