Lost Films: “Private Peat” (1918)

On this day back in 1918, day two of the Second Battle of the Somme was raging.  Albert, France was recaptured by the British.

Poppy banner

This is a tale that begins in the strangest and most humble of locations–a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill store. Wait, let me be more specific–it was a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill outlet store. (Yes, that is a thing. You can buy clothes by the pound!)

That bin was where my brother (who runs across the darnedest things in that store) scrounged up a copy of a very old, dark green book: Private Peat, written by Harold R. Peat and published in 1917. While a little worn on the ends of the spine, it was in otherwise great shape, the yellowed pages clean and with a little crispness in them yet.


He showed it to me when I dropped by for a visit, and after reading a few paragraphs I was intrigued. Harold Reginald Peat was a Canadian who had been a private in WWI, and Private Peat was his detailed account of his wartime experiences and his thoughts on the war itself. The writing was engaging, witty and had plenty of little details about serving “over there” that only an actual soldier could know. So I just had to borrow it, and just had to read it from cover to cover.

After doing a little research I discovered Private Peat was not only a very popular book in its day, but it was also made into a movie with the same name–starring Peat himself! (Only in the silent era, folks.) While it’s sadly lost, thankfully some stills and info still remain.

Harold R Peat

Praised by reviewers as “one of the few real human documents of the war” and “a direct, good-humored, fighting man’s story,” Private Peat made bestseller lists in 1918 and 1919. Small in stature with a quick, contagious smile, Harold Reginald Peat had been born in Jamaica and later emigrated to Canada with his family. He enlisted ten days after the war began, after hearing his seventeen-year-old neighbor had just joined up: “…I thought if he could tackle it, there was no reason why I shouldn’t.”

Image result for private peat

He was overseas fighting in the trenches for two years before being hit by an explosive bullet at Ypres, which destroyed his right lung and damaged his right shoulder. Determined to keep helping the war effort, his wrote his popular memoir and then embarked on a nation-wide lecture tour, telling his story with unpretentious passion in sold-out auditoriums from Tennessee to Minnesota to Kansas. Reports like this one from the Minneapolis Star Tribune show how well these lectures were received: “Private Peat, with Billy Sunday antics, a boyish enthusiasm and pep, and plenty of pithy subject material, last night drove an audience of 2,500 persons in the Auditorium into frenzied outbursts of applause…”

Private Peat will lecture Star Trib Apr 7 '18 - Private Peat Will Lecture Here at Auditorium...

Star Tribune, April 7, 1918

Peat’s memoir, written with the assistance of his wife Louisa Watson Small, is both engaging and absorbing. He jokes quite a bit about the impression his rusty battalion of fellow Canadians made when they arrived overseas: “Never in [the British officials’] lives had they seen soldiers like us. They had been used to the fine, well-disciplined, good-looking English Tommy. Of course I will admit that we were good-looking all right, but as far as discipline was concerned, we did not even know it by name.” He gives plenty of details of life in the service, such as the difficulty of mastering puttees–“It was sure funny the way some of the boys looked when they first put them on, for many of them got the lower part of the leg much bigger than the upper part”–and his recollections of the generous, if monotonous, rations: “The bully beef…is quite good. But you can get too much of a good thing once too often. So sometimes we eat it, and sometimes we use the unopened tins as bricks and line the trenches with them. Good solid bricks, too!”

F188-21 Harold R. Peat DR

Image courtesy of Kay Schackleton of Silent Hollywood

While he has plenty of good humor, Peat doesn’t shy away from the grimness of the war, writing about the constant hails of shellfire and the hair-raising experiences on the battlefields. “A man dies by gas in horrible torment. He turns perfectly black…Black as black leather, eyes, even lips, teeth, nails”…”The light shells sweep close overhead as they go by our trench. We have to hug the sides close; sometimes the vacuum is so great that it will carry off a cap; if we are not careful it may suck up a head or lift us completely off our feet.”

Interestingly, he claims to have seen young Belgian women who had hands cut off by the Germans, and claims that three Canadian sergeants were crucified with bayonets the night of April 22, 1914. Those types of stories had been circulating like wildfire in the newspapers at the time, and made for powerful–and usually fabricated–anti-Hun propaganda. The “crucifixion” stories seem to have been strongly believed by the Canadian regiments, although today there’s no hard evidence they actually occurred. All of which makes Peat’s inclusion of such stories mighty interesting.

F188-18 Harold R. Peat DR

Image courtesy of Kay Schackleton of Silent Hollywood

Peat also recalls some inspiring moments of heroism. When he had been wounded, it was during a dangerous dash to bring much-needed ammunition back to the Canadian trench. After he fell, a fellow soldier stopped to turn Peat’s body towards the trench so he could figure out how to struggle back to safety if he fainted from the wound:

“You’re in the right direction–don’t turn round!”

Then the lad got up to go on. He struggled to lift the box of ammunition.

I whispered to him hoarsely: “You’re not going on–you will never get there. It is certain death.”

“Good-bye, old boy,” was his answer. “You don’t think because the rest of you have gone down that I am going to be a piker. Say ‘Hello!’ to Mother for me should you see her before I do.”

I have never seen his mother. I do not know her. If she lives she has the memory of a son who, though a boy in years, was a soldier and a very gallant gentleman. Bob tried to reach the trench, but a rain of bullets got him and he fell dead only a little way from me.

In September 1918 Private Peat was turned into a feature film by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. It was directed by Edward Jose at their Fort Lee studio. They decided that no one other than Peat himself would have the lead role And thus, the spirited young soldier donned the heavy pancake makeup of a screen star (time spent lecturing in front of huge crowds must’ve helped prepare him for the movie camera).

F188-10 Harold R. Peat DR

Image courtesy of Kay Schackleton of Silent Hollywood

One key detail from the book was changed: the onscreen Peat was changed from a Canadian soldier to an American one. Moving Picture World approvingly noted: “Thus the production is pro-American, as well as anti-Hun propaganda, and so skillfully have scenarioist Charles Wittaker and Director Edward Jose woven together the incidents of New England life, the training camp experiences, and the battle moments, that the production is said to breathe the American spirit in every scene and every line.”

Peat ad mov pic world Oct 19 '18

Moving Picture World, Oct. 19, 1918.

It seems to have followed the basic outline of Private Peat’s war experience, although the film–for propaganda purposes–show him being inspired to enlist after suffering a bad dream about German atrocities. Much of the running time apparently focused on his time in the training camp, serving as a staged documentary of sorts of how recruits were trained.

In the end, as Peat recovers from his war injuries in the hospital, he’s visited by his sweetheart, a schoolteacher (another bit of artistic license). Peat’s real-life love story is quite a bit more interesting: writer Louisa Smalls put an ad in the paper asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of her cousin Peter, reported missing in action. Peat kindly replied to the ad with his thoughts on what likely happened (Peter probably passed away in a bombed-out trench). Louisa came to visit him, they became penpals, and their friendship eventually turned into a romance. (This story was included as the final chapter of Private Peat.)

F188-1 Harold R. Peat & Miriam Fouche DR

Image courtesy of Kay Schackleton of Silent Hollywood

The film had decent publicity, but was somewhat tepidly received. Exhibitor’s Herald stated: “‘Private Peat,’ as a patriotic recitation, will doubtless appeal to many picture theater patrons, although it contains no great novelty or suspense. It suffers by comparison with the many excellent war pictures already produced.” Moving Picture World said: “Private Peat’s personality is charming, and he is a good actor besides, but this and the screen illustrations of his personal adventures serve principally as fine publicity for his book. It is not drama.” On the other hand, Motion Picture Magazine enthused: “Little Private Peat’s performance is unusually effective, while Director Jose has made a spectacular feature which is genuine propaganda.”

From the 1918 Paramount Artcraft Specials pressbook.

Harold and Louisa married in 1916. They would have three children and spend much time touring together and giving lectures. They became increasingly dedicated to promoting peace–Peat’s second book The Inexcusable Lie, published in 1923, critiques the glorification of war. Peat then ran a Speakers Bureau in New York for a number of years, working with high-profile clients (Winston Churchill and H.G. Wells were said to be among them, although I can’t find out any specific information about that), and he also contributed articles to newspapers and magazines. Louisa passed away in 1953, and Harold in 1960. They had apparently divorced in the 1930s, and Harold remarried around 1950.

While it would be great if Private Peat wasn’t a lost film, I’m grateful that the book still survives today. As I read it, knowing that WWI was still raging at the exact moments those letters were printed on the paper, and as I started to poke into the history behind the book, combing through forgotten stories in old newspapers and magazines, one thing sunk in for sure: it’s astonishing how much history there is to uncover in our everyday lives, waiting for us even in places as humble as a thrift store bargain bin.

Many thanks to my brother Paul for lending me Private Peat! (And for finding it in the first place.) Many thanks also to Kay Shackleton for lending me the beatiful–and rare–stills of the film from her website, SilentHollywood.com.

I’m happy to say that the book is available for free on Project Gutenberg, and can be read here.




15 thoughts on “Lost Films: “Private Peat” (1918)

  1. Fascinating. Don’t you just love it when you randomly come across something, and how that then leads you on a research journey. I’m going to have a look and see if I can find a copy of this book. Such a shame the film no longer exists.

    • There seem to be plenty of copies of the book floating around on eBay and Abebooks, happily! And yes, those research rabbit holes are absolutely a big part of why I have this blog. 🙂

  2. Darn how I despise the Americanization of Canadian valour! (Which continues today in films such as “Argo”). I had the honour of befriending a WW1 Canadian aviator who was larger than your Peat … but at age 17 I could barely fit into his woollen uniform! These Canadian men may have been small in stature, but they were large in spirit!

    • Heck yes! I got to see the Canadian war memorial on the battlegrounds in Flanders…quite impressive. Someday, I’d like to see the other memorials in northern France.

  3. Wonderful piece of history, While reading your piece I was almost feeling guilty I hadn’t heard of the Canadian story and then you hit me with a hammer by telling us that a piece of Canadian history was changed to a U.S. story for the movies. Yup, I’m a Canadian. Great find! Thanks for sharing and doing the research.

  4. This was absolutely fascinating to read! You know what? I’ll bet the book is better! Ha! But look at all the stills and information you were able to uncover, all from this Goodwill purchase!!! I’m sorry Goodwill Outlet!!!

    Funny that they would change his nationality (i’m shaking my head and laughing as I type that sentence!) And “interesting” is definitely the word to use when describing his anti-hun stories.

    Interesting is also the operative word to describe this blogpost; in fact, this entire blog!

    Ok, on to the next post, about Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin. I have to admit, I’m pretty excited to read that one; I think I’m actually going to get lunch first to prolong the excitement! Heaven (today) is a sandwich, and a Silentology article about Doug, Chaplin and the world’s sweetheart! (another Canadian!)

    • Thank heavens Paul decided to go to the Goodwill outlet that day. 😀 Oh yes, all the old newspaper articles from Peat’s lecture tours could’ve made this article twice as long, easily. A church he spoke at here in MN is still around–a beautiful old building with wooden beams and detailing inside. You can really picture a WWI soldier giving a talk in front of enraptured crowd there.

      So glad you’re enjoying all the articles, my friend! 🙂

  5. Pingback: It’s Silent-ology’s FIFTH Anniversary!! | Silent-ology

  6. Dear Lea S. – I only just today came across your wonderful article and accompanying images about my late father’s book and film version of “Private Peat”. I was born long after my father’s time in WW1 (actually from his third and final marriage that happened in 1948..), and although I’m acquainted with much of his legacy, still even to this day there are details that people supply which I never knew about. Your amazing collection of movie posters were examples of this, I’ve never seen any of them as far as I can recall. Some few details I can in return supply which you were unsure of regarding his lecture bureau clients would be that yes, indeed he had clients for certain as you mention, but aside from Winston Churchill these also included: Orson Welles, Thomas Mann, Lillian Hellman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Heinz Roehmheld, and I expect there are some I don’t know of myself. Above all, I have to say this: thank you for the kindest truest and most moving thing I have read about him on the centenary of the end of WWI. With huge huge gratitude always – Hal W. Peat

    • Thank you so much for your kind message, Hal! When I wrote this, I never thought “Private Peat’s” son would one day comment on it! I feel honored. 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Not only did your father have a fascinating life, but his story provided a unique window into WWI society. It’s amazing how optimistic many people were–or at least tried to be–even in the face of great tragedies. It doesn’t seem to have been out of naivete, either. Something was different in the air, back then.

      Thanks for enlightening us on your father’s speaking career, as well. Very interesting! I definitely saw a lot of articles about his WWI speaking tour, he must’ve been an extraordinary speaker.

      Thanks again for stopping by, this made my day!

      • Hello again Lea, and thanks once more for your kind and insightful thoughts – I think you put your finger on something that people often overlook in discussing the WWI period and aftermath, which was the optimism. I forgot to mention in my previous post, and which might interest you in light of the fact that you thought the film “Private Peat” might be lost for all time, that in fact there is at least one copy in existence, at my late half-sister’s home. I’ve never seen it projected, but it’s contained on several large spools and in large tin containers. I have no idea of what condition it might be in after so many decades, but I have a plan in mind with one of my nephews to get it transposed (if that’s the right word) onto a state-of-art and digital format of some kind. Other than that, it’s been suggested to me elsewhere that a copy might have been submitted to the copyright office by my father or the studio back in the day, but I wonder if that was even the procedure for securing film rights during those times. So, another question mark there. But, again I’d like to emphasize how impressed I am by your amazing scholarship and research into the long-ago and often forgotten period and figures, specially in pointing out his other book “The Inexcusable Lie”. Of course I have a copy of that along with some of “Private Peat”. – Hal W. Peat

        • Oh my goodness, this is fabulous news!! It’d be wonderful if some experts could take a look at the reels and see what shape they’re in. Fingers crossed it can be restored–it would be a fascinating film to have available again!

          Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, too. I’m in contact with quite a few film preservationists, historians, and even silent film accompanists who would be interested in this kind of project.

          Thanks again for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s