B. E. F.
30. 4. 1916.
My dear Mother,
I fancy I have a letter from you to
acknowledge, for which many thanks. I am very glad Fathers arm is going the normal course & that it is not paining him. The weather is still absolutely perfect & one basks in the sun, but we sleep a good deal by day as circs. keep us awake at night. Last night was distinctly eventful as we were in for the full blast of a gas attack, aimed mostly at the Battalion next door, but they made a solitary attempt to get into our trench. However we threw a couple of dozen bombs at them & they didn’t get in. They got in next door however where they had a much better chance, as the ground was very much cut up between the two lines which are only about 50 yards apart there, but were promptly ejected. I suppose by now the Censor will have blue pencilled the whole letter, but perhaps if he will consider how difficult it is to get anything to write about, he will allow a little license on such an occasion as this. Anyhow I will risk it to go on. It was the first time I had used my helmet in earnest & it is most unpleasant as I had it on for an hour or more & ^ it is very difficult to see through, especially at night. The show was on from about 12.30 am to 3, when it died away & has been quite quiet ever since. We had some sort of a warning as some deserters I have previously mentioned said it was expected several days ago & two more came over yesterday & said it was on last night, but it looked rather fishy as they were the second lot who had said the same thing & might easily have been a plant. My part of the show was very small, as I was more or less tied to a telephone at Hqrs. & in the intervals had to send of parties carrying munitions of various sorts with which to strafe the Bosch. Of course had the C. O. been here I should probably have been up in the front, but as he went on leave yesterday afternoon he missed it & will be very sick too. However I am quite glad to have experienced it, though I can’t say I’m anxious to do so again. Considering all things, I think we got off very lightly. They must have got a good deal more than they gave however, as they shelled a good deal but so far as we were concerned very ineffectively, & our guns were putting it into them well. What casualties there were were mostly minor cases of gassing which should be cured in a very few days. They have cured us of rats, which is all to the good as I saw any number of them lying about dead when I went round early this morning. Curiously enough there was a dog in the trenches at the time & a cat & kittens down here all of whom are sitting up & taking nourishment. The gas simply burns up all the vegetation where it is strongest & the whole of No Mans Land where it came over is now absolutely withered. Down here 800 yards back the fields are not burnt but have quite lost their freshness & one might easily have been moved on into the middle of September from the look of the fields.
I must now cease.
Love to all
On April 30, 1916 Peirs found himself in command of his battalion, his commanding officer away on leave. The 8th Queen’s was manning front line trenches to the west of Messines.
For two days previously, the battalion had been under a gas warning. Intelligence from captured German prisoners indicated that the Germans opposite were actively planning an attack. What this meant in practical terms, was that Peirs and his men manned their trenches with their gas helmets (likely rolled up on their heads) and were fatigued from the numerous false alarms.
The battalion war diary indicates that the enemy began strafing their position with machine gun fire around 12:30 AM, the day that Peirs wrote this letter, followed by a gas attack at 12:45 AM. The gas was a mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas which was released from canisters along the German parapets. German soldiers then attacked across no man’s land.
The purpose of the German attack was to raid British trenches and disrupt British mining activity. As Peirs indicates the attack failed along the front manned by the 8th Queen’s, the battalion successfully holding its position despite taking significant casualties. Or as he somewhat dismissively writes, ‘they made a solitary attempt to get into our trench. However we threw a couple of dozen bombs at them & they didn’t get in.’
Though Peirs writes to his mother that the battalion ‘got off lightly’, the war diary tells a different story, with 110 of his men being wounded, mostly by gas. You will notice how Peirs mentions the censor in the letter (who doesn’t censor it) and that that the attack had an unintended consequence of ridding the trench of rats. This was likely to reassure his family of his own safety, while also demonstrating a bit of pride in the battalion for holding its position, and a fair amount of pluck despite what we would consider the obviously terrifying situation in which his men faced for well over two hours of violent uncertainty.