I’m very pleased to welcome guest blogger and fellow librarian, David Flegg. David is currently researching soldiers who are listed on the Public Library and Museum’s World War 1 honour board. Welcome David!

Of the names listed on the Library and Museum honour board only one soldier was in the employ of the Museum and he came to the institution after a change of occupation.

Percy Gilchrist Towl was born in Ballarat in 1879, the son of local pharmacist Edward Towl. He completed a pharmacy apprenticeship under his father and, in partnership with Harry Fleay, took over running the Sturt Street business when his father retired. Following his father’s death the business partnership was dissolved and in 1910 Percy began studying for a Masters of Science at the University of Melbourne. Upon completion he took up a position as an assistant in the Geological and Mineralogical Department of the National Museum in May 1915. Only six weeks later he volunteered for service with the AIF enlisting as a private on 18 June 1915.

Photograph from Record of active service of teachers, graduates, undergraduates, officers and servants in the European War, 1914-1918 (plate following page 48)

Originally allotted to a reinforcement battalion his leadership potential was recognised and he was passed through to an officer training course. Upon graduation in January 1916 he was commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the newly formed 37th Australian Infantry Battalion the following month.

The battalion’s initial training was at Seymour Camp with Towl being placed in command of No.15 platoon of ‘D’ Company. According to the battalion history the company “contained a large body of farmers”, the type of constituent with which Towl would have been familiar given his Ballarat roots.

Towl and his platoon were shipped to England aboard HMAT Persic arriving in Plymouth on 25 July 1916. More training ensued, this time on the Salisury Plain and as part of their parent Third Australian Division, before they arrived in France in November 1916 .

After a series of trench familiarisation tours their introduction to offensive action came in a series of raids undertaken throughout February 1917 but Towl had returned to England the result of a hernia which required and operation. His recovery took some months and he returned to France in early June at which time he was promoted to captain and command of ‘D’ company following the battalion’s loss of 10 officers during a successful brigade action at Messines.

towl group
37th Australian Infantry Battalion, Australian War Memorial

In the break from the line following Messines the battalion officers organised a series of concerts. Towl, a chorister in his youth, surprised his troops by revealing a side very different from his serious and scientific application of discipline. The battalion history noted,  “He sang with zest the choruses and parodies that were manufactured for the occasion; but he won his greatest applause with the singing of some well-known bass songs, one of which – The Old Bassoon  – was in great demand”.

By October the 37th were back in the line in the Ypres salient. They participated in an attack on Broodseinde Ridge and here Towl was wounded receiving a serious gunshot wound to the head which had him evacuated to England until April the following year.

Although not involved in the first day of the Allied offensive that marked the beginning of the end for Germany on the Western Front the battalion was eventually fed in and saw action for most of August as the Germans fell back. Towl had been transferred to command ‘A’ company and at Clery on 29 August led them forward in an action for which he earned a Distinguished Service Order. The award recommendation details the events:

“This officer was in charge of his company on a night march on an exceedingly dark night . He reached his objective, but on account of darkness and casualties lost touch with both flanks and when daylight came was in an isolated position from which it was impossible to get in touch with his flanks. His company had captured 35 prisoners in the final dash of whom they could only send 18 to the rear and on the objectives found 150 enemy who at first surrendered but finding a small number of their captors made off and organised a counter attack. His company was then in a precarious position – being machine-gunned from practically all around and being attacked from the front and left flank. The attacks were repulsed by Lewis gun and rifle fire but the company was now 20 strong and a withdrawal to a better protected position was imperative as there was great danger of the enemy [enveloping] the small party.

His only officer had been killed and he withdrew to a bank and re-organised all the while inflicting casualties on the enemy.

Several times runners were sent with information but on each occasion they were killed or wounded by enemy rifle and machine gun fire and so [no] news of the company reached his battalion during the day. The company was thus in an isolated position throughout the day and it was only by constant active fighting that it was completely mopped up  and it was due to his energy, skill and personal courage that the company, now reduced to 12, were able to hold out until the arrival of the troops on the right relieved the situation at 3 pm  on the afternoon of the 30th Aug. The situation was all the more difficult as the small company had to guard throughout the day a batch of 15 prisoners who were all brought in on the evening of the 30th”.

When “A” Company finally withdrew on the evening of 30th August, its strength was 1 officer and 10 men. Its casualties had been 6 men killed and 11 wounded. Thirty-three prisoners had been sent back, and next day 40 dead Germans were counted where the company had advanced.

The award was gazetted on 1 February 1919 but Towl never knew of it. Only a week after the action at Clery ‘A’ company were relieving the 44th Battalion when a shell burst in their position. Shrapnel struck Towl in the head, arm and leg. He was transferred to the 41st Casualty Clearing Station but died shortly after. Originally interred at Proyart Cemetery today he lies in Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres.

towl letter
Letter from Chief Librarian & Secretary, Melbourne Public Library. Percy Towl World War 1 Service Record, National Archives of Australia (click to enlarge)

Perhaps the final word can come from the battalion history when it notes the passing of Towl and a fellow officer, “Towl and Ashmead were natural leaders of men, and it was the natural leader who so often paid with his life in the time of crisis. Such men would have been of inestimable value to Australia in the troublesome days that have followed the end of the war.”

Lest we forget.

David Flegg
Librarian, Storage & Digital Collection Services

This article has 6 comments

  1. Wonderful story of an extraordinary hero.
    It would be good to load this story on the RSL Virtual War memorial if David Flegg is agreeable.


  2. Interesting to read this about Towl and co. My grandfather was NG McNicol and he wrote the history of the battalion, and of course he knew Towl.
    Your mention that the 37th did not take part in the first day of the 100 day offensive which ended the war may be a little misleading: they were involved on the 3rd/4th days east of Amiens in the very first time tanks were used at night (10/11 August) . They were attempting a sort of pincer movement with the same Lieutenant McNicol on the ground leading the process as the Battalion scout alongside the British tank commanders. It was a bit of a disaster and the battalion was “cut to pieces” by machine gun fire. The previous day’s use of tanks included the element of surprise: attacking at night did not.
    Interesting also the quotations from the book at the end of your article: Ashmead saved his good friend McNicol ( and others) that night after he was wounded and received the MC for his bravery doing that.
    Ashmeads own father exrpressed similar sentiments about the loss of great people. He was killed in September 1918.
    Do you have other info relating to the 37th? Regards. Bruce

    • Carmen (on behalf of David)

      Dear Mr Cumming

      Thank you for your feedback concerning the blog post “Museum to memorial…”

      The library doesn’t have much in the way of original 37th battalion material. The catalogue indicates a couple of editions of the regimental history and a published diary.

      We do have an oral history interview with John Edward King who served as a private with the 37th Battalion. Currently this is in a format that I cannot make available digitally but if you are interested in listening to it I can follow that up.

      Once again, thank you for the feedback and kind regards

      State Library Victoria

  3. Thank you Carmen for writing this, it is very interesting. I have been researching the 37th as a number of Kiewa Valley Boys were in the regiment and one of them was Ashmead.

  4. I am trying to locate a photo of my Great uncle Robert Richard Livett who served in the 37th and was killed at the Battle of Broodseinde, 4th October 1917. There seems to be a few Battalion photos but I am trying to find a photo which may have a list of names as well.

    • Hi Richard, Thanks for your question. We will look into this for you and reply to your email address. Sarah

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