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 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 nclimactic 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.
“He was acknowledged as a great general,” says Cook, who is among those who believes Currie was one of Canada’s best generals.
“But still there lingered the worry about the cost. The cost of victory. And indeed, how do we measure such things? How do you talk about if the casualties are too high when there are 12,000 at Amiens for a victory?”
Last Day, Last Hour runs Thursday through Sunday in Cobourg until Nov. 11.