The Last Day, the Last Hour: The Currie Libel Trial – Osgoode Society Best Seller

At the most recent Osgoode Society book launch, Roy McMurtry encouraged those present to review the full array of back list titles published by the Society that were on display. Included among them was an earlier book by Robert J. Sharpe – The Last Day, The Last Hour: The Currie Libel Trial. Originally published by The Carswell Company Limited in 1988, it was subsequently republished in paperback for the Osgoode Society by the University of Toronto Press.

I recently stumbled across an early review of the Osgoode Society best seller that appeared in the July/August 1989 issue of CLIC’s Legal Materials Letter, a long defunct publication, that was for more than a decade the only independant survey of new publications on Canadian legal topics. The review was written by William Crawford, the Editor at the time.

In the belief that readers will find the book is just as interesting as it was when it was first published, I have selected a few paragraphs from the review that may provide an understanding of what the book has to offer. In the words of Crawford,

This book is an account of the 1928 libel trial which pitted Sir Arthur Currie, then principal of McGill University and in 1918 the Commander of the Canadian Corps, against W.T.R. Preston, editor of the Port Hope Evening Guide, and its owner /publisher, Frederick W. Wilson. The libel arose from a front page, unsigned editorial published in the Evening Guide in June of 1927. The editorial claimed that the Canadian commander had made a push to capture Mons on the last day and at the last hour of the war to have the glory of avenging the British loss of the town in 1914. It called this push one of the most deliberate and useless wastes of human life in the whole of the war.

In making these charges Preston and Wilson were repeating rumours among veterans and charges made by Sir Sam Hughes, a Currie foe, in the privileged forum of Parliament.Currie saw the libel action as the only way to clear his name after the incident, so he sued.

William Crawford continues with his assessment of what the author attempted and what the author achieved in writing the book.

The trial is a great trial, and the cast of characters really is wonderful, and the delight is that so much of what they say is drawn from the trial transcript, Hansard, letters and diaries, so that we really do have the participants” word on it.

For while this book is a carefully footnoted work of admirable scholarship, it is also organized to climax as dramatically as the trial climaxed, with Preston’s belligerent examination of Currie on the witness stand. This chapter is constructed largely from the deftly edited transcript of the court record. Sharpe’s method is to set the stage and then stand back and let the characters confront each other again across the gulf of time.

To paraphrase Crawford’s conclusion, this book is a dramatic account of a great Canadian trial, written almost as if it were fiction, with a wonderful cast of characters, by an author with a passion for his subject.

My suggestion, if you haven’t already done so, is to check it out. The Last Day, The Last Hour is a good read and a valuable contribution to Canada’s legal, political and military history. You will like it.

N.B. The author of this post was Executive Editor at Carswell at the time the book was originally published.

Comments

  1. For anyone interested in another take on the Currie Libel Trial, check out The Madman and the Butcher by Tim Cook, the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. The book was recently published by Allen Lane Canada, a Penguin imprint, and publisher of provocative, groundbreaking books in history and current affairs. According to John S. Kennedy, the Edmonton lawyer who drew the book to my attention, The Madman and The Butcher takes the biographies of Sam Hughes and Arthur Currie “much further back than the trial, and goes through the history of both characters during the war. Extremely interesting, and provides much very useful background which helps understand the trial that much better”.

    The Allen Lane website had this to say about the book –

    Based on newly uncovered sources, The Madman and the Butcher is a powerful double biography of Sam Hughes and Arthur Currie and the story of one of the most shocking and highly publicized libel trials in Canadian history. Sir Arthur Currie achieved international fame as Canadian Corps commander during the Great War. He was recognized as a brilliant general, morally brave, and with a keen eye for solving the challenges of trench warfare. But wars were not won without lives lost. Who was to blame for Canada’s 60,000 dead? Sir Sam Hughes, Canada’s war minister during the first two and a half years of the conflict, was erratic, outspoken, and regarded by many as insane. Yet he was an expert on the war. He attacked Currie’s reputation in the war’s aftermath, accusing him of being a butcher, a callous murderer of his own men. Set against the backdrop of Canadians fighting in the Great War, this engaging narrative explores questions of Canada’s role in the war, the need to place blame for the terrible blood loss, the nation’s discomfort with heroes, and the very public war of reputations that raged on after the guns fell silent.