Medals of first private soldier to be awarded the V.C. in the Great War at Spink

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Spink offered for sale the first V.C. awarded to a private soldier in the Great War (1914-18). The Victoria Cross group of six was awarded to Private S.F. Godley, Royal Fusiliers, for his defence of the Nimy Bridge at Mons on the 23rd August 1914, during the first infantry attack of the Great War. It was offered for sale in Spink’s London auction of Orders, Decorations, Campaign Medals and Militaria, on July 19, 2012.

The Victoria Cross (V.C.) is the highest military decoration given for bravery and gallantry in the face of the enemy. The award is given to the armed forces in various Commonwealth countries, as well as all of the former British Empire territories.

Private Godley was a worthy recipient, as although severely wounded by shrapnel and with a bullet lodged in his skull, he took over a machine-gun from his mortally wounded commanding officer and continued to hold his position, single-handedly for two hours, against a sustained heavy German assault. When the order came to withdraw, he maintained a covering fire until the entire battalion was evacuated. After much resistance he was eventually overtaken by the enemy and taken as a prisoner of war.

The announcement of his award was published in the London Gazette on the 25th November, 1914 and read: ‘For coolness and gallantry in fighting his machine gun under a hot fire for two hours after he had been wounded at Mons on 23rd August.’

The original Recommendation, by Lieutenant F.W.A. Steele, Royal Fusiliers, states: ‘In the defence of a railway bridge near Nimy, 23rd August 1914, Private Godley of “B” Company showed particular heroism in his management of the machine guns. His Commanding Officer having been severely wounded and each machine gunner in turn shot, Private Godley was called to the firing line on the bridge and under heavy fire he had to remove three dead bodies and proceed to an advanced machine gun position under a sustained enemy fire. He carried on defending the position for two hours after he had received a severe head wound.’

Commenting on the importance and rarity of this V.C. group, medal specialist at Spink, Oliver Pepys, said: ‘The Godley V.C. is both hugely important and highly emotive and is one of the most famous medal groups of the Great War. Through his actions at Mons, even to the last, when he ensured that his gun would not fall into enemy hands, Godley set a standard that the British Tommy would aspire to for the rest of the War, and brought honour to his Regiment.’

Although it is difficult to put a price on such a historically significant item, the pre-sale estimate had been advised as £140,000-£180,000, however, it realised £230,000.

In the same sale is another highly important V.C. group – The Outstanding Great War Posthumous 1915 ‘Loos’ V.C., 1914 ‘Ypres’ M.C. Group of Five awarded to Captain A.F.G. Kilby, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment. It was given for sustained gallantry, cold courage and leadership in the early stages of his battalion’s operations and for most conspicuous bravery on the first day of the Battle of Loos, 25.9.1915. Here Captain Kilby volunteered with his Company, to attack an enemy strong-point in the La Bassée Canal area.

Wounded at the outset of the attack, he charged along the narrow tow-path at the head of his men, urging them on and on, to the enemy wire, where, having been hit and with his foot blown off, he was last seen encouraging his men forwards.

Commended by the Germans, they buried him where he fell and inscribed a simple wooden cross beside the tow-path outside their redoubt: ‘The Kilby family may think of their son with pride, as we remember him with respect.’

On 30.3.1916 The London Gazette printed the following: ‘For most conspicuous bravery. Captain Kilby was specially selected, at his own request, and on account of the gallantry which he had previously displayed on many occasions, to attack with his company a strong enemy redoubt. The company charged along the narrow tow-path, headed by Captain Kilby, who, though wounded at the outset, continued to lead his men right up to the enemy wire under a devastating machine-gun fire and a shower of bombs. Here he was shot down, but, although his foot had been blown off, he continued to cheer on his men and to use a rifle. Captain Kilby has been missing since the date of the performance of this great act of valour, and his death has now to be presumed.’

This Victoria Cross group was also estimated to realise £140,000-180,000. During the auction it was sold for £200,00.