Tag Archives: Royal Munster Fusiliers

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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The Irish who fought for Britain

Apparently there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 in a few days time looking at the discrimination suffered by Irishmen from the Republic who fought for Britain during the Second World War. I never knew this, but apparently the Irish Government had a blacklist of men who had deserted from the Irish Republic‘s forces and joined the British Armed Forces. The discrimination reached quite far, down to all Government agencies. It must have been hell for many of the poor blokes to have to hide their past for 60 odd years. As somebody says on the programme, it is incredible that men who volunteered to fight fascism were persecuted far more than men who simply deserted and went on the run. Even men who died in action were still included on the list.

On the face of it, this policy isn’t surprising. Ireland in 1939 still had a decidedly anti-British chip on its shoulder, particularly in officialdom. Of course, Eamon de Valera was the only world leader to offer his condolences to Nazi Germany on Hitler’s death. The rationale for which, I have never understood. But to learn that the Government actually went as far as to have a blacklist of names, to the point of affecting men’s employment prospects, is rather startling.

To this day, Irish citizens have a unique status when it comes to applying to serve in the British Armed Forces. If anyone has looked at the entry requirements, they often specify ‘UK, Commonwealth or Irish’ nationality. But Irish recruitment into the Royal Navy and British Army, in particular, has been going on for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic era legions of Irishmen served in Wellington’s Army – Sergeant Patrick Harper of the Sharpe novels, for example. My own Catholic Irish ancestry brought my family to Portsmouth, to join the Royal Navy. In 1914 my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, journeyed from Birkenhead to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, we can tell where WW1 sailors were born. 5 sailors out of 745 I have researched so far came from Ireland. This doesn’t include men who might be second generation immigrants. It is also noticeable that many Portsmouth servicemen died fighting with Irish Army units – the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in particular. In his many books Richard Doherty has charted the great contribution that Irishmen – from north and south of the border – made to the allied cause in the Second World War. And in the First World War, the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland put aside their differences and joined Divisions that included Protestant and Catholic men.

It seems to me that discrimination against Irishmen who fought Hitler was petty, and had more to do with an inherent anti-Britishness than any thoughts about the morality of the Second World War. When men have to hide medals that they earnt fighting against extremism and tyranny, its a very strange world indeed.

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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The Roberts brothers – killed on the same day

Royal Munster Fusiliers

Image via Wikipedia

The fantstic work of Chris Baker on the Long Long Trail website has identified 274 instances of brothers who were killed on the same day in the Grear War. And one pair of brothers came from Portsmouth.

Charles James and Goerge Ernest Roberts were both Corporal Signallers serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Regular Soldiers, they were sent to France on the outbreak of war. They were at garrisoned at Aldershot, and were part of the Guards Brigade in the 1st Division. The Battalion had been in Ireland on garrison duty until 1912. They landed at Le Havre via Southampton on 14 August, and went straight up to the Front.

After the Battle of Le Cateau the British Army retreated. Along with the 15th Hussars the 2nd Munsters fought a stiff rearguard action at Etreux. A single Battalion were facing an entire German Army Corps. In a Rorkes Drift style action the Battalion suffered severe casualties, where they were surrounded and virtually destroyed. The survivors left the front line and became divisional troops.

Charles and George Roberts were both killed on the same day – 27 August 1914 – and are buried in the same grave at Etreux British Cemetery in France.

It was not common – but not unusual – for young British men to join an Irish Regiment. My research suggests that of young men joining the infantry in peacetime, around 50% joined the Hampshire Regiment, and around 50% joined other Regiments. Although the local country Regiment was natually the most obvious choice, perhaps family connections persuaded the Roberts to join the Munsters?

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