As was the case to be in many Canadian battalions, Lt.-Col. Currie was an M.P. and very much more of a politician than an officer.
He was one of the type of civilian-soldier who is simply worshipped by the poorer element among the ranks, but to serve under whom, for an officer, is sheer misery.
(Lt. Ian Sinclair, 13th Bn. personal diary)
The conduct of John Allister Currie at the second battle of Ypres in late April 1915 was the subject of much controversy and insinuation. According to some of his men in the 15th Battalion, he had fought “like a hero” with rifle and bayonet. However, by most accounts, Currie remained in a dugout well behind the lines, shell shocked and possibly drunk during the German gas attack on his unit at St. Julien.
Born on 25 February 1862 in Nottawa, Ontario, Currie was a journalist, industrialist, militiaman and politician. He worked as a reporter for the Toronto Daily Mail and the Mail and Empire before pursing private business interests in mining and steel industries. He was Conservative MP for Simcoe North (1908—1921) and Ontario MPP for Toronto Seat B (1922—1926) and St. Patrick (1926—1929).
Proud of his Scottish heritage, in 1891, Currie had been one of the founding captains in the 48th Highlanders of Canada. He became the commanding officer of the Toronto-based militia regiment in 1913. After the British Empire declared war on Germany in August 1914, Currie was one of the first to volunteer his services to colleague and friend, Minister of the Militia Sam Hughes.
The 15th Battalion was virtually destroyed at Second Ypres with eight hundred killed, wounded or captured. At roll call, Currie was devastated to find less than two hundred of his men remained. Following the dugout incident, he was sacked and relieved to England. The mother of one of his men, who had been captured by the Germans, reported “The Colonel seems to have had a terrible shock, and is almost cast down because he got no wounds.” Currie recuperated in the Scottish countryside until he was sent home in summer 1915.
Unaware of the controversy surrounding his dismissal, the people of Toronto welcomed Currie home as a war hero. Mayor Tommy Church alluded to the allegations of “armchair critics” but hailed Currie as “a man among men.” The colonel retook his seat in the House of Commons and quickly published a memoir about his war experience, The Red Watch. Sir Sam Hughes came to his friend’s defence, arguing that the Currie connected to the dugout story was actually Arthur Currie, a charge that provoked a strong rebuke from the famed Canadian general.
The dugout story re-emerged during the 1928 libel trial of General Currie against the Port Hope Evening Guide. The newspaper’s defence lawyers called Colonel Currie as a character witness. Still resentful years later, Currie hoped to use the court appearance to restore his tarnished reputation. When the judge reminded Currie that he was not the one on trial, the disgraced colonel responded, “I’ve been tried for thirteen years.”
The judge found the blustering colonel in contempt and ordered his removal from the courtroom. Over a year later, Currie was defeated for re-nomination in his provincial riding. Continuing to believe himself unfairly convicted in the court of public opinion, he retired from public life shortly before his death on 28 June 1931 in Miami, Florida.
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