Alexander John Godley was born on 4 February 1867 at Gillingham, Kent, England, the son of William Alexander Godley, a captain in the British Army, and his wife, Laura Greaves Bird. He was the nephew of John Robert Godley, founder of the Canterbury settlement. Although Godley made much of his Irish connections his schooling was entirely in England, including Haileybury College and the United Services College.
In 1885 Godley became a cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and in 1886 was gazetted a lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. As a young and impecunious subaltern he trained polo ponies for an income and spent much of his regimental life, whether in Ireland or England, riding with the hounds. Along with other junior officers of the time he seems not to have received training relevant to the battlefield apart from annual manoeuvres.
Hunting was a passion shared with his wife, Louisa Marion Fowler, whom he married at Ashby St Ledgers, Northampton, on 17 September 1898. On the evidence of surviving correspondence the marriage, although childless, was affectionate and happy; indeed, it is hard to envisage Godley's career without the constant support of his wife.
In 1896, soon after being promoted captain and adjutant of the mounted infantry at Aldershot, Godley volunteered to become a member of a mounted infantry battalion sent to suppress a rebellion in Mashonaland. Here he was given his first command and had his first experience of action in one or two skirmishes. On his return to England in 1897 he was promoted to brevet major. In 1898 he was accepted for the Staff College, Camberley, but after a few months gave it up to volunteer for the anticipated war in South Africa, where he served with Colonel Robert Baden-Powell at Mafikeng. Early in 1900 he became chief staff officer to Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Plumer. It was also in South Africa that he first met New Zealand troops – highly regarded mounted rifles. The war over, a brief period as a major in the newly formed Irish Guards followed and then some years at Aldershot Command in mounted infantry and staff duties. He was promoted colonel in 1906.
In 1910 Field Marshal Lord Kitchener visited New Zealand to advise on its military requirements. He recommended the creation of a staff corps and, in response to a request by the New Zealand government for a suitable commandant of the New Zealand Defence Forces, Godley was appointed for five years; he held the temporary rank of major general. Godley may have accepted the position because of his lack of private means. He travelled to New Zealand via Canada, the United States, and Australia, seeing something of the armies in each country.
It was Godley's job to set up a modern territorial force suitable for integrating with other British forces, based on compulsory military training introduced in 1909. He spent 1911 travelling the country to promote the scheme to the public and to inspect existing military facilities. He was happy to speak with anybody concerned, including pacifists.
Godley soon showed his considerable organisational ability. In 1911 he organised an infantry and a mounted brigade for each of the four military districts plus a large school cadet corps. He approved the steps already taken for 10 officer cadets a year to be sent to the Royal Military College of Australia, Duntroon. In 1912 he initiated defence talks with Australia, and battalion camps were held despite a shortage of uniforms and equipment; in 1913 they were held at brigade level and in 1914 at divisional level. In three years Godley had done a remarkable job in laying the basis for a well-trained Territorial Force and in supplying it with up-to-date equipment. The force had modern artillery, a higher ratio of machine-guns to men than in most other armies at the time, and used air reconnaissance in divisional manoeuvres. Noting the need for a trained nucleus, Godley emphasised officer and staff training. Unfortunately, time did not permit him to carry this training as far as was to be needed for active service.
Planning for an expeditionary force had begun in 1912. In July 1913 Godley travelled to Canada, India, Australia and Britain for talks with senior military figures. Discussions were held on preparing the expeditionary force for service in Egypt, Europe and the German colonies. On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, as a consequence of the measures Godley had taken, a suitable force was available to occupy German Samoa and, within six weeks of the declaration of war, some 8,500 men sailed for Egypt. From early December 1914 to early April 1915 intensive training was carried out in the desert under Godley's direct supervision. Louisa Godley was there, too, and a widespread myth was circulated that she had advised her husband to 'make them run again, Alec' as they footslogged through the sand. She established and ran a convalescent hospital at Alexandria which served the men well for the rest of the war and quickly became known as no place for malingerers. She was later mentioned in dispatches for her war work.
On 25 April 1915 the New Zealand and Australian Division was landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. Godley and his troops were harshly tested in this campaign. If the men came out with a better reputation than Godley, one of the reasons was that their courage was supplemented by his training. Godley himself, however, appears not to have allowed for the steep, rugged ground and the need to reconnoitre it closely, the very poor communications, the losses of some of his most competent officers, and the debility of the troops after time spent on the peninsula. Neither should Godley later have claimed the troops were adequately fed; the food was appalling.
The New Zealand minister of defence, James Allen, writing to Major General Andrew Russell said it would have been better if somebody else had been placed in command once Godley had completed his training programme. But in 1914–15 the alternative, for a then unknown division, probably would have been a retired British general less competent administratively and even less in touch operationally. Early in the war neither Andrew Russell nor Edward Chaytor would have been regarded as qualified for divisional command. Moreover, when questions were raised in Parliament and elsewhere about Godley and he offered to resign, Allen publicly supported him.
After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, the New Zealand Division was sent to France in 1916 as part of Lieutenant General Birdwood's I ANZAC Corps. Godley, who had been promoted to lieutenant general in November 1915, was in command of II ANZAC Corps, to which the New Zealand Division was transferred on October 1916, after serving in the battle of the Somme. Godley's superior was Plumer, the most competent British general on the western front. Plumer was responsible for the impeccable design and planning of the successful attack on Messines (Mesen) in June 1917. Greater success would have been achieved, however, if Godley had better co-ordinated follow-up attacks.
Godley bears much of the responsibility for the heavy loss of life at Passchendaele (Passendale). The first attack, on 4 October 1917, had been successful. The second was not, although Godley initially informed Field Marshal Douglas Haig otherwise. Godley then ordered a third attack on the 12th. He told Haig that the New Zealand Australian divisions were determined to take Passchendaele. They probably were, but not necessarily on that day. Despite warnings that the battle should not be fought, the attack was delivered as planned. It had been raining heavily for days, and the mud, deep enough to drown in, prevented accurate artillery fire and the bringing up of reinforcements. On 12 October 1917 2,735 New Zealanders were killed, wounded or missing; a network of barbed wire, well covered by machine-guns, was almost as intact at dusk as it had been at dawn.
Although Godley remained responsible for the overall command of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force until November 1919, in 1918 he commanded XXII Corps, now shorn of the New Zealand Division. The war over, he commanded in the occupation of the Rhine until 1920 when he became military secretary to the secretary of state for war. In 1922 he returned to the Rhine as general officer commanding, being promoted to general in 1923. He was governor and commander in chief of Gibraltar from 1928 to 1932 and revisited New Zealand in 1934–35.
Alexander Godley was a man with considerable talent for organisation. His cultivation of personal and professional relationships with senior British generals enabled him to present the New Zealand point of view – an advantage this country might not otherwise have had. He was not well fitted to lead in the field, more than once being out of touch with the front. He admired the men he led but unfortunately did not communicate this; to them he was aloof and unfeeling. Those who worked with him closely, however, saw him as a decent, fair, courageous and supportive man who let them perform their duties without undue interference. Godley received numerous honours including appointment as KCB and KCMG, and was mentioned in dispatches at least 10 times. He died at Oxford, England, on 6 March 1957, Louisa Godley having died in 1939.