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The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie, by Tim Cook

Fifty metres from the ornate doors that once led into Ottawa's railroad station stands the Valiants Memorial, which honours 14 Canadian military heroes. Were the ghost of Sir Sam Hughes - the militia minister who crisscrossed Canada by rail as he all but single-handedly built the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that fought the First World War - to fly through these doors, it would surely pause at the memorial.

Raised in rural Ontario in the mid-1800s, the spirit would approve of General Sir Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, and might have set aside its anti-French bigotry and nod to Frontenac and de Salaberry.

The poltergeist would, however, bray like a hound of hell when it saw that pride of place had been given to a life-sized statue of General Sir Arthur Currie, the general who led the CEF to its great victories in 1917 and 1918.

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Tim Cook, a curator at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918, Volume Two.

In The Madman and the Butcher, he tells at least two stories that deserve that overused word "epic," Hughes's hatred of Currie was anything but foreordained.

Indeed, despite the fact that Currie was a Liberal, Hughes, a pillar of Ontario's Tories, appointed him to command the CEF's Second Brigade. Currie was friends with Hughes's son, Garnet, but given Hughes's belief in the virtue of citizen-soldiers (as opposed to professional soldiers, "bar-room loafers"), he was likely more influenced by Currie's excellent reputation as a militia gunnery officer.

Hughes protected Currie when he learned that, before the war broke out, Currie had embezzled $10,000 to stabilize his failing real estate business and defended him against the charge of cowardice for his decision at the Second Battle of Ypres (April, 1915) to leave the front and search for reinforcements.

Hughes's hatred of Currie, Cook argues convincingly, was rooted in both the minister's unique mental makeup (to put it politely) and his profound love of the "boys" who answered the call of King and country. At his best, Hughes was a whirlwind of energy, for example, pushing and prodding the Price company to build the Valcartier base in a fortnight and conjuring out of nothing a Canadian armaments industry that ultimately employed 250,000 workers.

Cook notes that the story of Hughes storming into Lord Kitchener's headquarters and thumping his desk in opposition to the plan to sprinkle the Canadians in among British unit never could have happened. But it was nevertheless believed and serves to underline Hughes's Canadian nationalism.

At his worst, Hughes convinced himself that despite its failures at Second Ypres, the Ross Rifle was the finest rifle in the world and that he - and only he - knew how to win the war, even though on the Western Front, trenches, artillery, barbed wire, machine guns and General Mud restricted soldiers' movement rather more than did the conditions on the South African veldt on which Hughes fought in the Boer War.

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More dangerous for Currie was Hughes's belief that Currie had stabbed him in the back by not appointing Garnet to command a brigade. After suffering Hughes's outbursts (and not a few meetings in which his recalcitrant minister's eyes filled with tears), prime minister Robert Borden finally fired him in late 1916.

Equally important (and, Cook shows, personal) for Hughes was his belief that Currie was to blame for the thousands of Sir Sam's "boys" who fell at Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele - and for the 45,000 casualties that bought the great victories in the Hundred Days at the end of the war.

The butcher's bill would have been much higher, Cook shows, had Currie not made use of artillery and innovative infantry tactics - and had he not faced down his superiors, up to and including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, when he felt their demands were profligate with Canadian lives. However, Hughes did not understand this and in March, 1919, stood up in the House of Commons and accused Currie of being a butcher and of ordering the attack on Mons on the morning of the Armistice for his own personal glory.

Hughes's accusations poisoned the well, and Currie's reception home was decidedly cool. By the mid-1920s, Hughes was dead and Currie had morphed into the successful principal of McGill University, despite having not graduated high school. Then, in 1928, an editorial in a Port Hope, Ont., newspaper repeated Hughes's charge and Currie sued for libel.

While the defence cast doubt on Currie's claim that no soldier was killed during the attack on Mons in the hours before the Armistice, neither the newspaper's lawyer nor the author of the article were able to undermine Currie's claim that the CEF was acting in accordance with orders that went out to dozens of divisions on the front. Cook is an emotive writer; during Second Ypres, "exhausted soldiers slept like - and with - the dead."

But, he has a playwright's ear for knowing when to let his subjects speak for themselves. At the trial, Currie responded to the argument that the CEF should have stood down before the Armistice: "[Y]u would have them disobey an order, you would have them be guilty of treason. … Those were not the men who did that sort of thing."

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Nathan M. Greenfield spent days getting his mind around Hughes's and Currie's performance at Second Ypres while writing his book about this battle, Baptism of Fire. His new book, The Damned: The Canadians at Hong Kong and the PoW Experience, 1941-45, is just out.

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