Australia’s longest serving Chaplain in the First World War.
The only Australian Chaplain to be awarded a combat medal for the Gallipoli campaign.
Despite orders and protocol to the contrary, Father FAHEY was one of the first to land at Gallipoli, wanting to be with his boys of the 11th Battalion.
John FAHEY was born on 3 October 1883, at Rossmore, County Tipperary, Ireland to parents Michael and Catherine, who were Dairy Farmers. He had 3 brothers and 5 sisters, all attending the local National Primary School. His parents were devout Catholics, which led to John enrolling for Secondary School at the Cistercian College at Mount Melleray, County Waterford. On graduation , John embraced his passion for Latin and Greek to embark on a Religious pathway, to which he had a calling. He enrolled at the Brignole-Sale Seminary at Genoa, Italy to commit to studies for the priesthood. John was subsequently ordained a Priest in 1907, at the age of 24 years, and set out for Australia to pursue missionary work.
Father FAHEY began his pastoral career in York, Western Australia, in 1908, where he stayed for one year. In 1909, he was appointed to the Parish of Yarloop ( included Towns of Harvey, Jarrahdale, Pinjarra, Waroona & Yarloop ) where he worked for the next five years. His duties necessitated numerous visits to the Timber Towns and associated Timber Camps that had sprouted nearby. He soon slotted comfortably into an Australian way of life, being widely trusted and held in high esteem by all people he served. The admiration he earnt, was spread amongst all faiths and non-believers, filtering through all classes of society.
FAHEY was renowned in the South West as a highly competent all-round sportsman, and a very fine shot on the Rifle Range at Yarloop, where he practiced regularly. He typified the active, robust priesthood, that was so strongly admired throughout Australia. In March, 1914 he was transferred to the Parish of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; a large crowd of Yarloop parishioners gathered at the Waroona Town Hall, to bid him farewell, a clear demonstration of his popularity. Barely six months later, on 8 September 1914, Father FAHEY, aged 30 years, enlisted for War Service with the Australian Imperial Forces.
The AIF appointed FAHEY as a Chaplain 4th Class ( Captain ), assigned to the 11th Battalion, which comprised mostly Western Australian citizens. Initial training was conducted at the newly-built Blackboy Hill Camp, near Greenmount, which became well known for its harsh environment. The challenge was to mould the volunteer enlistees into a disciplined, cohesive fighting unit. Captain FAHEY, in the company of his 11th Battalion soldiers, entrained from the Helena Valley siding to the Port of Fremantle on 31 October, 1914, to board the Troop Ship “ Ascanius “. This voyage was broken at Colombo, Ceylon to replenish ship’s supplies, before docking at Port Said, Egypt, on 5 December, 1914. There were a number of reports indicating that Chaplain FAHEY had been victorious in almost every sporting event in which he had participated, during the voyage.
Troops set up camp approximately ten miles from the City of Mena, near Cairo, and reasonably close to the Pyramids, which allowed for an alluring scenic backdrop. Captain FAHEY was instinctively pro-active in counselling his charges in relation to the risks and temptations on offer in Cairo, when taking advantage of a Leave Pass. This Mena Camp was broken on 28 December, 1914 , when the men marched to Cairo, before entraining to Alexandria. Army Chaplains had instructions to travel via Hospital Ship, however, FAHEY stoically joined the ordinary rank and file, boarding the SS “ Suffolk” for the voyage to Lemnos.
On arrival in Lemnos, the “Ascanius” remained at anchor in Mudros Harbour for seven weeks, near the Gallipoli Peninsula, awaiting orders to land. On 21 April, 1915, the 3rd Brigade ( included the 11th Battalion ) were advised that they had been chosen to lead the first assault on Gallipoli, following their landing at Gabba Tepe. Operational orders were for the men to secure the beach and higher ridges, preparing the way for landing of further waves of troops. Chaplains were expected to wait on board ship until the beachhead was cleared, then proceed ashore. Captain FAHEY ignored protocol, refusing to be parted from his men, to be amongst the first to reach land. He was continuously found where the fighting was at its thickest.
Some excerpts from the Chaplain’s own record of the initial assault at Gallipoli, follow:-
“ My Brigade was selected for the honourable and perilous task of landing party to seize the position and make it secure for the landing of the main body. Chaplains were ordered not to land until the following day, when the position would be safe. However, I disregarded orders and sneaked off with the men, and it was fortunate for many a dying man that I was ashore that morning. Had I known the inferno I was rushing into , I believe I should have remained behind. We embarked on destroyers and torpedo-boats from the troopships and steamed slowly towards the shore. Each destroyer carried 4oo men, and had six large rowing boats in tow in which we were to pull ashore. As we approached within a quarter of a mile of the shore, everything was very peaceful. Not a word was heard among the men, not a sound except the faint throbbing of the engines. Everybody was waiting in intense expectation of what would happen next. It was 4.30 a.m. and there was a faint glimmer of dawn. Suddenly inferno broke loose from the shore. Such a fearful hail of bullets from rifle, machine gun and shrapnel as passes all imagination. It was appalling. We could not hit back as the enemy was invisible. There was dreadful slaughter in the boats. I got to the beach exhausted and had to lie down among falling bullets to get my breath. The beach was strewn with dead and wounded. When a good number of men was ashore, the order was given to fix bayonets and charge. Our men gave a wild Australian cheer and rushed up the hill “.
FAHEY regularly wrote to Archbishop CLUNE in Perth, WA and his vivid and precise description of the Dawn Landing at Gallipoli follows:-
“ There was no cover. We were packed so closely that one bullet would wound or kill three men, and we could not hit back, for the enemy was invisible. There was only one anxiety amongst the men, to reach the shore and rush the Turks with the bayonet. After what seemed like endless hours the boat touched bottom about twenty yards from the beach. As I jumped up to get out, a bullet went through the sleeve of my jacket and caught the lad behind me. A shrapnel splashed a man’s brains over me. Another caught the gunwhale of the boat between my knees as I was getting out, and nearly blinded me with splinters.
I was pushed from behind and fell into about four feet of water. I went promptly to the bottom and being loaded with a pack, three days rations, and a water bottle, and an overcoat , I found the utmost difficulty in rising. I almost thought I had been shot. I never realized until then, how difficult it is to walk through water, dressed. I got on the beach exhausted.
I had a look around then and saw all the other boats landing. They were suffering just as much as our boat suffered. The beach was strewn with dead and wounded. Two boats landed about 50 yards from where I was. They held 50 soldiers each, but only 20 came ashore together. They came under the fire of a maxim gun which can rattle off 600 shots a minute “.
Captain FAHEY was kept very busy on the first day, with 60 members of the 11th Battalion having been killed and several hundred more suffering from wounds. In following months , he wrote a number of descriptive letters back home, often expressing the view that the men fighting at Gallipoli, were confronted with a hopeless situation. He always maintained a calm persona whilst carrying out his duties during the hectic, diabolical outcomes of the early combative days that spawned the Anzac Legend. He was idolized by those of the 11th Battalion, who regarded him as inspirational, particularly with his devotion of personal bravery, in the field.
In the rarer moments of spare time, FAHEY would carry provisions up to the men and help wounded men back down to the Medics. It was widely known that he was not afraid to go where the bullets fell most thickly. He was extremely lucky to survive his service on Gallipoli, with a number of his letters home documenting his extraordinary near misses; bullets pierced his overcoat and haversack many times without harm and separately, he had a book and a jam tin shot out of his hands.
In a poignant letter of reflection dated 6 June 1915, FAHEY wrote the following lines to a friend in Kalgoorlie WA:-
“ Australia, and particularly WA has good reason to be proud of her men. People who come here now, gaze in astonishment, and wonder how a landing was effected, and this position won. It seems as if a thousand men could hold it against an army. No troops in the world but Australians could have done it. It will live forever as one of the greatest exploits in Military History. I was instructed not to come ashore with the 11th, but I wanted to be with them, so I disobeyed orders, and was in one of the first boats to reach the shore. We went through a veritable inferno of fire for half an hour. The beach was a shambles, and it is wonderful how anyone got through alive. It would do your heart good to see our brave lads, in spite of their losses, charging up the rugged cliffs with the cold steel, digging the enemy out of impregnable positions, and driving them up the hills like mobs of stampeded cattle. In this bayonet charge, and on some occasions since, we have had revenge for our losses. The saddest feature of this brilliant exploit is our heavy losses. Many of our men and many a brave officer have fallen, and many a home in Australia is shrouded in mourning; but I expect Australia will not regret the heavy price paid for a feat of arms such as many a Nation would be delighted to inscribe in the pages of its history “.
( We are indebted to the writings of Father John FAHEY for a clear account of the Dawn Landing and the astounding bravery demonstrated by our men under extreme conditions at the time. In the early phases of Gallipoli action, censorship of outward correspondence was one of the duties of a Chaplain, and FAHEY appeared unrestricted as to the content of his writings ).
On 18 July 1915, FAHEY was unwell and admitted to a Hospital Ship and evacuated to Malta for treatment. He was discharged from Hospital in late August , rejoining the 11th Battalion at Gallipoli on 10 September, 1915. However, he had not fully recovered and was admitted to the 3rd Field Ambulance , before transfer to the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station in late September for further treatment. On 1 October, 1915 he returned to his unit for four weeks, before being re-admitted to the Casualty Clearing Station, suffering with Pyrexia. On 7 November, 1915, he was evacuated by Hospital Ship to the Gibraltar General Hospital, where he was treated for two weeks, then shipped to the Devonport Military Convalescent Hospital in England.
By early February 1916, Captain Fahey was deemed to have made a full recovery, being shipped to re-join his 11th Battalion comrades, camped at Serapeum, Egypt, beside the Suez Canal. Whilst encamped in Egypt, Captain FAHEY received confirmation that he had been awarded the Companion of the Distinguished Service Order Medal. This Medal was awarded on the recommendation of Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-In-Chief of the Imperial Expeditionary Forces. FAHEY had been previously Mentioned in Despatches “ for gallantry under fire at Gallipoli”. He was the only Chaplain to be awarded a combat medal in the Gallipoli Campaign.
Captain John FAHEY strongly exceeded the expectations of the responsibilities of a Chaplain in the field , who was reasonably charged with counselling those returning from Battle, consoling the wounded and burying the dead.
On 3 April, 1916, Captain FAHEY disembarked at Marseilles, France, en-route to the bloody battlefields of the Western Front, including Pozieres and the Battle of the Somme. During these battles, the 11th Battalion lost more than five hundred Officers and men. FAHEY wrote home-“ Even if the censorship allowed me. I shall make no attempt to describe what I have seen at the Somme. It beggars all description. It is appalling, it is diabolical and it is wonderful how anyone escapes “.
On 8 September, 1916, Captain FAHEY was promoted to Chaplain 3rd Class ( Major ), whilst in the field in France. He was acknowledged as the longest serving front line Chaplain of any denomination in the First World War. Around this time, Chaplains were afforded the option to return home to Australia. FAHEY, steadfastly turned down this opportunity, insisting that he would stay with his men “ for as long as there were any of the Brigade left “.
In mid December, 1916, Major FAHEY was appointed to a new role as Senior Chaplain with the 3td Training Battalion at Perham Downs England. On 28 March, 1917, FAHEY was honoured with the Investiture of his Distinguished Service Order at Buckingham Palace. He returned to Perham Downs, where he remained in his post until early April, 1917. He was then appointed as Chaplain at the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station in the field At Bailleul, France. Major FAHEY was involved in the treatment of casualties from the Battle of Messines Ridge and from the Mustard Gas attacks near Outtersteene, in the Armentieres sector.
In mid November, 1917, FAHEY was transferred to duty at the No. 4 Command Depot at Codford, England. On 14 February, 1918, he wrote to the Senior Roman Catholic Chaplain AIF London , seeking permission to resign his commission and return to Australia, after more than three years service, which had clearly taken its toll, stating “ I am feeling the strain consequent upon the length of service “. On 16 March, 1918, FAHEY embarked from England aboard the “ Wandilla “ for return to Australia. He remained on duty during the voyage, disembarking at Fremantle on 13 May, 1918. He was greeted by a large throng of fellow priests and crowds of hero-worshippers. Major John FAHEY was formally discharged from War Service on 28 May, 1918.
SERVICE MEDALS/HONOURS AWARDED.
- Distinguished Service Order
- Mention in Despatches
- 1914/1915 Star – No. 3749
- British War Medal _ No. 8006
- Victory Medal – No. 7974
On 12 June, 1918, Father John FAHEY was honoured with a Civic Reception at His Majesty’s Theatre Perth in dedication of his War Service. The theatre was packed, and notable speakers, included Colonel POPE CB, Premier Henry LEFROY and the Mayor of Perth, William LATHLAIN. POPE commented that “ a good Padre is the finest asset a Battalion can have, his influence over the men was felt throughout “.
Premier LEFROY declared “ the gallant Padre , honoured for the distinguished and meritorious service on the field of battle “.
When rising to reply, Father FAHEY was humbled by the deafening applause during the standing ovation he received. He attempted to defend his stance against the perception that he was a public hero, by saying “ Who am I that I should receive a public reception? Only a Chaplain attached to an Army “. He reserved the balance of his speech to honour the troops, nurses and women at home. Quotes from his speech follow :-
“ For three and a half years I have been with the Australian troops and no matter how long I live, I will never regret that association. No country can produce a better class of fighting man than ours. You do not know them properly until they are at the front. Their cheerfulness is most marked. The discipline I admired was their loyalty to their comrades , their wonderful tenacity and esprit-de-corps and how they held onto the ground they captured “.
He then went on to acknowledge the huge contribution made by heroic nurses and women at home during the war years- “ They bear the great anguish of the war. Their sons, their husbands, and their sweethearts have left them to go to the field of battle- perhaps for ever. It is the women who bear the great burden of sorrow. They have shown wonderful heroism. The women’s anguish is a mental suffering, and knows no relaxation. Go among the sorrow-stricken women folk and you can see the sadness in their glances- sometimes it is impossible to bear “.
Rev. Father John FAHEY was one of the founders/creators of the Western Australian Branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League ( later to be known as the RSL ), and was elected State President in 1919. This appointment is regarded as a most unusual distinction for a Roman Catholic, and especially for a priest. Such was the esteem in which Father FAHEY was held by service personnel and their families.
Father FAHEY served the Ministry at St Marys Star of the Sea Church, Cottesloe/Peppermint Grove from 1920-1932 , Kellerberrin from 1932-1936, various Perth Parishes from 1936-1939 and transferred back to the St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church Cottesloe, for the remainder of his working life from 1939-1959. He was highly regarded in academic circles as a classical scholar, being involved with the University of Western Australia, as a consultant and examiner in Ancient History and Greek.
He died on 28 April, 1959 at the age of 75 years at the St. John of God Hospital, Subiaco. He was laid to rest in the Karrakatta General Cemetery, in Roman Catholic Section DC, Grave No. 0110A.
Newspapers of the day reported that in excess of 2000 people were in attendance at his funeral.
Father John FAHEY deserves a permanent Memorial ( in the form of a bust or monument ) to commemorate the significance of his First World War service. He was decorated with the award of a Distinguished Service Order ( the highest award for a Chaplain ). However, many reports of the time and subsequent reviews by Military Historians , maintain that Father FAHEY’s actions warranted award of a Victoria Cross.
It is unconscionable that Father FAHEY’s incredible heroism in the First World War and lifelong devotion to his parishioners, has not received greater recognition and acclaim. A brief inscription near the base of a small stone, in the churchyard at St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Cottesloe WA, is his only known Memorial. Representatives of the Cottesloe RSL visited this site in 2015, describing the stone to be sadly neglected. Despite Father FAHEY’s bent for deflecting any personal acclaim, his actions deserve significant acknowledgement.