On 4 October 1917, Tom Godfrey MC was killed at the Battle of Broodseinde. 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 finishes Tom’s fascinating story below.
As Captain Tom Godfrey (24th Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division) marched his last march towards Broodseinde Ridge, plans were being drawn up for the attack. It called for the largest operation undertaken by Australian forces to that point in the war and would include three divisions. No battle in World War Two would ever be fought by so many Australian divisions.
As part of the multi-division assault, the 7th Brigade of the 2nd Division would attack its sector of the ridge on the left, the 6th Brigade on the right and the 5th Brigade would be to the rear of both. On the 6th Brigade’s right was 2nd Brigade (1st Division).
The 6th Brigade’s mission was to advance about 1,500 metres and capture two enemy lines: the ‘Red Line’ (1st Objective – before the actual crest of the ridge) and the ‘Blue Line’ (2nd Objective – down on the other side of the ridge).
The 22nd Battalion was to attack first and capture the entire Red Line.
Then the 21st Battalion and Tom Godfrey’s 24th Battalion were to pass over them and move forward to capture the Blue Line. The 21st Battalion was to take the left half of the Blue Line and the 24th the right half.
The advance on Broodseinde Ridge
The 24th Battalion moved to the outside of Ypres on 3 October 1917. They men marched to the ‘jumping off’ positions at Zonnebeke in the moonlight, carefully following the clearly marked white tape to guide the troops.
The attack was scheduled to commence at 6am.
However, at 5.30am, the Battalion was hit by a heavy German bombardment. It was the heaviest shelling the Battalion ever encountered on a jumping-off line. More than 30% of its strength was lost in this bombardment, including 40 killed.
Light showers were falling. It was a foretaste of the solid rain that was to come in the days to follow, turning everything to awful, soul-destroying mud.
Then the Australian artillery cracked into action with its barrage, like a thunderclap. The advance commenced – the 22nd Battalion went first, to seize the red line, followed by the 21st and 24th Battalions, through the gloom and haze and smoke from the artillery.
And then the reason for the German bombardment became clear:
“… a strong force of German troops with fixed bayonets was advancing from the German lines with the intention of recapturing Zonnebeke, which they had lost in our last attack. These enemy forces met battle sooner than they had anticipated. Our troops, with a desperation born of their impatience, charged into the surprised Germans with so much vigour that all who were not put out of action were soon rounded up as prisoners … The bayonets of our attacking waves had an awe-inspiring effect upon the Germans, many of whom shammed to be wounded or dead”.
Shortly thereafter De Knoet’s Farm was captured and the 22nd Battalion gained its objective – the Red Line – by 6.50am.
A number of concrete pill boxes were thoroughly mopped up after heavy fighting around them, including one at De Knoet’s farm. It was found that many Germans remained below the pill boxes in the safety of the bunkers beneath, thereby enabling the Australian soldiers to either capture them in large numbers or kill them where they were if they refused to surrender.
At about 7.30am, the 21st and 24th Battalions moved beyond the Red Line, behind the protective artillery barrage, to form up for their assault on the Blue Line. The artillery, with the two battalions following closely, moved forward toward the top of Broodseinde Ridge. At 8.10am it was noted:
“Fleeing Huns made good sport for our keen snipers”.
Just before reaching the road that runs along the crest of Broodseinde Ridge, the 24th Battalion captured two German 77mm field guns whose crews fought bravely until the end. They also captured three enemy food wagons containing hot soup, black bread, margarine and more.
After the Battalion crossed the road on the top of the ridge and began to move down the slope towards the Blue Line, they were subject to heavy sniper fire, machine gun fire and artillery.
By 9.30am all the 24th Battalion’s objectives had been reached, captured and secured – and all flanks were protected by other units who had enjoyed similar success.
The troops immediately began to dig in under German artillery and machine gun fire. The troops were reluctant to simply stop and dig in when the Germans were fleeing in obvious disarray before them. They knew the opportunity was right there to keep moving and seize the last ridge on the Flanders plains.
But the orders had to be followed.
So they stopped and dug in and watched while the Germans returned to the next ridge, reorganised and regrouped. The Australians knew this halt meant the next advance would be difficult and bloody:
“The British regiments which fought their way to Passchendaele later realised the truth of these fears”.
The battle was one of the largest ever fought by Australian soldiers and the capture of Broodseinde Ridge was a major achievement:
“Looking back from Broodseinde Ridge, one wondered how in the earlier fighting around Ypres, the British units had been able to effect reliefs and to deliver rations and other materials to the troops in the line while the enemy held such commanding positions. From the Broodseinde Ridge the whole position was under observation, and as we gazed back over the country we could see plainly the movement of our own units on various duties. Guns, transport and men were all exposed to the splendid observation from this position. It was a prize worth having, and our men realised the importance of the victory they had gained. Having gained such a prize, they set themselves to hold it”.
— State Library of Qld (@slqld) October 9, 2017
— Australia in WW1 (@AustraliaWW1) October 4, 2017
It also produced one of the iconic images of the war:
In one of the captured bunkers, a high-magnification German periscope was discovered, meaning that Germans in the safety of their below-ground bunker could peruse the British lines at their very safe leisure – just like a submarine commander out at sea.
In addition to the ridge, hundreds of Germans were also captured.
At about this time and a little to the north of Tom, Walter Peeler and Lewis McGee were commencing the heroic actions that would earn them the Victoria Cross that day while fighting with the 3rd Division. Both would survive but only Peeler would personally receive his decoration. McGee had just eight days left to live.
The death of Captain Thomas Godfrey MC
But Tom Godfrey had no care for any of this. He was dead – sniped in the head after C Company crested the ridge at about 8.30am and was moving down towards his objective, the Blue Line.
The young captain and only remaining child of a widow from Melbourne was killed instantly. He was one of about 6,500 Australian Diggers killed or wounded on that day.
— Australia in WW1 (@AustraliaWW1) October 4, 2017
The Official History of the 24th Battalion had this to say about Tom’s death:
“Captain Godfrey embarked from Australia with the original Battalion as a Lieutenant, and had served with the unit continuously. As an officer his ability, tact, and winning personality made him popular with all ranks. His fellow-officers, the N.C.O.’s, and his men spoke of him affectionately as “Tommy” Godfrey – a name which was respectfully honoured during his long service with the Battalion, and which will always be affectionately remembered by his comrades in arms. Captain Godfrey’s death was one of the greatest losses the Battalion ever suffered. When it was known that he had been killed, strong men’s eyes moistened at the knowledge of their loss, and everybody, from the C.O. to the men in the ranks, was deeply affected. The Battalion had lost one of the men who had been strong links in its bond of comradeship. He was a brave soldier, a faithful leader, and an unselfish commander. His personal devotion to his men, in battle or in camp, made him a man beloved by his troops, who would have risked their lives at any time to save him. In his death he crowned with glory his long and faithful service to his country, his regiment and his men”.
Tom was taken back to De Knoet’s Farm, where the Battalion aid post had been established. He was buried there the next day, 5 October 1917, with all the other 24th Battalion men killed in that sad battle.
Next to him was buried Captain George “Tiny” Harriott, one of Tommy’s fellow company commanders, the Officer Commanding D Company. He was shot in the chest and killed at about the same time Tom Godfrey died. Captain Harriott was 6’3″ tall – hence his nickname “Tiny” – and had been promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant at Gallipoli. He was described as:
“… a man of perfect physique, amiable disposition, and a lovable companion (who) had also seen long service with the Battalion. As transport officer he had discharged his duties with ability, and was beloved by every man of that section. As a company commander he gave promise of equal success”.
The Commanding Officer of the 24th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel James, led the burial party the next morning when Tom Godfrey, “Tiny” Harriott and all the others were buried.
So Tommy Godfrey (5’7″) and “Tiny” Harriott (6’3″) were buried side by side.
We know exactly where they were buried because a friend of Tom’s, writing a letter of condolence to Tom’s mother, wrote as follows:
“… his grave is at the rear of a farm named De Knoet and the map reference is D28.b.5.6”.
In addition, the Battalion records state that the grave is at DE KNOET FARM D.28.b.50.60 POLYGON WOOD Sheet 28 N.E. and that a Battalion cross was erected close to Tom’s grave.
Tom’s mother also received a letter from the Regimental Medical Officer informing her that Tom, a Catholic, had received the sacraments the day before the battle.
Where is Tom now?
Despite the precise locations detailed above, both Tom Godfrey and “Tiny” Harriott are listed as having no known grave. Why is this so? Well, there can only be three possible answers to that question:
(1) the graves were subsequently blown to pieces by artillery;
(2) the grave markers were knocked down before the end of the war, so that when the bodies were recovered and relocated (probably to Tyne Cot Cemetery which is only 1.7km away), they were interred in graves marked “A soldier known unto God”;
(3) they are still right there where they were buried and have not been recovered.
Here is where they were buried, at de Knoet’s Farm, at grid ref D.28.b.50.60:
And here is what the battlefield and De Knoet’s Farm look like today, 100 years on:
One story amongst a sea of suffering
In terms of Australians killed in World War One, 1917 was the worst year.
And October 1917 was the worst month within that year. It was the worst month for Australian casualties in the entire war.
Tom’s mother, Mill, mourned his loss for the rest of her life. She usually wore black and had the Battalion colour patch, the Red and White Diamond, over her heart. Tom’s personal possessions were returned to Aunty Mill on HMAT Euripides – the same ship that carried Tom away from Melbourne and off to war back in 1915.
Aunty Mill was visited often on Anzac Day by the bloke who had been Tom’s Platoon Sergeant at Gallipoli, Stan Savige.
Stan was promoted to Lieutenant after Gallipoli and remained in the 24th Battalion where he was a Captain by war’s end.
After his return to Australia, Stan Savige played a key role in the establishment of Legacy – the fund set up to assist war widows and orphans.
By World War Two, he had risen to the rank of Brigadier and commanded the 17th Brigade in North Africa, Greece and Syria. He went on to become a Lieutenant General, serving as Corps Commander, II Corps, in the Bougainville Campaign at the end of the war.
Stan Savige embodied the calibre of soldiers with whom Tom Godfrey served. What men they all were. And he never forgot Aunty Mill in all the decades that stretched out beyond the end of World War One.
So ends this account of the life and death of Captain Tommy Godfrey MC – a very typical Australian soldier whose very typical Australian family mourned his loss for endless years ahead – and still do, even today.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Read Part One here: 100 years ago today, Tom Godfrey had one day left to live
Read Part Two here: For conspicuous gallantry