Thoughts of a Returned Soldier…

On Friday October 5th, 1917, Major Peregrine Acland delivered an address to the Women’s Canadian Club at Ottawa entitled Thoughts of a Returned Soldier.

The text of Acland’s speech was reprinted at least twice in 1917: once in the Toronto Globe on October 10th, and then again in the December 1917 issue ofThe Rebel, a literary magazine published by the students of the University of Toronto.

An abridged version of the address also appeared in 2009 as part of an appendix to Joel Baetz’s splendid anthology Canadian Poetry from World War I.  Baetz’s book belongs on the shelves of every reader that is interested in Canada’s poetry from the First World War.  It can be purchased from Amazon here.  Below is the complete text taken from The Rebel.

Was it worth while –to plunge into the sulphurous depths of hell and clamber out on the far side of the pit’s rim, for what?  To potter through fifty years of life in the suburbs or to toil for half a century in the slums?  These are the questions that hundreds of thousands of returned men, in all the belligerent countries, are beginning to ask themselves, and which will soon be felt, if not uttered, by millions of the world’s youth, German as well as British, Austrian as well as French.  For they have seen war and have seen that it was terrible, and yet have discovered that the hardships and bitter sufferings of open strife were not so appalling as the monotony and miseries that so frequently beset that life of peace in which the body found safety and the soul too often found death.

Never before perhaps has so large a proportion of the youth of the world taken part in a combat for a cause which they knew to be great.  Fighting was for centuries the privilege and the pleasure of the classes.  It has not become the obligation –and the privilege, too –of the masses.  Picture to yourself those hundreds of thousands of workers in many lands, by many seas, busy at their tends of thousands of occupations, of trade, of business, of science and of art, in which they laboured for their own well-being and advantage, with little thought of the great world –then suddenly plucked away by the claws of Fate and hurled into this vast conflict of the nations.  Think of their astonishment!  Life has suddenly become for them a matter of infinite wonder, whose very terrors have enhanced its beauties.  They are no longer left to their own small purpose, but are suddenly placed under the direction of a great aim to which they must render the utmost service of their ability.  It is rudely demanded of them that they live heroically, venture their all upon a game of Fate, seek death that they may overcome it.  This is as if, having been dwellers on the plain, they suddenly find themselves struggling towards the mountain-tops.

When the war is over, are they to go back to the old, hard, dull, meaningless existence upon the plain?  But, it will be said, we cannot always live upon the mountain-tops of life.  No?  Yet at least we can always live within sight of them.  And this war will be of little use, it will not have been worth the cost in blood and agony, unless mankind remembers that a life that is not dominated and inspired by a great aim and illumined by spiritual grandeur is infinitely worse than death upon the field.

We have discovered, indeed, that safety is not our object in life, nor in this war.  The death of the body is not so fearful as that torpor of purposeless industry which brings the deadening of the soul.  We are told that we are to make the world “safe for democracy”, but unless that democracy is justified by its nobility we shall soon find the bolder spirits standing against it in arms.  If we are merely to make the world safe for the triumph of an unthinking crowd whose sole wish is to pull civilization down to the dead level of a mediocrity petty in its sins and cowardly even in its sensualism, we had better put aside all thought of safety and life out our short lives in hourly companionship with danger.

Democracy must mean something more for us than mere crowd government.  It must mean a conscious striving towards the realization of the dream cities of man, towards

“That state republican
Wherein all men are kings.”

We must not indeed expect perfection, but we must at least demand a determined effort towards it, something very much more fierce and active than a mere wish.  And our object must be to make possible for all men what Aristotle called “the good life” –not a life of meek self-effacement in which healthy desires and sane impulses are checked in their growth by the poisonous weeds of out-worn custom, but that life spiritually, and intellectually and physically full and well-rounded, in which we may bring all our faculties to their highest point of development.

It is not safety, then, but this “good life” that must be our object to be pursued at all hazards of comfort, of ease and of life itself.  “He must live dangerously who would live well”, said the great philosopher who did much to inspire the notable courage of misguided enemy.  It is a sentence which we shall do well to write in our hearts.

Are danger and strife then so splendid, so necessary, to give a background of magnificence to our lives?  Yes, and the greater the danger, the keener the strife, the more superb is the reward.  To fight in a good cause is the best, but to fight well in any cause that seems good is as much as can be expected of man.  To fight is to live.  The real objection to war is that there is so little fighting in it.  Months of weary waiting, long spells of enforced inactivity in which the mind sickens with disgust at a wasted life, followed by as long spells of heart-breaking and back-breaking gigantic labours in the mud and the darkness, then one fiery charge of half an hour, and three-quarters of those who rushed into the melee are out of the combat, crippled or silent, resting on the breast of their earth-mother.

What must we do then, if we would have war shed its splendours over a greater portion of our lives?  Establish it on a limited liabilities basis, go back to some for of fighting involving less sudden wholesale slaughter?  No, we must abolish war entirely on the physical plane as being the most sordid, the most uninteresting, the most expensive, and the least satisfactory of all forms of combat.  We must make the world safe –which is to say we must keep the ring –for that spiritual and intellectual strife which is the noblest of all forms of the gladiatorial struggle.

All life must be our field of battle, a field on which the first, the most difficult and the most constantly to be repeated triumph must be that over our own indifference, slothfulness and cowardice of our friends.  We are not only all sinners, we are all cowards.  But we must put aside that timidity if we would live fully, and must take courage to date to live finely and intensely.  It takes no less degree of valour to assail a social injustice or to challenge an established hypocrisy than to go over the parapet.  And it requires no less coolness of head here than in Flanders to save ourselves from easting time and strength in injudicious attacks at the wrong points, and so to lay our plans that we may be able to strike at the right place at the right moment, and strike hard.

Still, it must be remembered that this intellectual strife, like the physical strife in which the world is now engaged, is only a means to that “good life” of the philosophers and is not “the good life” itself.  That life is growth to power through contemplation of beauty, whether beauty of body, of mind, or of soul.  Beauty should be as natural a property of a city as of a poem, and of a civilization as of a statue.  It is a quality of government as well as of art, of social intercourse as well as of music.  With it, however the joyous highway of our lives may be streaked with the shadows of sorrow; we should breathe at all times an atmosphere of delight.  Without it we are unworthy to enjoy the splendours of the sunrise and the sunset, the grandeur of the mountains and the sea, and show ourselves mere drones set to toil at paving the way for the advent of a more illustrious race.

It is in contemplation of beauty that we realize the fulness of life and demonstrate our right to walk this planet with heads erect as lords of the visible existence.  That contemplation is no mere idleness.  It entails an intense and constant activity to create beauty where it is not, and to fight with and clear away ugliness that we may render beauty visible where it already is.  All our social action, whether political, military, literary, artistic, scientific or economic in its nature, must, to justify it, have this in view –the growth in power and beauty of the soul of man.  Whatever the politicians and economists may say, it is for this end that great wars like this war, are fought, and for this end woulds and death are a small price.


Quoted in full from The Rebel, December, 1917.  Vol. 2  No. 3.  Pages 97-101.  View, and or download this address from the internet archive here.

See the version published in the Toronto Globe in its original context here: newspaper-6.


An Update: I got in touch with Rowena Cooper, Vice President of the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, and she has provided me with the following from her society’s 1917 annual report:

“On October 4th Major Peregrine Acland, M.C. addressed a large gathering of members in the Club building, on “Some Thoughts of a Returned Soldier” dwelling particularly on the spiritual side of the war and the effect produced on the different temperaments of the men by life in the war zone.”.  The meeting was presided over by Lady Foster, and the Polish Relief Committee provided tea.

The Club building was situated at 270 Cooper Street.  The building was lent to the Club by Sir George Perley for the duration of the war.  It was from here that all the clubs war effort was carried out.     During World War 1 members of the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club raised close to $280,000.  At the close of the war there was close to $5,000 left in the club’s war account and the members decided to start a scholarship at Queen’s University in Kingston, for returning war veterans or their descendants, the scholarship is still being awarded today.

The club (founded in 1910), started meeting at the Chateau Laurier just after it opened in 1912,  by 1915, most of the meetings were held there.  We are still meeting at the Chateau and in October 1912, will celebrate 100 years of meeting at that grand hotel.

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