On this date, 104 years ago, Jack Peirs and the 8th Queen’s attacked German positions near the French village of Guillemont, as a part of the battle of the Somme. Our interactive map tells the story of the engagement, and this introduction to the map to explains its purpose and the decisions made in its creation.
I had a pretty general conception of combat on the Western front before I started working for the Jack Peirs project. I envisioned massive frontal attacks launched for no appreciable results. However, digitally mapping the 8th Queen’s August 21st attack on Guillemont, during the battle of the Somme, has helped correct my misinformed view. I found in the attack on Guillemont, an event of challenging complexity and multiplying confusion, but with the help of a rich source base and digital mapping tools, I recovered and realized a narrative of dogged triumph, and I attempted to capture it using the digital tools available to me. I believe that the August 21st action is characteristic of the British experience on the Somme, and this map is my attempt to describe this battle within a battle, and the decisions I made in order to represent it spatially.
Longtime followers of the project will notice that Jack Peirs is conspicuously absent in much of the map. This is because Jack wrote almost nothing about the attack. Jack dismissed the event as a “small show” and told his family to disregard the formal notification of his wounding,
I got hit by a bit of a shell the other day on my right forearm, but it only bruised my arm & I didn’t notice it 5 minutes afterwards. However I may appear in the list as a wounded hero, so don’t worry if you see my name. I don’t know why they are going to put it in but it looks well.
Jack’s laconic reserve forced me to expand my source base. Luckily, there was no shortage of material. There is a wealth of sources produced by the 8th Queen’s, 72nd Brigade, and the 24th Division related to the attack on Guillemont, including maps, reports, war diaries, and unit histories. My work was also supplemented by the writings of some notable literary figures from the Western Front. The 8th attacked alongside the 1st Royal Fusiliers, and their battalion medical officer, Lord Moran, discussed the action in particular in his classic The Anatomy of Courage. Ralph Hamilton, otherwise known as The Master of Belhaven, wrote about the August 21st attack from the perspective of an artillery officer directing the bombardment that supported it. Frederic Manning, serving with the 7th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, vividly described fighting near the Guillemont Railway station in his novel, Her Privates We, and Ernst Junger entered the German lines the 8th had attacked a week afterwards, and wrote characteristically evocative descriptions of the landscape in The Storm of Steel. I have tried to incorporate all of these voices into the map to create the most complete narrative of the battle as possible; I wanted to tell the story of the battle not as Jack in particular experienced it, but more as it was felt, seen, heard, and executed by as many of the participants as possible, while remaining coherent.
The August 21st attack on Guillemont is a small story in the greater narrative of the battle of the Somme, one of the most famous in military history. The battle was opened on July 1st, 1916, when the French and British Armies attacked German positions along a 5-mile frontage anchored on the Somme river in Northwestern France. The British Army suffered an unprecedented 57,000 casualties in one day alone, with some battalions losing 80% of their number in a few hours. Usually, this is where stories about the Somme end. But battle continued along the Somme for four more months. The British Army attacked in smaller or larger portions nearly every day, eroding German manpower, positions, and will to resist, culminating in the abandonment of their defensive positions and retreat to the Hindenburg Line in the spring of 1917. The August 21st attack on Guillemont was a part of that attritional battle, one of the hundreds of difficult, nuanced, and complex actions that have fallen from popular view. Despite its obscurity, it was no marginal experience to the men involved, and I have endeavored the present it as they experienced it. Surveying the scale of the battle of the Somme it is easy to lose the soldier’s experience in geographic facts, casualty statistics, and famous figures. But the battle was fought for four months by individual battalions and companies, like the 8th Queen’s, 1st Royal Fusiliers, and 3rd Rifle Brigade, in small actions, like Guillemont on August 21st. I had no higher ambition than their story when I made this map, and I hope I have offered it.