100 years ago today, Tom Godfrey had one day left to live

My father, after much prodding, has written a short history of Thomas Godfrey’s service in the Australian Army during World War One.

Tom Godfrey was one of our many relatives who joined up and served during Australia’s bloodiest conflict. His story holds a special place in our family history. But his story will be familiar to many, many Australian families: the story of a son who never returned home.

There are 60,000 of these stories…

*****

100 years ago today, Tom Godfrey had one day left to live.

Tom was a Captain in the 24th Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

He was the Officer Commanding, C Company. Both he and the majority of soldiers of the Battalion were from Victoria and many, like Tom, were from Melbourne.

Tom was born on 25 April 1891 with a twin sister, Ivy, who died eight months later. He had no other brothers or sisters. So Tom was, in reality, his mother’s only child. His mother, Aunty Mill, doted on her boy.

Tom Godfrey & Aunty Mill

Tom and his mother, Aunty Mill, in about 1908.

Tom was educated at Xavier College in Melbourne and went on to become a clerk in an accounting firm, with a view to becoming an accountant himself.

In 1910, at about age 19, he joined the 63rd Infantry Regiment, Australian Militia (The East Melbourne Regiment) and served as a soldier before being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in December 1913.

Enlistment into the AIF

World War One broke out on 5 August 1914 (as it was in Australia). Tom joined the 1st AIF in early 1915 as a 2nd Lieutenant transferring from the Militia. When the 24th Battalion was raised at Broadmeadows in the first week of May 1915, shortly after the landing at Gallipoli, Tom was one of its original officers – a platoon commander in C Company. He was not tall at about 5’7″.

Within a week of being raised and in a huge rush, the 24th Battalion joined the other battalions that made up the 6th Brigade (21st, 22nd and 23rd battalions) at Port Melbourne that were to sail to Egypt. The 23rd and 24th embarked on the 15,000 ton liner Her Majesty’s Australian Troopship (HMAT) A14 Euripides while the 21st and 22nd were on HMAT A38 Ulysses. They all sailed out of Port Phillip Bay on Sunday, 9 May 1915.

For many men – including Tom – that was the last they saw of home.

HMAT A14 Euripides

HMAT A14 Euripides.

A couple of weeks later, they landed at Colombo in Ceylon. Those on the Ulysses were granted shore leave, but those on the Euripides were not – which caused a bit of a mutiny aboard the latter. From the 24th’s official history:

“… only the most resourceful of the troops (who got away early) saw Colombo”.

It’s uncertain how Tom Godfrey fitted into this narrative, but here’s his picture (middle) in Colombo with his cousin 2nd Lieutenant Ted Gaynor of the 23rd Battalion (left), plus another young officer (right):

Tom Godfrey Ted Gaynor

Ted Gaynor (left), Tom Godfrey (centre) and an unknown Australian soldier (right) in Ceylon en route to Egypt in 1915.

On to Egypt where they landed at Alexandria in June 1915 – it was the beginning of summer and bloody hot. A five or six hour train trip followed in temperatures reaching 130°F, taking them to their destination close to Cairo. Then came a 5km march to the camp site near Heliopolis:

“… and this march will never be forgotten. All ranks were wearing heavy uniform, and were encumbered with everything they possessed. The pace was fast, and the troops, as soft as butter after several weeks aboard ship, began to drop as if they had been under enemy fire. The discomfort and strain of such a tramp over heavy sand can hardly be understood without experience”.

The Battalion trained hard in the heat and sand near Heliopolis until towards the end of August, with many soldiers taking every opportunity to see the sights of Heliopolis, Cairo and the Pyramids:

“… and the 24th boys became experts in the art of breaking camp at times and under circumstances which were contrary to orders … some of the young officers are known to have befriended men of the regiment … a successful ruse was to get an officer to fall the party in and march them past the sentries. When challenged, the officer would say ‘Picquet returning from duty’ and the sentry would reply ‘Pass, picquet’ – even when it was plain that men had been out on no military duty”.

The Battalion was very conscious of how things were going at Gallipoli:

“The realities of active service were brought home to us very vividly on witnessing the number of hospital trains which nightly drew into the rear of No 1 Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis. These trains were loaded with sick and wounded men from the Peninsula, whose reminiscences of their experiences gave us a strong desire to get to the scene of hostilities without delay”.

To Gallipoli

At the end of August 1915, the Battalion moved back to Alexandria to board a ship to be taken to Gallipoli. The other three battalions of 6 Brigade were loaded on to three other ships and they all sailed for Lemnos Island. En route, HMAT Southland, carrying staff from 2nd Division HQ and 6th Brigade HQ, as well as 21 Battalion, was torpedoed, killing 33 men including Commander 6th Brigade, Colonel Linton.

Four months after 24th Battalion was raised, it landed at Gallipoli with the rest of the 6th Brigade. It was Sunday, 6 September 1915. They initially occupied “Courtney’s”, “Quinn’s” and “Steele’s” posts at the head of Wire Gully before moving on to Lone Pine on 10 September 1915.

24th Battalion - Gallipoli

Members of the 24th Battalion at Gallipoli marching up the gully from the beach to relieve the 1st Battalion.

And that is where 24th Battalion stayed for the rest of its time at Gallipoli. It did not take part in any huge battles at Gallipoli – those had all concluded. Instead, the men were just faced with the grinding monotony of front line service that saw illness, wounds and occasional deaths gradually whittle the numbers down:

“… the unpleasant work went on – mining, bombing, sniping, and the tiring, unceasing vigil.”

In November 1915, the weather turned very cold and gales and rain swept over the peninsula. In some areas elsewhere in the allied lines, scores of men drowned in their trenches and dugouts when hit by flash flooding. On 27 November 1915, snow fell heavily. The intense cold caused frostbite, sickness and exposure.

The very next day, 24th Battalion was hit by an intense and drawn-out Turkish bombardment including heavy shells up to 11 and 12 inches. Trenches and tunnels were blown in, material was buried and the whole position was thrown into chaos. 43 men were killed and many more wounded. This was the greatest loss the 24th Battalion experienced at Gallipoli.

Less than a month later, Gallipoli was evacuated. Tom was part of the first party of the 24th Battalion to leave, on Saturday, 18 December.

The rest of the Battalion left in staggered parties between then and Monday, 20 December 1915. They all went to the island of Mudros.

“The troops were now in a shabby condition. Many of them were lean and worn, numbers in bad health, and all reduced in weight and strength. If they had been marched through Melbourne as they left Gallipoli, they would have provided a striking contrast to the imposing body of men that left Australia eight months earlier”.

Tom Godfrey had three cousins at Gallipoli – Trooper Pat Dolan in the 8th Light Horse Regiment and 2nd Lieutenant Ted Gaynor and Private Tom Dolan (both in the 23rd Battalion).

Pat Dolan was wounded in the head on 6 June 1915. The bullet blew through one cheek, travelled through his mouth and burst through the other cheek. The day Pat Dolan was shot in the head was the luckiest day of his life. It meant he was evacuated from Gallipoli to hospital, until he had recovered and was returned to Gallipoli two months later. He arrived back at his Regiment on 8 August 1915 – the day after the 8th Light Horse Regiment suffered heavy losses by making the famous charge at the Nek (depicted vividly by Mel Gibson in the last scenes of the movie “Gallipoli”). Pat went on to serve with the Light Horse in Egypt and Palestine before returning to Colac, Victoria, at the war’s end. He lived to a ripe old age.

Ted Gaynor was wounded on 24 November 1915 when his right forearm was smashed by a bomb. That serious wound saw him evacuated back to Australia.

Tom Dolan was also in the 23rd Battalion with Ted Gaynor. He was at the evacuation and went with the 23rd Battalion to France where he was one of the very first Australians killed there, on 19 April 1916 at Fleurbaix. There are no details at to how poor Tom Dolan was killed – sniped or a shell – it is not known. He was 30 years old.

Eleven days after Tom led his party from Gallipoli, his platoon presented him with a gold watch:

Tom Godfrey watch

The inscription reads: Presented to Lieut. Godfrey by No 9 Platoon C. Coy 24th Battn AIF 29 / 12 / 15. Tom was wearing this wrist watch on the day that he was killed.

1915.12.29 (2) Tom Godfrey's gold watch

Just before leaving Gallipoli, Tom was promoted to Temporary Captain.

The 24th Battalion moved back to Egypt after Mudros, to regroup, take reinforcements and re-train.

To Tel-el-Kebir they went in January 1916 and then off into the desert to the east of the Suez Canal for a month, to protect that flank against the Turks. In March, the Battalion handed over to the Kiwis, then made one of the most demanding marches in the entire history of the unit:

“Of all the strenuous marches accomplished by the Battalion whilst on active service, surely this journey over the heavy sand, on a day marked by desert heat of the most oppressive nature, must have pride of place. Carrying full kits and blankets, men began to drop out before two miles had been covered. Water bottles were emptied in the first half hour, and with no means of replenishing the supplies, the troops tramped on till the column became a line of stragglers. Half-way on the journey we came upon some horse troughs, and men stuck their heads down and drank like beasts, defying the officers who forbad them to touch this polluted water. When “Ferry Post” was reached at night, the water tanks of other units there were besieged and almost emptied in defiance of all attempts to check the thirsty men. The weaker men came drifting into the camping area till daylight next morning. Our thoughts turned to the story of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and we wondered whether Russian snows were worse than desert heat”.

By this time, Captain Tom Godfrey was now Officer Commanding, C Company.

On to France

The 24th Battalion returned back to Alexandria on 20 March 1916 and embarked on to two different ships for the sea voyage to Marseilles, arriving there on 26 March 1916. Within a couple of days they endured a snow blizzard.

By 15 April the Battalion was in the front trenches at Fleurbaix – a quiet part of the line that was known as “the nursery” to acclimatise new troops to the conditions of the Western Front. As with all the other Australian units, the 24th Battalion practised section level, then platoon, then sub-unit and then unit tactics.

On 29 June 1916, the 24th took part in its first raid in France, as part of a 6th Brigade raid on the enemy. They seized five German prisoners and killed about 50 others for the loss of five killed themselves.

In and out of the front line. Endless work parties when not in the line. Everyone tired, all the time.

And then came hell on earth….

Pozieres

Starting in late July 1916, 20,000 Australians were killed, wounded or missing in one square mile in just six weeks.

As part of the great Somme offensive of 1916, the AIF was given the task of attacking and capturing the village of Pozieres.

The 1st Division went in on the night of 23-24 July 1916 and, after very tough fighting, ousted the Germans from well-fortified positions. The 2nd Division (including 24th Battalion) went in to relieve the 1st Division on 26 July 1916. Through the town of Albert to smashed trenches and Sausage Gully, the 6th Brigade fought to relieve the 2nd Brigade.

Black night, flares, artillery shells, gas shells.

The 24th Battalion relieved the 8th Battalion. Just as the hand-over was occurring, there came a smashing barrage of German 5.9 inch shells.

As daylight broke on 27 July 1916, the Germans hit the Australians with all the artillery they had. Whole sections were killed, buried, wounded. Hour after hour of drum-fire artillery. Men were buried by huge spouts of earth – dug out by mates – and buried again.

“The ordeal of holding those ghastly trenches, which appeared to be merely waiting for death, threw many of the men into shell-shock stupor, and stretcher bearers who struggled with the wounded had to kick the dazed men to induce them to move out of the way …

… the braver men displayed their contempt for death by squatting down and playing cards while the earth-shaking explosives fell all around them; and every time the cards were shuffled, the strength of the platoons dwindled away …

… the vicinity of the captured concrete blockhouse “Gibraltar” was a terrible death trap … every track over the remains of the village changed shape a dozen times a day under the deluge of shells that fell there, and men went past “Gibraltar” and down “Death Road” at the double. Stretcher bearers with wounded were swallowed up in the inferno and fatigue parties sometimes had half their numbers cut down just trying to get through …

… about 200 reinforcements arrived while were in Sausage Gully and were allotted to the companies, but many of them, being sent forward immediately with the fatigue parties, became casualties before the platoon commanders had time to include them on their rolls”.

The Brigade attacked on the night of 4-5 August 1916 under tremendous machine gun and artillery fire. Heavy casualties were sustained but there was some success before the inevitable German counter-attack.

On 7 August 1916 disaster struck. The 24th Battalion’s HQ was hit by a shell. The Second-in-Command, the Regimental Medical Officer, the Adjutant and the Assistant Adjutant were all killed. The Commanding Officer was wounded.

The Battalion was taken out of the line a day later but returned on 18 August for the 22 August attack on Mouquet Farm.

It was a mess of artillery barrages, machine gun fire, bombing parties and endless rain and mud. Men were wounded by the dozens and exhaused stretcher parties floundered about. The German “Minenwurfers” added to the noise, obliterating whole sections of trenches and the men in them.

24th Battalion - Pozieres

Remnants of the 6th Brigade returning from Pozières, August 1916.

24th Battalion - Mouquet Farm

CO 24th Battalion (LTCOL James) addresses his soldiers at the Battalion’s Mouquet Farm memorial in 1918.

The 24th Battalion was relieved on the night of 26-27 August 1916. To Albert, then Warloy, then Herrissart, then 14 miles in the rain to Bonneville.

Then by train to Proven in Belgium for a rest, until the end of October, 1916.

And, after that, the agony of the winter of 1916-1917 back at the Somme. The 24th Battalion’s official history described late 1916 this way: 

“November 1916 was surely our worst month on active service. It was a period of indescribable agony”.

With winter coming on, the 24th Battalion was detailed for work on an extension of a railway in the vicinity of Delville Wood, about four miles behind the front line.

“There was no camp or shelter of any kind here, and the men were marched on to a vacant piece of ground and informed this was to be their ‘home’. A dog might have died at the thought of trying to camp in such a spot. Mud and shell-holes were its conspicuous features. It was encompassed by the main roads, on which all the traffic of war ploughed through the slush; howitzer batteries on the edge of the wood kept up a continual din and drew enemy shells; the whole wood was reeking with the stench of the dead, and the whole aspect was one of turmoil and discomfort. The troops did not possess a blanket, and all that was offered for shelter from the rain and cold, as well as from the shells, were their waterproof sheets and greatcoats …

… the work on the railway line was begun immediately and, after a day of strenuous labour, shovelling, picking, and carrying heavy timber or rails, they came back to make themselves a hole to sleep on the sodden ground. The mud had to be shovelled away to get a resting place, but to attempt to dig a funk-hole meant the creation of a small dam, for water drained into every excavation that was made”.

German artillery harassed the place with fire because it was next to a battery of heavy guns. And that was not the only problem:

“Everybody had a cold, some developed bronchitis, while rheumatism was as common as iron rations”.

On many a night, having worked in the cold and wet and mud all day on the railway, the men came back to camp to find they were detailed for fatigues, to  go to the trenches through miles of darkness and mud in order to work on trench maintenance and development.

During this time, on 14 November 1916, the acting CO of the Battalion, Major G.M. Nicholas DSO was killed by German shell fire whilst leading part of the Battalion forward to support an attack to be made by the 5th and 7th Brigades. Captain Tom Godfrey temporarily took command. The next day, it started snowing.

“The period of operations at Flers will remain as a dreadful nightmare in the minds of the men who were there. The whole field was a vast bog, while rain, intense cold, and dense fogs continued day after day. Men strained themselves to the point of exhaustion as they floundered through the mire, sinking deep in the slush, embalmed from head to foot with mud, and often unable to extricate themselves from the grip of the morass. Their weapons were at times clogged and useless, their clothes soaked and grimy and their hearts threatening to sink in despair as their bodies sank in the puddled earth … Death was a welcome deliverer from the physical and mental agonies of these cruel days, while wounds added pain and suffering indescribable, and made the afflictions of stricken men worse than the accredited tortures of hell.

It was with difficulty we got our men out of the worse parts of the trenches. Wooden planks and pieces of wire had to be used to drag them out of the veritable ‘slough of despond’ into which they sank. Some, unable to move, became alarmed by the thought that in the dark they might be left behind, and they cried out in their despair”.

In January 1917, the 24th Battalion rotated with the other battalions of the 6th Brigade through the front line, or on construction duties, or on other fatigues.

“The troops were in a sad plight. In some cases the trench-feet complaint was so acute that the feet were badly discoloured and so swollen that boots could only be removed by being cut off. Men groaned with the pain and the burning sensation that afflicted their extremities …

… one evening when the Battalion was ordered to move into the line, a man turned to his mates and said ‘I’m not going in – I’m finished’. A rifle shot rang out, and the man dropped to the ground. He had shot himself through the chest”.

*****

To be continued…

Author: Bernard Gaynor

Bernard Gaynor is a married father of seven children. He has a background in military intelligence, Arabic language and culture and is an outspoken advocate of conservative and family values.

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