When dawn came on March 22, 1918, Jack Peirs knew that the town of Le Verguier could no longer be held. For twenty-four hours the men under his command – or what was left of them – had been under attack. With the daylight just beginning to peek through a dense fog, he gave the desperate order that the battalion papers be burned in the sunken road outside of his command dugout. He then went out to personally see whether the remaining forts – known as Lees and Greathead – could be held. He walked up a communication trench only to find that Fort Lees was falling. His flank turned and their remaining position threatened, Peirs ordered a machine gun team to cover the remnants of his battalion as they retreated along the sunken road to Vendelles.
Those who survived, by this point, had been through hell. First had been the German preliminary bombardment of the village that had lasted five hours in the early morning of the 21st, the first day of the Spring Offensive. Thousands of shells – high explosive, shrapnel, and most frighteningly of all, gas – had fallen on the village and the supply lines to the west. Then, the two companies manning the village defenses had watched from positions known as Orchard and Bob posts as thousands of advancing enemy soldiers surrounded their comrades to the northeast, who had been manning a thinly held chain of forward outposts a mile outside of the village. The advancing Germans had then turned their considerable might against the two companies that were holding the fortified and ruined village of Le Verguier. For eighteen hours they had held their positions against repeated attacks by infantry while units to the north and south crumbled under the weight of the Kaiserschlacht.
With the 8th Queen’s retreat on the 22nd, the ruined village of Le Verguier was lost. It would not be retaken until September. Peirs and the two hundred or so men he had left – the battalion had been reduced by nearly 75% – limped out of the village. Their ordeal became more complicated in the coming days as they fought a confused and chaotic rearguard action with the 24th Division. Peirs himself was wounded outside of Omiecourt; a machine gun bullet broke his left forearm. As he bled and braced his broken arm, he continued to lead from an exposed position, refusing to leave his men under fire. When he eventually went into hospital on the twenty-sixth, he had been under fire for five days.
The tale of this man and his unit in March 1918 is one small story in the history of the Kaiser’s Battle and an even smaller story in the overall history of the Great War. Le Verguier was not a battlefield victory and the 8th Queen’s suffered high casualties, barely surviving as a battalion in any sense after they retreated from the village. Yet, for those who did survive, they saw their stand at Le Verguier as a heroic action, one in which they held out against all odds and withdrew in good order in the face of an overwhelming enemy onslaught. This is not the complete story of the action, of course, but it’s the story that the survivors wanted to be remembered. When Peirs died in 1943 he was a successful but prematurely aged man whose lungs gave out on him, possibly from wartime gas exposure. Upon his death, one of the men in his Le Verguier band of brothers titled his obituary ‘Peirs of Le Verguier,’ as if Peirs was a medieval knight. Thick was the silver lining put upon this fight by the veterans of the 8th Queen’s. To Peirs and his comrades, the defense of Le Verguier became the most important event in their long war service on the western front.
#TeamPeirs at Gettysburg College has been telling the story of this man and his unit for several years now. Our digital history project is our contribution to the centenary of the Great War – it is an archival resource, a social media educational platform, and a pedagogical tool for students studying war and society. It has, in many ways, evolved beyond our expectations. For the last three years we have been building up towards the centennial anniversary of the events of March 21st, 1918, knowing that we had to do something to remember them and their impact on our project. For that reason, we took our team to France last week to walk in Peirs’s footsteps and to commemorate, in real time, the actions of his men. The battle was far too important of an event for us not to go to France. From our perspective, after telling their story and immersing ourselves in their history, we felt like we owed something to the men that fought there to be on the ground that they defended.
Our team – an archivist, a professor, and two Gettysburg College students (all of us historians) – left on March 18th for the western front. Unintentionally, it was the same day that, one hundred years before, the 8th Queen’s went up the line to their forward outpost at Le Verguier. We lost no time and immediately set out for some of the major Somme battlefield sites to set the tone for the trip and to give our team an impression of the magnitude, not only of this part of the war, but of the ways in which the battles fought here have been remembered. In subsequent days, we set out to implement our ambitious plan of bringing a bit of the western front back to Gettysburg College. Here is what we did, what we saw, and what we experienced as we worked to make our plan come to fruition:
- We walked the original ground of Le Verguier, 100 years to the moment that the battle was fought, aided by trench maps and GPS. We broadcast seven Facebook Live sessions from sites important to this battle. As we did so, we took photos and video of our locations for future work.
- We gained a much fuller and greater understanding of the significance of the battle. Nothing can beat walking the original ground and studying the topography of a battle – terrain means so much – and we not only studied it, but we took 360 degree video of much of it to aid in future research. We feel like we understand this battle and will be able to write more on it in the future when we turn our attention towards publication of our research.
- We broadcast three classroom sessions from the western front. One was from Delville Wood, the sight of the 8th Queen’s fight in September 1916. Two were from Le Verguier. We showed the landscape of the battle, the ways the war has been memorialized, and demonstrated our findings in real time. We connected the battlefields of France to our battlefield campus in Gettysburg.
- We met new friends. One was a descendent of one of Peirs’s soldiers who walked the original ground with us. The others were from the village itself: we met with the mayor of Le Verguier and many residents who opened their village to us and brought documents and photos to aid our research. With their help, we were able to pinpoint important positions for the battle. They also helped us understand more fully the impact of the war upon this village. We are so thankful for their kindness.
- We stood by the war memorial in the center of the village, as a team, with the French flag flying above us and the bells of the village calling the hour one hundred years to the moment that the 8th Queen’s defended the town. The flag was put out for our benefit by our new friends in the village. The war memorial was dedicated to the people of the town who died in the war and to the men of the 24th Division. The bells were, themselves, donated by British veterans who raised the funds for the belfry as a living memorial to their comrades. As we stood by the memorial, we became participants in the social memory of this battle. We remembered those who fought there and we all walked away with a sense of awe towards the place itself.
- Finally, my colleague Amy Lucadamo and I watched as two senior Gettysburg College students truly excelled researching, interpreting (both linguistic and historical), and growing as historians through the experience of being abroad and absorbing the battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials to the Great War. This would have made the trip worthwhile in and of itself. Both Jesse Campana and Meghan O’Donnell made us proud that we share with them an alma mater.
There is much more to our trip than these bullet points will allow and this post is already too long. So I will close now with the understanding that my colleagues will contribute their reflections in the coming weeks. Stay tuned, and thank you all for following our trip.