I joined up as a youngster for a bit of fun, but it didn’t turn out like that. We were young men made old before our time. I felt then, that I had to go to the help of these lads. After all, they were my pals.
Five men tried to get through and I was the sixth. I made a dive and got through. The worst part was that I didn’t know just where our chaps were. I had to find them, and in a run for about 150 yards I went within five yards of one of Jerry’s machine-guns. It was my lucky day.’
—James Towers, V.C., reflects upon events at Mericourt on 6 October 1918 (The Lancashire Daily Post, 12 November 1929).
The outstanding Great War 1918 ‘Final Advance to Victory’ V.C. group of five awarded to Private James Towers, 2nd Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) who, with utter disregard for his own safety, volunteered to carry a vital message, under continuous heavy fire, to a stranded platoon at Mericourt in October 1918 whilst in the knowledge that five of his comrades had already been killed in turn making their attempts to carry out the same task.
Setting out under heavy enfilading machine-gun fire amid scant cover, he moved between shell craters and crawled through barbed wire entanglements, before coming across the slumped body of the first volunteer runner — his close friend, Private Frank Dunlop, the Company Messenger.
Undeterred, Towers continued, only to become pinned down beneath a guarded embankment which, opting for surprise, he navigated with a running leap — landing within five yards of a fully manned enemy machine-gun post whose fire he avoided in the mist by speed of movement and some grace of providence.
Finally reaching the trapped platoon intact, he delivered his vital despatch and guided it back to safety after dusk, his display of supreme courage and determination a great inspiration to all ranks.
V.C. London Gazette 6 January 1919:
‘For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Mericourt on 6 October 1918, when, under heavy fire, five runners having failed to deliver an important message, Private Towers, well aware of the fate of the runners who had already attempted the task, volunteered for the duty. In spite of heavy fire opened on him as soon as he moved, he went straight through from cover to cover and eventually delivered the message. His valour, determination, and utter disregard of danger were an inspiring example to all.’
James Towers was born at 8 Wildman Street, Preston, Lancashire on 8 September 1897, the son of James and Betty Towers. At the time of his birth his father was employed as a cotton loomer but he later took up farming at Broughton, in which work he was assisted by young James after he had attended Emmanuel Boys School.
Enlisting underage in the West Lancashire Artillery in July 1915, Towers was quickly discharged when his true age was established, but he re-enlisted in the 5th Dragoon Guards in August 1916. Subsequently transferred to the infantry, he joined the 2nd Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), and went to France in December 1916, where his unit formed part of 59th Infantry Brigade, 20th Division.
Supreme courage at Mericourt - Victoria Cross
On 6 October 1918, during the Final Advance to Victory, Towers and his comrades in the 2nd Battalion found themselves holding a railway embankment at Mericourt, three miles south-west of Lens in the Avion Sector. Coming under considerable pressure from the enemy, orders were given to retire, an order which failed to reach a platoon in ‘B’ Company under the command of 2nd Lieutenant W. R. Jack, as it had become cut-off in an isolated position between the lines of advancing Germans.
The only means of communication between ‘B’ Company Headquarters and 2nd Lieutenant Jack was by orderly and so a volunteer was called for, a runner to pass on news of the order to retire to the stranded platoon. The first volunteer was killed. Four more volunteers suffered a similar fate in quick succession: James Towers, who had witnessed all five men going down, now stepped forward.
It is said he had a natural sporting ability, the result of leaping dykes and fences on his father’s farm. If so, it was an ability about to serve him well, for the moment he embarked on his seemingly suicidal mission, heavy enfilading machine-gun fire was upon him. Darting from shell-hole to shell-hole, and crawling through wire entanglements, he came across the slumped body of the first volunteer runner - one of his best friends, Private Frank Dunlop.
Undeterred, and hugging the ground, Towers continued on his way until he reached an embankment. Opting for the element of surprise, he broke into a run and leapt over the top, only to land within a few yards of a German machine-gun nest: he landed on his toes and with a few quick bounds disappeared into the mist before the startled Germans had time to react.
Unaware as to the exact location of the missing platoon — ‘The worst part was that I didn’t know just where our chaps were’ — the gallant Cameronian’s persistence eventually paid off, and upon locating them he dug-in with his comrades for the night. The following day, in the early dawn mist, and making use of his newly acquired knowledge of the whereabouts of enemy machine-gun posts, he led the ‘lost platoon’ safely back to B Company area, recovering the bodies of numerous fallen comrades en-route. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, ‘his valour, determination, and utter disregard of danger,’ had been an inspiring example to all who witnessed it. For their coolness and gallant conduct during the operation, 2nd Lieut. Jack received the M.C. and three M.M.s were awarded to N.C.O.s and men of his platoon.
Invested with his V.C. by H.M. King George V in the Quadrangle at Buckingham Palace on 8 May 1919, Towers returned to the Palace to attend the V.C. Garden Party in June of the following year. He was also one of 74 V.C. holders who formed a special Guard of Honour for the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.
The latter years - farming and milk delivery - reunions and royal encounters
Having been demobilized in January 1919, Towers returned to his father’s dairy farm at Durton Lane, Broughton. Later, when his father retired, he set up on his own, running a four acre poultry farm and a milk distribution business.
As reported in The Lancashire Daily Post on 12 November 1929, Towers attended the Prince of Wales’s V.C. Dinner held in the House of Lords in November 1929 — ‘With me being a bit plump and red-faced he remembered me as I went up with my menu — “Hello, you here again!” he said’: on reaching his local railway station at 5 a.m. the following morning, Towers walked the three miles to his home and was out on the streets of Preston delivering milk by 7.30 a.m.
Towers also attended the Victory Parade and V.C. Dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in June 1946, and returned to London to take part in the Centenary Review of Holders of the Victoria Cross by Her Majesty the Queen in Hyde Park on 25 June 1956. During the 1960s and 1970s he attended a number of V.C. & G.C. Association memorial services and dinners.
He died at the Royal Infirmary, Preston in January 1977, aged 79, his last residence having been ‘Mericourt’, Lightfoot Green, Bartle, Preston. He was survived by his wife, Ethel, and his married daughter, Mrs. Marion Castle of Fulwood, Preston. His funeral was attended by Major Ian Ritchie on behalf of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), a regimental wreath accompanying the coffin. Others who attended included Colonel Bob Rainford and representatives of the Preston Council of Ex-Servicemen, and officials from the V.C. & G.C. Association. His ashes were scattered on the January Plot at New Hall Lane Crematorium.
‘James Towers V.C. Close’ was subsequently named in his memory on the Lonsdale Estate in Preston. In more recent years a major thoroughfare in Broughton, opened in 2017, was named for him and on 6 October 2018, the hundred year anniversary of the date of the action which led to the award of his V.C., a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Preston Flag Market.
The Victoria Cross awarded to Towers was one of three won by the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in the Great War and one of a total of 13 such awards to the Regiment for all campaigns and wars. With the exception of Towers’s V.C., all of them are held in regimental museums - the other two Great War issues being held by the Scottish Rifles Museum.
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