Private Sidney Godley VC

Sidney Frank Godley was born on 14th August 1889 at North End, East Grinstead. He was the son of Frank and Avis Godley. Frank was a painter and decorator and was son of William Godley, a pit sawyer, who was living at Mount Noddy, East Grinstead in 1881. Sidney’s family, for several generations, had come from the East Grinstead and Felbridge area, and they can be traced back to George Godley, of East Grinstead, in 1770, and Sidney’s paternal grandmother was Harriet Pattenden, from the large Pattenden family of Horne, (part of Felbridge before the Felbridge ecclesiastical was created in 1865). Harriet married William Godley, Sidney’s grandfather, on 3rd March 1855 in the parish of East Grinstead. Sidney’s great uncle John Godley, brother of William, carved the pews at St Swithun’s Church and, in 1881, he is listed as a master carpenter employing 8 men and 2 boys. Little is known about Sidney’s mother only that her maiden name was Newton, and that she died when he was six years old. After her death Sidney was sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Willesden, North London. Sidney attended the Henry Street School in St John’s Wood, and when his uncle and aunt moved to Sidcup he attended the Sidcup National School in Birkbeck Road. Sidney is also known to have stayed with the Wren family at The Tower House, Snow Hill Lane, Snow Hill at some point during his young life, possibly another relative. After leaving school he went to work at an ironmonger’s store in Kilburn High Road where he must have gained a grounding in plumbing as in later life he lists himself as a plumber.

On 13th December 1909 Sidney, then aged 20, joined the Royal Fusiliers, as No. 13814. In the army he was a noted sportsman, being a good cross-country runner, footballer and cricketer. When war was declared in August 1914, his battalion was one of the first to embark for France and then Belgium. Private Sidney Godley arrived at Mons along with the rest of the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers on 22nd August, by the time they reached Nimy the French were having great difficulty in holding the German advance. Early on the morning of 23rd August, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force made its final moves into its defensive positions along the Mons-Condé canal. I Corps, under General Douglas Haig, moving to the East of Mons, and II Corps, under General Smith-Dorrien, a survivor of the massacre at Isandlwana in the Zulu War, covered Mons to Condé. Pte. Sidney Godley formed part of the machine gun section under the command of Lt. Dease, defending Nimy Railway Bridge at the town of Mons in Belgium.

During the ensuing battle Pte. Sidney Godley was stationed on the bridge helping to supply ammunition to the guns. After severe losses the orders came through for the battalion to withdraw. It was decided to try and retreat to the River Marne, where they hoped they would be able to stop the German advance towards Paris. Lt. F W A Steele asked Godley to take over one of the machine guns to cover the retreat. This Godley did, knowing full well that ‘if’ he survived the next few hours he would be taken prisoner by the Germans.

Lt. Dease, the Battalion machine gun officer, was mortally injured so Godley, despite his own serious wounds, took over the machine gun and somehow, single- handed, managed to hold the bridge for two hours giving the Royal Fusiliers the chance to complete their withdrawal. When Godley finally ran out of ammunition he broke up his gun and threw the pieces into the Condé Canal. His actions had inflicted an enormous number of injuries on the German infantry. Godley, his back badly damaged and with a bullet lodged in his head, crawled back from the bridge to the main road and was helped to a first aid post by two Belgium civilians. As his wounds were being dressed the Germans captured the post and Godley was taken prisoner. Despite rigorous questioning, he gave no answers except his name, rank and number. The story of Pte. Sidney Godley’s behaviour, at Nimy on 23rd August, came as no surprise to the Wren family with whom he had stayed as a young child. They knew him as a quiet, shy boy with a stubborn streak and his actions only served to confirm what they already knew of his character.

Godley was sent to Berlin where surgeons removed bullets from his head and back and he had surgery for skin grafts, his back alone requiring 150 stitches. When he was fit enough he was transferred to a POW camp at Doberitz. It was here that the American Ambassador there first told Pte. Sidney Godley that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour available to a British soldier. America had not joined in the war at this point and was therefore a neutral country. Alf Bastin, another prisoner of war at the camp, in his memoirs, outlined the story. At the time it had been thought that Godley had not survived but it was eventually discovered that he was alive and was recovering in the German POW camp. Sidney Godley was the first Private to receive the VC in World War I, which was awarded as joint first with Lt. M J Dease who received the VC posthumously. The citation for Godley by Lt. Steele reads:
‘In defence of the railway bridge at Nimy, 23rd August 1914.
This afternoon Pte. Godley showed particular heroism in his management of the machines guns. Lt. Dease having been severely wounded and each machine gunner in turn shot. Under extremely heavy fire he had to remove three dead bodies to get to the gun’
His award was gazetted on the 25th November 1914. It was reported in the East Grinstead Observer of 26th February 1916…‘that Pte. S F Godley, who won the VC but is now a prisoner of war in Germany, had the ‘honour’ of being invited to dine with German officers on Christmas Day because they understand the VC in England was equal to the Iron Cross in Germany’

Godley remained a prisoner of war for four years until in 1918 he was able to walk out of the camp when the guards deserted their posts during the revolution in Berlin. He made his way to Denmark and from there returned to England in December 1918. His VC was presented to him by King George V in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on 15th February 1919. The Mayor of Lewisham later welcomed him home on 26th February 1919. He was also presented with 50 guineas and a copy of the Lewisham Roll of Honour.

On returning home Sidney Godley carried on with his life and took employment as a plumber. On 2nd August 1919 he married Ellen Eliza Norman, a spinster some five years his senior, from Harlesden, North West London, daughter of George Norman. The marriage was said to have conducted by Sidney’s old army chaplain, the Rev. Noel Mellish VC, but the marriage certificate states that the officiating minister was the Rev. E R Whalley, however, Rev. Mellish VC was the vicar at Lewisham at the time so may well have been in attendance. They had a least one son, who they named Stanley.

In 1920 Sidney Godley returned to his old school at Sidcup and was presented with an inscribed black marble clock and £150 worth of war bonds. In 1921 Sidney Godley took employment as a school caretaker at Cranbrook School, retiring after thirty years service in 1951.

Between the wars Godley worked hard on behalf of service charities, and on occasions would dress up as ‘Old Bill’, a character created by the artist Bruce Bairnsfather. Bairnsfather always maintained that the character was not based on one individual soldier but rather an amalgamation of characters and individuals that symbolised the typical ‘British Tommy’ during the First World War. However, Sidney Godley did bear a striking resemblance to the character and used it to good effect. He had the walrus style moustache, wore his hat at a rakish angle and sported a pipe; on occasions he would wear a helmet with the design of a Union Jack covering it. His likeness was so accurate that he acquired the nickname of ‘Old Bill’, but then he was just a typical soldier from the First World War!

During his life he never ceased to attend ceremonies commemorating the war or special functions arranged for the ‘Old Contemptibles’. In 1931 he took part in the Armistice Service at the Cenotaph in London. In 1938 the people of Mons presented Godley with a special medal. The Mayor of Mons gave him lunch at the Hotel de Ville and Godley was guest of honour. A menu was signed at the luncheon by the guests, including Godley, along with another guest who had fed him with rolls and coffee on the first morning he had arrived at Mons in 1914. In 1939, nearly twenty-five years after the Battle of Mons took place, a party of fifty men from the Royal Fusiliers attended the unveiling of a new bridge at Nimy. During the service a plaque commemorating the heroism of Lt. Dease and Pte. Godley was unveiled. In all Godley made seven visits to Mons, the last being 1939. In 1940 the plaque was taken down from the Nimy Bridge for safekeeping and hidden for the duration of the Second World War.

After retiring Sidney and his wife moved several times ending up in Debden, Essex. Sidney spent his last days in St. Margaret’s Hospital, Epping, Essex where he died on 29th June 1957, aged 67. He was buried in Loughton cemetery with full military honours. The Royal Fusiliers provided a bearer party and fired a volley over the grave. The Rev. Mellish VC came up from Somerset to assist Rev. B W Ottaway in performing the service, and an ‘Old Contemptible’s’ badge was placed on the grave.

In 1961, the plaque commemorating Lt. Dease VC and Pte. Godley VC was returned to its rightful place on the bridge at Nimy. In 1976, a new housing estate at Bexley, close to Sidcup, was named after Godley. In the 1980’s, a decision was taken to build a housing block in Tower Hamlets and to name it after a local hero and Godley’s name was put forward. On 8th May 1992, a plaque was unveiled and the block was called Sidney Godley VC House. In May 1995, Lewisham civic centre unveiled a plaque bearing the names of Sidney Godley VC and Noel Mellish VC, along with those of six other VC winners from the town. The plaque was unveiled by the only surviving person named on it, Cpt. Philip Gardner VC. On 23rd August 1998, 84 years after the action at Nimy, the Town of East Grinstead paid its tribute to Sidney Frank Godley VC in the form of a ‘Blue Plaque’ placed on the council office building at East Court. In November 2000, a ‘Blue Plaque’ was affixed by Loughton Town Council to 164 Torrington Drive, Loughton, where Godley last lived.

It is hoped that in the year 2001 the new office block being erected at the end of Imberhorne Lane, North End, in the area in which Sidney Godley was born in 1889, will bear his name ‘Sidney Godley House’ as a lasting tribute to the birthplace of this courageous local hero, Sidney Frank Godley VC.

Based on notes by Iain W Tidey

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