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.
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.
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.
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.
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.