Edgar Towner


Edgar Towner : biography

19 April 1890 – 18 August 1972

On the night of 10/11 June 1918, Towner was in command of a machine gun section during an attack to the south of Morlancourt. One of the first to reach the objective, he deployed his section and got its guns into action "very quickly". By using captured German machine guns he was able to increase his section’s fire and provide support to the company on his right as it advanced, seized, and consolidated its position. During the morning of 11 June, one of the posts held by the Australian infantry was blown in by German artillery; braving machine gun and sniper fire, Towner went out in daylight to help reorganise the post. Cited for his "cheerful and untiring attitude" and for "set[ing] a conspicuous example", Towner was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. The announcement of the award and accompanying citation was published in a supplement to the London Gazette on 24 September 1918.

Victoria Cross

On 1 September 1918, Towner was in command of No. 3 Section of the 7th Machine Gun Company during an attack on Mont St. Quentin, near Péronne. Armed with four Vickers machine guns, the section was attached to the right flank of the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion, whose principal objective was to seize the summit of Mont St. Quentin. To accomplish this, the battalion would have to advance through the village of Feuillaucourt before moving down to the Péronne road. The Australians began their advance at 06:00 behind an artillery screen, with Towner’s section covering a front of . Visibility was limited by rain, and Australian casualties soon began to mount. Locating a German machine gun that was causing heavy losses among the advancing troops, Towner rushed the position and single-handedly killed the crew with his revolver. Having captured the gun, he then turned it on the Germans.

Once Feuillaucourt had fallen, the 24th Battalion continued to the Péronne road. However, the Germans had occupied a copse of trees and put up strong resistance, halting the advance. German troops were observed massing for a counter-attack, so Towner moved forward with several of his men, two Vickers guns, and the captured German gun, and brought the assembling Germans under concentrated fire, inflicting many casualties. Attempting to retire, a party of twenty-five German soldiers were cut off by Towner’s guns and taken prisoner. Under heavy incoming fire, Towner then scouted over open terrain to locate advantageous positions from which his guns could offer further support. When he moved his section forward, the machine gunners were able to engage more groups of German soldiers; their aggressive action enabled the advance to be renewed, and the battalion attained the cover of a sunken section of the Péronne road. However, on rejoining them Towner found that his section was growing short of ammunition, so he made his way back across the fire-swept ground and located a German machine gun, which he brought forward along with several boxes of ammunition. This he brought into action "in full view of the enemy"; his effective fire forced the Germans to retire further, and allowed one of the stalled Australian flanks to push ahead.

German machine gunners had occupied a commanding vantage overlooking the sunken road, and began to rain down heavy fire around Towner’s position. One of the bullets struck his helmet, inflicting a gaping wound to his scalp. Refusing to be evacuated for medical treatment, Towner continued firing his gun as the German pressure increased and the situation grew critical. Eventually the Australian infantry were forced to retire a short distance, but with all its crew having become casualties, one gun was left behind. Alone, Towner dashed out over no man’s land and retrieved the weapon. With this gun he "continued to engage the enemy whenever they appeared", putting a German machine gun out of action with his accurate fire.

Throughout the night, Towner frequented the front lines and "continued to fight and … inspire his men". He provided supporting fire for the 21st Australian Infantry Battalion as they assaulted a heavily fortified crater on Mont St. Quentin’s summit, and repeatedly reconnoitred the German position to reported on troop movements. The next morning his section assisted in repulsing a large German counterattack before Towner was finally evacuated with exhaustion—thirty hours after being wounded. Initially admitted to the 41st Casualty Clearing Station, he was transported by train to the 2nd Red Cross Hospital at Rouen. For his actions during the battle, Towner was awarded the Victoria Cross—the third of six Australians to receive the medal during the fighting around Mont St. Quentin and Péronne.