Joseph Eric Piercy was born in Magill, South Australia, on 17 September 1890. When he was still a young boy his family moved to Perth and took up residence in James Street, Guildford. Piercy was enrolled at the local primary school, before attending Perth Boys High School in James Street, Perth. After school he was apprenticed for five years as a pattern maker with the locomotive department of the Western Australian Government Railways.
Between 1907 and 1910, Piercy served with the Citizen Forces in the 1st Battalion of the Australian Infantry Regiment, where he attained the rank of sergeant. He joined the AIF at Blackboy Hill on 2 September 1914, one month shy of his 24th birthday. He was placed with C Company of the 11th Battalion.
On 31 October, the 11th Battalion embarked at Fremantle on HMAT Ascanius and HMAT Medic. On board Ascanius, Piercy met men of the 10th Battalion, who had boarded the ship in Adelaide. The ships joined the rest of the First Convoy at sea two days after it had left Albany. They reached Suez on 1 December 1914. Late in the evening of 6 December, Piercy and the 11th boarded trains at Alexandria. The next day they reached Cairo and marched to Mena Camp.
After landing on 25 April 1915, the 11th Battalion and other units captured Plugge’s Plateau and pushed on to capture the heights of the second ridge to the left, towards Battleship Hill. In the general confusion, the 11th’s men often became separated and fought localised battles in the labyrinth of gullies and on the ridges. Many found themselves under heavy shell-fire from strong Turkish counter-attacks. During this first day of fighting, Piercy suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. He was evacuated to Tigne Hospital in Malta.
Piercy never returned to Gallipoli. He remained in Malta until August 1915, before being transferred to Fulham Military Hospital in England. By the time he returned to his unit in January 1916, they had withdrawn from Gallipoli via Lemnos Island. They were stationed in Egypt, recuperating, undertaking further training and deployed in the defence of the Suez Canal. In March 1916 Piercy was promoted to lance corporal.
On 27 March 1916, the 11th Battalion entrained for Alexandria. The troops farewelled Egypt on 30 March with 28 officers and 942 other ranks. They embarked on SS Corsican, which was too small for any drill so the men enjoyed a relatively quiet voyage, with the only excitement resulting from the sighting of a submarine.
After a five day voyage, Corsican berthed in Marseilles, France. The next day the battalion marched to the waiting troop train, through streets thronged with local people chanting, ‘Vive l’Australie! Vivent les Australiens!’
The train journey north took the men through the heart of France, passing picturesque villages, blossoming orchards and stately chateaus, and reached Godewaersvelde, near the Belgian border west of Ypres, on 8 April 1916. Their first billets in France were rough barns and outhouses resembling the shearing sheds of Western Australia, familiar to some of the men before the war. The sounds of artillery fire could be heard in the distance.
Ten days later the 11th moved south-west to Sailly-sur-la-Lys, in the Armentières sector, where they spent a month in training and drills. Little touched by the war, the area was dotted with ‘gas schools, bayonet and physical drill schools and bombing schools’. On 25 May, Piercy accidentally wounded his left hand while instructing at the 1st Division Bombing School. The wound was treated in France, but caused him to miss the 11th Battalion’s first foray into the front-line trenches at Fleurbaix.
Piercy re-joined his unit on 11 June 1916, and fought in the bitter battle at Pozières between 22 and 25 July. He sustained gunshot wounds to the face and back and was evacuated to England, where he was admitted to the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol. He was later transferred to the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Harefield, England.
In January 1917, Piercy, now recovered, was selected to attend officer training school. He joined the No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion, passed and qualified on 25 January, and was commissioned as second lieutenant. Embarking for France on 13 February as part of the pool of general reinforcements, Piercy joined the 4th Australian Division Base Depot. He marched out to join the 16th Battalion a week later, however a dose of influenza in March 1917 put him back into hospital. He was still in a casualty clearing station in early April, when the 16th Battalion took part in the disastrous action at Bullecourt that resulted in heavy losses. Piercy rejoined his unit on 18 April, and over the next couple of months the battalion moved between camps in northern France and Belgium, undertaking training or participating in working parties.
In August 1917, the 16th Battalion relieved the 44th in the front line at Messines, subsequently enduring heavy shelling and the loss of 27 men, with a further 40 injured. In September they moved into the Ypres sector, to take up support lines in readiness for the operations to capture the village of Passchendaele. On 26 September they joined the attack at Polygon Wood. Alongside fellow 4th Brigade units, the 16th was to capture the first objective, near Zonnebeke. At 5.50 am on 26 September, it advanced behind a heavy artillery barrage. Piercy, though twice blown off his feet by shell explosions, bravely led his platoon forward, and helped organise troops to capture the objective. The battalion also took 200 prisoners. Piercy received a Commander-in-Chief’s Congratulatory Card for his gallantry, and in October he was promoted to lieutenant. His Congratulatory Card read:
Is brought to notice for very gallant and courageous behaviour in our operations near Zonnebeke on the 26th September 1917. Before the attack this Officer and his sector of our trenches had received a very thorough shelling from the enemy. He was blown off his feet twice and once buried by shell explosion, however, with characteristic devotion to duty, he insisted on leading his Platoon to the attack, and during the operations and the subsequent consolidation, his demeanour was such as to inspire the greatest confidence. He was the centre directing Officer for the attack, and his general grasp of the situation organising a considerable body of men who had been too far forward in our own barrage, and after re-organisation, he led them forward again to their objective. Subsequent to the consolidation of the Red Line he was instrumental in procuring and taking forward, wire, and other materials to the Blue Line. This was done under heavy Machine gun and shell fire, and in this, as throughout the whole operation, he displayed the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty. He is very strongly recommended for high distinction.
Between October 1917 and April 1918, the 16th Battalion spent much of their time in and out of the trenches around the Ypres sector. A brief respite occurred in December 1917 when they entrained for Péronne in northern France, where the ‘originals’ spent their third Christmas overseas. In March 1918 Piercy was granted a month’s leave. It was perhaps during this time that he and two other officers had an amusing run-in with some American YMCA staff in Paris, which formed the basis of an article in Perth’s Western Mail in 1933.
Piercy rejoined his unit in battle on 8 April 1918 near Hébuterne, where they had formed a defensive line in face of the German Spring Offensive. He had missed much of the fighting, including a heavy shell and gas bombardment three days before. The battalion was relieved on 9 April, eventually moving on to Amiens on 27 April.
In early May, the 16th Battalion relieved the 13th in the recently captured village of Villers-Bretonneux, where they spent a week before moving back into the support line near Blangy. By the end of the month the 16th were relocated to the front line on a ridge overlooking Hamel. There, on the night of 15–16 June, they conducted a trench raid. Piercy was officer in charge of wire-cutting operations. After leading his party across nearly 400 metres of no man’s land, he successfully directed the use of Bangalore torpedoes to blow through two sections of German wire, despite enemy bombing. He then led his men into a German trench and established two blocks in a communication trench. For his actions he was awarded the Military Cross.
By August 1918, the 16th Battalion had moved into position along the Somme River and were preparing for the battle of Amiens. On 8 August, using a combination of aircraft, artillery and tanks, a mass of assembled allied forces launched an offensive to push through the German front lines. By mid-afternoon the allies, advancing behind a creeping barrage, had reached and captured the second objective. Under heavy German artillery fire, Piercy led his company forward in the attack. Organising a special flanking party to subdue a German battery, he enabled the left flank’s advance. The 16th Battalion suffered a heavy toll from enemy machine-guns and artillery, but, aided by the 13th Battalion, reached and held their third objective. As he led his men to this objective, Piercy suffered a severe gunshot wound to the leg.
Piercy’s gallantry earned him a bar to his Military Cross, though the recommendation was for the Distinguished Service Order. He was initially treated in the field before being evacuated, via a hospital in Wimereux, to England. His war was over.
Listen to the citation that describes Piercy’s gallantry and cool leadership at Amiens.
Piercy remained in England until early 1919, pursuing undisclosed business interests. He returned to Australia aboard the Nevassa, disembarking at Fremantle on 13 April 1919. His appointment with the AIF was terminated on 5 May 1919.
On his return to civilian life, Piercy did not return to his trade as a pattern maker due to the many injuries that he had received. From 1920 he worked for varying engineering companies in the Perth area, as well as trying his hand as a wine and spirit traveller for White Horse Whiskey. In 1937 he took over the licence of the Vasse Hotel in Busselton, and married Phylis Enid Pearl Cook a year later. The couple had a daughter, Glenis, in 1944.
In the Second World War, Piercy served again as a lieutenant in the Australian Military Forces. He was promoted to captain in 1942. He later joined the Intelligence Corps at Headquarters, Western Command. From 1948 until his retirement in 1960, he worked for War Service Land Settlement, and became known for his knowledge of the farm machinery required by soldier-settlers. He died on 27 September 1967 at the Hollywood Repatriation Hospital in Nedlands, aged 77.
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Joseph Eric Piercy
Australian War Memorial, Honours and Awards – Joseph Eric Piercy
Belford, W 2010, Legs Eleven: Being the story of the 11th Battalion AIF in the Great War, The Naval & Military Press, Uckfield, The Imperial War Museum, London
Gill, I 2008, Bloody Angle Bullecourt & Beyond: 16th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-19, Ian Gill, Perth
Longmore, C Captain 2007, The Old Sixteenth: Being a record of the 16th Battalion, A.I.F., during the Great War, 1914-1918, Hesperian Press, Carlisle
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Joseph Eric Piercy’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; PIERCY, J E LIEUTENANT, W244159, 1914-1920
Western Mail, Perth, ‘Old Nap and JJ’, p 2, 23 March 1933; accessed via National Library of Australia, Trove