The high cost of winning: How the First World War changed the way Canadians view conflict

One hundred years ago, Canadians helped to win a world war - and struggled for years afterward to reconcile that victory with the terrible price they paid for it.

Was the victory worth the cost? Is it ever? A century later, we're still debating these questions.

Lt-.Gen. Arthur Currie in July, 1917. His decision to capture the Belgian town of Mons on the eve of the Armistice that ended the Great War started a fraught debate in Canada that never really ended. (Canada. Dept. of National Defenc)

It was, by all accounts, an extraordinary scene — one that stunned the usually raucous House of Commons into an uncomfortable, frozen silence.

It was March 3, 1919. Sam Hughes, the country's former minister of militia and defence, rose to deliver a caustic condemnation of Canada's top battlefield commander, who only months earlier had led his troops to victory over Germany.

The focus of his tirade was the decision by Lt-.Gen. Arthur Currie to order the capture on Mons, Belgium, on the eve of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice.

As Currie was being fêted internationally for the victory, Hughes insisted that the general should have been court-martialed instead for "needlessly sacrificing the lives of Canadian soldiers."

It was an eye-popping performance, even for a politician as volatile — and as discredited — as Hughes was at the time. (Hughes entered Prime Minister Robert Borden's cabinet as defence minister in 1911. His poor organizational skills, fondness for patronage and stubborn defence of the failure-prone Ross rifle led to his dismissal from cabinet in late 1916.)

"You cannot find one Canadian soldier returning from France who will not curse the name of the officer who ordered that attack on Mons," said Hughes, who had carried a personal grudge against Currie since the general refused to accept the MP's son as a division commander.

Gen. Sam Hughes, right, and fellow officers looking over ruins in Arras, France, in August 1916. (Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

After the speech, no one on either side of the aisle stood up to defend Currie. "Hughes's allegations," historian Tim Cook told CBC News, "hung like a pall over Parliament."

Many of Canada's First World War 100th anniversary celebrations this year were focused on Mons, the former Belgian coal-mining city Canadian troops captured on the morning of the ceasefire.

The bitter personal and political legacies of that final battle and those that preceded it have largely disappeared into the mists of history, their significance lost on most Canadians.

There was a perception abroad at the time — both at home and among the troops still overseas — that in the battle for Mons and during the last 100 days of the war, Canadian soldiers had been pushed beyond all reasonable limits.

Between early August and the end of the war in November, over 45,000 Canadian soldiers died, were wounded or went missing.

"His own soldiers in those final battles and after the Armistice of November 11th questioned the cost, as did Canadians at home," said Cook. His book The Madman and the Butcher is a dual biography of Currie and Hughes that explores the controversy among Canadians at the time over the heavy price in blood and tears the country paid for its part in the victory of 1918.

That controversy has haunted Canadians through every war since. During the recent war in Afghanistan, political and military leaders bemoaned what they saw as the morale-sapping media focus on the repatriation of fallen soldiers.

"I think the challenge then, and ever since, has been — how do you measure victory on the battlefield?" Cook said.

Currie may been the visible symbol to which Canadians attached their grief, disillusionment and anger following the Great War, but the burden of balancing lives against mission goals weighs on today's commanders as well.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance at the UN base in Gao, Mali, where he arrived with Canadian troops on June 24, 2018. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's current chief of the defence staff, was a combat commander in Kandahar, responsible for ordering young men and women into missions that sometimes took their lives.

Vance told CBC News that, if he could have a conversation with Currie today, he'd probably ask him how he worked out what commanders today call "the value proposition" — whether the objective is worth the cost in blood.

"'How did it feel, general, to achieve those objectives, but [in one instance] it took 9,000 lives to do it?'" Vance said. "It would be a private question — 'How did you deal with that?'"

Currie returned to Canada from Europe in August 1919. Cook's research shows that he received no hero's welcome; virtually no dignitaries greeted him when he stepped off the boat in Halifax. When it came time for Parliament's formal welcome, Prime Minister Robert Borden was out of town. Women in the public gallery reportedly hissed when Lt-.Gen. Currie's name was mentioned.

His family felt the pain and it echoed down the generations.

Currie's great-granddaughter, Catherine Moore, was born decades after he died, but the stories lived on through her great-grandmother and mother.

Like Vance, Moore said she would like to know how her great-grandfather coped with the burdens the war left behind.

"I would probably just want to have a long chat and really try to understand what it was like for him to be in those battles, to make those tough calls and decisions and how he felt about those losses," she told CBC News.

Eight years after Hughes launched his public attack, a small newspaper, The Evening Guide in Port Hope, Ont., printed an editorial accusing Currie of wasting lives at Mons.

The remarks made by Hughes were covered by Parliamentary privilege; the editorial wasn't. The former general sued the newspaper and the resulting libel trial became front-page news across the country throughout 1927.

Currie's wartime decisions, conduct and reputation were dredged up. Cook said many aspects of the war were put on trial.

"I suppose it was fair to ask the questions," said Vance. "It's easy to sit and judge what went on then. The country was tired. The country lost nearly a generation of young men and women."

Currie's fate, Vance said, shows how the political and public expectations surrounding the conduct of the war in 1918 were scarcely different from those prevailing today.

Canadian soldiers carry the flag-draped casket of Master-Cpl. Francis Roy up the ramp of a C-17 transport plane at Kandahar Airfield early Tuesday morning, June 28, 2011. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

"Taking casualties is part of the business. You don't want to take any casualties but sometimes you end up having to do it," he said.

"This is the challenge whenever [you're] trying to achieve political objectives with military force. There needs to be a very honest dialogue between all levels responsible for the committal of troops, so it's clearly understood what's at stake and what you are risking."

Currie ended up winning his libel case and was awarded a settlement of just $500 by the judge. His reputation was affirmed, but his health was ruined. He suffered a stroke in 1928 and died in 1933.

"Sir Arthur Currie is our finest battlefield general, in my opinion," said Cook, the country's leading Great War historian and author.

"I think Sir Arthur Currie has been largely forgotten by Canadians. He is in our history books and you can find him if you want to, but he isn't a household name. Some have said that if he was an American general or a British general he would be known worldwide, as Patton is, as Montgomery is."

As Canadians look back during these anniversary celebrations, Cook said, they tend to focus on the symbols of sacrifice — the poppies, the John McCrae poem In Flanders Fields — without recognizing how the experience itself changed Canada.

"The First World War is not just a nation-building event. It almost tore the country apart."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.