In Jonathan Vance’s brilliant study of Canada’s reaction to the First World War, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War much is made in Chapter 6: Safeguarding the Past, about the negative reactions to the realistic portrayals of war in novels like Peregrine Acland’s All Else is Folly. One of the more outspoken critics of the realistic war novels emerging in the late 20’s was Cy Peck.
Cyrus Wesley Peck was the commanding officer of the 16th Canadian Scottish during the Somme, was awarded a DSO and bar, a Victoria Cross, and was elected as an Member of Parliament in the 1917 federal election. He is the only Member of Parliament in the English speaking world to be awarded a VC while serving as an MP. After losing his seat in the 1921 election, in 1924 Peck ran and won as a Conservative candidate in the British Columbia provincial election. He won re-election in 1928 but was defeated in 1933.
Writing of the negative reaction in Canada to novels such as All Else is Folly, Vance states:
“[a] vicious condemnation was launched by Cy Peck in the pages of The Brazier, the newsletter of the 16th Battalion Association. In an all-out offensive, Peck condemned books by ‘ten minute warriors’ who appear to have had a short and very superficial knowledge of the front; their work was all shot through with an undercurrent of ‘filth, demagogery (sic), morbidity and hopelessness’ and said nothing about the sterling qualities exhibited by the troops in France. He dismissed virtually every work that is now recognized as a classic of the Great War. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was a libellous slander for including a scene in which an officer had to be driven into action at gunpoint. By describing trysts with prostitutes in All Else is Folly, Peregrine Acland had put himself ‘on a level with the filth-purveyors of other nations.’ Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, which claimed that Canadian troops occasionally murdered prisoners, was ‘the product of an unstable and degenerate mind.’ All Quiet on the Western Front was worse still. (Vance, pp.190-91).
Peck really blasts Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed a few pages later. On first reading Vance’s account of Peck’s war literature review in the December 1930 issue of The Brazier, I was stuck by how tame his criticism of Acland is compared to the other authors cited. I assumed that politics played some role. Peregrine Acland’s father, F.A. Acland was deputy Minister of Labour during the war, was a former editor of the Toronto Globe (and while there hired a cub reporter by the name of W.L. Mackenzie King) and was appointed King’s Printer in 1921. Slandering Acland fils would be unwise, particularly with Acland pere’s connections, especially for a sitting MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly –the Provincial equivalent of a Member of Parliament).
What’s more, Peck was a Conservative member of Parliament in 1917; the Prime Minister was the Conservative Robert Borden. Bordon offered a dust-jacket blurb for All Else is Folly that McClelland and Stewart used in their Canadian promotional campaign:
My assumption was that Peck was relatively restrained in his condemnation of All Else is Folly out of an awareness of both Acland’s political connections, as well as having a certain respect for Borden’s opinion, or at least not wanting to challenge Borden on so trivial a matter.
Rooting through the archives of the Daily News, however, leads me to believe that Cy Peck and Peregrine Acland almost certainly knew each other.
Peck’s wikipedia entry suggests that he worked in a salmon cannery in Prince Rupert. He did. What the entry doesn’t state is that Peck was one of the partners that owned the cannery, and that as one of the original inhabitants of Prince Rupert, he was considered one of the town’s founders, along with Charles Melville Hays. Peck’s comings and goings were announced in the Daily News regularly, and as one of the town’s more prominent citizens (even before his military and political careers) it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest the two knew each other. Furthermore, Peck played a critical role in the fire department in Prince Rupert, and was lauded in the newspaper for it, while Acland was mentioned with some regularity in both the Toronto Globe and the Prince Rupert Daily News throughout the war. It seems likely to me that the two men knew each other –probably not well, but perhaps well enough for Peck to temper his appraisal of All Else is Folly. Peck doesn’t claim Acland is a “filth-purveyor” after all, merely that he’s on their level. And surely Acland’s Military Cross, not to mention the serious scars from wounds inflicted on the Somme, (both of which are on display in the author photograph and write-up on the dust-jacket of the first Canadian edition of All Else is Folly) offer Acland’s bona fides as more than one of Peck’s ‘ten minute warriors’.