We have few letters from Jack Peirs DSO over the winter of 1917. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t writing home, but instead simply that few of his letters have survived. The letters we do have indicate a sense of fatigue, despite reporting home that he was ‘quite in clover’. The battalion worked in wet trenches near Hulluch (France) and spent most of their days keeping warm, occasionally being shelled by German mortars, and repairing sections of their lines. It had to have been pretty miserable to work in the wet cold and it had to have been pretty boring going through long days of basic routine while uncomfortable.
Peirs is a tricky officer. He is indefatigably upbeat to his family and often cynical towards rumors, hyperbole, and naysaying. He simply does not report home that he’s fed-up, sad, or even that he’s strained. His letters are not grossly misleading and I don’t think he’s engaging in some sort of extreme form of self-deception in writing this way. But the letters just don’t tell us the whole truth of his situation.
Peirs’s stoicism is not unusual for a man of his upbringing and class. This trait, though, is off-putting to our eyes since we are very removed from this culture that created Jack Peirs (though, perhaps, not as removed as we might think). There are social reasons why Peirs wrote this way: he didn’t want to worry his family and they had high expectations of him just as much as he had high expectations of himself. Also, the censor read his letters and he probably didn’t want a fellow officer reading anything but plucky determination coming from his pen. Peirs was a promotion conscious officer, who very much enjoyed being in command, and certainly believed defeatism – even in its most mild expression – was bad form. This does not mean that he didn’t complain about things, but only that appearing resolute and demonstrating a keen sense of duty were important counter-balances to griping.
It would not be too much of a stretch in our analysis to indicate that Peirs also minimized danger to tell, not only his family but to himself, that he was better off than he probably was (a milder form of self-deception – for more on this topic, see this article). He writes often of the foul conditions that he lived, but then usually tells his family that he’s okay; warm and cozy despite the rain, mud, snow, etc. The truth is that he and his men were freezing and were working on their trenches, which had become a slushy mess after a snowfall, freeze, and thaw. Nobody in a trench was ‘in the clover’ in January 1917. You were in the mud. Cold, recently thawed, mud.
Of course, physical comfort is only one part of things. There are indications that Peirs was a bit frustrated in his work. In January 1917, Peirs frequently did all of the executive work of his battalion. His commanding officer – Lt. Colonel A.M. Tringham, a competent veteran of the South African War – was reassigned to temporary brigade command. Tringham’s move left Peirs in temporary command of the battalion. In that role he was performing the work of his position as Tringham’s number two, while also doing the work of commanding officer. When Peirs’s battalion was assigned a new commander, Jack was unimpressed:
We have got a strange Colonel attached to us now, who seems fairly innocuous. He is a Welshman & a Territorial & was out in the Dardanelles, so he knows nothing of this front. I don’t know how long I shall have to look after him, but I think only for 5 days.
So even when he had someone to help ease the burden of command, Peirs seems to have had little confidence in him and a sense that he had to babysit his new boss. This is not an enviable position to be in especially since the men were moving, back and forth, between trenches. (You can see their movements in January with our new map feature here). For an officer in Peirs’s position, moving cold/miserable men from trench to trench required a lot of work as he was responsible for not only their movements, but also, their comfort, food, and shelter. When the burdens of command are added to the physical discomfort of trench life, it’s easy to see why he’s not writing home in the same lively, gossipy way that he did in the past. When his battalion moved into divisional reserve on January 23, it had to be a major relief for Major Jack Peirs.