Sidney Frank Godley was awarded his Victoria Cross in Belgium for valour during the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914. As a result, he became the first private soldier to be awarded the decoration in the Great War.
Born in East Grinstead, West Sussex, Sidney will be the first serviceman to be remembered with a 2014 centenary commemorative paving stone in the United Kingdom. (The first man to win the VC in the Great War - in the same action - was Lt Maurice Dease who was born in County Westmeath, Ireland. The award of both VCs was recommended by Lt F Q A Steele, a surviving oficer witness.)
Sidney was the son of Frank Godley, a house painter, and his wife, Avis Newton. The couple had two children, Kate born in 1888, and Sidney, born a year later in Imberhorne Lane, North End, East Grinstead on 14 August 1889. After his mother died in 1895, the five year-old Sidney was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Willesden, North London, where he attended Henry Street School in St John's Wood. His father later re-married and decided to move to Sidcup, to where Sidney returned to live with him and his new step-mother. Sidney continued his schooling at Sidcup National School in Birbeck Road.
At the age of 14, he left school and returned to Kentish town where he got a job working in an ironmongers in Kilburn High Road, and it was at this time that he began training as a plumber, as it would be a useful trade. Six years later Godley enlisted in the 4th Royal Fusiliers on 13 December 1909 when he was allocated the service number of 13814. During his army service he was to become a noted battalion sportsman, in particuar in cross-country running and football.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Godley's battalion, part of 9 Brigade in the 3rd Division of the British Expeditionary Force, was one of the first to embark for the continent and arrived in Le Havre on 13 August. The division then assembled in the Amiens area and later left for the Belgian border by train. On 22 August the battalion reached the village of Nimy to the north of Mons and latterly had to march through a mixture of very hot and wet weather before taking up and preparing defensive positions at Nimy Rail Bridge on the western face of a bend of the Mons-Conde canal. To their right was the 4th Middlesex Regiment covering the eastern section of the canal bend. The invading German army was across the canal and it would only be a matter of time before, by sheer weight of numbers, the BEF would be overwhelmed.
The situation became increasingly desperate and, at first, Godley's role was to serve with a machine-gun section under the direction of Lt Maurice Dease and help to provide ammunition for the guns. However, as casualties mounted, including the mortally wounded Lt Dease, orders were given to retire. After these orders had been given, Godley was asked by Lt F W A Steele to man one of the machine guns, which would help to cover the retreat. First he had to push the bodies of dead or wounded machine gunners to one side; he knew with certainty that he would be be taken prisoner or, possibly, killed.
Although badly wounded himself, heroically Godley managed to hold the bridge single-handed for two hours, while the Royal Fusiliers carried out their retirment. Eventually, after running out of ammunition, his final act was to destroy his machine gun and toss the pieces into the canal. It is more likely that the gun was actually destroyed by enemy fire, as the battalion war diary states. However, tremendous damage had been inflicted on the German infantry who had had squandered many lives during the Nimy fighting.
Godley recalled what happened at one point on the bridge, in a BBC programme in 1954 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Mons battle, when he said:
...a little boy and girl came up on the bridge, and brought me some coffee and rolls. I was thoroughly enjoying the rolls and coffee, and talking to the children the best I could, when the Germans started shelling. So I said to this little boy and girl; ' You'd better sling your hooks now, otherwise you may get hurt.' Well, they packed their basket and left.
Godley then crawled back to the main road where he was helped to a hospital by two Belgian civilians. It was when he was having his 27 wounds dressed that control of the hospital was taken over by the Germans, at which point he became a prisoner of war. He was asked many questions, such as which unit he belonged to and who was his commanding officer but he refused to answer. He was then sent to Berlin for surgery and skin grafts; his back alone needing 150 stitches. When he was fit enough, he was transferred to a POW camp at Doberitz. The senior officer at the camp was the first man to tell Godley of his award of the Victoria Cross and duly congratulated him and invited him to dine with him on Christmas Day! This would have been subsequent to 25 November 1914 when his award was gazetted. Godley was to remain a prisoner for four years, and was able to walk out of the camp in 1918 after the camp guards had deserted their posts during the revolution in Berlin.
Godley then returned to England having made his escape via Denmark. He was duly presented with his VC by King George V in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on15 February 1919. His brief VC citation was
'....For coolness and gallantry in fighting his machine-gun under a hot fire for two hours, after he had been wounded at Mons on the 23rd August.'
He was welcomed home by the Mayor of Lewisham 11 days later on 26 February and presented with 50 guineas (£54) and a copy of the Lewisham Roll of Honour.
In 1919 Godley took up plumbing as his trade and married Ellen Eliza Norman, who was five years his senior and a friend of his sister. The marriage took place at St Mark's Church, Harlesden on 2 August 1919 with the Rev E N Mellish VC MC officiating. The couple were to have two children. The following year, the Sidcup National School presented Godley with a marble clock and £150 worth of War Bonds. Also in 1920 he attended the June Garden Party for VC holders at Buckingham Palace. In 1921 he gave up plumbing, when he secured a job as a janitor at Cranbrook School in Tower Hamlets where he remained working for the next thirty years.
Between the wars Godley worked very hard on behalf of service charities and on occasions dressed up as 'Old Bill', the character created by the artist Bruce Bairnsfather. It is true that he did bear some likeness, and he used the similarity in his charity work. However, the writer is one of those who considers that the character was not based on one individual soldier but rather than on an amalgam of characters and individuals. He was more a symbol of a typical Britsh Tommy in the First World War than a real person. Godley, however, used the likeness to good effect and wore a walrus moustache and combined this with sporting a pipe and wearing his cap at a jaunty angle. On occasions he wore a helmet with the design of the Union Jack covering it. He never ceased to attend ceremonies commemorating the war or special functions arranged for the 'Old Contemptibles' and in November 1931 took part in the Armistice Service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.
In April 1939, nearly twenty-five years after the Battle of Mons, a party of 50 men from the Royal Fusiliers attended the unveiling of a new railway bridge at Nimy. During the service a plaque commemorating the heroism of Lt Dease and Pte Godley was unveiled. In the previous year Godley had been presented with a special medal by the people of Mons and, in total, he made seven visits to Mons, but 1939 was to be his last. The Mayor of Mons hosted a special lunch at the Hotel de Ville when Godley was guest of honour. Another of the guests, who also signed a menu of the luncheon, was one of the children who had fed Godley with rolls and coffee in 1914. In 1940 the plaque was taken down from the bridge for the duration of the war and not returned to its position until 1961.
In 1954 Godley gave an interview to the Daily Express on the 40th anniversary of the Mons battle on 23 August and said:
'it was Sunday. People in their best suits were going to church.They didn't know the Germans were so near,of course. No one did. Then suddenly the enemy was everywhere....'
Godley was virtually a 'local boy' to the Regimental Fusiliers who had a museuim and base at the Tower of London and he was very fond of London's East End. He not only had links with Tower Hamlets but also Bethnal Green. His home address was Digby Street off Glebe Road, E1. However, late in his life decided to move to No 164 Torrington Drive, Loughton, in Essex. He attended the centenary VC celebrations in London in 1956 but sadly, a year later, he died of pneumonia on 29 June at St Margarets's Hospital, Epping. He was buried on 5 July with full military honours in grave 3051 at Loughton Cemetery, St John's Church. At his funeral the Revd B W Ottaway was asisted by the Revd Mellish, VC who, although retired, travelled up from Somerset for the service. Mellish had also conducted Godley's marriage service in 1919. A firing party from the Royal Fusiliers provided a bearer party and fired a volley over the grave. An ' Old Contemptible' s badge was placed on the grave. Ellen, Sidney's widow, died in March 1963 when she was 77 and was buried in the same grave alongside her husband.
Such was Godley's fame that his memory was to be commemorated in several ways. His name is remembered with a memorial in the Garrison Church in Portsea, Hampshire and, in 1976, a new group of sheltered housing flats were named after him in Bexley, Greater London (but since then they have been threatened with closure). On 23 August 1985 further commemorations took place at Mons, organised by the Royal Fusiliers, when many of Godley' s family attended the ceremonies. In the 1980s a decision was taken to build a housing block in the Borough of Tower Hamlets which was to be named after a ' local hero' .
At first, the name of Blair Peach was suggested by the then council. Peach, a teacher from New Zealand aged 33, was killed during an anti-fascist demonstration against the National Front in Southall in 1979. In 2010 it was admitted by the Metropolitan Police that one of their officers was responsible for the blow that killed the young man. There was a lot of discussion in the council chamber on the merits of the two men but finally it was Godley's name that was agreed upon. Eventually, the plaque was unveiled on 8 May 1992 and the housing block called the Sidney Godley VC House. Godley's son, members of the Royal Fusiliers and members of the council attended the unveiling.
Other commemorations can be found in the Lewisham Civic Centre unveiled in May 1995 by Capt Philip Garner to the memory of Godley and Mellish, as well as six other VC holders who had local connections. Three years later East Grinstead Town Council in West Sussex put up a plaque to Godley's memory on the council office at East Court, which was unveiled in August. In November 2000, in his last home town, Loughton Town Council also put up a plaque on the house he lived in, number 164 Torrington Drive. In 2002 the Royal Fusiliers revamped the Nimy Plaque at the railway bridge, and a special ceremony took place on 15 May.
Godley's VC, which had always been in ownership of the family, was offered for sale at Spinks in July 2012, when it fetched the hammer price of £230.000. His other medals included: the 1914 Star and Clasp "5th Aug- 22nd Nov 1914"; British War Medal; Victory Medal; King George VI Coronation Medal; and Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.
Article and image contributed vy Gerald Gliddon.
This account is based on the account of Godley's career which is included in 'VCs of the First World War 1914', published by The History Press in 2012.