Relative value: How a deserter became a decorated war hero

Irish Examiner journalist Dan Buckley reveals how few Irish families — and his was no exception — were left untouched by the reach of the Great War.

EVERY family has its heroes and villains. Mine is no different. On my father’s side is Maurice Buckley and, although it has never been established where exactly he fits in the family tree, we like to claim him anyway — not so much for his brave deeds but for his less glorious ones.

Maurice won the Victoria Cross in the First World War and, thankfully, lived to tell the tale.

On the other side, David Lord, my mother’s first cousin, was a pilot with the Royal Air Force who posthumously won the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery at Arnhem in Holland in the Second World War.

Unlike David Lord, however, Maurice’s is a more chequered history.

Maurice was the son of Timothy Buckley, a Cork-born brickmaker who emigrated to Victoria, Australia in the late 1800s and married Honora Sexton.

His military career began badly.

He had joined the light horse regiment of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1914 and went to Egypt, where he contracted a venereal disease.

He was returned to Australia and sent to Langwarrin VD Hospital, a military camp. Without permission, he left the hospital and was declared a deserter in early 1916.

He was not alone. Australian soldiers had “a reputation as the most undisciplined soldiers”, according to the military historian Peter Pedersen.

During the Great War, 121 of them were sentenced to death by the authorities, the majority for desertion. However, none of the deserters were executed because Australian military law forbade it. Instead they were sent home and branded cowards.

While Maurice was on the run from the army, his brother, Gerald, had enlisted but died of meningitis before leaving Australia.

Perhaps it was a mixture of guilt and grief, but shortly after his brother’s death, Maurice re-enlisted in the AIF in Sydney on May 6, 1916 under the alias of “Gerald Sexton”, his brother’s first name and his mother’s maiden name.

He was sent to France, where he joined the 13th Battalion on the Somme in January 1917. He went on to fight at Bullecourt and through the third battle of Ypres; the next year, as a sergeant, he was wounded at Le Hamel.

The transition from villain to hero came quickly. Maurice won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his courage under fire in the great Allied advance on August 8.

A few weeks later, he performed a feat that, nowadays, appears not only courageous but foolhardy and even suicidal.

Perhaps there was a streak of madness in him when at Le Verguier on September 18, 1918, armed with his Lewis Gun and “displaying boldness which was an inspiration to all”, he rushed at least six enemy machine-gun positions, captured a field gun, and took nearly 100 prisoners. Without realising it, he had single-handedly captured the headquarters of the Line Battalion of the German 58th Regiment.

For this, “Gerald Sexton” was awarded the Victoria Cross. The award was promulgated in the London Gazette of December 14, 1918, under the name of Gerald Sexton but before receiving it, was forced to reveal his true identity, as he was ordered to go to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal and, presumably, despite his exploits, he baulked at the notion of lying bare-faced to the king.

His desertion was duly ignored and the court circular of the Times noted that he received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on May 29, 1919, as Sergeant Maurice Buckley.

On August 8, 1919, an amendment appeared in the London Gazette stating: “The notification of the award of the Victoria Cross to No. 6594 Sergeant Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn, AIF, as announced in the London Gazette dated 14th, December, 1918, should read as being awarded to Sergeant Maurice Vincent Buckley, AIF, the latter being the correct Christian names and surname which he has been permitted to reassume.”

After the war Maurice made another transition — from soldier and war hero to pacifist. In 1920 he was one of the 14 Victoria Cross winners who marched on St Patrick’s Day in Melbourne to support Archbishop Daniel Mannix who had been an outspoken opponent of the war.

His death was as eventful as his life. A year later Maurice was fatally injured when trying to jump his horse over the railway gates at Boolarra, Victoria. Ten Victoria Cross winners were pallbearers at his funeral.

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