During May 1944, the Irish Brigade were involved in their most bitter fighting period since the previous autumn on the Adriatic coast as they joined the spearhead thrust of 78 Infantry Division to break into and through the strongly fortified Gustav Line and move to cut the vital German supply routes along Highway Six, just to the north of Monte Cassino.
During the early part of the month, Major Lawrie Franklyn-Vaile, OC of C Company of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (1 RIrF), continued to write to his wife, Olive, about the circumstances of his battalion’s training regimen and in these letters, Lawrie appeared in a relaxed mood but a noticeable change in tone occurred after the onset of the Allied Armies’ assaults on the Gustav Line during the night of 11th/12th May.
Lawrie’s letter home to his wife, written on 16th May from the Gari bridgehead, is a most remarkable testimony to the honorable traditions of an infantry unit on the eve of battle as he describes how he sought to steady the men of his company during a period of disquiet…
…This was the final letter sent home to Olive as, at about 0730 on the morning of 17th May 1944, Lawrence Franklyn-Vaile was killed by a concentration of German shells, which fell directly on the Faughs’ start line. Despite this set back, the three battalions of the Irish Brigade were entirely successful in achieving the objectives set that day for them.
The final letter in a most remarkable set of correspondence, written on 18th May 1944, was sent to Olive Franklyn-Vaile by Lieutenant Douglas Room, one of C Company’s platoon commanders, and provides an outstandingly moving eulogy of praise for the period of command of Major Franklyn-Vaile.
Faugh a Ballagh!
“May Day and we still seem to have a long way to go to finish the war. Everyone is patiently waiting for the Second Front out here and feels that it is high time that the strain was taken off us here and that the millions of troops at home did their share in winning the war. Personally, I feel that attitude of mind very justifiable – we have had a long and gruelling spell, especially those that have been out here from the beginning of N. Africa and it does appear as if all the fighting is falling on the shoulders of comparatively few troops and one could scarcely ask for worse country to fight over…”
“…Today “C” put on a demonstration for the battalion. I gave the running commentary and it went off extremely well. The CO, just back from leave, said afterwards that he had seen this demonstration given at battalion schools etc on many occasions but never done so well as today and as they had had very little opportunity to practise, it was a highly satisfactory performance…”
“…The weather has become very much hotter and I am getting brown again. We are wearing KD shirts and shorts except for training when we wear KD shirts and denims. We have had quite a strenuous period of training getting up about 5.30 every morning and often not getting back until 7 in the evening. They have all been very big exercises and although I have learnt some useful tips and got still more practice in handling a Company, I cannot say they have been very popular…”
“…In times like this, it is interesting to see how men react. There is not much time for a sentimental attitude towards people especially those holding responsible jobs. The test is not of friendship but of reliability. I have two officers commanding platoons (Pat Howard is away for a few days) and Frank commands the other platoon. The more I see of him here, the greater I admire him, not the big brother sentiment of Ballykinler days but as man to man, someone who I admire for his steadiness and coolness and who I feel I can absolutely rely upon…”
“…I had a lot of trouble with that platoon that day. Four men went and deserted and it began to look as if the real rot was setting in. So I had a very straight talk…and got the whole company together and gave a real hard hitting talk ‘straight from the shoulder’. I spoke of the “white livered gutless skunks” who deserted their comrades, painted a very grim picture of what would happen to them, told them that my risk was far greater than theirs, that I would rather die and ‘know my wife and daughter could hold up their heads for the rest of their lives knowing I had done my job’ rather than ‘live disgraced and bring shame and misery on my family’. I spoke quietly but put every ounce of force I possessed into what I was saying and delivered at such a time and place it had a very big effect….”
I have very sad news to give you.
Yesterday morning, about quarter to eight, Lawrie died. I was about five yards from him when the shell exploded so was with him immediately. I am certain he was not conscious after he had been hit and so suffered no pain. He died in a few minutes. There is so little I can say to help you in your great loss but all my heart and sympathy is with you…”