05 June 2008

Book review of Humphries' The Selected Papers of Sir Arthur Currie

My latest book review is of Mark Osborne Humphries (ed.), The Selected Papers of Sir Arthur Currie: Diaries, Letters, and Report to the Ministry, 1917-1933 (Waterloo, Ontario: LCMSDS Press of Wilfrid Laurier University, 2008). Thanks to Mark for sending me a review copy.

Everyone reading this review should know who Sir Arthur Currie was, although I’m not sure how well known his name is outside of Canada. Currie was, of course, the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps during the First World War and, arguably, the best general this country has ever produced. Despite his accomplishments, and three book-length biographies, there still seems to be so much unknown about Currie, his character, his personality, and his life.

Enter Mark Osborne Humphries who, in this work, takes a different route, editing a large amount of documentation produced by Currie so that several aspects of his career can be presented. As Humphries writes:
Currie’s papers present a portrait of a complex individual, constantly changing and evolving. They provide insight not only into the inner workings of the Canadian Corps, but also the evolution of Canadian society and the memory of the Great War. Sir Arthur Currie emerges from his letters and diaries as a flawed personality and a sound battlefield commander. This is his story in his own words.
Humphries begins his introduction by writing that this “is not a biography of Sir Arthur William Currie”, the documents being presented with the intention of providing “a window into one of the most tumultuous periods in Canadian history and the life of one of Canada’s most important historical figures.” After discussing some of the historiography – popular and academic – about Currie, the author moves on to present a concise, yet very informative, biography of Currie.

Following the introduction, the remainder of the book is divided into three main parts: diary entries and correspondence from 1917 through 1919; the Interim Report on the Operations of the Canadian Corps during the Year 1918; and, finally, correspondence and personal papers from 1919 to 1933. Aside from the Interim Report – which was published – the documentation presented is taken from three archives: Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian War Museum, and the archives of McGill University. The material mostly originated in the Currie fonds of these institutions, however, the papers of some other notable Canadians were also researched, particularly those of Sir Robert Borden. Humphries is quite up front in admitting that there is very little of a strictly personal, or family nature to be found in the documentation presented. Any personal correspondence between Currie and his wife has not survived and there appears to be little else of a personal nature about Currie surviving in Canadian archives.

Approximately half of the documents presented in this volume are found in the first part – diary entries and correspondence for the period 1917 to 1919. My first thought was that it’s such a shame that this part begins only with May 1917, meaning most of Currie’s time as a brigade and divisional commander is simply not there. Humphries explained the gap earlier in the book, noting that Currie’s personal diary for 1915 and 1916 “is little more than a record of appointments and meetings”. Most of his correspondence for the early years has also not survived, and those letters still extant “offer little insight into the life of the brigade commander.”

That initial disappointment out of the way, the text begins with the category of “Corps Commander, May – December 1917” and provides some very interesting material. Diary entries detailing Currie’s activities and opinions of developments are interspersed with correspondence, typically Currie’s responses to letters received from individuals back home in Canada. A secret message from Sir George Perley, Canada’s overseas minister, to Prime Minister Borden in June 1917 details some of the deliberations going into the choice of the successor to General Byng as Canadian Corps commander. Although they touch on operational aspects of the Corps’ activities, Currie’s own words are already often directed at defending the Corps’ reputation and praising the “fighting qualities” of the Canadian soldier. Humphries also incorporates italicized contextual paragraphs in between some of the documentation so as to provide the bigger picture not specifically discussed.

The next section, “Corps Commander, 1918”, provides more of the same. Of particular note is Currie’s report to Sir Edward Kemp, Canada’s overseas minister, in February 1918 proposing that the divisions of the Canadian Corps not be reorganized as the British army was then undertaking. Currie’s defence of the current Canadian structure is well-defined, well-argued, and insightful as to his understanding of what it was that had allowed the corps to reach the state of efficiency it then enjoyed. Humphries also reprints Currie’s “Special Order” of 27 March 1918 continuing to urge the officers and men of the corps onward as an example of Currie’s inability to really connect with the troops. Despite his devotion to the members of the Canadian Corps – shown, for example, in a letter to Borden on 28 June where he pleads for Borden to spend more time with the troops – Currie simply never had the magnetism that would permit him to be loved by his men. The documents Humphries presents in this section appear to show Currie becoming more comfortable with his position and less concerned about detractors in England or Canada through most of the year. Currie was also clearly becoming more and more interested in protecting and promoting the reputation of the Canadian Corps as a fighting force, for example, railing against the “Canada in Flanders” series of books in a letter in October 1918. Not surprisingly, as the year ends much of his attention is increasingly focused on the repatriation of the Canadians overseas. The last few weeks of documentation also mark the reappearance of Currie’s struggle with his detractors, a fight which would not be “won” for another decade.

Repatriation and the reputation of the Canadian Corps and Currie remain at the core of the final section, “Corps Commander, January – August 1919”, the material here continuing to reveal Currie’s intention to win both of these battles. Increasingly, Currie sees every negative comment on the Canadian Corps as an attack against it and against himself, a belief that perhaps even reached the level of paranoia.

The second part of this book contains the Interim Report on the Operations of the Canadian Corps in the Year 1918, a document submitted to the Minister, Overseas Military Force of Canada, in 1919. Humphries writes that it was a “narrative account of the final year of the war. It is laudatory, but is demonstrative of Currie’s deep admiration for the men fighting under him.” I would also suggest that, in addition, it might have been an attempt by Currie to sustain or protect his reputation as the Corps commander. Humphries seems to agree, noting that Currie also “seemed to hope that the achievements of the Corps would protect him from revelations about the 1914 theft. With this in mind, Currie’s Report to the Ministry is a telling document, a study as much in the psychology of the Corps’ commander as it is a historical account of military operations.” Humphries does explain the document’s place in history and how such an attempt by Currie to explain the triumphs of the Canadian Corps wasn’t successful.

As history, the inclusion of the Interim Report is interesting but, not surprisingly, much of it has been overtaken by later research on the operations of the Canadian Corps. As psychology, which is likely a more important reason to include it in this book (as Humphries alludes to above), it is definitely revealing about Currie’s intent to trumpet the accomplishments of the corps. However, I’m not sure that it adds much to the overall book. The history is outdated and the psychology could be summed up in a few paragraphs – as Humphries did in his narrative. It’s quite possible that my opinion is tainted in that I was already familiar with the Interim Report in its full published version (with all of the mass of appendices attached), but I have no way of knowing how many other readers of Humphries’ book will also have had the opportunity to see the report before this.

The third part of this book returns to the format of the first, this time turning to correspondence and personal papers from 1919 to 1933. Within the section “Inspector General of Militia, August 1919 – April 1920”, Currie continues his struggle to maintain the reputation and memory of the Canadian Corps and also provides some interesting insight into the post-First World War struggle to integrate the Canadian Expeditionary Force units returned from overseas into the Militia units that never left Canada.

Protecting the Corps’ accomplishments from apathy and his own reputation from attack continues in the next section, “Principal of McGill University, April 1920 – November 1933”. It was early during these years that Currie seems to have been able to finally relax, to escape Ottawa, and to move ahead with his post-war life. Topics of discussion in the documents presented range from his work and circumstances to the reconstruction of the former battlefield areas of Europe to the fate of friends and colleagues he served with during the war. Increasingly, he also takes on the role of advocate for Canadian veterans in the face of what he feels is inadequate government support. Meanwhile, some of these documents discuss his disillusionment over politics, some context regarding the Port Hope libel trial, and his protests against the drafts of the British official history of the war.

My only complaint about this section is its length. Despite covering fourteen years, it’s less than half as long as the 1917 to 1919 documentation, which is somewhat disappointing. I do not believe, however, that this is in any way Humphries’ fault. The fact that 1919 to 1933 are peacetime years, as opposed to the wartime years of 1917 to 1919 (and the massive amount of document production that entailed), the fact that Currie did not keep a post-war diary, and the lack of personal correspondence doesn’t give the editor in this case much to work with.

In the end, there were a few typographical mistakes and misspellings in this volume that might have been caught in the penultimate draft, but certainly not enough that they truly detract from the overall benefits of the book.

All in all, I found this to be a fascinating work. Despite three biographies and several articles, I think there's still so much about Sir Arthur Currie we don't know. This book goes a long way toward adding more to the picture of the man - both positive and negative. Like the Canadian Corps he commanded, Currie was complicated, and Mark Osborne Humphries has provided further insight into the intricacies of his character and accomplishments.

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