AN UNEXPECTED ANZAC HERO.
Had the Great War not ended just weeks after he carried a wounded British officer from a bloody battlefield on the Western Front under heavy fire, Australian Catholic Priest Father Ted McGrath almost certainly would have become a national hero. He was the only Australian chaplain from the war to be nominated for the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross.
In the dying months of the war to end all wars, Captain McGrath, who stood over six feet tall and therefore made an easy target, was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for “conspicuous gallantry’. “His coolness and devotion to duty were an inspiration to all ranks”.
It was during a British counter-offensive behind the village of Bucquoy near the town of Lens on August 21, 1918, that Captain McGrath, of the Cheshire Regiment and formerly of Bungeet in northeast Victoria, an unarmed army chaplain, went forward repeatedly under heavy machine gun fire to rescue wounded men. Half of the 600 troops involved in the action were killed or wounded.
A statistic that provides some context to the scale of the losses suffered during the battles of the Somme was that from 25 officers in the regiment who took part in the first day’s fighting, just four remained alive two weeks later. A month later, on September 28, the Cheshires were back in the thick of the action near the village of Beaucamp (Wailly-Beaucamp). Two days earlier, Father Ted had unpacked his portable altar kit and said mass on a temporary altar near a dressing station close to the front line for those about to go into battle.
In his book about Ted McGrath, A Lonely Road, author John Hosie recalls the story about how on the morning of the 28th, Captain McGrath saw an officer brought down with what appeared to be a shot to the stomach. “In another act of outstanding courage the chaplain went an incredible 300 yards out into no-man’s land, lifted him up and carried him back to safety on his shoulders,” the book says. For this act of valour, Father Ted was recommended for the Victoria Cross. The recommendation was made by three officers including the victim himself, Lieutenant C.I. Attewell, a machine gun section commander.
According to Hosie’s book, one of the recommending officers, Dr Jeremiah Holland, wrote; “He undoubtedly saved the officer’s life, owing to the very exposed position in which he lay and the severity of his abdominal wound. This chaplain has been in the forefront of every attack with the Cheshires since their first advance on August 21.
“The above is only one instance of his devotion to duty, and his readiness to sacrifice himself under the greatest risk and danger to his own life while seeking to bring comfort to others.” About 37,000 Military Crosses were awarded during the Great War. Some 3500 military chaplains served with Imperial forces during the war. It is known that about 121 of 750 Anglican ministers were awarded the MC, an unusually high proportion given their low numbers and the fact that they were officially non-combatants. Three British priests, Edward Mellish, William Addison and Theodore Hardy, were awarded the Victoria Cross during the four-year conflict.
Father McGrath was a controversial figure in the Catholic Church and after the war he was barred by the hierarchy from returning to Australia and his beloved Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor in Dudley Street Coogee – which he had established with Eileen O’Connor in 1913 – for another 23 years. He was parish priest when he met the young woman and they were both determined to do something to help the poor of the district. Another priest had reported to the church bosses that Father Ted and Ms O’Connor had an inappropriate relationship and despite the charge being false, he was banished to the UK.
A room at the historic “Our Lady’s Home” where the order is based, overlooking wedding cake island and the ocean, is set aside as a museum housing personal effects of both Father McGrath and Miss O’Connor who died in 1921 aged just 28 after a lifetime of illness and disability as a result of tuberculosis.
Known as the “brown nurses” due to their distinctive brown cloaks and bonnets, the sisters were devoted to helping Sydney’s poorest with the motto, “for the poor and the poor only”. Today the “brown nurses” is a team of registered nurses operating among the poor in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Sister Margaret Birgan trained as a nurse at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital before she joined Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor at the age of 17. Her vocation dates back to her childhood when as a 10-year-old girl she would visit so-called “shut ins” – people who never went out – around Brisbane. She met Father Ted in 1965 when she went to Melbourne to study obstetric nursing. She talked to him about joining the Brown Nurses and he wrote to her and encouraged her to take the step.
“He was a gentle, beautiful soul,” Sister Birgan says. “He never said an ill word about anybody.” The founding father moved to Coogee in 1969 to spend his final years with his beloved sisters, including Sister Birgan, who nursed him until his death in 1977 at the age of 96 years.
Father Ted was born in Victoria and was a lifelong and fanatical supporter of the Carlton Football Club. In the museum at Coogee, close to the small box containing his Military Cross, there is a letter dated 1974 from then club president George Harris acknowledging his lifelong support. In the same glass case, next to his portable mass kit thus proving that footy is a religion, is a football signed by Carlton’s 1974 team that included the legendary Alex Jesaulenko.
Such was Father Ted’s standing that before he died he was visited by the man he had saved on the Somme. In his Victoria Cross recommendation Lieutenant Attewell had written that there was “no doubt that this heroic act of the Chaplain (McGrath) saved my life though at very great risk to his own”. Sister Birgan met Lieutenant Atewell and she said his reunion with Father McGrath was a “wonderful” occasion.
At the end of the Great War Father Ted McGrath was 38 years old and he remained an exile from his country and his flock. It would be 22 years before he was allowed to return and a further 28 before he could return full-time to Coogee.
Father McGrath’s great-nephew Tim Holland from East Melbourne describes him as a knockabout bloke who could not bear to see something wrong and not do something about it. A practical priest rather than a zealot. “He was a very positive guy and he was a strong supporter of all religions,” Mr Holland says. “He was a bit of a bull at a gate and he was definitely no politician.”
His great-uncle never discussed his war service, or indeed the war at all, and he rarely mentioned his half-century banishment from Australia by Church authorities. “When he was 96 he did say to me that he would never forget it, `Imagine that people could say those things about me,’ he said.”
Tim’s father James Holland wrote to Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell in 1954 in a bid to have an inquiry launched into Father Ted’s VC nomination. He received no reply and Tim, who attended a packed centenary mass for Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor at St Marys Cathedral in Sydney last week, has vowed to reopen the case with British authorities. “To know the man and to read his citations brings a lump to my throat,” he says. “I am immensely proud to be from the same gene pool as him.”
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