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The second chance soldier

A signed informal group portrait of four Australian soldiers, from left to right: Corporal James Bedford of the 16th Battalion, Sergeant (Sgt) Maurice Vincent Buckley VC DCM of 13th Battalion, Sgt W Marshall MM of the 16th Battalion and Regimental Sergeant Major Tandy MM 16th Battalion (AWM A03072).

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Posted on June 4 2018

The beginning of Maurice Buckley’s military service was quite the anticlimax. He enlisted in the 13th Light Horse Regiment a week before Christmas 1914 and set off for Gallipoli, but never made it.

After landing in Egypt, Buckley contracted a venereal disease and was sent to the army’s “pox camp” at Langwarrin Gippsland in Australia. This camp carried with it a serious stigma, which was made worse for Buckley by the fact that he had never seen the frontline.

Some months after being sent to Langwarrin, Buckley walked out of the camp never to return, resulting in him being declared a deserter.

Deserters in the First World War were court martialled and received severe punishments including imprisonment and even death, with some 346 soldiers being executed by the British Army.

Soldiers who were labelled as ‘deserters’ were treated with distain by the community—made worse by the fact that deserters were publically shamed, with their names generally published in national newspapers.

But this did not stop Buckley from trying to redeem himself. In mid-1916 Buckley re-enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force using the alias ‘Gerald Sexton’. Gerald was Buckley’s 20-year-old brother who had died eight months earlier of meningitis in an army camp, and the name Sexton was his mother’s maiden name.

In January 1917, Gerald Sexton sailed for the battlefields of France, where he joined the 13th Battalion on the Somme.

He soon proved himself a dedicated soldier and fought in some of the most infamous battles of the First World War: Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Ypres, Passchendaele, Hebuterne, Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in January 1918 and by June he was a Lance Sergeant in charge of the Lewis section.

Though classed as a ‘light’ machine gun, the Lewis gun was a cumbersome piece of equipment, weighing almost 14 kilograms.

In March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive and moved to within shelling distance of Amiens.

On 8 August the Allies made their push back. In one day, Australian infantrymen took back 10 kilometres from the Germans.

In this battle Sexton’s company was delayed on four separate occasions by sudden enemy machine gunfire. Sexton quickly silenced each enemy post using his Lewis gun with great skill. Once when the battalion was advancing through tall crops, a hidden gun fired into its ranks causing several casualties. His citation reads:

“He [Sexton] stood up in full view of the enemy, firing from the hip until he had put the enemy machine gun out of action. Throughout the day he displayed initiative combined with coolness.”

He was confirmed as Sergeant on 28 August and for these actions was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Already a decorated soldier, Sexton distinguished himself once again in the attack at Le Verguier north-west of St Quentin on the 18 September 1918, resulting in him being awarded a Victoria Cross.

His Victoria Cross citation reads:

“Sergeant Sexton displayed the most conspicuous bravery and performed deeds which, apart from their gallant nature were in great measure responsible for the Battalion’s success.

On the southern edge of the village of Le Verguier the enemy fought hard and serious opposition had to be crushed. During the whole period of the advance Sergeant Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns by firing from the hip as he advanced, rushing enemy posts and performing feats of bravery and endurance which are better appreciated when one realises that all the time he fired his Lewis Gun from the hip without faltering or for a moment taking cover…”

Sexton rushed at least six enemy machine-gun positions, captured a field gun, and took nearly 100 prisoners.

The award was gazetted under the name Sexton until Buckley revealed his true identity; a second gazettal was made in his real name. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged in December 1919.

On the 15 January 1921, at 30-years-old, Buckley 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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