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VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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Sergeant Frederick Godfrey DCM and Bar MM

''The Kairer knows the Munsters, by the Shamro...

I’ve found a quite remarkable soldier from Portsmouth who was killed during the First World War. Even though he was heavily decorated and fought in virtually every battle of the war, in many ways he encapsulates the essence of many Portsmouth soldiers.

Frederick Arthur Godfrey was, according to his stated age, born around 1890, in Putney in Surrey. However, the only Frederick Arthur Godfrey born in that area was born in either July, August or September of 1893, and was registered in Wandsworth – making it quite likely that Godfrey had lied about his age to join the Army. He also gave various places of birth in his enlistment papers and in the various censuses.

In 1901 Godfrey was boarding along with his brother Gerald and sister Susan, with Mary and John Knox, at 2 The Brins, Warren Lane in Portsmouth. There is no longer a Warren Lane in Portsmouth, but there is a Warren Avenue, just off Milton Road. Godfrey stated that he had been born in Edmonton in North London, although his brother Gerald was born in Putney.

In 1911 he was serving either A or E Company of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers. In the 1911 census the Battalion was stationed at Nowshera, in the Punjab in India. Godfrey was stating that his age was 21, that he was born in 1891 in Milton, Hampshire. This ties in with his having been living in Milton in 1901. Godfrey had probably been overseas for sometime, as the Battalion’s last home station was in 1899 in Fermoy.

By 1914 the 1st Munsters were stationed in Rangoon in Burma as part of the imperial garrison there, but with smaller units posted around islands in the Indian Ocean. As part of the policy of recalling regular units, the 1st Munsters were brought back to Britain to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. Arriving back in Britain in January 1915 at Bristol, the 1st Munsters went to Coventry and joined the 86th Brigade, in the 29th Division. At the time the 29th Division was Britain’s only reserves ready for action.

The 29th Division arrived at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. In the chaotic landings at V Beach on Cape Helles, almost 70% of the Munsters were lost. Between 30 April and 19 May losses were so heavy that the Battalion effectively merged with the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, calling themselves ‘the Dubsters’. The Battalion remained in the Gallipoli Peninsula until they were evacuated on 2 January 1916, sailing to Alexandria. From there the 29th Division landed at Marseilles in France on 22 March, for service on the Western Front.

Initially the Munsters served as lines of communications troops. After their arrival in France the 1st Munsters were transferred to the 48th Brigade in the 16th (Irish) Division on 28 May. Early in 1916 Godfrey was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. There is no date for the action in the citation, which appeared in the London Gazette on 20 October 1916 – my guess is that it was awarded for action on the Somme – the 16th Division fought at Guillemont and Ginchy on the Somme in 1916. :

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion. During an attack he was wounded, but saying “it is nothing”, led and cheered on two further attacks. When they finally broke down, owing to heavy machine gun fire, he was, with difficulty, restrained from going on by himself.

At some point between 1916 and 1918, Godfrey was awarded a Military Medal. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace any information about his MM as yet, as London Gazette announcements for them are somewhat harder to trace.

In 1917 the Division fought at Messine and Langemarck during the Third Battle of Ypres. After receiving heavy losses in the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918 particularly during the battles of St Quentin and Rosieres on the Somme, the 16th Division was withdrawn to England to be reconstituted. Virtually all of the Irish units were transferred, including the 1st Munsters, who absorbed troops from the 2nd Battalion and joined the 172 nd Brigade, 57th (2nd North Midland) Division.

The 57th Division fought in the Battle of the Scarpe, and the Battle of Drocourt-Queant in August and September 1918. During the final hundred days offensive on the Western Front, Godfrey was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal during the Battle of the Canal du Nord. The following citation appeared in the London Gazette on 2 December 1919:

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During the attack on Proville, south of Cambrai on the 30th September, 1918, he was wounded while his company was crossing theCanalBridge. He refused to go back and be dressed, but went to the assistance of other wounded, and saved some from being drowned. He then got his company across the canal, and all the officers being wounded, led them to the attack. He was wounded three times before he eventually left the company. He behaved splendidly.

Godfrey was evidently seriously wounded, as he died two days later on 2 October 1918. He was 28. He was buried in Sunken Road Cemetery, near Boisleux-St Marc, 8 kilometres south of Arras in France. Six Casualty Clearing Stations were based near the cemetery in the autumn of 1918, so it is likely that he died in one of them.

To have survived over three years of war, only to be killed a matter of days before the war ended, was both incredible and tragic. There weren’t many pre-war regulars left towards the end of 1918, so not only was Frederick Godfrey a very brave man, he must also have had luck on his side for some time. He fought at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Third Ypres, during the Kaiser Offensive and the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918. You didn’t win a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar and a Military Medal just by going through the motions.

Another thing worthy of mention – how did a man born in Putney (who also claimed variously to have been born in Edmonton and Portsmouth), find himself boarding in Portsmouth, before joining a southern Irish Regiment? It just goes to show how mobile Portsmouth people could be!

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