It has been a few weeks of “on-and-off” reading and procrastination since I picked up Hugh M. Urquhart’s Arthur Currie: The Biography of a Great Canadian. While reading, I have selected five significant passages that have intrigued me, personally or through its relevance to Canadian identity.
“[Canadians] might have memories of the Salisbury Plain days when the Canadians were lectured day in and day out by British officers on leave from the battlefield on their lack of discipline, (…) [but] the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, decided that the Canadian Division, instead of being as a matter of routine sent back for further training in the rear area, would take over a sector of their own at a date four days after the Canadians arrived in France” (54).
When Canada entered World War 1, Canada didn’t have a standing army and all it could put together was a hastily put together mess of soldiers and partially trained volunteers from its militias. This is very interesting seeing how Canada today has one of the most professional and disciplined forces in the world. Furthermore, from personal experience in the Cadet organization, I know that Canada takes great pride in its military history and puts a soft military influence on civilian lives through organizations and public holidays. Seeing how all this influence on Canadian identity took place after World War 1, I find it astonishing to find how in the span of a little over a hundred years, being Canadian militarily changed beyond recognition.
At the time of this passage, Canadians, or the Canadian government, didn’t place much value on the military. Canada sending troops in World War 1 was a mere obligation as a dominion of the British Empire; Canada didn’t send its troops to earn recognition through its military. Through happenstance, however, Canada earned recognition among the great powers of Europe and through a series of additional wars, Canada became known externally as a small, but formidable force, a sharp contrast when juxtaposed to its poorly trained militias a mere hundred years ago. Through earning respect and recognition for Canada, the military ingrained itself as an important value in Canadian society and pieced together an arguably small, but significant part of Canadian identity.
“”I desire to state,” he replied, “that in my opinion no Imperial in this division could at present be replaced by a Canadian officer now serving and available without great loss of efficiency. … It is not a question of whether a man is a Canadian or otherwise, it is one of the best man for the job… Sentiment must no sway our better judgement… (118)”
I find it interesting how Currie, a Canadian himself, states that he believes that the British officers of the Canadian division at that time are better suited to the task than any Canadian officer. He goes to the extent that he states that he believes that “no Imperial in [his] divison could (…) be replaced by a Canadian officer” (118). The very reason why Currie and other Canadians are serving in World War 1 is through the result of nationalism; the young Canadian men believe that their shared national identity as a Canadian creates an obligation for them to fight for Britain. Arguably, having a connection to Britain is a core part of being Canadian, but realistically, one expects a person to favor a person of the same national heritage over someone without a shared identity. Currie’s statement defies this by putting a non-Canadian in a post that he could have put a Canadian in. No human being is truly free of judgement or bias, but Currie’s level of impartiality in this passage is rather remarkable.
This action resonates strongly with the values of present-day Canada. While racism and discrimination arguably influences an individual’s ability to get a certain post, Canada, for the most part, is a country where people with ability are placed in their deserving posts, regardless of where they come from. In fact, the Canadian Labour Code “prohibits [employment] discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity and other grounds” (gc, 2018). During the time of Currie, there were Canadians like Currie who were perpetuating this idea of “ability over nationality,” and today, Canada as a whole adopts this idea through its constitution and social policies.
“You probably know as well as I do just what reinforcements we have available in England, and you must also know that they will be all used up in a very short time. If other men are not forthcoming it means that the Canadian Corps as a fighting unit will disappear. It will also mean that Canada will not only have deserted the men here, but will practically have deserted the Empire as well” (189).
Immediately, the passage gives off a “Hobbesian” feel; Currie makes connections between the Empire and Canada, showing how the two are entwined in a quasi-social contract. Currie himself considers himself to be a Canadian, but also considers himself to be a citizen of the British Empire. He takes pride in this and draws nationalistic statements from the fact that he is part of the British Empire, which brings to light the shared national identity of both British and Canadians. Unlike his republican neighbors to the south, Currie and his fellow Canadians seem to abide more by Hobbes’ ideas while the south tends to lean to Locke, favoring independence from the Brutish Empire in order to form a republic.
Canadians during the first World War believed that it was better to have a leader than no leader at all. Without being a dominion under the British Empire, Canada wouldn’t need to send troops and sacrifice lives for Britain, yet Canada’s firm Hobbesian belief led to Canada wanting to be part of the British Empire. Hence, Canada associated itself with the British Empire and its Crown. This perpetuates to this day; the Crown is technically the head of state of Canada and Canada maintains ties with Britain as part of the Commonwealth. While the connection to Britain has become less significant in modern-day Canada, this aspect of Canadian identity remains fundamentally the same as it was in 1915; to be Canadian means to favor protection and leadership from Britain while also maintaining a “Hobbesian” perspective.
“On the other hand, the Canadian Corps at the time Currie took it over was a compact organism, national in character, consisting of a large number of corps troops and four divisions which were not moved out of the Corps. In those circumstances its commander became a national and an international figure” (167).
This quote makes evident the transformation of the Canadian corps from a being a loosely organized coalition of volunteers and militiamen to a full fledged, internationally recognized force. While the entire biography strongly hints at the importance of the Canadian armed forces in representing Canada internationally, this quote summarizes the importance of Canada serving overseas. Canada’s troops not only helped the British turn the tide of war against the Germans in World War 1; they also played a crucial role in representing the country. Even if there was a distinct Canadian identity or characteristic that deserved to be noticed, Europeans wouldn’t notice this. However, they would notice the achievements of the Canadians corps, its commander and how well they fought. This interest earned national recognition for Canada and made the great powers aware that Canada was more than just beavers and maple syrup.
As far back as World War 1, Canada sent troops overseas to restore peace and represent Canada. While our involvement in solving conflicts has progressed from peacekeeping to peacemaking, Canada still plays a role in sending its troops overseas. As of 2001, “39 267 CF personnel have deployed to Afghanistan,” one location of the dozens of locations Canadians are deployed to (gc, 2018). This shows that just like in 1915, Canada is a peacekeeper and uses its military forces to achieve peace, which makes being a peacekeeper a key part of Canadian identity.
“On that date Currie’s headquarters was bombed. Two of the personnel were killed, fifteen wounded, and Currie’s life was saved through the accident that he himself took a message which he had just written to Signals Office. While he was on his way back and within ten yards of his hut it was struck. Currie was covered with the earth thrown up by the bomb, one piece of which grazed his head” (159).
This quote greatly interests me because it points how close Currie once was to dying before his legacy was secured. Currie was literally ten steps away from dying, which would’ve meant that this biography would have never been published and that I never would be typing this sentence you are currently reading right now. This brings to light how lucky Currie is. Despite joining the military at a much later age than his peers, he quickly got promoted and ended up attaining the highest rank possible in the Canadian corps. He also survived World War 1 and led his men through some of the most torrential gunfire in all of the Western front. Similarly, I have been somewhat lucky so far. My recklessness led me into multiple dangerous scenarios, yet I managed to make it to this day without being mauled by a bear or hit by a car on a bicycle.
At a glance, this quote only seems to show the luckiness of Arthur Currie, but it also shows how much Canada was willing to put at stake for the British. Arguably, as a dominion of the British Empire, Canada had the responsibility to send troops to help out Britain in World War 1. However, Canada went beyond what was expected, risking its own national security for the sake of getting more soldiers. For example, during the Conscription Crisis of 1917, Canada caused massive fractures in French and English speaking Canadian communities for the sake of getting conscripts to aid the British. Similarly, Currie and his personnel’s life threatening incidents show how much Canada was willing to sacrifice for Britain. All this shows that Canada valued the connection between Britain and Canada, enough to sacrifice the lives of Canadians. To this day, having this connection to Britain is an important part of Canadian identity, whether this be through our anthems or through our political systems.
Theme: While your efforts might not make your dreams come true, hard work never disappoints you in the end.
Arthur Currie was undeniably a hard-working individual. He went beyond the call of duty to make sure that he could make every operation a success and minimize the loss of life. He inspected guns when it wasn’t his job to do so, carefully evaluated the morale of his divisions, spent hours studying battle maps, and promptly dealt with any inefficiencies with the higher command. When the Ross rifle, a mass manufactured rifle used by the Canadian corps at the time of World War 1, continued to jam up and cause malfunctions in the battlefield, Currie persistently demanded the higher command for better rifles, even stating that it was “not as satisfactory as it should be” to Sam Hughes, the Minister of Military and Defense, someone who could have easily removed Currie from his position (117). There were still people who didn’t agree with Currie’s ideals and enforced their opinions over this. Launching a frontal attack on the German lines wasn’t what Currie wanted, but even with his hard work, he couldn’t dissuade his higher ups from ordering the costly attack which ended with thousands of Canadians dying, all for a failure. However, Currie’s hard work paid off in the end. Thousands of potential lives were saved with Currie’s decision making and assertiveness. His leadership and command during pivotal battles, such as Vimy Ridge, earned respect and recognition for Canada. While his dreams did not come true, his persistence achieved astonishing results. Similar to Currie, I consider myself to be a persistent individual who does a significant amount of work in the background. At this point in life, I’ve realized the limitations of my talent and let go of many ambitious dreams I had as an idealistic youth. Rather than getting depressed over the futility and ambiguity of my future, however, I will abide by this theme and continue to work hard. Even if I never find true meaning, I will continue to go on, believing that one day, my persistence will reward me in a way I never expected it to.