On 4 October 1917, Tom Godfrey MC was killed at the Battle of Broondseinde. His story holds a dear place in our family history but it will also be familiar to many other Australian families – there are 60,000 similar tales that ended with shattered families back in Australian suburbs and in the regions.
The scale of heartache suffered during World War One is something that is entirely forgotten today. About one in four working age males served in the Australian Imperial Force. Half of those were killed or wounded. Statistically, about every 6th home was mourning a dead son, husband or father or tending the shattered body of a broken veteran.
My father continues Tom’s fascinating story below. Read Part One here: 100 years ago today, Tom Godfrey had one day left to live…
The advance to Bapaume
In late February 1917, great things started to happen because the Germans suddenly withdrew to a new defensive position – the Hindenburg Line – many kilometres behind the current front line. They did this to shorten their line, reduce the numbers they needed to defend their trenches and to occupy positions of great strength that had been carefully chosen and constructed.
The advance began on 24 February 1917 and lasted for a bit over a week as the Battalion focussed on keeping in close contact with the withdrawing enemy:
“After the long period of trench warfare, without appreciable change in the situation, this advance, particularly during the night, was a new experience, and everybody felt the lack of confidence in respect to the operations. The only safe course was to keep close to the heels of the enemy, and in the dark this was at times an exceedingly difficult task, owing to our not being familiar with the country and the nature of the German defences…
The Boche left many traps for our men. Many old watches, revolvers and other appealing souvenirs lying around were attached by cords to hidden explosives. A few of our fellows were caught, but they soon became wary of these Hun tricks.”
With respect to German booby traps, the worst was the large time bomb left hidden in the Town Hall at Bapaume. The Australians entered Bapaume on 17 March 1917 and settled in. The Town Hall was used as an administrative building and a depot for the Australian Comfort Fund, which provided food and hot drinks for the troops.
The bomb, concealed in a cellar, was triggered by a spring operating a striker. The spring was set in motion by the eating through of a steel wire suspended in acid and exploded on the night of 25-26 March, killing about 30 people and completely destroying the building.
The Battalion spent until the end of April 1917 consolidating their advance forward. They were now facing the Germans in the formidable Hindenburg Line. As the bitter, deadly winter had passed and spring had arrived, it was now time to begin planning for the major offensives that lay ahead over the next six months.
The Australians had no intention of letting the Germans sit quietly and in great strength in their new line. Plans began immediately to attack and seize part of the line and, on 11 April 1917, the 4th Division attacked at Bullecourt. The attack was hurriedly planned and based around substantial tank support that did not eventuate, but succeeded in penetrating the huge, thick concentrations of barbed wire and in capturing a portion of the Hindenburg Line. However, without support and eventually running out of ammunition, the Brigades of the 4th Division were forced to withdraw. About 3,000 were killed and wounded in what became known as the First Battle of Bullecourt.
Three weeks later, on 3 May 1917, a major attack right along the Hindenburg line was launched by seven British, Canadian and Australian divisions, including the 2nd Division (to which the 24th Battalion belonged). Within the Division, the 6th Brigade attacked on the left and the 5th Brigade on the right, in the same place that the 4th Division had made its failed assault three weeks earlier. There was substantially better planning and preparation for the second battle and the troops were well trained and thoroughly rehearsed. Detailed maps and photographs were plentiful and everybody knew what the plan was:
“To form an idea of this battlefield, picture two perfectly made enemy trenches on the upper slope of a long rise, protected with four or five dense belts of barbed wire, which in places were 30 yards in depth and breast high, and sighted to perfection as to enable the German machine gunners to fire along the fringe of the wire. To reach the first trench meant an advance of nearly 1,000 yards over ground which afforded no shelter for the advancing troops, beyond one or two sunken roads leading from our position to the Hun lines.”
The 24th Battalion had to advance up the bare slope in a lane about 300m wide, through multiple belts of barbed wire to the German trenches 900m away. Many dead 4th Division soldiers from the first attack lay along this path. The Battalion plan was to attack in four waves – A Company first, followed by B, C and D companies. They had to capture the two enemy trenches at the top of the slope, then advance another 550m to the final line. The 22nd Battalion was to the left of the 24th Battalion and behind both were the 21st and 23rd Battalions, tasked with moving through and beyond when the initial objectives were secured. It was a formidable, daunting task.
The 24th Battalion moved into no-man’s land after dark on 2 May 1917 and followed carefully-laid white tapes to the specific “jumping off” points. By 3 am the entire Battalion was in position, about 350m from the first barbed wire entanglements.
At 3.45 am the artillery barrage blazed into action and the Battalion rose to its feet. The attack had begun:
“The barrage was terrific, and while the spraying shrapnel burst over the enemy’s lines, the ‘heavies’ pounded the enemy’s wire, strong-posts and known machine-gun emplacements, though many of these wasps spat their deadly fire at our troops.”
The heavy artillery’s work on the wire was effective – substantial holes were blasted in the belts of wire, allowing the infantry to pass through quickly. The rolling artillery barrage to cover the A Company soldiers also worked perfectly. The troops moved forward behind the protective screen of exploding shells and actually rushed the last hundred metres or so to the first enemy trench. They were into the trench while our artillery was still coming down on it, and before the Germans climbed out of their deep protective bunkers:
“Their rush was so sudden and determined that little difficulty was experienced in capturing the first position, though some hand-to-hand fighting took place on the left flank”.
B Company and Tom Godfrey’s C Company had the task of capturing the second German trench. Both companies at 4.16am were in their assigned trench before our artillery had lifted and were sorting things out when their mates from the final wave – D Company – joined them:
“The work to be done here consisted of cleaning up the captured positions, collecting prisoners, establishing small dumps with the bombs and ammunition carried forward in the attack, and reversing the trench in order to engage the enemy”.
D Company then advanced on its own when the barrage lifted and moved forward, in accordance with the plan. Their task was to capture the furthest line – which they did, on time.
It was a brilliant, astonishing success that was as good as anything Monash was to achieve in 1918, albeit on a smaller scale. However, there were two problems.
Firstly, the flanking units to the left (22nd Battalion) and the right (5th Brigade) did not enjoy anywhere near the same success. They took heavy casualties and their advance was slowed. Secondly, the 23rd Battalion, behind the 24th, was cut to pieces by German artillery while forming up to follow the 24th.
This meant that the 24th Battalion was sticking deeply into the overall German position – with no-one supporting it on either side, and with little in the way of help or reinforcement coming from behind.
The Germans were quick to take advantage of this and counter-attack:
“The Germans soon recovered from the first effect of the bombardment, and being in the same trenches as ourselves, commenced bombing along them to drive us into a central pocket. Our men had been instructed to collect all the Hun bombs, and from the outset mix them with our own, so that should we run short of Mills bombs, the fact would not be detected by the Boche.”
D Company, way out the front and on its own, was heavily smashed by German counter-attacks. By 11 am, when it was forced to return to the line held by B and C Companies, D Company had been decimated. Only 19 of 168 men remained. None of its four officers returned.
Tom Godfrey, leading C Company, stepped into the carnage and:
“… on the left, immediately cleared up his section, and bombed along to the junction of the sunken road with the trench and there established a block. Some men of the 22nd could be heard bombing further along. Later this bombing died down and these gallant 22nd men were overpowered, fighting to the finish, surrounded on all sides. Captain Godfrey did his utmost to help them out, but as the Germans were pushed back, so they squeezed in the 22nd boys with sheer weight of numbers, until the inevitable came”.
The battle raged all day.
Other units tried to move forward on both flanks to provide support to the 24th Battalion with varying success, only to withdraw upon hearing – falsely – that the 24th had been forced to withdraw. The 24th had not and did not withdraw and, on learning of the withdrawal of the supporting units on its flanks, determined to stay put regardless.
Into the evening the fighting continued. Bombing parties from A Company and Tom Godfrey’s C Company were in action to clear trenches of Germans.
At about midnight, the 1st Brigade arrived to relieve the 6th Brigade, including the 24th Battalion:
“One cannot speak of the incidents of this battle without referring to the generous help afforded by the officers and men of this Brigade. Seeing that our men were in a completely exhausted state, not a moment was lost in effecting their relief. The relief was completed, and at 3.20am on the 4th of May 1917, the last men wended their way out along the communications trench dug by the 2nd pioneer Battalion. Every man who saw that trench of nearly 1,000 yards, dug under incessant artillery and machine gun fire, with the parapets covered with dead pioneers, sang the praises of those men who, without the excitement of a charge, dug like fiends to help those who were out in the thick of the battle.
Heavy as our losses were, great was the victory, due not only to the organisation of the Headquarters and the able leadership of the officers, but chiefly due to the indomitable spirit of the men. That day every man went out to win, with no thought of surrender or retreat, and win they did.
It was one of the Battalion’s hardest fights, and if the battle had gone well with the units on our flanks, it would have been one of our most successful assaults, for, despite the stout defences of the Hindenburg Line, the Battalion gained all its objectives in accordance with schedule time, and retained them until relieved, with the exception of the furthest, which had to be relinquished by reason of the non-success of the flanks”.
When the 24th Battalion commenced its attack at 3.45 am, its strength was 586 men. Twelve hours later, at 3 pm, only 92 remained. More than 84% of the Battalion was killed, wounded or missing. And they had another 12 hours before relief was concluded.
But Tom Godfrey had somehow survived the whole ideal without so much as a scratch.
Of the seven divisions that attacked before dawn on 3 May 1917 along a front of about 25 km, the only successes were those of the 24th Battalion on the extreme right of that attack, and of the Canadians at Fresnoy on the extreme left.
The official War Historian, C.E.W. Bean, said the capture of the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt had few parallels in the history of the AIF, ranking it up there with the landing at Gallipoli, the capture of Lone Pine and the holding of the head of Monash Valley by the 4th Brigade:
“But their achievement won a tribute that they would have prized above all others. An officer of the 2nd Battalion records that his incoming troops, forced to trample on the dead crowded in those narrow trenches, were at great pains during that day to avoid stepping on any whose sleeve carried the red and white patch of the 24th Battalion. ‘We understood it was they who took this position,’ he says simply.”
Rest, Regroup, Reorganise, Reinforce
The entire 2nd Division was then withdrawn to enable the shattered battalions and brigades to rest and re-form. The 24th Battalion went to its “favourite village of Warloy” in warm and pleasant springtime weather.
“… if this village was not popularly known to most of the boys then, it was destined to be, for we arrived there in the spring, and spent a month among hospitable people in the pleasant weather of May and June. The troops became intimate friends with the inhabitants, whose homes were enlivened by groups of jovial Diggers … Civilian and soldiers knew one another by name, and the householders came to look for the regular visits of their Australian friends.
There was one French phrase which every soldier learned and made use of. That was: “Voulez-vous promener avec moi, m’selle?” (“Would you like to walk with me, mamselle?”) And the answer was usually those significant, tantalising words: “Apres la guerre!” (‘After the war!”). The French and Belgian girls became so used to saying “Apres la guerre!” that when at last the war ended, they forgot to alter the phrase … which had become equivalent to another phrase which madamoiselle was fond of expressing in English: “Nothing doing!”
It was during this time that General Birdwood, Commander I ANZAC Corps, visited the Battalion and presented awards to those who had earned them at Bullecourt. Amongst the awards were five Military Crosses – Tom Godfrey received one of these.
His citation read as follows:
“For conspicuous gallantry and ability in command of his company during the capture of portion of the HINDENBURG Line on 3rd. May, 1917. He secured the left flank against hostile counter attacks and reorganised the garrison consisting of portions of 3 battalions. During the charge he was blown down by a shell but remained at the head of his men, who have the utmost confidence in him”.
In July, the Battalion moved back to Flanders, to the Ancre Valley:
“… where the troops enjoyed the pleasures of bathing with a relish hardly surpassed at any seaside resort … many of the boys will remember the strategy of the RMO Major John Muirhead, in his quest for men afflicted with scabies, how he and his staff inspected the bathers as they undressed and filed past, took the names of the victims, and had them packed off to isolation”.
It was at this time (27 July 1917) that the Battalion marched back to the Pozieres battlefield, to Mouquet Farm where they had fought a year before, in order to dedicate a memorial to the Battalion on the ridge of the location of that horrendous battle.
Although the Battalion was not on the front, danger remained:
“Although the days were pleasant, the nights were full of the horrors of air raids. Gotha machines purred overhead, bombs crashed on the towns and villages, and anti-aircraft guns spread shrapnel broadcast”.
During this period of rest, during which they moved a number of times, several drafts of reinforcements were received as were wounded men returning from hospital and the Battalion trained hard for future battles. By the end of August, the 24th Battalion was at full strength and in a state of the highest efficiency.
In September, large-scale training began for the next phase of operations:
“Models of the field of action – perfect reproductions in miniature of the country to be won from the enemy – were constructed by the engineers and studied by the infantry regiments so that the troops knew every feature of the ground. Guns were packed into the field so that we wondered where the artillery commanders would place the next battery. Shells were piled up as if it were expected the war would never end”.
Third Battle of Ypres – Broodseinde Ridge
The artillery bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres commenced on Sunday, 16 September 1917:
“The din was so continuous at church parade in our camp the padre could scarcely make himself heard. His text, ‘Be Strong and of Good Courage’ was well chosen”.
The attack began at dawn on Thursday, 20 September 1917; the 24th Battalion was not involved – yet. Every Australian Division was scheduled to participate. The Battalion, with all other Australian units not committed to the attack, assisted those in action by carrying up ammunition, supplies, trenching materials etc to those doing the fighting, often under artillery fire.
Consequently, the 24th Battalion lost 14 killed and 76 wounded whilst performing these “mundane” duties.
On 27 September 1917, the Battalion received its orders to join the battle. The 2nd Division was tasked with capturing the German positions on the Broodseinde Ridge.
And Tom Godfrey started his last march.
To be continued…
Read Part One here: 100 years ago today, Tom Godfrey had one day left to live…