159. P J Sexton

SEXTON Patrick john  640
XXII Anzac Corps Mounted Regiment KIA 17/4/18

Patrick Sexton was the second of my wife’s great uncles to be killed in WW1. The first was Patrick Mills (see Post 80). Both these men were from the Shire of Alberton and their personal stories were the initial incentive for the blog, Shire at War. My wife’s grandmother – Maggie Sexton – was one of 2 sisters of Patrick Sexton.

Patrick Sexton was born in Yarram and his family ran a dairy farm at Stacey’s Bridge. The family were long-term residents of the district. Patrick’s grandfather, originally from Ireland (Kilrush), had been in the Alberton district from the mid 1850s. Patrick’s father – John Sexton – had been born at Yarram in 1862. Patrick had been born there in 1895. In the 1915 rate book, the father was described as a dairy farmer with approximately 200 acres at Alberton West. Patrick’s mother was Caroline Sexton (Cauley).

There was a younger brother – Norman – who was born in 1901 and was consequently too young to enlist. Norman was often mentioned in the local paper as the accompanying musician (pianist) at various fund-raisers and concerts during the War. There were also 2 sisters – Molly and Maggie.

As a young man Patrick Sexton was certainly well-known in the district. There was a detailed report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (6/11/14) on the farewell held at Stacey’s Bridge for Pat Sexton and 2 other young men – Jack Cantwell and Aloysius Cotter. The report noted that all three had been members of the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club. Additionally, Patrick Sexton had been very involved in the local football competition and played for Devon. One other local who had enlisted with this group but who was not able to get leave to attend that night was William Edward Babington. Babington had been the captain of the Devon football team. Sexton, Cantwell and Cotter were Catholics and Babington was Presbyterian.

The farewell that night was one of the very first held in the district and the comments made reflected the early innocence of what was to come. As pointed out that night, the lads were very young and there was still the chance that they would not even get overseas to fight. Even if they did fight, the clear expectation was that those wishing them well would … welcome them home again safe and sound (Applause).

It was a credit to the Stacey’s Bridge district that four young fellows had volunteered, and they might well feel proud of them. It did not seem so long ago that they were boys going to school. They could not help calling them boys now, for they were only 18 or 19 years of age. A word of praise was due to their parents, who did not raise the slightest obstacle to their sons’ desire to go to fight. If they did leave Australian shores they would look back on the gathering here with a great degree of pleasure. When in other climes their thoughts would fly to the land of their birth, and the many friends in the little corner of Stacey’s Bridge, who had met to do them honor.

Of the four farewelled that night, Sexton and Babington would be killed: Babington at Messines in 1917 (Post 121) and Sexton at Mont Kemmel in 1918. Cotter and Cantwell both survived the War and they returned to Australian in early 1919. Cotter died in 1930, at the age of 34 years. He had suffered from pleurisy in the Middle East.

Patrick John Sexton enlisted as one of the large, initial group of volunteers from the Shire (Post 11). This was on 16/9/14 and the group was farewelled from the Alberton Railway Station on 22/9/14.

At the time of enlistment Patrick was 19 yo and therefore permission was required from his parents. There is a note from his father, John Sexton, dated 3 days after the enlistment, giving such permission,

This is to certify that I am willing for P.J. Sexton to join the Expeditionary Force Light Horse.

Trooper Sexton on enlistment 1914. Courtesy of Marie Sexton, niece of P J Sexton, daughter of Norman Sexton.

Trooper Sexton enlisted in the 4 Light Horse Regiment. His group left Melbourne on 22/12/14. Unfortunately, Trooper Sexton’s service file does not record his movement over 1915. His own short diary states that he reached Egypt on February 4, 1915. His unit, 4 Light Horse Regiment, served on Gallipoli from late May 1915 to the evacuation in December. His diary also records that he was on a troopship off Gallipoli on 25/4/15. However, he did not disembark and after a week aboard on the transport, the ship returned to Alexandria.  The diary suggests that he spent most – if not all the period from May to December 1915 – in Egypt. Some men were held back in Egypt to care for the regiment’s horses. However, the more likely explanation was that he was assigned to other duties.  In his service file, there is a brief reference to him rejoining his unit (4LHR) on 22/1/16 after a temporary attachment to Anzac HQ in Cairo. Additionally, his own diary records several attempts by him over the second half of 1915 to be re-assigned to 4 LHR.   It also appears that at least one of those he enlisted with – Jack Cantwell 607 – was also assigned to Anzac HQ at some point. The same might have even applied to another friend, Aloysius Cotter 606. As well, there is also the possibility that some or all of these men had served some time on Gallipoli before being attached to Anzac HQ (see Holloway 2011).

Trooper Sexton’s diary also records that he spent some time with his brother-in-law, Richard Slater, also of 4 LHR, in late September 1915 before he – Slater – was sent to Gallipoli. Slater had enlisted about 3 months after Sexton.

Patrick Sexton and his brother-in-law Richard Slater in Egypt 1916. Slater had been a teacher at Stacey’s Bridge. He married Molly Sexton. Courtesy of Pamela Cashen, great niece of Patrick Sexton.

When the Australian infantry divisions left Egypt for the Western Front in early 1916, they were accompanied by small units of mounted troops drawn from the Light Horse regiments. Trooper Sexton was in one of 2 squadrons taken from 4 Light Horse Regiment for this purpose. There was also a New Zealand squadron and the unit became known as II ANZAC Mounted Regiment. On the Western Front these mounted troops served in a variety of roles from traffic control to reconnaissance. They were regularly attached to other units. Often they acted in dismounted roles. When the Australian Corps was formed in November 1917, the unit became XXII Corps Mounted Regiment (XXII Corps Light Horse Regiment). Throughout 1917, the unit was involved in heavy fighting, from Messines to Passchendaele.

For his part, Trooper Sexton appears to have undertaken extensive training in anti-aircraft defence with the (French) Hotchkiss gun. He also completed specialist training with the Lewis gun and by the end of 1917 was himself conducting training classes. At the same there there were observation duties in the front line. In October 1917, he was in charge of a forward observation and listening post at Passchendaele. There was constant bombardment and his bravery and effectiveness in maintaining communication saw him awarded the Military Medal (Holloway 2011). There was an exceptionally brief note in his own diary for 4/11/17: I was awarded the Military Medal. There was a more fulsome account reported in the local paper on 16/1/18:

Word has been received that Corporal Patrick Sexton, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Sexton, Stacey’s Bridge, has been awarded the military medal for devotion to duty on the field in France. Corporal Sexton was amongst the first to volunteer in this district, and left Australia in 1914. For the first 18 months he saw service in Egypt, and 20 months ago was amongst other men picked for despatch work and sent to France.

Corporal P J Sexton MM. 1917. Courtesy of Pamela Cashen, great niece of Patrick Sexton.

Corporal Sexton was killed on 17/4/18. The cable advising the family was dated 2/5/18.
It appears that at the time of his death, his unit had been sent to help defend the British lines at Mont Kemmel. As already indicated, there was an established pattern of troops from XXII Corps Light Horse Regiment being used to supplement other forces. Unfortunately, it is difficult to locate war diary records for the unit but it appears that Corporal Sexton was killed on the day the German launched their offensive against Mont Kemmel. The casualty rate for XXII Corps Light Horse Regiment in the fighting on Kemmel in April 1918 was the highest it experienced over the entire War.

The German attack on Mont Kemmel was preceded by intense bombardment. The initial assault was repulsed. However, the Germans did manage to overrun the positions later in April (25/4/18).

Corporal Sexton was killed in the German bombardment. There are many witness statements describing how he was killed by shellfire.

Sexton was a Cpl., a tall man, his home was at Stacey’s Bridge, Yarram, Victoria. On April 17 we were at Kemmel hill when a shell burst close to Sexton, and he was smothered by the debris. He received the full force of the shell in the back, his spine being broken. He was buried close to where he fell. A stick and indication disc were placed over the grave. I was only 10 yards away and saw him killed and buried.   Sgt Eric Buchanan, 1576   17.8.18

Re 640. Cpl. P. J. Sexton of D. Squadron XXII Corps Cavalry Regt. This N.C.O. belonged to my particular troop and I regret to state was killed some time ago at Mont Kemmel. He was buried on the field on the slopes of Mont Kemmel. If it will assist you at all I’d like to mention that I have just written to his mother in Australia, giving her all the particulars available.    Claude. E. Apps. Lieut. D. Squadron. XXII Corps Cavalry. Rgt. France    14-8-18

The temporary grave was lost, most probably when the Germans overran the position later in the month. Mont Kemmel was recaptured in September 1918, by US units.

Corporal Sexton’s name appears on the Menin Gate Memorial. In the Shire of Alberton, the name was recorded on both the Roll of Honor and the Soldiers’ Memorial. It was also recorded on the separate memorial for the district of Stacey’s Bridge.

There was extensive reporting in the local paper of Corporal Sexton’s death. Presumably, this was because he was so well known and also because he had been one of the very first to enlist. He had been in the AIF for more than three and a half years. On 8/5/18 the following detailed report was published in the paper:

The sad tidings reached Mr. and Mrs. John Sexton, Stacey’s Bridge, on Friday [3/5/18], that their son, Corporal Patrick Sexton, had been killed on active service. The news came as a great blow to the family and his many friends. Pat was in his 24th year, and had seen 3 years and 8 months’ active service. He left Australia at Xmas 1914 as a light horseman, but in Egypt was put in charge of a machine gun. He gained distinction on the battlefield, and for his bravery and devotion to duty was awarded the military medal. He was with his friend, E. Babington, when he fell in the Messiness battle [This was E (Ted) Babington the former captain of the Devon football team], and in all engagements up to the last Pat never received a scratch. It is thought he received the fatal wound at Arras, between 14th and 17th April [He was in fact killed at Mont Kemmel on 17/4/18], when the Australians did such splendid work. Pat. was a noted horseman, and for rough-riding at the Broadmeadows camp before embarking won a champion contest. None could compare with him. As a member of the Stacey’s Bridge rifle club he ranked amongst the best shots, and won quite a number of trophies. He also excelled as a footballer with the Devon team, eight of which have paid the supreme sacrifice, including their genial captain (E. Babington). Pat led an exemplary life, a strict teetotaller and non-smoker. This is the third member of the Stacey’s Bridge rifle club that has fallen.

On the same day (8/5/18), 2 death notices from the family appeared in the local paper. The first, ‘inserted by his sorrowing father, mother, sisters and brother’ noted that he had been killed in action ‘somewhere in France’. The second was inserted by his younger brother Norman – at the time Norman would have been 17 yo – and featured a poem which pointed to a strong Catholic faith.

Though my heart is full of sorrow,
And my eyes are dim with tears:
There is one thing I am proud of,
He went as a volunteer.

I pictured you safe returning, Pat,
And I urged to clasp your hand.
But God has postponed our meeting,
It will be in a brighter land.

Immaculate heart of Mary,
Your prayers for him extol;
O, sacred heart of Jesus,
Have mercy on his soul.

There was also a reference the same day to a ‘memorial mass for the repose of the soul of the late Corporal Patrick Sexton’ which was to behold ‘in Stacey’s Bridge hall on Sunday, 19th, at 11 o’clock’.

In July 1918 (3/7/18) the local paper reproduced 2 letters sent to the family with details of the death. The first was by an unnamed ‘comrade’.

A comrade, writing home, says that Trooper Pat. Sexton was “buried by a shell, and by the time they dug him out he was dead. The doctor said his back was broken, and that he must have been killed instantly. The shell that got him had gas in it, so if he had not been hurt, the gas would have smothered him. I was there at the time. All the boys thought the world of Paddy, and I can tell you he was one of the best.

The second was from Major Roy McLeish DSO who had been attached to ’22 Anzac Light Horse’ / ‘XXII Corps Mounted Regiment’ from the middle of 1917 and who appears to have been the CO at the time of Sexton’s death. The praise is fulsome. He wrote to the mother:

I hardly know how to write to you to tell you of the death of your brave son. He was killed instantly by a shell early on the morning of 18th (sic) April. His death has affected me most deeply, and also all my squadron. He was looked up to by everyone, and respected as the finest character in the regiment, and as being the bravest man we knew. I had been with him all day, and he had only left me a short time before to go to his trench. … Mrs. Sexton, I can’t write any more to you. I know how you must feel. My own mother died not long ago, and I know what a terrible grief it is. This awful war has saddened many homes. You have the consolation of knowing that your son died died in action after a glorious military career, regretted and mourned by everyone who knew him.

Corporal Sexton’s effects were returned to his family in December 1918: Pair of binoculars, prayer book, wallet, diary, photos, cards

The Military Medal was presented to his parents in Melbourne. Most likely this event took place at the time of the Melbourne Show as the mother indicated in a letter to Base Records in late August 1918 that ‘Show Week would suit’, otherwise the commitments of the dairy farm made it too difficult for both parents to make the trip to Melbourne. The Melbourne Royal Show in 1918 opened on Monday 23 September.

Sexton family history tells of the intense grief that followed Patrick’s death. The father died in 1924 and the family farm was sold not long after. It was the classic case of the son who had everything going for him and the son who should have taken over the family farm never returning from the War. After the sale of the farm at Stacey’s Bridge, the only member of this branch of the Sexton family to remain in the district was Maggie. In 1922, Maggie had married Frederick Mills, brother of Patrick Mills who was killed at Pozieres. Their farm was at Carrajung South.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for SEXTON Patrick
Roll of Honour: Patrick John Sexton
First World War Embarkation Roll: Patrick John Sexton
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Patrick John Sexton
Honours and Awards: Patrick John Sexton

Holloway, D 2011, Endure and Fight: A detailed history of the 4th Light Horse Regiment, AIF, 1914-19 Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine, France and Belgium, Dr David Holloway, The 4th Light Horse Regiment Memorial Association, Port Melbourne, Victoria.

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project

Trooper Sexton kept a brief personal note-book of his time in the AIF, but the contents are sparse and confined to routine matters like the dates of pay. The tone of the writing is almost completely devoid of emotion. The single reference to being awarded the military medal – I was awarded the Military Medal – was typical.

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