I didn’t get to know my great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, until I was in my late teens and studying for my History degree. The relationship had a profound impact on me and shaped the course of my studies and my professional life. What makes this relationship interesting is that my great uncle had died 60 years before we ‘met’.
Frank Towle was born in Kingston Upon Hull in 1924, the eldest child of Ivy and Harry. As a boy he enjoyed roller-skating, summer camps and spending time with his sisters, Brenda and Marjorie my grandmother. At the outbreak of war he was 15, and separated from his mother and younger sisters who had been evacuated to nearby Driffield. He wrote to his mother describing the air raid shelter he had helped construct in his grandmother’s garden, signing off ‘your ever loving son’. Frank was also a workingman, employed by Freemans, a company who repaired the damaged gas pipes following the numerous air raids.
On the 3rd of March 1943, three months after his 18th birthday, Frank was conscripted into the army for the ‘duration of the emergency’. He was based in Lincoln at ‘New Barracks’ on Burton Road, an Infantry Training Centre. Frank made friends with other new recruits, and enjoyed boating on the lake where he helped new friend Bing’s hat to sink with an oar! On the 5th of April, the chaplain, who was also the vicar of the regiment, confirmed Frank at Lincoln Cathedral. His family travelled to Lincoln on the train to attend the confirmation, they stood outside the cathedral as the soldiers marched in. Marjorie bought a small metal Lincoln imp and had it made into a brooch for her coat, a symbol of her solidarity with her brother. After six weeks Frank earned his cap badge, a bi-metal sphinx with ‘Egypt’ and ‘Lincolnshire’ inscribed on it, and was assigned to the fourth battalion. Frank remained with them throughout 1943 and early 1944, training all over the country including the on Isle of Bute, the Salisbury Plain and in Kessingland.
D Day, the assault on Nazi occupied France on June 6th 1944, was a key turning point in the war, leading to the surrender of the German army in May 1945. Frank and the 4th Lincolns should have crossed the Channel just one day after this initial invasion force however, because of poor weather and the congestion on Gold Beach, it was delayed for several days. Despite it still being dull and rainy, Frank and his fellow Lincolns eventually left the marshalling area for Newhaven and the infantry landing ships, on Friday the 9th of June or D-Day +3. From this point Frank lived his life as a soldier on the fighting front, experiencing intense periods of fighting, interspersed with short rests. Frank and the 4th Lincolns fought their way through France, including heavy engagements at Le Harve and the Falaise pocket, and into Belgium.
Frank acquired a camera from a German prisoner and sent his mother a photo of himself and his comrades in a French orchard. In the accompanying letter Frank wrote that he hoped the war would be over by Christmas as he did not want to spend his birthday, the 25th of December, on the front lines. He also joked that Monty, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, must think he was a robot as there was no sign of leave. Sadly Frank did not experience a period of leave or spend Christmas at home with his family. He was killed sometime in the last 4 hours of the Battle of Poppel, on the Belgian Dutch border, by a piece of Shrapnel to the head. It was the 7th of October 1944, and his mother’s birthday. Frank was 19.
Frank’s parents were informed by a telegram, sent on the 17th of October, 10 days after his death that he had been killed. He is buried at Leopoldsburg War Cemetery with many others from his brigade. The family chose the opening lines of the Rupert Brooke poem ‘The Soldier’ as the inscription on his headstone: ‘There’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’. Frank and the soldiers he died with are also remembered on a memorial stone in the village of Poppel, his name being one of 27 listed. This memorial, paid for by the municipality, is apparently quite unique being one of only a handful in the area, which actually mentions the names of the soldiers killed.
On the 1st of August 1951, Ivy received a letter from the Lincolnshire regiment, informing her that a memorial book was to be laid in Lincoln Cathedral. The Colonel of the Lincolnshire Regiment would present it during a remembrance service on the 11th of November 1951, at 10.30am. In the service Colonel Griffiths, of the Lincolnshire Regiment, presented the book saying. ‘Mr Dean, I present to this cathedral Church the book containing the names of 1176 officers and men of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment who gave their lives in the service of their country during this last war. I bid you take good care of it and I beg you to guard it with reverence.’ The Dean replied ‘Sire, we shall reassure this book which you commit to our keeping in grateful and abiding memory of those whose names are written in it.’ It is thought that Frank’s family did not attend the service, as it was too painful. The memorial book remains in the cathedral to this day in the soldier’s chapel.
A gap of 60 years separated the death of my great uncle Frank Towle, aged 19, and my own 19th birthday in the midst of my History degree. At this point I ‘met’ Frank through the letters and documents my grandmother had saved. Despite the separation of the years, we are linked by blood and by my remembrance of his life and untimely death.
By Annabelle Esme Dobson, PhD student, Bishop Grosseteste University