Sir Sam Hughes and Sir Arthur Currie, lifted out of obscurity by the First World War, occupy very different places in the pantheon of great Canadians. Hughes – the abrasive, unstable Minister of Militia and Defence from 1911 until his dismissal in 1916 – is remembered as a caricature of the louche early 20th-century political brawler. Currie, a mediocre real estate speculator and part-time soldier who rose to command the Canadian Corps in France and Belgium, is remembered as one of the most effective generals of the war and a national hero.
But their reputations were not always thus. We have forgotten Hughes’s enormous contribution early in the war, driving a bewildered nation toward a war footing and fighting to keep Canadian troops from being parcelled out to the British. We have also forgotten that Currie embezzled regimental funds to cover a debt, never connected with his soldiers, and was accused by Hughes and others of wantonly squandering the lives of 60,000 Canadians on the road to victory.
Tim Cook, best known for his acclaimed First World War histories At the Sharp End and Shock Troops, reminds us of these facts in The Madman and the Butcher, a double biography that takes a close look at Hughes and Currie, and the evolution of their legacies.
The book is engagingly written, and for those inclined to the arcana of Canadian history, it will shed light on the making of reputations following the war. For those inclined to biography, the book provides sufficient detail about the two men to warrant reading, despite the existence of more complete biographies, such as Ronald Haycock’s Sam Hughes (1986) and A.M.J. Hyatt’s General Sir Arthur Currie (1987). In any case, Cook has done a masterful job of setting the historical context and peeling back 90 years of anachronistic or erroneous judgments.
Although perhaps outside the purview of the historian, it is a shame that Cook did not also look forward in time. As we approach the conclusion of the first round of Canada’s 21st-century wars, what do the stories of Hughes and Currie suggest about reputations currently in the making?