It is 100 years since First World War hero Jim Towers’ act of bravery saw him awarded the Victoria Cross and as a new memorial recognises his bravery we publish the last interview he gave to the Lancashire Post.
In the half-light of a misty morning on October 6, 1918, Pte Jim Towers stealthily stalked his way alone through barbed wire entanglements into no man’s land, near Lens, France. Keeping low to avoid keen-eyed German snipers, Jim leapt from cover to cover like a nimble squirrel among the stunted trees. Here and there, among the churned-up sea of mud, stiffened soldiers’ corpses lay with open staring eyes. Horrific sights like this no longer shocked him, as he continued to dodge his way forward.
After serving in France from the age of 18, and having twice been wounded and sent back to the trenches he was now, at 21, as experienced as any veteran in frontline warfare. Jim was born in Wildman Street, Preston, and had attended Emmanuel Boys School. Before volunteering for the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in 1915, he had worked on his father’s farm, at the corner of Durton Lane and Garstang Road, Broughton. Leaping dykes and fences in the fields around his home had given him a natural agility, which that day was to help in saving his life and the lives of 30 trapped comrades – a daring action which won him the Victoria Cross.
The Germans were making their last desperate big push, which was to end in their surrender on November 11, five weeks later. On the day in question Jim was on anti-aircraft gun duty as his regiment was holding the shell-ruined village of Mericourt, when the order was given for them to retire. However, the message did not get through to one group of about 30 men, surrounded on three sides by German machine-gunners.
When it was realised they would be cut off, a volunteer was asked for to go out alone and lead them back to the British lines.The first volunteer only managed to advance 200 yards before he was shot and wounded. The second was killed and three others were shot in quick succession.
The situation had reached crisis point when Jim volunteered to have a try. He had an idea where the men were likely to be, as he had crawled through the German lines before on night patrols. He set out beneath the heavy crossfire from just 20 yards away, darting from shell hole to shell hole for protection until he reached an earth embankment. There, lying at the foot of the slope, was the body of one of the volunteers who had tried to get through.
He was one of Jim’s closest pals, Frankie Dunlop, the company’s messenger. Huddling close to the earth for protection and to recover his breath, Jim planned his next move like a wily fox. In the three years that Jim had been fighting on the Western Front, he had acquired the wiliness of a seasoned veteran; life had become a continual watch against the menace of death.
He knew the Germans would be watching the top of the bank, ready to pick off any one who showed himself. Leaping fences and gates at his father’s farm had endowed Jim with a natural agility - and he knew he would have to clear the bank in one leap. Over he went in the half-light of dawn.
He got the shock of his life. Only a few yards away was a German machine gun nest. The astonished Germans could only stare at him. In a flash, Jim dashed straight ahead, and by the time they had turned their guns round, he was dodging through the stunted trees faster than he had ever run before.
The German fire missed him, and he reached the trapped men who had dug themselves in. On relaying his message, the sergeant of the platoon shook Pte Towers’ hand and told him what a, “silly idiot” he had been to take such a risk.
He remained with them until dusk, and then led them like an army of ghosts through the German lines to safety. On the way back, they recovered the bodies of some of their comrades. When they arrived at safety his comrades stripped Pte Towers’ tunic of buttons, cut up his lanyard and took articles of his kit as souvenirs.
When news of Jim’s Victoria Cross award reached Broughton there was a welcome archway to greet him. But Jim was never a lad for fuss, and quietly slipped the back way into his parent’s home at Church Farm and surprised them.
READ MORE: One hundred years since his great sacrifice for his pals, Preston hero James Towers VC is remembered
A fete was held in his honour in the village hall, and the parish council presented him with a plaque. He received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. The citation said: “His valour, determination and utter disregard of danger were an inspiring example to all."
Almost each year since then, Jim and his wife Ethel have been invited to one of the Royal households for the annual reunion of VCs. During his time in France Jim experienced continuous heavy campaigning, took part in the third Battle of Ypres and he was wounded in August 1917. Jim and Ethel have lived for some years in quiet retirement in their small bungalow in Sandiforth Lane, Bartle.
“It all seems a long time ago now, said Jim, as he sat back in his armchair, “but I can still remember it. I’ve never visited Mericourt since.” Of the war, he said: “We were young men made old before our time due to the mud, gas and constant bombardment. “As much as anything we feared drowning in shell holes, which were always filled with deep water. There wasn’t much chance at night wearing a heavy pack”
What does he think of his brave action 58 years ago? “It was a bloody daft thing to do - but they were my pals and I had to help them. I joined up as a youngster for a bit of fun, but it didn’t turn out like that, “ he explained. “We were young men made old before our time. I felt I had to go to the help of these lads, because they were my pals.
“I had been in worse situations than that before, and no medals were awarded, but that’s how it was.”
Asked in 1976 whether he thought of the young men of the day would be capable of following the brave examples of their fathers and grandfathers of the First and Second World Wars, he said: “If there were another war, there would be plenty of young fellows ready to join up, and probably those who cause the trouble at football would be among the first to volunteer. With a bit of discipline they would be all right.”
Jim used to appear regularly in Remembrance Day parades until arthritis restricted him in later life. At the time of that last interview he wondered whether the parades should be dropped for good, although he believed the Poppy appeal should continue. He said: “A lot of men were badly maimed during the wars, and it is right that they should be looked after for the rest of their lives.”
* This is an edited version of an article first published in the Lancashire Evening Post in November 1976. Jim Towers died at his home in Bartle the following year aged 79 after a long illness.