“When the morning of the 9th came, its calmness and mildness gave place to cold, squally showers of rain and sleet which chilled to the bone; and at 5:30 a.m., exactly on time, as the light of dawn was quietly seeping through the storm, the barrage came down. The Battle of Vimy Ridge had begun” (152). Hugh M Urquhart’s Arthur Currie: The Biography of a Great Canadian portrays the struggles and achievements of Arthur Currie. Through Urquhart’s narrative, Sir Arthur Currie reveals that to be Canadian means to favour ability over background and being capable even in the face of adversary.
Arthur Currie was born on December 5, 1875 in Napperton, Ontario. He did well in school and eventually became schoolmaster of a local elementary. His successes would soon end, however. Currie’s health took a turn for the worse when he was hospitalized for multiple weeks. But, he would not give up. After his recovery, he quit his teaching job and pursued a life in the Canadian militia. Opportunities were limited there, but when the Great War broke out, the Canadian military rapidly expanded. Currie was quick to act and rose through the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, eventually becoming commander of the 1st Canadian Division.
Even as commander of a division, Currie found himself constantly fighting against the rigid hierarchy in the Canadian military. When General Hughes, superior of Currie, “pressed for the early return (…) of all British staff officers” in order to “have the Canadian Corps become a national force,” Currie immediately opposed (118). For Currie, whether an officer was British or Canadian did not matter. He wanted his officers to be competent and suited to the post. Furthermore, the Canadian division was at a pivotal point of the war; Currie feared that the dismissal of his British officers would create unnecessary casualties. That day, Currie showed his superiors that background did not matter. As long as one possessed skill, one would be given a post deserving of their ability in the Canadian division.
When the day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, arrived, the French, the British, and even the Canadians themselves were doubtful. The British failed to capture the ridge. The French suffered 150,000 casualties before needing to be relieved. For Canada to capture the ridge was unthinkable. Even Currie himself was fearful, but he knew he couldn’t falter. He kept morale high and ensured his division would have proper artillery support. At the very least, he wanted there to be as little sacrifice as possible. His work was not in vain. When the last shots finally dimmed out, Currie’s division remained standing victorious with few casualties. It was a different story for the British. The “British Battalion to the immediate right of Currie (…) had lost all its officers, except a second lieutenant” (182). When Currie and the Canadian divisions emerged victorious, the European powers saw that Canada was more than a mere part of the British Empire. Canada was seen as a capable, independent force. While not equal in population to the likes of Germany, France, or Britain, the powers saw Canada as an equal in tenacity, a country that would stand tall even when facing a mountain of challenge.
Today, the definition of what it means to be Canadian is a rather vague topic to cover. With a myriad of different ethnicities and thousands of miles of mountains, plains, and tundra separating one province from the other, it seems as it there isn’t one Canadian identity at all. However, through reading Hugh M. Urquhart’s Arthur Currie: The Biography of a Great Canadian, we come to realize that despite our geographic differences, the collective history of our predecessors, such as Arthur Currie, gives us a unique and constantly changing Canadian identity that we and thirty-six million other Canadians can stand behind. Today, tomorrow, and every day onward.