By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
Deep in the bloody terrain that would later become known as Anzac Cove at Gallipoli, a soldier arrives with a grim, urgent message. One of his fellow infantrymen has been mortally wounded, losing both legs on the battlefield.
Is there a priest here? And can he possibly make his way through the firefight to give the dying man the last rites?
A military chaplain attached to the Seventh Battalion responds immediately. According to military records, the battle is “at its height” but he runs “a mile over most difficult country” to get to the “firing line.” Despite the barrage of “bullets and shells” and in spite of sketchy directions, he finds his way “to the dying soldier in safety,” and does all “that is possible for him”, providing comfort before the wounded man’s life ebbs away.
Then he returns once more to his own post, “through the shower of bullets and shells”. Now there is another sound to rival the crescendo of battle. It is applause. The priest receives a “great ovation” from officers and men who have witnessed his heroism.
It is a remarkable story, one of many tales of bravery on the Gallipoli Peninsula. But elevating the feat is one more fact. The military chaplain who ran both ways through rough and challenging terrain while the battle raged around him is no youngster. He is one of the oldest men in the killing zone.
Captain Chaplain Joseph Hearn, a Jesuit priest, is 62.
He more than deserves every moment of the resounding applause. And he also deserves, according to his superior officers, appropriate military recognition. With a citation that mentions “continued courageous devotion to duty during the occupation of ANZAC, Dardanelles, Turkey” and “the fearless way in which he carried out his duties under fire”, Fr Joseph Hearn SJ is awarded the Military Cross.
According to The Gazette, Britain’s official public record, the Military Cross (MC) was established by King George V in December 1914 and was to be “awarded for an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land, to captains or officers of lower rank up to warrant officers.”
Fr Joseph Hearn SJ was born in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland on 5 August 1854. He entered the Jesuit order on 31 October 1878 at Milltown Park, Dublin and was ordained in 1890. He took his final vows on 2 February 1896 at Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Sydney. He moved to Melbourne, where he was parish priest of St Ignatius’ Church, Richmond, for 18 years before he enlisted as a military chaplain in 1914, the year that World War I began. After the Gallipoli campaign, he went on to serve in France before returning to Australia in December 1916.
In March 1917, the Richmond Gazette newspaper ran the headline: “Bonzer priest’s return. Father Hearn comes back from the war. Heart-throb welcome in St Ignatius’ Hall”. The story said that Fr Hearn “bowed his acknowledgments (sic) of the applause of nearly 1200 people. It was quite the largest audience that has assembled in St Ignatius’ Hall, and the most enthusiastic. Every chair was occupied, and the people stood at the rear and in the gangways, and clustered around the open doors. They applauded and laughed with equal heartiness and listened intently to the wanderer’s account of his journeyings. Clergy and members of the parish committee had seats on the platform.
“Mr. T. G. Forbes presided, and in welcoming Father Hearn on behalf of the parishioners, said when the (wartime) call for a chaplain came, every father at St. Ignatius’ volunteered. Perhaps they wanted to get out of Richmond, or – for there was a lot of Irish blood amongst them – into the fight; or perhaps they were tired of work and wanted a short cut to heaven. Whatever the reason, they volunteered.
“After having Fr Hearn for so long in Richmond, they parted with him even for a short time – with regret but they then had the satisfaction of knowing that he was going to look after our boys. On many occasions when sad news had come from the front, it was lightened by the addition ‘He saw Father Hearn before his death’.”
Following Mr Forbes as a speaker for the evening, another Jesuit, Fr Lockington, began by saying: “Let me tell a story against Father Hearn first. We were coming up the steps together to the hall tonight, and I remarked that there was a splendid crowd. ‘Yes,’ said Fr Hearn, with the old instinct strong. ‘It’s a pity it isn’t a shilling a head, proceeds to go to the schools’!” As the newspaper reported, the audience “rocked” with appreciation.
When Fr Hearn himself spoke, the newspaper reported that he gave “an unvarnished chronicle, the speech of a man of deeds.” His own description of the momentous landing at Gallipoli was told from the perspective of the vessel, as chaplains were not allowed ashore at that point. “Our ship came as near as possible to the shore, and then the men, with their equipment, jumped into the boats and started for the shore. The New South Wales boys had the honour of the first landing, but the beach was now deserted. Nothing was to be seen but a bare hillside, shrapnel bursting over the ridges and the crackling of rifles where our boys were attacking the Turks.
“Then, as the first boats reached the beach, shells from hidden guns burst over them, smashing boats and men. Out of a boat of 30 would jump four sound men. The Turks had their guns trained to the inch. Those that fell remained there, and the others went up the hills to join their mates. That day we commenced to take aboard the wounded.”
When Fr Hearn was eventually permitted to make his way to the beach, he and a Church of England chaplain “stumbled around looking for their destination” before eventually finding a tent full of soldiers. “There was just room for one,” Fr Hearn recalled, “and the other chaplain got in. But there was too big a risk of wakening the weary soldiers and being addressed in good Australian terms”. So instead he moved on and finally spent the night in the open, clinging to a small bush to save himself rolling down the hillside. At daylight he found his division and moved to a dugout on the beach.
“It was a good stand for business,” said Fr Hearn. “The beach was like Collins, Bourke and Swanston streets rolled into one. All roads led there, and everybody was found there at one time or another. By the way, people who say I took a swim every morning to encourage the Australians are wrong for two reasons: a) the Australians needed no encouragement to swim; b) I was too busy.
“Then there was the time when I was awakened about dawn by the tramping of feet, and going out of my dugout, I found a long file of men passing. They were reinforcements going up to the trenches. And I got a wave of the hand here and there, and soon I started to pick out faces. The recognitions came from Richmond boys. There were lads from Stawell Street, Lennox Street and Bridge Road. I don’t know who I didn’t see.”
During that evening at St Ignatius’ Hall, the one subject Fr Hearn did not discuss during his “characteristically modest speech” was the episode that earned him the Military Cross.
It was said that he was an admirer of Sir John Monash, widely considered to be one of the foremost Allied military commanders in the First World War and who was actually knighted on the battlefield in northern France by King George V in 1918. According to a 1931 report in The Argus (a Melbourne daily newspaper that ceased publication in 1957) Monash’s state funeral included an “escort consisting of four battalions of infantry and six squadrons of Light Horse”.
At the funeral, Fr Hearn showed yet again why he was so deeply respected in military circles, even a decade and a half after he had left the army. An entry contributed by a Faithe Jones on the Virtual War Memorial Australia website tells of his simple but telling decision at Monash’s funeral. “In blustering (sic) rain, Fr. Hearn, then in his late 70s, resisted invitations to travel in a car, preferring instead to march the whole distance” with the other military personnel.
Fr Hearn died ten years later, on 22 November 1941, at Loyola College, Watsonia in Melbourne. It is more than a century since he was awarded the Military Cross, but his deeds have never been forgotten. The silver cross sits on the top shelf of a beautiful timber and glass display cabinet at the Jesuit Province office. It is still in its original clip case and it is still attached to the original suspension bar, above which is the original ribbon divided into three equal segments of white, purple and white.
Some time ago, the Archivist of the Australian Province, Fr Michael Head SJ, had a lady visitor at the Province Office. As Archival Assistant Elizabeth (Liz) Parker tells the story, “the lady had come to talk about war medals, among other things.”
As Liz recalls, things got fairly interesting when Fr Michael mentioned the Military Cross won by Fr Hearn. “The lady replied that chaplains did not win medals and asked whether proof even existed. Our Archivist showed her Fr Hearn’s medal and the lady left, never to return.”
Surprising as it may seem to some, we have our own story of Jesuit heroism at Gallipoli.