Maurice Buckley- Victoria Cross recipient


Back in November 2015 I made a blog entry about Frederick Whirlpool, the Victoria Cross winner who ended up leading a hermit-like existence in the Hawkesbury. Here is the story of another Victoria Cross recipient, and the unusual way that he was awarded the highest honour in the British armed forces.

Maurice Buckley was born in Melbourne on the 13th of April 1891, and joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment the week before Christmas 1914, and was sent to Egypt.

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Maurice Buckley’s enlistment form.

 

Like so many of his comrades, Buckley contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. Venereal disease was a huge problem for Australian troops based in Egypt. With the troops not actually fighting, they spent each day training in camps outside of Cairo, and when off duty they frequented the many brothels in the city as well. By February 1916, almost 6,000 men had been infected, and more than 1,000 of them were shipped back home to Australia.

Buckley ended up at the Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, located 40 kilometres outside of Melbourne in November 1915.  The facility at Langwarrin had originally been a training camp for Boer War soldiers, and at the start of the Great War was recommissioned as an internment camp for German and Turkish civilians. But with the dramatic emergence of venereal disease amongst enlisted men, the facility became a ‘pox camp’.

The camp was located well away from the township of Langwarrin, and conditions for the patients who went there were terrible – the men were herded behind barbed-wire enclosures, and slept in tents with rubber sheets and blankets for bedding. There was a shortage of water, which impacted on treatment and hygiene. In October 1915 there was a mass break-out involving 50 patients who had been refused leave to visit the township. The patients overpowered the camp guards, and caught the train to Melbourne, where they were subsequently arrested by police.

 

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Entrance to Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, circa 1915.

 

After five months in Langwarrin, Buckley had had enough, and in March 1916, he escaped from the camp, never to return.  His Army papers were stamped ‘deserter’ and he was struck off the army roll. Buckley returned to his family’s house in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Malvern, to explain to his family why he was no longer serving in the Army.

With Military Police looking for her son, Agnes Buckley suggested that Maurice re-enlist, but under another name. So Maurice travelled to Sydney and re-enlisted as Private Gerald Sexton. Sexton was his mother’s maiden name, and Gerald was the name of his brother who had died in an army camp almost a year earlier of meningitis.

 

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Maurice Buckley – awarded the Victoria Cross under the alias Gerald Sexton.

Sexton was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the 4th Division, embarking shortly after for Plymouth in England and then France. Sexton was promoted to Sergeant, and on the 8th of August 1918, earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery in the action around Morcourt Valley.

Sexton received his Victoria Cross for bravery during action near Le Verguier on the 8th of August 1918. Here is the official citation, as reprinted in the “London Gazette” of the 13th of December 1918:

“No. 6594 Sjt. Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn., A.I.F.

For most conspicuous bravery during the attack near Le Verguier, north-west of St. Quentin, on the 18th September, 1918. During the whole period of the advance, which was very seriously opposed, Sjt. Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns; rushing enemy posts, and performing great feats of bravery and endurance without faltering or for a moment taking cover. When the advance had passed the ridge at La Verguier, Sjt. Sexton’s attention was ‘ directed to a party of the enemy manning a bank, and to a field gun causing casualties and holding up a company. Without hesitation, calling to his section to follow, he rushed down the bank and killed the gunners of the field gun. Regardless of machine-gun fire, he returned to the bank, and after firing down some dugouts induced about thirty of the enemy to surrender. When the advance was continued from the first to the second objective the company was again held up by machine guns on the flanks. Supported by another platoon, he disposed of the enemy guns, displaying boldness which inspired all. Later, he again showed the most conspicuous initiative in the capture of hostile posts and machine guns, and rendered invaluable support to his company digging in.”

At the end of 1918 the commanding officer at the Langwarrin camp notified the authorities of Sexton’s real identity. When Sexton received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he did so under his real name of Maurice Buckley. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army. Buckley, a strong Catholic, was openly aligned to the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and marched with Mannix in St Partick’s Day parades. Buckley established a strong friendship with infamous Melbourne identity John Wren, who business empire was built on SP bookmaking, sly grog and prostitution. Wren gave Buckley financial support to help set up a road-contracting business.

Buckley died after a horse-riding accident in January 1921, aged just 29. At his funeral, his casket was carried by ten other Victoria Cross winners. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery, and fittingly was laid to rest alongside his brother – whose name he had borrowed to restore his reputation.

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Buckley family grave at Brighton Cemetery.

As far as I know, Buckley is the only soldier to have earned a Victoria Cross while serving under an assumed name/alias.
Russell Robinson’s book  “Khaki Crims & Desperadoes” (Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2014) was the main source for this entry, along with various Australian and international military history sites.

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Frederick Whirlpool – Hawkesbury’s forgotten Victoria Cross recipient


Frederick Whirlpool was possibly the only Victoria Cross recipent to live in the Haekesbury. He died at McGraths Hill in 1899 and only one mourner attended his funeral. In his later life, he had built a slab hut in the McGraths Hill bush, in which to live, and was rarely seen, becoming a hermit. His only visitor was a local shopkeeper, John Dick Smith, who had befriended him.

It is usual for every Victoria Cross winner to have a memorial noting their bravery on their headstone, but as Whirlpool lies in an umarked grave, he is believed to be the only Victoria Cross recipient to have neither a memorial or headstone. No photos exist of Whirlpool, either in military uniform or in his later life.

Whirlpool was born in Liverpool, England in 1829 to Irish parents. In 1854, aged 25, Whirlpool enlisted in the British Army at Glasgow. It was during his service with the 3rd Bombay European Regiment as part of the Indian Mutiny in 1858 that he received the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry issues to British and Commonwealth troops. Whirlpool received the VC for his bravery and valour during the actions at Jhansi and Lohari, as described in this report from the London Gazette, dated the 21st of October 1859:

“For gallantly volunteering on the 3rd of April, 1858, in the attack of Jhansi, to return and carry away several killed and wounded, which he did twice under a very heavy fire from the wall; also, for devoted bravery at the Assault of Lohari on the 2nd of May, 1858, in rushing to the rescue of Lieutenant Doune, of the Regiment, who was dangerously wounded. In this service, Private Whirlpool received seventeen desperate wounds, one of which nearly severed his head from his body. The gallant example shown by this man is considered to have greatly contributed to the success of the day.”

Invalided out of the army in 1859, and disliking the attention he was receiving as a Victoria Cross winner, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne, Whirlpool was presented with his Victoria Cross by Lady Barkly, the wife of the Victorian Governor, in the presence of some 10,000 spectators.

Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool's VC presentation.
Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool’s VC presentation.

His was the first Victoria Cross ever presented in Australia, and Whirlpool received an annual pension of £10. By 1865 Whirlpool was earning his living as a schoolmaster, firstly at Wisemans Ferry and later at Pitt Town.

Unfortunately the privacy that he wanted did not occur when he had emigrated, and Whirlpool changed his name several times to avoid being discovered as a Victoria Cross winner. He used Frederick Conker, which was his birth name, changing it again to Frederick Humphrey James, before finally adding Whirlpool.

Around the 24th of June 1899, Whirlpool had a heart attack in his little slab hut and passed away, aged 70 years. He was found by the delivery man from John Dick Smith’s shop, when he called with his usual weekly delivery of groceries. Whirlpool is reputedly buried in an unmarked grave at the Methodist Cemetery at McGraths Hill. The Victoria Cross that was awarded to Whirlpool is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

For a man whose gallantry earned him the highest award in Britain and the Commonwealth, he ended his life the way he chose, as a quiet man withdrawn from society.

This blog post is based on the article “Frederick Humphrey James Whirlpool: 1829-1899” by Carol Carruthers, from Issue No 3 (2014) of the Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society Incorporated.