107. A J Godfrey

Albert James GODFREY (417)
1 Tunnelling Coy. DoW 21/2/17

Albert John Godfey was born in Melton in 1884. He came from a very large family of 14 children. His father – Horatio Nelson Godfrey – married Ruth Mansell in 1870 and there was 1 child from this first marriage. After the death of his first wife in 1872, Horatio Godfrey remarried – Fanny Jane Jeffery Curtis – in 1874 and the couple had 13 children over the period 1875 -1895. Albert was the eighth child.

The locations entered for each birth registration reveal that the family moved about a good deal. It appears that they lived in the Alberton district for about 10 years from the late 1880s. The father ran a blacksmith business at the time. Albert was a student at the Alberton State School and his name is included on the school’s honour roll. In fact, records indicate that in 1891 the father was fined for the non-attendance of 3 of his children, Albert was one of them, at the school. There are other records indicating that the father was also involved in other legal disputes – offensive language, assault – in the district at the time. Then in late 1896 or early 1897 the family moved to Western Australia. While most of the family, including the mother, remained in the West, the father returned to Alberton in 1897. In the same year, he died at Alberton aged 53 yo. He was buried in the Alberton cemetery. The local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – reported at the time (28/4/97) that he had recently returned from WA, had been in ill health for several months and that he committed suicide. He killed himself on his 53rd birthday.

Five of the 8 boys in the Godfrey family enlisted in WW1, but only Albert was killed.

Albert Godfrey enlisted in Perth in February 1916 (11/2/16). He gave his mother – Fanny Jane Godfrey, widow – as his next-of-kin and he also gave her address – Morowa, WA – as his own. By that point he had been living in Western Australia for 20 years. When his mother completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave Sandstone WA as the place with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. By the time Albert enlisted his link to the Alberton district was tenuous and it is hardly surprising that his name is not included on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. At the same time, the family would definitely have been known in the local area and Albert, and siblings, had attended the local state school where, as indicated, his name was duly acknowledged on its honour roll. From information provided by the mother, Alberton SS was the only school he attended.

When Albert Godfrey enlisted he was single, 31 yo and he gave his occupation as miner. His religion was Church of England.

His unit – Mining Corps, No.1 Company – embarked for overseas, from Sydney, less than 2 weeks later. He would have been one of the last miners recruited, in haste, for the new Mining Corps. The unit reached Marseilles on 5/5/26 and then Hazebrouck on 8/5/16.

The Australian Mining Corps had been formed from late 1915 to support the work of the British engineers and tunnellers on the Somme front. In Europe in mid 1916, the Australian Mining Corps was re-formed into 1-3 Tunnelling Companies and Sapper Albert Godfrey found himself in 1 Tunnelling Company which, in early November 1916, replaced the Canadians at the infamous Hill 60.

The degree of difficulty and danger associated with the work of the tunnellers on the Western Front was extreme. Added to the ever-present everyday risks associated with mining, the war time environment meant that the enemy was also actively engaged in counter operations to locate and destroy the allies’ tunnel system and also endeavoured to mine and blow up the allies’ above ground trench system and other fortifications. There was also the risk that regular above-ground bombardments could also collapse underground works. Much effort went into locating the enemy’s tunnels and mines and, concurrently, preventing them from locating your works, both offensive and defensive. It was acknowledged that the military service of the tunnellers was nerve-wracking and extremely dangerous.

On 26/1/17 Sapper Godfrey was admitted to hospital suffering from ‘suppuration of the gums’ and ‘pyorrhoea’. He spent nearly 2 weeks there before being transferred to the Australian General Base Depot (AGBD) at Etaples on 11/2/17. The AGBD facility was employed to accommodate men coming from England who were still to join their units in France, and also men returning to their units from hospital who were still in need of some short period of convalescence.

On 20/2/17, at the AGBD, Sapper Godfrey shot himself in the face. He was taken immediately to No. 26 General Hospital but died from his wounds early the next day. On the day he died (21/2/17), a court of enquiry was convened at Etaples and determined that:

No. 417 Sapper Godfrey shot himself in the cheek while in an unsound state of mind.

The finding was confirmed by Brigadier-General Thompson on 7/3/17:

I am of the opinion that No. 417 Sapper A. J. Godfrey, 1st Tunnelling Co. A.I.F. committed suicide whilst of unsound mind.

The witness statements taken at the court of enquiry describe what happened. Godfrey had been quartered in a tent with several other men. They had decided to go for a cup of tea – it was 4.45 in the afternoon – and Godfrey had said he would join them but he stayed behind when they left. There was a single shot. People ran to the tent where they saw Godfrey stagger out. There was a rifle on the floor of the tent. Medical assistance was called for. The wound was described as ‘a hole in the roof of his mouth extending into the left cheek.’ Godfrey did not say anything to those there.

The evidence presented at the court of enquiry certainly suggested that Godfrey was not in a sound state of mind at the time.

Sapper A Langmead who was in the tent with Godfrey, and whose rifle Godfrey used to shoot himself, stated:

I had only known Sapper Godfrey since he had come from hospital about a week ago. He seemed very melancholy and sometimes used to sit for half an hour with a vacant stare and then jump up with a start and leave the tent, and return and sit down without saying anything.

Similarly, Driver J Archer, who also shared the tent, testified:

We left him alone in the tent [when the others went for the cup of tea]. I have known him for about a week and thought him strange in his behaviour, and he did not seem right in his mind. He seemed weak and was unable to step over the flap of the tent in entering.

The Company Clerk – Corporal C Coravan – added another dimension to the general picture of mental instability:

He came to me several times and complained of being infested with lice. He was put of the Sick Report and examined by the Medical Officer and found to be clean. I did not think he was quite right in his mind, as he seemed not clear in his ideas and very slow to grasp the meaning of anything he was told.

Finally, there was the evidence of L/Cpl A W Porter AAMC who was the person who dressed Godfrey’s wound at the tent immediately after he had shot himself. Porter had also obviously had contact with him over the ‘supposed’ lice infestation.

His left cheek was severely lacerated and bleeding profusely. I plugged the wound and bandaged it up. I noticed that his right boot was off. He had been attending for lice. He did not appear to be quite sound in his mind.

Clearly, the court of enquiry would have had no difficulty in reaching its finding that Sapper Godfrey shot himself ‘in an unsound state of mind.’

However, there was one other witness statement which did not fit with the general picture  given above. It was prepared by the doctor – Capt. L M Snow – who treated Sapper Godfrey when he was hospitalised with the pyorrhoea. It was dated 2/3/17 so, presumably, was not considered by the court of enquiry, which convened and gave its determination on 21/2/17.

Sapper A. J. Godfrey No. 417 was admitted into my ward on 31/1/17 suffering from Pyorrhoea. He had an upper and lower plate repaired and his teeth attended to.

He was signed up for convalescence camp on Feb. 8th 1917. During his stay in hospital he was most helpful in the ward and showed no signs of any mental trouble.

Interpreting a person’s mental condition with only limited evidence, and across an interval of 100 years, is obviously a fraught exercise. However, taken at face value, this last statement does at least suggest that notwithstanding the possibility of some pre-existing, congenital mental health condition and the very apparent indicators of a serious mental breakdown, it could well have been the specific fear of returning to the front line at Hill 60 that drove Godfrey to suicide. Arguably, he could not face the reality of going back, and as the certainty of returning drew closer his mind unravelled.

The mother, as next-of-kin, was notified of the death within one week. The cable was dated 26/2/17. However it is not clear if the mother was ever informed of the precise circumstances of the death. The Report of Death (Army Form B. 2090A) does indicate ‘Died of Wounds (Self-Inflicted)’. However, the Nominal Roll shows only ‘DOW 22/2/17’ and the entry on the (National) Roll of Honour shows ‘Accidental (Injuries)’ as the cause of death. When the mother was sent the information form to complete for the (National) Roll of Honour she would have read that her son’s death was described as ‘Died of Injuries’. It is also hard to believe that any friend or acquaintance of her son in the AIF would have ever written to give her the true account of how her son had died. At the same time, a family member – identity not given – did request that the Red Cross ‘obtain the fullest details possible of the wounds, death and burial of [A J Godfrey]’. The request was dated 3/10/18. The various statements provided to the Red Cross by the relevant AIF units made it clear that Albert Godfrey had died from self-inflicted wounds. For example, the OC of the hospital where Godfrey was taken wrote:

I beg to inform you that this man was brought into this Hpl. about 5 p. m. on 20-2-17, suffering from a self-inflicted wound of the face, caused by a single bullet. He was in a very bad condition and gradually got worse and died at 4-5 a.m. on 22-7/17. He was buried the following day in the British Military Cemetery at Etaples, according to the rites of the Church of England religion.

There is no record of the information that the Red Cross subsequently provided to the family.

As indicated, Sapper Godfrey was buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery.

The mother wrote in May 1917 (25/5/17) seeking information on her son’s will and effects. There is an urgent tone to the letter:

I wish to make enquiry concerning my sons will and any property he may have had at the time of his death. His name Sapper Albert John Godfrey 417 First Australian Tunnelling Company. He enlisted from Meekatharra West Australia. Died of wounds somewhere in France on 22 February 1917. He sailed from Fremantle on the first of April 1916. If you have no record of the case in your office will you kindly tell me how to go about the business. I am a widow. Please let me know by first mail.

The typically few personal effects arrived in August 1917 (14/8/17):

Identity disc, Leather Purse, Ring, Pencil, Bullet, Match Box Cover, Mirror, Pipe, Leather Belt, Handkerchief.

It is impossible to know what the mother would have made of the single bullet returned with her sons’ belongings. And it seems incredible that it was ever sent.

Clearly, it is not possible to say definitively where the bullet came from or what it meant. However, we do know that Sapper Godfrey did not have his own weapon in the tent – he used Sapper Langmead’s rifle – and that when the tent was searched there was no ammunition found. Langmead also insisted at the court of enquiry that he had not left his weapon loaded and that he had never seen any ammunition in the tent. The only round found was the spent cartridge in the rifle Godfrey had used to shoot himself. One explanation is that Sapper Godfrey had been carrying 2 rounds of ammunition on his person, and that, in a macabre twist, the redundant round was, unwittingly, sent home in his personal kit.

Overall, Albert Godfrey’s was a tragic case but it does at least begin to show the personal horrors and ever-present terror men had to manage, even away from the front lines. The son’s death was also a tragic echo of his father’s fate.


O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project

National Archives file for GODFREY Albert John 417
Roll of Honour: Albert John Godfrey
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Albert John Godfrey
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Albert John Godfrey

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