My dear Father,
I am too miserable for words. We have had a most awful doing & are reduced by half, the C.O. & Charlie Cressy both killed & probably 3 more & the rest out of 12 wounded. We went into action on Sunday with 20 officers & 10 came out. I am quite all right, tho why I wasn’t touched I don’t know.
The Brigade is reduced to about 1500 & I believe we are to go back to reform.
The men were wonderful & tho caught on the flanks by machine guns & later on by wire they went on as if on a field day & when they couldn’t get through the wire they strolled back. I got left behind on a flank with a Platoon & had an awful job to get back over 600 yards of open ground with snipers at us all the time.
We got into the trenches on Saturday night & the attack came off at 11 on Sunday. We were only warned ½ hr before & we got caught because the Brigade on our flank let us down. The G.O.C. of the Division and Brigade have both complimented us on our showing & except for the misery of having such a fine Brigade cut up, I should feel quite proud but I am simply heart broken now. The Corps Commander has also congratulated us & said the losses were not in vain as the attack kept 18 Battalions of the Bosches from going to help against the French.
I will write more when I feel more cheerful & will give you as full a description as I can. The map of our district appeared in Monday’s Telegraph showing the district where the operations went on on Saturday & we went over the same ground on Sunday.
Please don’t say a word about Charlie as they had better get the official information first & I do not know absolutely for certain that he is killed as no one has seen his body, but I am afraid he is. Jo is wounded, but only in the foot & should be home soon. His Mother at Mount Hermon Road Woking will give you his address & if in town he may be able to tell you about it all.
Neither Peirs nor most of the men in the 8th Queen’s had ever been under fire before they went into the British trenches near Loos on September 25, 1915. They went up the line just as the first day of the battle was winding down. That evening, the commander of the 8th Queen’s, Lt. Col. Fairtlough, was briefed by his superiors that the battalion would move out in support of an attack the following morning, September 26th. In the early hours of the morning, he was ordered to prepare the battalion for action.
Fairtlough was given no concrete orders and was only informed that their objective would be the ground south of Hulluch Village. The regimental history records how ignorant the battalion’s officers were of the task ahead of them:
No written orders were given, and no zero hour was mentioned, and no objective pointed out, while dusk had now fallen, and the troops knew nothing of the country, the position of the enemy, or the whereabouts of our own forces (238).
As a Kitchener battalion, the 8th Queen’s consisted of volunteers, and was led (largely) by officers who were not professional soldiers. Though the men of the battalion no doubt had enthusiasm (as well as trepidation), they were not battle-tested. Inexperience, when combined with poor staff work, vague orders, and no intelligence as to the unfolding battlefield before them, was a recipe for disaster. And that’s exactly what befell the battalion as it attacked the German second line at 11 AM on September 26, 1915.
The bloodying of the 24th Division on the second day of the Battle of Loos is an infamous moment in British military history. In a wider context, the attack at Hulluch was one part of a larger battle, one that was hardly going the way that British commanders hoped it would. In his authoritative battle history, Loos 1915, Nick Lloyd writes that there is much ‘myth and misunderstanding’ to the 24th Division’s attack across the ‘field of corpses’, the events of the day confusing and infamously mythologized (168). That being written, the 8th Queen’s suffered greatly in their first action of the war, the awfulness of the day apparent to Peirs’s family from his letter.
Peirs’s letter to his father indicates much confusion and some degree of shock from what he had been through. This was his first letter home since the battle. He was no doubt too busy in the intervening days to write; he was one of the few officers who had survived the action unscathed and was now in command of the battalion. We have the advantage of hindsight now and other sources that we can use to piece together a narrative of events. Peirs had none of this. Imagine the difficulty in trying to put into a letter home what he had seen? He had no concept of the larger battle and very little perspective beyond the limited portion of a battlefield that stretched twenty miles. What he knew was what he witnessed.
His letter begins with an emotional confession – absolute misery at the loss of his friends – and then he informs his father of the grave losses suffered of the battalion’s officers, most of whom were wounded, their commanding officer killed, as well as Peirs’s friend Charlie Crossey. He is clearly shocked, perhaps even guilty, that he emerged without injury. The letter then unfolds in a disorganized way – unusual for him – but with enough details that we can gain a portrait of what happened.
The battalion was ordered to attack with little preparation. They advanced through shelling. They met an enemy line of barbed wire that was uncut. They were under machine gun fire from the front as well as both both sides. After suffering heavy casualties, they retired, in reasonably good order, Peirs remaining behind the rest of the battalion, walking six-hundred yards under fire until he reached safety in the trenches from which they had emerged earlier in the day.
The regimental history confirms this basic story, but adds a few additional details. The 8th Queen’s were under shrapnel and machine gun fire from the moment they began their attack. Once reaching the German wire, they were ordered to lie down, to minimize casualties of the remaining men, while they attempted to cut the wire while being ‘scourged by machine-gun fire from both flanks at the closest range’ (238). Altogether, the battalion lost 409 men killed, wounded, or missing. Twelve of their officers were severely wounded or killed.
These were men that Peirs had known intimately over the last year. He trained with them, messed with them, reprimanded and disciplined them, and talked with them about their lives at home and their families. They were the men whom he observed and wrote to his family about, imitating their speech and dialect, laughing at their antics as they scrounged for drink and food with French farmers only weeks before. This sad letter indicates much pride in their conduct during the battle – he describes their attack as ‘wonderful’ – but however orderly their execution of their orders was, this letter is unbelievably tragic, a moment where an officer is struggling to maintain composure and piece together events that were likely the worst he had ever witnessed in his life.
For further reading, see Nick Lloyd’s Loos 1915 and the Colonel H.C. Wylly’s History of the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment in the Great War.