Remembrance Day: Remembering David Piercy Irving


 David Piercy (‘Bunny’) Irving (1897–1916):  David was born in Hopetown, British Guiana, on June 5th, 1897. He was the son of Dr. Major (his name) Henry Court Irving L.R.C.P., L.R.C.S. and Ann (‘Annie’) Irving (née Farrar). David went to Epsom College in England, and was very good at sports, playing in the school’s hockey and cricket XIs; he was captain of the latter. The school magazine, Epsomian, critiqued his cricket abilities as follows:  

A stylish bat, with a variety of good strokes; hits brilliantly, when set; but is apt to throw away his wicket before he has got the measure of the bowling. An exceptionally good field. A keen and energetic captain.

After leaving Epsom, David was admitted to Royal Military College, Sandhurst where he captained the College’s cricket XI. Second-­Lieutenant David Piercy Irving was gazetted in January 1916 and served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers (21st Foot).

David was reported missing in action, presumed killed, at Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme on Sunday July 30th, 1916 and is presumed to have been killed on that date while attached to the 2nd Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers (his brother Jim was badly wounded in the same action serving with The King’s Own Scottish Borderers). When David’s mother learnt that David was missing, presumed killed, she wrote these brief, poignant, words in her diary: ‘David—gone from us’.

David’s regiment, together with the 16th, 17th and 18th Battalions of the Manchester Regiment, known as the ‘Pals’, composed the British Army’s 90th Brigade in the 30th Division. In July 1916 David’s brigade was successful in taking all of its objectives, including: Montauban Village (July 1st), Maltz Horn Farm (July 7th) and Maricourt (July 11th). On July 30th, they were ordered to secure the area around Guillemont Village, and it was in this engagement that David was killed.

Very few people alive today can fully appreciate what David and his comrades endured. While it is not the aim here to provide a complete account of all of the engagements David took part in, it was felt that two would suffice to provide the reader with an understanding of what he and his comrades endured during the battles for Montauban Village and Guillemont Village. In the case of Montauban two first-hand accounts are provided, one from the British point of view, and the other as seen through the eyes of a German officer.

The battle of the Somme began on July 1st, 1916—by most accounts—with the highest optimism as illustrated in the following extract from a letter written by Private Douglas Laidlaw of the Quartermaster Branch, to his wife. He was in his dugout at 10.00 p.m. on the night of July 1st, and observed David’s battalion advancing to take part in the battle for Montauban Village:

 One famous Scotch Battalion [this must have been the 2nd  Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers, the only Scottish battalion of XIII Corps to be heavily involved on July 1] has just passed through, what a scene, you would have thought peace had been declared instead of which it is a lot of poor chaps last night on earth. They were singing [and] dancing to each other and just seemed mad with joy. And the Germans ‘once’ thought they could beat Britain.

 The Germans are frightened to death, and I don’t wonder for our own guns make my heart jump sometimes. What a scene it is, just 50 yards from here up the hill, and you see our shells bursting on the German parapet and it is nothing but smoke and fire, hell let loose, and yet our men go into this hell singing and dancing…. [1]

The following is an account of the battle for Montauban Village on July 1st, 1916, as experienced by Private R. Sim, serving in David’s regiment, whose life was saved by a bandolier of .303 bullets:

 On The 1st July, we were in position behind the Front line near Maricourt, in support of the Manchester Regiment (the Pals battalion). At Zero Hour, I think at 7.00 a.m. we went over the top and advanced in single file, led by our platoon officer, 2nd Lieutenant H. Atkins, who was later killed on the Somme on 30th July. After perhaps 200 yards, we came under crossfire (rifle and machine-gun) from our left. I was hit in the region of the heart, and fell. My thoughts were, naturally, ‘this is it’. Taking cover with other wounded, I stripped off my equipment, including two extra bandoliers of ammunition, and found to my amazement that although I was black and blue all over, there was no wound. On inspecting my equipment, I found that one of my bandoliers had stopped the bullet and undoubtedly had saved my life…. I immediately dressed and followed on to find my company, which I did, in the village of Montauban…. [2]

 Some idea of the devastating effect of the British victory at Montauban can be judged by the fact that one German regiment alone lost 42 officers and 2,105 men, out of a total of just over 3,000. The captured diary of a German officer, Oberstleutnant Bedell, which was later used in the Bavarian Official Account, stated:

 The troops who had so far held the lines south of Mametz and south of Montauban had sustained severe losses from intense enemy bombardment, which had been maintained for many days without pause, and for the most part were already shot to pieces…. The 6th Bavarian reserve regiment, which on the morning of the 1st was thrown into Montauban, has been completely destroyed. Of 3,500 men only 500 remained and these are for the most part men who had not taken part in the battle, plus two regimental officers and a few stragglers who turned up on the following day. All the rest are dead, wounded or missing. The regimental staff and battalion staff have all been captured in their dug-outs.  [3]

The capture of Montauban Village on July 1st, 1916—the only village taken on time throughout the whole of the Somme front—was an amazing achievement, and there is little doubt that because of their experience in battle, David’s regiment was the driving force.

David’s life ended on Sunday July 30th, 1916, at Guillemont Village, about five kilometres north of the River Somme. On that fateful day, 30th Division’s soldiers were moved into position in a wooded area called Trones Wood, just outside Guillemont. The plan was to attack the German 35th (Bantam) Division whose units were manning the front lines. However, while the 30th Division were moving into their start positions in the dark, the German barrage on Trones Wood increased in intensity and a number of units were badly affected by poison gas and high explosive shells. Zero hour for the commencement of the assault on Guillemont was set for 4.45 am, and as dawn broke thick fog had reduced visibility to forty yards. In the murk and mist which lay thick in every hollow, David’s regiment advanced along the Trones Wood to Guillemont road and entered the village, taking many prisoners. They were joined by the 18th Manchesters, and although the attack was successful, no secure lodgement within the village was achieved and they were in danger of being cut off. Many German counter­attacks in the area were being developed, and gradually the 19th Kings (Liverpool) Regiment began to succumb to the pressure of German counter­attacks on the south of the village and were forced to withdraw. Artillery support for David’s regiment was impossible without incurring enormous casualties, so they fought on, unsupported, until they were all killed or captured. 90th Brigade lost 1463 men. David’s regiment was virtually wiped out, losing 17 officers and 633 other ranks, comparable to losses of almost any unit engaged on day one of the Somme battles. [4]

 David has no known grave, but he is remembered with honour with many of his comrades at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Thiepval Memorial, Somme, between the villages of Bapaume and Albert in France. Grave reference/panel number: Pier and Face 3 C. Their Name Liveth For Evermore.

 No splendid rite is here—yet lay him low,
Ye comrades of his youth he fought beside,
Close where the winds do sigh and wild flowers grow,
Where sweet brook doth babble by his side.
No splendour, yet we lay him tenderly
To rest, his requiem the artillery. [5]

 The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the deadliest day in British Commonwealth military history – of the 57,470 casualties, 19,240 men were killed. Casualties in the Somme battles in 1916 amounted to 419,654, of whom 108,700 men were killed in action. German casualties were significantly higher.


By Richard Farrar



[1] The Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front, op. cit., pp. 116–117.

[2] Montauban-Somme, by Graham Maddocks, Battleground EUROPE Series. Published by Leo Cooper, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., p.102.

[3] Ibid., p.108.

[4] Guillemont – Somme, by Michael Stedman, Battleground Europe Series. Published by Leo Cooper, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., p. 70.

[5] A Soldier’s Funeral, by Sergeant John Streets, Sheffield Pals. Killed in action, Somme, July 1st, 1916.