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Famous names in the First World War

Sidney Godley

Sidney Godley - by kind permission of the Godley Family

Sidney Godley - by kind permission of the Godley Family

 

Sidney Godley was the first Private to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War and his Medal card is now available to view on DocumentsOnline.

Early life

Sidney Frank Godley (1889-1957) was born at North End, East Grinstead, West Sussex. His family had lived in the East Grinstead and Felbridge area for generations; the Godleys can be traced back to East Grinstead in the 1700s. Following his mother’s death in 1896 he was sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Willesden, North London. (Interestingly, this district was one of the fastest developing parts of London in this period.) His father remarried in 1899 and by the time of the 1901 Census, Godley was staying with his family again, this time in Bromley, Kent. You can view his 1901 census return1901 Census return for Sidney Godley - PDF file opens in a new window (160kb) (note that the enumerator wrote the surname as "Godly" and the place of birth as "East Grinsted").

Godley left school at fourteen and worked at an ironmonger's in Kilburn for a few years, then in 1909 he joined the Royal Fusiliers.

Mons, Belgium 1914

On 23 August 1914 the Royal Fusiliers received the order to hold two bridges over the Mons-Condé Canal, Belgium. This would allow the other units to retreat to the River Marne. Pte Sidney Godley was in the section defending Nimy Railway Bridge.

Thumbnail linking to medal card for Godley (Catalogue reference WO 372)

After his commander was wounded and unable to continue, Godley defended the bridge by himself. He did this for two hours despite heavy enemy fire and his own wounds, which included a bullet in his skull. When the ammunition ran out he dismantled his gun and threw it into the canal.

Some assumed that he had died, but he had instead been taken prisoner and sent to a field hospital. Following further medical treatment he was sent to the German Prisoner of War camp at Doberitz, and remained there until 1918.

The campaign medals to which he was entitled, can be seen on the medals rolls (held at The National Archives in the seriesLink to glossary - opens in a new window WO 329).

Thumbnail linking Godley's medal entitlement (Catalogue reference WO 329)

 

Thumbnail linking Godley's medal entitlement (Catalogue reference WO 329)

Victory Medal and British War Medal entitlement (Catalogue reference WO 329)

 

1914 Star entitlement (Catalogue reference WO 329)

Thumbnail linking to Sidney Godley's entry in the Victoria Cross Register (Catalogue reference WO 98) On 15 February 1919 he was presented with the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, at Buckingham Palace. Click on the image on the right to see the entry in the Victoria Cross Register.

The extracts below are taken from the war diary of Godley's battalion, the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, while serving at Mons (held in WO 95/1431).

Thumbnail linking to Royal Fusiliers War Diary entry August 1914

 

Thumbnail linking to Royal Fusiliers War Diary entry August 1914

Royal Fusiliers War Diary entry August 1914 (Catalogue reference WO 95/1431)

 

Royal Fusiliers War Diary entry August 1914 (Catalogue reference WO 95/1431)

After the Great War

When he went back to civilian life, Godley became a school caretaker in Tower Hamlets, East London. He worked there for over 30 years. In his spare time he did voluntary work for service charities. Sometimes he would appear as the cartoon character "Old Bill", created by the artist, Bruce Bairnsfather.

Godley's bravery continued to be honoured: he was amongst those invited to the Afternoon Party held at Buckingham Palace on 26 June 1920; in 1938 he was awarded a gold medal by the people of Mons; in 1939 he attended the opening of a new bridge at Nimy where a commemorative plaque was unveiled; he attended the Victoria Cross Centenary Review of Holders of the Decoration by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II held in Hyde Park, London on 26 June 1956.

He died in 1957 and was buried in Loughton Cemetery, Loughton, Essex.

Since his death, Godley has also been honoured in other ways: East Grinstead Town Council mounted a Blue Plaque on their offices; in Essex, Loughton Town Council placed a Blue Plaque at 164 Torrington Drive to commemorate its famous former resident; in 1976 a new housing estate in Bexley, Greater London, was named after him; and in 1992 Tower Hamlets Council named a block of flats "Sidney Godley VC House".