This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Maurice Wilder-Neligan (1882-1923), soldier and district officer, was born on 4 October 1882 at Tavistock, Devon, England, son of Canon John West Neligan and his wife Charlotte, née Putland. Maurice Neligan was educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Ipswich, and Bedford Grammar School. On 18 February 1905 he married a divorcee Frances Jane Wyatt at the register office, Paddington, London. They were to have one daughter.
Enlisting in the Royal Horse Artillery in September 1910 as Maurice Wilder, he lowered his age and gave Auckland, New Zealand, as his birthplace. He served in the ranks for about a year before leaving his family in London and going to Sydney. He next appeared as a weighbridge clerk in a sugar mill at Proserpine, Queensland, and lived at Kelly's Club Hotel, Brandon, where he established a close friendship with the publican's family. In August 1914 he enlisted as a private soldier in the 9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, again as Maurice Wilder, and was promoted sergeant on 1 January 1915. From the landing on Gallipoli on 25 April he was in his element. On the 26th he carried in a wounded man under heavy fire, collected stragglers and led them back to the firing-line. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Officer casualties were heavy: although he was only the battalion's orderly-room sergeant, he was soon acting as adjutant of the 9th and was commissioned as second lieutenant on 28 April. On the night of 27 May he led a raid on a Turkish post near Gaba Tepe, inflicting casualties and bringing back a prisoner without firing a shot and without losing a man; his careful planning of the operation ensured its swift success. Wounded in June and evacuated to Egypt, he discharged himself from hospital and made his way back to the 9th.
He was appointed adjutant and temporary captain in September, and obtained official promulgation of a change of name to Wilder-Neligan. The transfer of the A.I.F. to France in 1916 brought him wider opportunities. He planned and carefully trained the troops for a major raid near Fleurbaix, launched on the night of 1-2 July. Its success was recognized by the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Wilder-Neligan who, despite serious wounds, had continued to command until all his men had returned. After recovering, he took part in desperate fighting at Bullecourt in May 1917 and in the 3rd battle of Ypres. For brief periods that year he was acting commanding officer of the 9th Battalion and of the 10th. Promoted lieutenant-colonel, he returned to the 10th on 30 June as its commander; 'within a few months [he] infused into that battalion a special eagerness'. His determined and imaginative training prepared it for the battle of Polygon Wood in September—with brilliant results.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the capture of Merris in July 1918, described by the inspector general of training in the British Expeditionary Force as the 'best show ever done by a battalion in France'. Wilder-Neligan was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. for this innovative and daring operation. He was prominent in the great series of battles beginning on 8 August. In the fighting for Lihons he moved 250 yards (228 m) ahead of his battalion, taking a signalling lamp which he flashed red for halt and take cover, and yellow for advance. In this way he brought the 10th into position in support of the 9th with only one man wounded. His tactical skill was buttressed by his tireless care for the well-being of his men, their clothing and fitness as well as their rations. Above all he was an organizer, some said the best in the A.I.F. To Charles Bean he was 'a restless and adventurous spirit', 'an impetuous, daredevil officer but free of the carelessness with which those qualities are often associated'. His eccentricities were famous and were often shown in the embarrassing way he treated his officers, but much was forgiven so masterly a commander. If the rank and file cursed him, they also trusted him. He was mentioned in dispatches four times; in 1918 he was appointed C.M.G. and awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Wilder-Neligan's A.I.F. appointment terminated in Queensland in October 1919. He had been thinking of obtaining an administrative post in the Australian 'military or civil dependencies', but it was not until March 1920 that he joined the military administration of New Guinea as a lieutenant. He began as temporary deputy district officer attached to the Rabaul garrison. On 9 May 1921, when military government ended, he transferred to the civil administration, becoming district officer at Talasea, New Britain. Early in January 1923 he was called to Rabaul by the administrator to answer allegations of financial malpractice made by a former German planter. Although Wilder-Neligan appears to have resigned, he set out for Rabaul by sea. He went ashore to stay at the village of Ekerapi and to rest for a few days. On coming to wake him on 10 January, his servant found that Wilder-Neligan was dead. A coronial inquest by the acting district officer at Talasea found that the cause of death was unknown and that there were no suspicious circumstances. Survived by his wife and daughter, Wilder-Neligan had died intestate and in debt. His remains were buried on Garua Island, near Talasea, in accordance with his wishes; his wife placed a memorial stone on the grave.
Big in stature, 'solidly built and of upright and soldierly bearing', Wilder-Neligan was outstanding among those for whom the war meant a liberation of their faculties and for whom it provided stimulation and purpose. With only modest training and experience, he learned quickly, coming to understand war in France in the same terms as Sir John Monash, but with an even clearer appreciation of the possibilities of the battlefield owing to his intimate experience of it. He was lucky in that he survived, but it was his courage, his sheer tactical brilliance and his unceasing care for his soldiers that made 'Mad Neligan' a legend in his day. He was and remains a mysterious figure, save for the brief years of his military achievement.
A. J. Hill, 'Wilder-Neligan, Maurice (1882–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilder-neligan-maurice-9094/text16035, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 May 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990