Based on his correspondence and the context of his life, you can gain a degree of knowledge about Jack Peirs that fits a certain narrative. The narrative goes something like this. Peirs was a public school educated Briton who came from a privileged family. He went to Oxford where he was an indifferent student. He then fell into the family business and worked as a solicitor for his father’s firm, a job that we don’t know whether he liked or disliked, but one that I’m fairy confident he didn’t see as a foundational part of his identity.
The point here is that Jack was an established member of the establishment who, by 1914, had followed closely in his father’s footsteps.
Then the war came and everything changed. Peirs volunteered and was commissioned an officer in the 8th Queen’s. We don’t know why he volunteered – like many other soldiers, he is mum on the subject – but he was the type of person (public school, Oxford, middle class, etc.) who would take a commission and serve his country. If there is one word that we (#TeamPeirs) use frequently to describe the man, it is ‘dutiful’; for someone of his upbringing there was a definite social expectation to go to war and to serve his country bravely (and without complaining unless about the weather, the ‘locals’, or the quality of the food).
By all accounts, Peirs met the expectations of his class, family, and nation. In many ways, he exceeded them (DSO+2 bars= exceeds expectations). We have a newspaper article that describes Major Peirs at Loos in 1915 as going over the top and bravely leading his men forward with a cigarette in his mouth and pistol in hand. Though Peirs later dismissed the account as one of mistaken identity, this is certainly consistent with his conduct later in the war (and his love of smoking). That jauntily plucky officer, if not Peirs, could have just as well been him.
#TeamPeirs loves this image. It fits with our fundamental assumption about his bravery, a subject that he never addresses to his family because he wasn’t a braggart. We don’t have that many accounts of Peirs from others, but as this account came from one of his men it is is an insightful look into how they might have seen him.
We have another source about Peirs that was written one hundred years ago today. It is an official and confidential report on him by his superior officers. First some context.
In December 1917, Peirs was at senior officer training school at Aldershot. After two years on the western front as the number two officer in his battalion, Peirs was up for promotion to battalion command. He was more than ready for the role; he had filled in as acting CO on many occasions since September 1915. But one doesn’t just get promoted to battalion command; one has to take a training course to learn the intricacies of the new job.
During his training, Peirs was evaluated to make sure that he had the leadership qualities and acumen to deserve promotion and effectively lead his men at the front. Here is what his instructors thought of him:
It’s pretty clear from this glowing report that Jack Peirs had come into his own in his time at the front. He had learned to command men by sharing in their burdens. He had also been a participant in the trials and errors of the evolving tactical situation on the western front and had learned through experience. He had survived, learned, and by 1917, was ready to lead. Though we desperately want to know more about the ‘thorough man of the world’ line, the rest of the report certainly fits the image of Peirs that we have pieced together.
The point here is that Peirs had a very conventional life before the war that on the surface seems pretty preordained. He went through the establishment bootcamp of public school, played lots of football at Oxford as he learned something about the law, and then went to work for his father. The war upended this tidy narrative, but it did so by allowing for Peirs to come into his own and distinguish himself, which as this report indicates, he certainly did.