BC's Fighting General Gets New Look

Posted by Daniel on Oct 27, 2010

A new book this fall by historian Tim Cook focusses on one of BC's, indeed one of Canada's, leading fighting generals, Arthur Currie (shown above, centre, at Vimy Ridge in 1917; NAC photo PA2004).

The Madman and the Butcher (Allen Lane Canada) juxtaposes the careers of Sam Hughes -- he's the madman -- and Currie -- he's the so-called butcher. The two men were famous enemies during and after World War One and their enmity culminated in 1928 in one of the most famous court cases in Canadian history.

To make a highly entertaining story short, the erratic Hughes, who served as minister of militia until Prime Minister Borden had to sack him in the middle of the war, developed an intense dislike for Currie, the pear-shaped realtor from Victoria who by war's end had risen to command the Canadian Corps. Most people credited Currie with being a brilliant battlefield strategist, but not Hughes, who was a bad person to get on the wrong side of.

Before his death in 1921, the increasingly unstable Hughes publicly and repeatedly accused Currie of being responsible for the needless deaths of many soldiers. It was an astonishing campaign of slander, made even more shameful in Cook's telling by the reluctance of the prime minister or any other government official to come to Currie's defence.

One person who did rebut Hughes's claims was his fellow BCer, Cyrus Peck, Member of Parliament from Prince Rupert and a Victoria Cross winner during the war. Peck rose in the House of Commons and denounced Hughes's "campaign of infamy". But it did no good. The rumours about Currie continued to swirl until finally, in 1928, he sued a small-town Ontario newspaper for printing an article that repeated them. Currie won and finally buried the slurs against him.

The Madman and the Butcher contains lots of good material about the battlefield; we know from his earlier books that Cook is an excellent military historian. But it is mainly interesting as a study of war by other means, "the war of reputations" that went on after the fighting had stopped.