First World War on trial

Sen­sa­tional court bat­tle over Sir Arthur Cur­rie’s ac­tions recre­ated in orig­i­nal court­room


OT­TAWA — It was known at the time as the Third Bat­tle of Mons, a bat­tle that played out not on the bloody fields of Europe but in a court­room in the quaint On­tario town of Cobourg nearly a decade af­ter the First World War had of­fi­cially ended.

On the sur­face, the bat­tle was a li­bel trial af­ter Canada’s top gen­eral from the war sued the lo­cal news­pa­per for an ed­i­to­rial that had ac­cused Sir Arthur Cur­rie of send­ing Cana­dian sol­diers to their deaths at the end of the war for his own glory.

But the show­down raised big­ger ques­tions: What is the right cost for vic­tory? How many lives are too many? And how does hind­sight af­fect how a coun­try comes to terms with the ter­ri­ble price of war?

Now, in the very same place the trial was held more than 90 years ago, those ques­tions have resur­faced. The drama that held Cana­di­ans in thrall ago has been re­vived in a mov­ing play en­ti­tled Last Day, Last Hour — staged in the orig­i­nal court­room.

“This trial es­sen­tially ended up riv­et­ing the coun­try,” says Toronto au­thor and play­wright Hugh Brew­ster, who wrote the play. “It put the war on trial. It was head­line news ev­ery day for the full two and a half weeks in May 1928.

“In Canada, this trial be­came a sort of light­ning rod for re­sis­tance to the war and what was it about and was it worth the sac­ri­fice.”

The story be­gan in 1927 when the Port Hope Evening Guide pub­lished an ed­i­to­rial ac­cus­ing Cur­rie of or­der­ing an at­tack on the Bel­gian city of Mons de­spite know­ing an armistice had been signed and was about to come into ef­fect on Nov. 11, 1918.

Mons was the site of the Cur­rie Bri­tish mil­i­tary’s first de­feat of the war in 1914, and had been oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans through­out the con­flict.

The ed­i­to­rial put on pa­per the un­sub­stan­ti­ated grum­blings that had swirled in some cor­ners about Cur­rie be­ing a butcher who threw his men’s lives away.

A for­mer real es­tate agent who com­manded the Cana­dian Corps at the end of the war, Cur­rie later re­tired into ob­scu­rity as head of McGill Uni­ver­sity in Mon­treal.

He was clearly trou­bled by the ru­mours — and that his coun­try had largely ig­nored his con­tri­bu­tions to the war, un­like his con­tem­po­raries in the U.S., Aus­tralia and Europe.

Cur­rie de­cided to sue for $50,000 to clear his name and, in the process, was forced to ex­plain his de­ci­sions dur­ing those fi­nal days of the war while he and the rest of the coun­try re­lived the ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence with the gift — or curse — of hind­sight.

“This was not an en­emy that was giv­ing up,” Cur­rie ex­plains at one point dur­ing Last Day, Last Hour, which Brew­ster wrote af­ter he read a book about the gen­eral by Cana­dian War Mu­seum his­to­rian Tim Cook.

In­deed, one of the key ques­tions in the trial was whether Cur­rie should have had his troops — who had al­ready suf­fered 45,000 ca­su­al­ties in the pre­vi­ous 100 days lead­ing up to the end of the war — stop ad­vanc­ing ear­lier than he did.

But it is re­peat­edly noted that ru­mours of an armistice had cir­cu­lated nu­mer­ous times be­fore Nov. 11, 1918, and that Cur­rie had no choice but to fol­low or­ders when his Bri­tish com­man­der or­dered Mons taken.

Brew­ster says the idea of turn­ing the trial into a play emerged when he read about a cli­mac­tic scene be­tween Cur­rie and the Evening Guide’s lawyer Frank Re­gan. The re­tired gen­eral ac­cuses Re­gan of want­ing the Cana­di­ans to have quit be­fore the war was over.

“You would have them dis­obey an or­der,” Cur­rie thun­ders at Re­gan, his ex­act words once again re­ver­ber­at­ing through the clas­si­cal court­room on the first floor of Cobourg’s mag­nif­i­cent Vic­to­ria Hall.

“You would have them be guilty of trea­son, dis­re­gard the in­struc­tions of the com­man­der in chief, dis­re­gard the in­struc­tion of Mar­shal Foch, and act in an un­sol­dierly way, right at the very last. Those were not the men who did that sort of thing.”

Yet even as it charts Cur­rie’s fight to clear his name, the play brings home the cost to the av­er­age sol­diers in a pow­er­ful scene where a dis­abled vet­eran talks about how his wounds ru­ined his life and he wants an­swers to why it all hap­pened.

“Our only pur­pose,” ex­plains Re­gan in his clos­ing ar­gu­ments, “was to give jus­tice to these dead sol­diers.”

“Of course too many men were killed,” agrees Cur­rie’s lawyer in his own clos­ing ar­gu­ments, “but what would he have done?”

The jury, which heard that only one Cana­dian ac­tu­ally died tak­ing Mons on Nov. 11, 1918, ended up rul­ing against the news­pa­per. But it awarded Cur­rie only $500, while the trial took a toll on his health and he died five years later.

It none­the­less restored Cur­rie’s rep­u­ta­tion, and his fu­neral was one of the largest in Cana­dian his­tory.

Last Day, Last Hour runs Thurs­day through Sun­day in Cobourg un­til Nov. 11.


Ian Speiran as Sir Arthur Cur­rie on the stand in Last Day Last Hour, Canada’s Great War on Trial per­formed in the Vic­to­ria Hall Court­house, where the orig­i­nal post-war trial took place, in Cobourg, Ont. The play chron­i­cles Cur­rie’s law­suit against a Cobourg pa­per that ac­cused him of send­ing Cana­dian sol­diers to die for his own glory.

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