BUCKINGHAM, George Henry

Service Number: 6237
Enlisted: 28 March 1916
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 16th Infantry Battalion (WW1)
Born: Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, March 1877
Home Town: Subiaco, Nedlands, Western Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Miner
Died: Killed in Action, France , 11 April 1917
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France,
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Southern Cross Honour Roll, Subiaco Fallen Soldiers Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux Memorial (Australian National Memorial - France)
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World War 1 Service

28 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, 6237, 16th Infantry Battalion (WW1)
13 Oct 1916: Involvement Private, 6237, 16th Infantry Battalion (WW1), --- :embarkation_roll: roll_number: '12' embarkation_place: Fremantle embarkation_ship: HMAT Suffolk embarkation_ship_number: A23 public_note: ''
13 Oct 1916: Embarked Private, 6237, 16th Infantry Battalion (WW1), HMAT Suffolk, Fremantle

Help us honour George Henry Buckingham's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Evan Evans

The Buckingham Brothers from Ballarat

Pte George Henry BUCKINGHAM, 16th Infantry Bn, SRN 6237, Died Bullecourt 1 11/4/1917

Pte William Samuel Ezekiel BUCKINGHAM, 16th Infantry Bn, SRN 6238, Died Bullecourt 1 11/4/1917

Cpl Robert Thomas ‘Bob’ Buckingham MM, SRN 3239, 5th Infantry Battalion, Returned

Pte Frank Buckingham, SRN 4941 8th Infantry Battalion and SRN 6236 16th Infantry Battalion, returned

Biography contributed by Evan Evans

From Ballarat & District in the Great War

The story of the Buckingham Bros from Ballarat

‘…My husband…was reported KIA in France or Belgium. No papers or belongings have ever been returned to me and I am in very great dout (sic) if the report was true. I feel thru the way he is worrying me and I cannot get him out of my mind that he is still alive somewhere – possibly a prisoner in a foreign country – and that inquiry might result in finding him. I would be most grateful if action could be taken to have a search made or on the other hand if there is definite proof that he was really killed that this be communicated to me so that my mind will be at rest. I feel he cannot be dead as I have had such dreams of him coming home and I cannot sleep because he worry [sic] me. Will you be so kind and try and trace him threw (sic) exchanged of prisoners of war in England…’

Imagine being so tormented by your grief that reality becomes constantly blurred, that you need reassurance that no one can really give you. May Buckingham was obviously unable to reconcile the loss of her husband Sam with the terrible certainty of his death. She wrote this letter to the Base Records Department on 4 November 1930 – over thirteen years after Sam was killed at Bullecourt.

William Samuel Ezekiel Buckingham and May Beryle Hembury had married in Perth on 20 December 1902. Whilst May had been born in South Australia, Sam was a Victorian, born at Clunes in July 1873. He was the eldest child of Englishman, Samuel Ezekiel Buckingham, and Rosanna Elizabeth James.

After Sam’s birth, the family had moved into Ballarat, taking a house in Lyons Street south. The birth of a second son, George Henry, in 1875 was welcomed by young Sam and the pair became firm friends as they grew together. Sam was well into his schooling at the Urquhart Street State School, when George joined him there. It is easy to imagine him being particularly protective of his little brother. It was a bond that would make them inseparable.

The Buckingham’s spent several years living in Melbourne, before returning to Ballarat where the last three of their eleven children were born. This included Bob and Frank, who would both later join Sam and George in the AIF.

Back in Ballarat, Sam joined the Wendouree Rowing Club and quickly became a popular member of the crews.

Around 1897, Sam and George made the decision to move to Western Australia in search of work. The opening up of the goldfields in the west offered a reprieve from the grinding poverty that many had faced during the economic depression of the 1890’s. Typical of the era, both young men had a hard-work ethic and easily found employment in the mines.

George was the first of the brothers to find a wife, when he married Janet Margaret Sinclair at Southern Cross on 2 January 1900. And after Sam’s marriage to May, the couples lived near each other at Limekilns near Subiaco.

The two families grew quickly with the arrival of ten children between the brothers: Sam and May welcomed their firstborn, Doris May Amelia, in 1904. She was followed by the couple’s only son, Samuel Clarence, on 20 June 1906, Thelma Grace on 5 November 1908 and Rose Edna on 5 October.

When Sam enlisted on 28 March 1916, May was pregnant with their fifth child. He would leave Australia before the birth of their fourth daughter, Beryl Irene on 6 December 1916.

Being sworn into the AIF was to be a family affair on 28 March 1916 – Sam volunteered alongside George, and their youngest brother, Frank, who had joined them in Perth. (Bob Buckingham, who had remained in Ballarat, was actually the first to enlist, having been accepted on 2 July 1915. He had an eventful war with the 5th Infantry Battalion: he was wounded in action twice, suffered a gunshot wound to his arm as the result of an unprovoked attack whilst in England, and was decorated with the Military Medal for exceptional bravery during the Battle of Menin Road in September 1917).

Despite being the eldest, Sam was actually the shortest of the four brothers, standing just 5-feet 4¾-inches in height. He was, however, the heaviest at a substantial 185-pounds. His physical description was particularly interesting – the usual notes were taken: he had a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and black hair, but he also had tattoos on his arms. On both forearms he had anchor tattoos and on his left bicep he also had his initials. “WSEB”.

Fortunately for Sam, George and Frank, none of whom had any previous military training, the trio were given an extended time in camp at Blackboy Hill. It was nearly seven months after they enlisted before they received orders for embarkation.

On 10 October 1916 the Buckingham brothers boarded the troopship Suffolk at Fremantle to begin the voyage to England. For May Buckingham, it was to be the beginning of what must have seemed like an eternity of wondering. By now she was heavily pregnant with her final baby – a child that Sam was ultimately never to see.

HMAT Suffolk docked at Plymouth on 2 December, just four days before the birth of Sam’s youngest daughter. It is safe to say that May would have arranged for a cable to be sent to her husband informing him of the arrival.

The brothers were able to enjoy a happy Christmas in England before embarking for France three days later. As part of the 16th allotment of reinforcements for the 16th Infantry Battalion, they passed through the 4th Australian Divisional Base Depot at Étaples before joining their unit in camp at Mametz. The 16th had just come out of the frontline, where they had been patrolling the Flers sector.

For the Buckinghams, their first experience of full-scale fighting was during the First Battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. For Sam and George, it was also to be their last. For Frank the experience was particularly traumatic as he was with Sam when he was killed. It was also left to him to write and inform his extended family.

Lance-Corporal Jim Buckingham (who was not related to the brothers) gave evidence as to what happened to Sam Buckingham.

‘…I saw him hit with [a] shell and blown to pieces – a shell burst in among 8 or 9 and killed them all in Sunken Road, Bullecourt. I did not hear if he was buried. He joined us up end of December 1916 – young looking fellow, darkish, and very nice chap…’

Sadly, there was apparently no inquiry into the death of George Buckingham, meaning that no first-hand accounts were gathered.

For those who took part in the fighting at Bullecourt, the abject failure of planned operations was seen as a complete disaster. Ultimately, the name of the small French village – a heavily fortified outpost in the formidable Hindenburg Line – would rank alongside ANZAC and Fromelles for the utter futility of the exercise. Mistakes, mechanical failures and a pig-headed determination to push on at all costs by the British High Command, resulted in extensive casualties. The 16th Battalion alone, lost 125 men killed on 11 April 1917. Frank Buckingham came through the battle physically unscathed, although it is not difficult to imagine that state of his mind was otherwise. He would go on fighting with the 16th Battalion and was wounded in action twice – during the Battle of Polygon Wood and finally during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918. The shrapnel wound to his right thigh resulted in him sailing home to Australia before the war ended.

Sadly, for the two widows, May and Janet Buckingham, there was to be no formal closure. The bodies of neither Sam nor George were recovered from the battlefield.

Despite several attempts to locate Sam’s personal effects, nothing was ever returned to May. Lieutenant J. W. Henry, who was the commanding officer of the AIF Kit Store, confirmed that nothing had been recovered when Sam fell in action.

‘…In response to a communication received from the Officer-in-Charge, Base Records Office, Melbourne…full enquiries were made on the field, but information was received that owing to the conditions prevailing in the war area, it was not found possible to recover any effects from the late soldier’s person. This information would have ere this been conveyed to the widow. A kit bag was deposited at this Store in the name of the late Pte Buckingham was upon examination found to contain only Government property…’

Unable to reconcile herself with this information, May Buckingham sought the help of Mr D. Watson, who was manager of “The Westralian Worker” (‘The People’s Printing and Publishing Company of WA Limited’) who wrote a letter on her behalf. His personal effects were said to have included a family group photograph of himself, wife and four children; there was also a photograph of his mother-in-law, a leather pouch, a gold band ring that had been given to him by his wife (engraved with his initials W. S. E. B., a watch and silver mounted pipe that had been presented to him before he left Australia.

A grave is something permanent, tangible, even if it is half a world away, there is still proof that a last resting place exists. The return of personal mementoes also carried a degree of certainty, after all who whilst still living could bear to be parted from such items? But, for May Buckingham there was neither. As a result her reality was suspended; she observed all the traditional processes of having lost a loved one, but as time passed it seemed to become harder to reconcile.

Her almost plaintive letter to Base Records in 1930 met with little sympathy. No doubt those who had probably dealt with a stream of letters from thousands of grieving families had long since lost the ability to be kind when responding. However, the letter May received was almost callous. Perhaps it was an attempt at being “cruel to be kind,” but it certainly hasn’t aged well…

‘…I have to advise that official notification of your husband…having been KIA at Bullecourt, France, on 11th April 1917, emanated from the Officer Commanding this unit [16th Battalion] and was duly confirmed by other documentary evidence received from the overseas authorities. Moreover, all POW’s have long since been repatriated or otherwise accounted for, and in the circumstances there appears no reason to doubt the authenticity of the original report.

As previously indicated no record exists of the recovery of any of your husband’s belongings and an examination of his kit bag failed to disclose any articles of private property. In the event of no report of burial forthcoming the name of this soldier will be inscribed with those of other AIF missing in France on the Australian Memorial to be erected at Villers-Bretonneux, and at a later date the opportunity will be afforded relatives of obtaining a copy of the printed register containing full particulars of those commemorated in this manner…’

Janet seemed more resigned to her husband’s death. She appeared to concentrate instead on raising their children, Bobbie, Lily, Grace, George “Barry” and “little Donnie”. She recognised the finality.

‘…His country called, and honour bade him go
To battle 'gainst a grim and deadly foe.
He helped to bring Australia into fame.
To build for her a never-dying name,
Foremost was he in the thickest strife,
for King and country Laid he down his life…’

The tragic accidental death of her youngest child on 7 May 1926, was a heart-breaking final blow.

‘…In ever loving memory of my
dear little Don, accidentally killed at Williams…

When alone in my grief my bitter tears flow,
There comes a sweet memory of not long ago,
Just as a dream, dear Don stands by my side,
And whispers, dear mum, death cannot divide.
My lips cannot speak how much I loved him,
My heart cannot tell what to say,
God alone only knows how I miss him,
As I battle along life's rough weary way.

His broken-hearted mother, Janet…’

For those left behind, to carry on alone, these were the faces of grief.