The week of 18 March 1918 was, for the 8th Battalion, The Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment, one of the most eventful and important of the First World War. Stationed near the Somme-Aisne departmental border in western France, as they had been for most of the war, the Queens had spent the previous weeks rotating between the trenches and training behind the front line. On 18 March they left their reserve position in the village of Vendelles and relieved the 1st Royal Fusiliers at the brigade front, in and just to the south of the village of Le Verguier. It was here the battalion found themselves in the early hours of 21 March, at the opening of the German Spring Offensive.
The following days and their resulting scenes of confusion, tragedy, and valor are some of the best-documented in the battalion’s history. Pages of the 8th Battalion War Diary – a normally concise document, listing just a few sentences per day – are devoted to descriptions of the events, with pages more of related appendices following. The Regimental History likewise devotes lengthy and detailed explanation to the third week of March 1918, so much so that it almost seems that the anonymous author has centered the entire document around the events at Le Verguier. The defense of the village features prominently in the manuscript collections of members of the 8th Queens, from Medical Officer Captain CJ Lodge Patch to Privates EG Nurse and DO Lee. In letters, diary entries, and memoirs written years and even decades later, these men describe their experiences with striking vividity and conviction.
Despite this breadth of documentation, the profound chaos of those few days in late March, the sheer speed and intensity of their events, presents a challenge to the historian. Our team has returned to France to piece together as complete a picture as possible of this defining moment of the war for Peirs and his men. While some historical facts remain necessarily unknown to us, we can say with certainty that the 8th Queens fought valiantly to defend the village. They held their position for hours longer than had been expected by the opposing German forces. Their actions delayed the advance, and while they were ultimately forced to retreat with heavy losses, the defense was seen as a success.
The 8th Battalion as a whole was commended, and several members earned individual honors. “For most conspicuous bravery, determination and ability… when holding for two hours, in face of incessant attacks, the flank of a small isolated post,” Lance Corporal John William Sayer was recognized with the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the highest order. The defense of this small village in western France became a turning point, a symbol, and a focus of remembrance for the battalion. The same soldiers who had suffered a brutal initiation into the war at Loos and found a cautious confidence at Passchendaele now retreated from Le Verguier not victorious, but nevertheless vindicated.
Jack Peirs was not in Le Verguier at dawn on 21 March 1918. Sick with a septic foot, he had been ordered out of the front line by Lodge Patch, the Medical Officer, and remained six kilometers away with the transport lines in Bernes. Upon receiving word of the opening of the offensive that morning, he departed to join his men, arriving at battalion headquarters late that afternoon. Peirs was seriously tested over the next few days, making the difficult decisions first to order the burning of battalion records, lest they fall into enemy hands, and later to call for a retreat from the village the battalion had sacrificed so much to protect. For his actions at Le Verguier, he was recognized with a second bar to his Distinguished Service Order, and upon his death twenty-five years later, he was remembered as “Peirs of Le Verguier” in a tribute penned by Captain Lodge Patch. Peirs’s leadership, judgments, and actions during those few hours in late March proved that he, like the rest of his men, had come into his own over the course of the First World War.