Maurice James Dease was killed in action at Nimy during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, just 20 days after the outbreak of the First World War. He was one of the first British officer casualties and the first posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross of the war. A lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, Maurice was the only son of Edmund and Katherine Dease, of Levington, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath and Culmullen House, Dunshaughlin.
Maurice was born at Gaulstown, Coole, Co. Westmeath in 1889. He was educated at Stonyhurst College, Wimbledon, and Sandhurst. Maurice returned to his family in Ireland regularly and received his First Holy Communion in the private chapel of the bishop’s palace in Mullingar in 1902. Although from Westmeath the Dease family resided at Culmullen House, Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath from 1908 until 1917. He took a particular interest in the aviary at Stonyhurst. Dease became a Second Lieutenant in 1910 and was promoted Lieutenant in 1912. At the outbreak of war he was despatched with his regiment to France.
At Mons, Belgium, the Allies attempted to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal against the advancing German First Army. On 23rd August 1914 Nimy Bridge was being defended by a single company of Royal Fusiliers and a machine gun section with Lieutenant Dease in command. The Germans approached the railway bridge, initially from the front but then they came from the sides as well. The gunfire was intense, and the casualties were heavy, but the Lieutenant went on firing. Dease was wounded in the calf and neck but after lying still for a while he crawled down the embankment to his second machine gun, dragged a wounded soldier off it and started firing. He kept calling for gunners to come and replace the dead and wounded. After Dease was hit for the fifth time he was carried to the battalion aid station, where he died.
Private Sidney Godley, who had been assisting the Lieutenant while he was still able to operate the guns, took over, and alone he used the gun to cover the retreat of his comrades. For his actions Godley was awarded the Victoria Cross but spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. The British forces were forced to retreat due to the German’s greater strength and the retreat of the French Fifth Army. The Battle of Mons was the first major battle of the Great War and saw 1,638 casualties on the British side and around 5,000 Germans.
It took four weeks for official news of Dease’s death to reach his family at Culmullen. Dease was specially mentioned in Field Marshal Sir John French’s Despatch of 7 September and was awarded the Victoria Cross in November 1914, the first officer to receive this distinction in the war. The medal arrived by registered post to the family. Dease’s mother felt that this was inappropriate and having made representations the method was changed so that in future all posthumous medals were present to family members by the King. Dease’s Victoria Cross medal is on display at a museum in the Tower of London and a commemorative plaque was erected in Westminster Cathedral. In 2010 a plaque was erected in Culmullen Church to commemorate Maurice Dease.
In 2014 the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins joined representatives of the British and Belgian royal families and the German President in laying a wreath to the dead of the First World War at St Symphorien graveyard near Mons in Belgium. More than two hundred Irish soldiers died at Mons and twenty eight of them, including Dease, are buried at St Symphorien. Following the ceremony President Higgins met relatives of the Irish soldiers who were killed at Mons including Dease’s nephew, Major Maurice French and his son, Patrick French.
Reports from the Time
“Though two or three times badly wounded he continued to control the fire of his machine guns at Mons on 23rd Aug., until all his men were shot. He died of his wounds.” The Victoria Cross citation records: “On 23rd August 1914 at Mons, Belgium, Nimy Bridge was being defended by a single company of Royal Fusiliers and a machine gun section with Lieutenant Dease in command. The gunfire was intense, and the casualties were heavy, but the Lieutenant went on firing in spite of his wounds, until he was hit for the 5th time and was carried away to a place of safety where he died. A private (S F Godley) of the same Battalion, who had been assisting the Lieutenant while he was still able to operate the guns, took over, and alone he used the gun to such a good effect that he covered the retreat of his comrades.” The London Gazette, 16 November 1914.
“Lieutenant Maurice James Dease, 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.
During the action at Nimy, north of Mons, on August 23rd, 1914, the machine guns were protecting the crossing over a canal bridge, and Lieutenant Dease was several times severely wounded, but refused to leave the guns. He remained at his post until all the men of his detachment were either killed or wounded, and the guns put out of action by the enemy’s fire. Lieutenant Dease was the first officer to gain the Victoria Cross in the war. He was the only son of Mr. Edmund F. Dease, Culmullen, Drumree, Co. Meath. He was killed in the action at Nimy.” What the Irish Regiments Have Done by S. Parnell Kerr (1916)
“Dease, Maurice James. V.C. Lieutenant 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, only son of Edmund Fitzlaurence Dease, of Culmullen, Drumree, Co. Meath, J.P. and grandson of James Arthur Dease of Turbotston, J.P. D.L., Vice-Lieutenant of Cavan. Born Gaulstown, Coole, Co. Westmeath 28 September 1889. Educated Frognal Park, Hampstead, Stonyhurst College (1903), Army College, Wimbledon, and Military College, Sandhurst. Gazetted 2nd Lieutenant 27 May 1910, promoted Lieutenant 19 April 1912 and on the outbreak of war proceeded with his regiment to France. On 23 August Lieutenant Dease, who was Machine Gun Officer, was in command of the section placed to protect the crossing of a bridge at Nimy, north of Mons. During the action his position was heavily shelled by the enemy, all his men being either killed or incapacitated; he was several times seriously wounded but refused to leave the guns, remaining near and working them until he fell mortally wounded. For this he was specially mentioned in Field Marshal Sir John French’s Despatch of 7 September and was awarded the Victoria Cross, 16 November 1914, the first officer to receive this distinction in the war. The action is thus officially described: Though two or three times wounded, he continued to control the fire of his machine guns at Mons on 23 August until all his men were shot. He died of his wounds.” His commanding officer wrote: “Lieutenant Dease was wounded, and man after man of his detachment was hit. He appears to have received a second wound after neglecting a first wound in the leg; taking a little time to recover, he managed to return to the gun and kept it in action. He was then incapacitated by a third wound. Thus his conduct was heroic indeed, and of the greatest service in delaying the crossing of the enemy, which it was our object to effect… I have brought his conspicuous gallantry to notice.” De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1924, volume 1, page 109.