Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Currie Libel Trial

General Sir Arthur Currie (Front Left) at Mons After the Liberation

[In early] November 1918, when word came in that the 42nd battalion was going to take Mons, there was a lot of grumbling from the soldiers.

“The war’s over tomorrow and everybody knows it,” Tom Mills objected. “What kind of rot is this?”

Canadian attempts to prod the edge of the city on 10 November “met spirited reminders that the enemy was still there,” G.W.L. Nicholson writes in Canada’s official history.

At the outskirts of the city, Mills and some of his friends in the 42nd Battalion rushed into a brick building for shelter. Then a shell burst nearby—Mills had been hit.

“I saw he had a fearful wound on his stomach," Will Bird writes in his memoir, Ghosts Have Warm Hands. “He died as we looked at him.” Mills’s brother was there, wild with anguish.

“He says he’s going to shoot whoever arranged to have his brother killed for nothing,” one of the soldiers told Bird. “He’s hoping (Sir Arthur) Currie comes here today. If he doesn’t, he’s going to shoot the next higher-up. He says his brother was murdered.”

The Germans had occupied Mons since 1914, when the British Forces fought their first battle of the war, before retreating toward the Marne. It was a symbolic place for the Canadians to end the war, and part of the continued advance east.

In the final days of the war, as rumors of an armistice swirled, Currie ordered the capture of the city through “an encircling approach,” Tim Cook writes in Shock Troops.

“No senior officers questioned Currie’s orders at the time, although a decade after the war the corps commander would be forced to defend his reputation in a nasty, slanderous libel case.”

After the Canadians crossed into Belgium on 7 November, and in fighting up to 10 November, there had been 645 casualties “in just the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions,” Cook writes, noting that on 11 November, at least 14 Canadians were killed, 70 wounded, and two missing in the 3rd Division, which included the two groups advancing into the city: the 42nd Battalion and the Royal Canadian Regiment.

In 1919, in the House of Commons, the bombastic Sir Sam Hughes, former minister of militia, implied that Currie should have been court-martialed for Mons, Robert Sharpe writes in The Last Day, the Last Hour: The Currie Libel Trial.

“You cannot find one Canadian soldier returning from France who will not curse the name of the officer who ordered the attack on Mons,” Hughes said in March 1919, protected by parliamentary privilege.

“It had no strategic value, and the attack was only a bit of bravado as the Canadians had already passed it.”

Currie, who was principal of McGill University after the war, had been “deeply hurt” by attacks like this, Sharpe writes.

In 1927, when a memorial plaque honoring the Canadian liberation was unveiled in Mons, the Port Hope (Ont.) Evening Guide published “an editorial charging ‘deliberate and useless waste of human life’ in the capture of the town,” 

Currie had wanted vindication and now had a chance. Currie was a forthright man, not the sort that could imagine his bathing habits would be a national discussion, as transcripts from Sharpe’s book show:

“Did you finish your bath?” Frank Regan, lawyer for the publisher, asked Currie about the morning of 11 November.

“I don’t know; I don’t know that. I probably did finish it.”

“The mere fact that the war was going to stop didn’t interfere with your ablutions?”

The 1928 trial captivated Canada. Soldiers and generals testified for both sides over the number of bodies—whose identity was disputed—seen on the road into Mons, what their orders had been, the timing of the battle.

“Don’t you think, Sir Arthur, that in the dying hours of the war you might have spared your men a trifle more than you did?” Regan asked.

“No you are the man that is suggesting that those men who did that should lie down and quit within two days of the final victory,” Currie replied.

William Thomas Rochester Preston, the author of the editorial, represented himself.

He asked if Currie had heard the rumors of unrest in Canada over the taking of Mons, the talk from Hughes.

“Even severe as Sir Sam Hughes was, he did not go so far as you did Mr. Preston . . . He did not say that I did it for my own glorification: you did. He did not say that my soldiers were there with their rifles ready to shoot me down: you did.”

Currie found the trial humiliating. It was his final battle of the war, and he confided to a friend that he suffered a “complete nervous breakdown,” Sharpe writes.

Currie told the court that he had ordered not an attack on Mons but an advance, under orders to continually pursue the Germans.

Before the trial was over, Currie received a supportive telegram from the father of George Price, the last Canadian killed in the war—and the only Canadian referenced as an 11 November death at the trial. James Paice wrote that “.  . . all this simply renews old wounds that are better forgotten.”

The jury found in favor of Currie but  awarded only him $500, not the $50,000 he had sought.

“At the trial responsible and informed testimony established that the attack on Mons was both justifiable and necessary,” Nicholson writes in Canada’s official history.

“It was further shown that General Currie had given explicit orders that there should be no large-scale attack and that as far as possible. . . casualties and losses were to be avoided.”

Arthur Currie's Funeral Procession, Toronto

Currie was greeted with cheers in the streets of Port Hope. As he thanked everyone at a hotel, “tears streamed down his cheeks and he seemed hardly able to speak,” Sharpe writes. “He was acknowledged as a great general,” says Cook, who is among those who believes Currie was one of Canada’s best generals.  The trial restored Currie’s reputation, and his funeral on 3 December 1933 was one of the largest in Canadian history.

In a tunnel at Mons city hall, a bronze plaque commemorating the Canadian liberation is near a monkey statue said to bring luck to those who rub its head with their left hand.

Source: Star and Sun, Toronto


  1. " near a monkey statue..." What has that got to do with the otherwise excellent piece?

  2. A fascinating story. What a career Currie had.

  3. I understand there were similar complaints about Pershing. The Germans were incredulous that the Americans were attacking on the morning of 11/11, but had to return fire anyway in defense.

  4. Excellent article. Wars usually continue up to the moment of surrender/armistice, usually not in a desultory manner, either. Germany’s army was still intact and there is a respectable school of thought that if Ludendorff hadn’t panicked, the war could have continued, so constant pressure brought as speedier collapse.