Frank Pierce DCM MM: a Farnham Postman’s War

Sgt Frank Pierce DCM, MM

Title: Sgt Frank Pierce DCM, MM
Description: by-nc

Frank Pierce DCM MM, 23-year-old Farnham Postman

Written & submitted by Rod Pierce (Rev’d) (grandson), 2016

In the great surge of enthusiasm that followed the declaration of war on 3rd August 1914, thousands of men felt they had a duty to volunteer for the Colours. One of those was a 23 year-old-postman, Frank Pierce, who lived at Crondall Lane, Farnham. He enlisted at Guildford on 2nd September 1914, less than a month after the declaration of war.

We don’t know why he was posted into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC); perhaps they were particularly recruiting men that day, but by good fortune, an account of their formation and early training was written at the time and recorded in the 1914 volume Annals of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which is summarised below as some of the comments are quite amusing.

Formation and training:

The 10th (S) Battalion KRRC was officially formed on 14th September 1914, at Aldershot. (Up to that time it had been E, F, G, H Companies of  the 7th Battalion, and shared the barracks there). Drafts of all sorts and sizes were arriving at Farnborough station at all hours of the day and night from Winchester, from where they marched to Aldershot. Apparently it was not uncommon to start from the station with 250 men and discover when counting them at Blenheim Barracks that the number had either increased to 400 or decreased to 75, as large bodies of recruits would often decide they would rather be in the Rifle Brigade, the ASC or the artillery when on the way. On the other hand, other units had inclinations to join the ‘60th’ (the old name for the Rifles), but the drafts continued so it was necessary to split the 7th Battalion into a second half, with its own administration.

On 20th September the Battalion, together with the 11th Battalion, and the 10th & 11th Battalions of the Rifle Brigade were sent to take up new quarters at Blackdown camp, Deepcut. According to the Annals, none of the officers and few of the men knew the area and they ended up on one of the ‘most circuitous and tiring marches they had ever done’. All of this was done as badly-booted, half (army) clothed and with only 15 ex-regular NCOs, who had left the army between 4 and 20 years previously.

By the end of September they had been issued with 700 drill-purpose rifles – the ‘oldest collection of arms that ever graced the ranks of the British Army’, and three miniature rifles with which some good use was made on the 30 yd range.

The army then found that many men who had been passed fit on enlistment were utterly useless, with enlarged hearts, varicose veins and general unfitness, so that by the end of October they had discharged over 300 men. One old rifleman who had been passed at Winchester was found to possess but one natural leg, the other being of wood. This was only discovered when he was marched into the orderly room and his wooden leg was heard thumping over the boards. By the end of October the men had been issued with blue emergency suits and civilian great coats.

During this time, and over the following months, there was much training, and constant examinations for promotions for promising young NCOs and old soldiers. Although, according to the Annals, some of the older men were ‘painfully dense’, many got through. Some map reading sketches were found to be very good but one budding sergeant had marked all of his metalled roads with the mystic words ‘these roads are enamelled’.

From the information in his ‘Army Small Book’, Frank Pierce seems to have been one of the successful ones, as he records promotions during this time as follows:-

Enlisted  2.9.1914 Promoted Lance Corporal: 12.10.1914 promoted Corporal: 19.10.14 On 17th February 1915, they received orders to move to Witley Common, to wooden hutments where there was no attention paid to drainage. However by the end of March all men were clad in Khaki and fully equipped, except for rifles.

On 30th March the 10th and 11th Battalions KRRC set out on the long 4-day march from Witley to Salisbury Plain via Farnham, Alton where they stopped for the night, then on to Winchester Rifle depot for the second night. It took two further days to reach Hamilton Camp, about a mile from Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, where they were quartered in what they described as ‘rabbit hutches’ – a kind of dug-out above ground, with canvas nailed over wooden frames.

After further training during April and May, the Brigade moved to Canadian Camp 13 at Larkhill in the first week of June, where there were at last decent huts and good dining rooms. They finally had new rifles issued and Lewis Guns. The whole Division was inspected by HM the King in July. Later that month, 21st July, they entrained in two parties at Amesbury and departed to France via Folkestone / Boulogne.

KRRC 10th S Battn Possibly Salisbury Plain July 1915

Title: KRRC 10th S Battn Possibly Salisbury Plain July 1915
Description: by-nc

France / Belgium 1915

The 10th Battalion KRRC moved into the front line area on the French / Belgian border, south-west of Ypres, where they took their turns by rotation in the front line trenches, then in reserve, then in training and ‘resting’ periods as the four Battalions in their Brigade were rotated every few days.

Although there were no significant actions there was a certain amount of exchanges of shelling, sniping and small-scale raiding activity, and the Battalion suffered several casualties. By the end of September 1915, since coming to France, 1 officer and 16 other men had been killed and 34 wounded. This had increased by the end of December to 2 officers and 32 men killed since arrival in France, with a further 2 officers and 74 men wounded. One of those was Corporal Frank Pierce, who had been wounded in the right wrist by shell shrapnel and was treated locally by the 60th Field Ambulance dressing station on 13th October. He remained in France and shortly returned to the Battalion. He was promoted to Lance-Sergeant on 15th December 1915.

Belgium & the Somme Battles 1916

Between January and mid-June 1916 the Brigade had been moved to the north-west of Ypres, Belgium, based near Poperinghe and the Canal Bank, Ypres, where the battalions continued to rotate between the front line, reserve, training and resting. Casualties continued to mount during many short intense periods of shelling, rifle and machine-gun fire and local minor raids and actions. On 25th June 1916 after a full day’s bombardment, a 90-strong raiding party crossed to the German trenches at 10pm that evening. They damaged enemy positions and captured six German prisoners at a cost of 9 men killed and 2 officers and 52 other ranks wounded. Four of their officers won the Military Cross for this action.

The Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916 and as is well known, caused an extremely high numbers of casualties that day, resulting in it being called ‘the worst single day in the history of the British Army’.

Reinforcements were needed urgently, and the Brigade soon found itself being moved south, initially to Ploegsteert Wood (Plug Street to most ‘Tommies’), then to the Somme area by the end of July.

On 3rd September the Battalion was ordered to go ‘over the top’ as part of a huge effort to secure the village of Guillemont which lay at the eastern edge of a long ridge commanding a good view of the surrounding land, and which had held out against British attacks for almost two months. Being part of the 20th (Light) Division, they attacked at midday following a short artillery bombardment and caught the Germans by surprise, gaining their initial objectives fairly quickly, but in their haste, some of the British and Irish troops overran a number of deep dug-out German positions without putting them out of action properly, and it was left to the commander of the 10th KRRC to take charge and mop up the remaining resistance, including a number of snipers. They captured Guillemont, in one of the major successes of the Somme campaign. The Battalion suffered the loss of 2 officers and 39 other ranks killed, with a further 22 missing, and 8 officers and 202 other ranks wounded. Lance-Sergeant Pierce was promoted to full Sergeant that day.

In the book Somme, by Lynn McDonald, the author, who interviewed a number of veterans in the 1960s and 1970s, quotes from of one of the riflemen who took part, Fred White, of 10th Battalion, who remembered that his Sergeant, Sergeant Pierce (misspelt Pearce in the book) gave instructions to a group of the successful victors of the fight to ‘clear up the battlefield’ by which he meant search the dead and collect identity discs and personal effects. When they objected pointing out that a small group of men who had reported sick that morning hadn’t ‘done their fair share and should do it’, they complained to their officer, Lieutenant Hannay, who agreed with them, letting them off in favour of the others. They earned Sergeant Pierce’s displeasure for that.

The Battalion remained in the Somme area for the rest of the year but took part in no further major action.

April 1917 Battles of Arras

The Battalion remained in the Somme area during January – March. Sgt Pierce was promoted again, to Acting CSM (Company-Sergeant-Major) of B Company (an A/CSM had been killed by an unlucky shell dropping on to his post in early January, killing 4 and wounding the same number of men). Later that month, a German aeroplane was brought down by a Battalion Lewis Gun, the pilot running off and later being captured by nearby troops.

At the end of February an attack was made by a small group of 2 officers and 60 men against a German post in a sunken road, 150 yards from their position. The party came under intense machine-gun and artillery fire and eventually retired with a loss of 42 all ranks, including their officer, who had initially been reported killed in the enemy wire, but was later found to be badly wounded and a prisoner in Germany.

On 4th April, the Division took part in the Battle of Arras, to capture positions in Metz-en-Couture. It had snowed all night and was still snowing at zero hour. They attacked at 2.00pm through the snow and after coming under fire from houses in the village and much fighting, the position was taken successfully by 3.25pm, but with 28% casualties. (5 officers killed and 3 wounded, 28 other ranks killed, 20 missing and 128 wounded.)

For this successful action, Lieutenant-Colonel E.M. Ley received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Captain D.C. O’Rorke the Military Cross (MC), and Sergeant (A/CSM) F. Pierce the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) as well as a ‘divisional card for gallant action’.

The DCM citation reads: ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He assumed command of and gallantly led his company forward in the face of very heavy fire’ (TNA ref: ZJI 645, page 6011).

More detail is in a newspaper clipping, presumably from the Farnham Herald or Surrey Times:

‘Hearty congratulations will be extended to Sergt. F Pierce, Kings Own Royal Rifles, son of Mr C Pierce of Crondall Lane, Farnham, on receiving the D.C.M. The gallant NCO received recognition for daring work on September 3rd 1916 when at Guillemont he brought in wounded men under heavy barrage and at great personal risk. He was similarly noticed on April 4th this year for rallying his men and leading them through two rows of enemy wire at Metz-en-Couture and subsequently the announcement was made that as acting Sergt-Major he had been awarded the DCM’.

September 1917 – 3rd Battle of Ypres

The British Army in the second half of 1917 was engaged in attempting to extend the salient encompassing the ruins of the Belgian city of Ypres, and as is well known, the summer and autumn of 1917 were very wet, with the result that artillery shells had churned up the low-lying land so much that all the natural drainage was ruined, shell holes were waterlogged and it was almost impossible to dig trenches due to the high water table or move anywhere without a risk of falling off wooden walkways and drowning in the mud.

A/CSM Pierce records in his ‘small book’ that he reverted back to his substantive rank of Sergeant in July 1917.

As part of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the 20th Division was ordered to attack the German Eagle Trench and an objective called ‘Chinese House’ near the Belgian town of Langemarke on 20th September 1917, and needed to cross one of these streams, the Steenbeek to do so. Much of the fighting in this area was undertaken by their comrades in the 10th and 11th Rifle Brigade, but two of the four Companies of the 10th KRRC were involved too. Unfortunately, the night before the attack was to take place, a German shell landed on the HQ of the 10th Battalion, killing 10 men, including its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Rixon and the Adjutant, Captain Wallington. This must have caused dismay to the troops and severely hampered the organisation of the fighting on the following day. The Battalion was taken over by Major R.S. Cockburn MC.

By the evening of 23rd September they had succeeded in their task but at the cost of 5 officers and 35 other ranks killed, 3 officers and 90 other ranks wounded, and 20 men missing. One of the men who also took part in this battle was the celebrated late Harry Patch, the ‘last survivor of the trenches’, who was also a member of 20th Division and who visited this site a few years ago and dedicated a memorial to the men of the Division who lost their lives there.

One of those wounded was Sergeant F. Pierce, who received a severe thigh wound. He was evacuated swiftly back to the United Kingdom where he arrived on 24th September and was sent to hospital at Burley in the New Forest.

While he was recuperating from his wound, his Battalion, 10th KRRC, faced perhaps its severest task yet. On 30th November 1917 they took part in the Battle of Cambrai, but after significant initial success in breaking through the enemy lines, the Germans brought up reserves, and the Battalion found itself being attacked simultaneously from three sides, and very few of the men, and none of the officers, succeeded in getting away. The HQ Section had no option but to fall back, the only survivors of the Battalion being 4 officers and just 16 other ranks. Many of the missing were later found to be prisoners of war.

The 10th Battalion was disbanded in January 1918 due to the small core group of men left. The survivors were mostly dispersed to 11th and 12th Battalions.

Meanwhile, Frank Pierce was making a slow recovery and he appears to have continued to recuperate in the Burley area of south Hampshire. However, he was well enough to arrange to get married to Nellie Allen, a girl who had been brought up in Froyle, only some six or seven miles from Farnham. The wedding took place in Burley on 17th December 1917.

However there wasn’t much time for a honeymoon. He was deemed to be fit to return to active service, and was recorded as being placed on the army ‘married roll’ on 26th December. Many men on recovery from wounds were not posted back to their original unit, and Frank was no exception. In any case, the 10th Battalion was about to be disbanded, and he was instead posted to 4th Battalion KRRC.

January 1918 – transfer to 4th Battalion & posting to Salonika

Frank joined a draft of men that left Britain, probably sailing from Southampton, on or around 26th December, as he appears to have arrived in Salonika, north Greece, on 29th December. The war diary for the 4th Battalion, part of 80th Brigade, records ‘several small drafts arrived during the month’.

The Battalion at that time had 32 officers and 837 other ranks. They, with other units of the British army, had been in Greece since November 1914 in order to support the Serbian army, which had been under attack by Germany & Austria from the north and Bulgaria from the east. The British and French troops had arrived and encamped at Salonika (Thessaloniki), just 50 miles from the Serbian border. However, as the troops arrived, Greece withdrew co-operation with the British, who fortified their position, and did not try to rescue the Serbians. They occupied and patrolled the valleys to the north of Salonika and fought small-scale engagements with the Bulgarian army. For much of the time, however, their main enemy was disease. It was an unhealthy place to be.

In the three years since the 4th Battalion had been in Salonika (up to the end of January 1918), they had lost 6 officers and 192 others killed, with a further 34 officers and 686 other ranks wounded, and 307 men recorded as missing.

During January & February 1918, the Battalion carried out a number of daytime and night-time patrols, where they made contact on several occasions with the Bulgarians, losing two men killed in January and further losses in February, with three men captured after being surrounded with a further three wounded near a place called Ciftlidzik.

In March, the Battalion spent several days training and having been relieved by the Greek army from their position, were moved further towards Orljak, where they were to guard the Seres road and railway line. They did not encounter any of the enemy that month.

By April they were digging in on the railway embankment opposite Bulgarian trenches. On 15th of the month they were attacked by over 200 men and withdrew a short distance, but took a few prisoners and killed four or five men. One rifleman was reported missing in this action.

Much of May 1918 was spent on routine patrols with no further action or casualties recorded. At the beginning of June they were again relieved by a Greek regiment and after returning to base were detailed to be sent to the Western Front in France, where reserves were desperately needed after the German March offensive had caused severe problems for the British.

Frank Pierce trench sketch

Title: Frank Pierce trench sketch
Description: by-nc

June 1918 – Battalion reassigned to France

They were embarked on a French steamer called the Odessa and taken to Taranto, Italy, where they entrained for France on 27th June. The journey north took a week, as the war diary reports:

28th June: Halted for meals at Brindisi, Bara and Foggia 29th June: halts for meals at Castelamare and Ancona 30th June: halts for meals at Faenza and Voghera 1st July:  meal halts at Savona, Ventimiglia (Italy), & Cannes ( France) 2nd July: meal halts at Miramas, Le Tiel and St Germain 3rd July: meal halts at Paray le Monial, Malasherbes and Versailles 4th July detrained near Dieppe and encamped  at St Martin Eglise. Here they spent the rest of July and the whole of August in training and preparation for a very different war to what most of them had been used to, on the Western Front.

September – November 1918 – Actions at Le Catalet / Gouy and Villers Outreaux

On 16th September, the Division was sent by train from Dieppe to Bouquemaison, near Lens, where they marched 5 miles to Beaudricourt, where a further week was spent in training, then moved by road transport via Amiens to a wood at Nurlu (near Valenciennes).

On 1st October they again moved to Libramont (near St Quentin) and Bony where they relieved two Australian divisions and took over a section of the front line. They were warned they would be taking part in a large-scale operation to attack the German line on 3rd October.

On 3rd October, despite having only just moved to an unknown or reconnoitred area, they moved off just after midnight and attacked at first light (6.05am). The fighting was heavy and there were many casualties. The Germans were by no means beaten and had fortified the two villages of Le Catalet and Gouy with great skill, and were determined to hold on to them.

The initial attacks were successful, though there were many casualties. By 11.30am a large party of Germans was seen getting ready to counter-attack and as the Battalion was holding too wide an area of front and was too weak to withstand an attack alone, a Company of the Northumberland Fusiliers was ordered to support. However with the support of the British artillery, the counter-attack was frustrated, and at 20.00 the Battalion was relieved and withdrew to the Hindenburg line near Bony.

The attack had been successful, but at a cost of 3 officers and 41 others killed, and 6 officers and 121 others wounded and missing. However they had captured 1 German officer and 252 other ranks and 35 enemy machine guns.

They were not to be allowed to rest, however, for early on 4th October they were ordered to support the British infantry holding a position beyond Le Catalet. An assault had been planned against the German positions at dusk. Originally this action was to have been carried out by the Royal Fusiliers, with 4th KRRC in reserve, but on finding there were few Fusiliers available, the 4th KRRC was ordered to attack instead, and did so after a short artillery bombardment. When getting into position, the leading Companies of the Battalion were subjected to severe enemy bombardment.

However when the attack was launched at 19.15, the Germans showed little stomach for a fight and little resistance was encountered. Two German officers and 57 other ranks were captured along with 25 machine guns and two trench mortars.

The Battalion was eventually relieved. The war diary points out that this action had been carried out over rough and unknown country across a formidable river obstacle without any previous reconnaissance, and could only have been carried out by well-led and highly-disciplined troops.

Again, however, the Battalion was to have very little rest.

On October 7th, it was warned to be ready for a further attack the following day and was to move into position ready to advance that evening.

Just after midnight, a minor attack by a nearby unit of King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry caused the German artillery to retaliate and shells rained down on the assembly trenches of the KRRCs, causing a number of casualties.

They attacked at first light and immediately came under heavy fire, and suffered casualties. By about 8.00am they had achieved their objective, but were still being subjected to heavy machine-gun fire. By 11.00am they had consolidated their position and other British units had passed through and carried the fight further. They were relieved at 17.00 and moved to billets for the night. They had lost one officer and 12 other ranks killed with 4 officers and 4 men wounded. They had captured two German officers and 111 other ranks, one 77mm field gun and 49 machine guns.

Again, they had had little time to prepare for the attack on Villers Outreaux, which was heavily defended and where no reconnaissance had been possible beforehand, difficulties compounded by having to move only after dark.

Unsurprisingly, a large number of gallantry awards were issued for these actions over three separate days.

Sergeant Pierce was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for his part in the actions; the citation reads:-

‘At Le Catalet on October 3rd 1918 when two Companies had suffered heavy casualties he gave invaluable assistance to his officer in reorganising the survivors and enabling a strong defensive post to be formed which successfully held up an enemy attempt to advance. He set a very fine example of soldierly conduct to all ranks under very difficult conditions’.

After about ten days’ training, resting and in reserve, the Battalion was ordered to participate in a further action on 17th October at St Souplet. They moved into position at 3.30am but within an hour, the Germans, evidently suspecting an attack, opened fire with heavy artillery on their position, causing 20 casualties, including the officer in charge of B Company, Captain Nutting, who was killed. The Battalion attacked at 5.20am and fought its way to its objective by about 8.30am. It later had to withdraw from a small part of the line, owing to its left flank being unsupported and vulnerable. It was eventually relieved on the evening of 18th October. Having gone into action with 20 officers and 307 other ranks, their 30% casualties were 7 officers and 117 other ranks. They captured 59 Germans, 40 machine guns, two field guns and 12 trench mortars.

For the remainder of October they were resting in billets and their numbers were made up with a number of other ranks who arrived from the UK.

From 4th– 8th November the 4th Battalion was engaged yet again in an advance to attack the German line at Laie de Mont Carnel, near Dourlers. The action commenced with an order to attack German positions at 11.00am on 4th November. They incurred immediate casualties as the Germans were fighting a stiff rearguard action all the way, from a strongpoint on high ground. As nightfall approached, the Battalion managed to dislodge the Germans from the ridge after attacking through woodland.

They advanced again to attack at first light in heavy rain on 5th November, but on this day encountered very little resistance and soon reached their objective, and dug in along a river bank and railway cutting.

On 6th November the Battalion was ordered to Noyelles, where further orders were received to march to St Remy Chaussee by 06.00 on the following day, where they were to attack soon after dawn. They came under heavy fire from machine guns and artillery and, unfortunately, whilst conferring with the Commander of D Company, their Commanding Officer, Major Tryon, was shot through the head and killed. The C Company was ordered to make a flanking movement and succeeded in dislodging the enemy machine guns at a fairly heavy cost in casualties. By 13.00 further orders were received to advance to the final objective and after coming under machine-gun and sniper fire they succeeded in their task.

Ordered to continue the advance, they struggled through thick woodland, facing further enemy machine-gun and sniper fire, but finally reached their objective as it began to get dark, and as it was difficult to consolidate their position they withdrew a short distance to a more easily-defended position. Casualties in this operation amounted to 50% of those that took part.

Casualties in the period 4th-8th November totalled 8 officers and 173 other ranks (3 officers were killed, including one who died from his injuries on 9th November).

No further offensive action was seen before the Armistice was declared on 11th November, after which the Battalion helped in salvage work and held memorial services for the fallen.

Sgt Frank Pierce DCM MM returned to England on 10th December 1918. He re-joined the Royal Mail as a postman and eventually became a postmaster in Farnborough. During WW2 he served in the Home Guard. He died in 1967 and is buried in Farnham along with his wife and a son.

He and his wife had three sons; the eldest, after joining the army in WW2, was killed in a motorcycle accident in the Farnborough area when on active duty. Another son worked at the RAE, Farnborough, and spent some time late in WW2 on an aircraft carrier in the channel, testing arrester wires and catapult systems, while the third son joined the Royal Navy where he was present when a Japanese unit surrendered in 1945.

 

Postmen at Frensham Post Office (F Pierce possibly LH cyclist)

Title: Postmen at Frensham Post Office (F Pierce possibly LH cyclist)
Description: by-nc

 

 

 

Frank Pierce Postman

Title: Frank Pierce Postman
Description: by-nc

References

  • The ‘small book’ of Sgt F. Pierce, which gives details of his enlistment, promotion dates and some wounding details.
  • Battalion War diaries (TNA, Kew): a) 10th (S) Battn KRRC, b) 4th Battn KRRC.
  • Local press clippings of Pierce’s gallantry awards.
  • Family photographs (mostly unlabelled).
  • Trench map, ref WO 298/548 ORLJAC (Salonica)
  • Annals of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, volumes 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, consulted at Imperial War Museum library (a condensed version of these was published in 1932, compiled by Hare, S.; reprinted c. 2000 by N & M Press Ltd).
  • London Gazette, vol II 1917, page 6011 ref ZJI 645.
  • London Gazette, vol 1919, page 6038 ref ZJI 672.
  • McDonald, L., Somme (1983)

 

 

 

 

Share This:

Leave a Comment