The Court Martial of an AIF Catholic Chaplain

By Johnstone, Tom | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Court Martial of an AIF Catholic Chaplain


Johnstone, Tom, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


At the end of World War I, the AIF senior Catholic chaplain, Fr Tom King, whose dedicated service had been honoured by his being invested as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, by HM King George V at Buckingham Palace, was further honoured when His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV, created him a Domestic Prelate at St Peter's in Rome. But barely had Monsignor King returned to London when he was notified by the Administrative Headquarters of the Australian Imperial Force, that a Roman Catholic chaplain, Fr Thomas J. O'Donnell, was being held under close arrest in Dublin, charged with 'disloyalty towards the Sovereign'.

A Victorian by birth, in his adopted State, Tasmania, Fr O'Donnell was well known as an outspoken, colourful figure. Full of boundless enthusiastic energy, he was rarely distant from controversy. His outbursts of wrath against any person or authority who offended his sense of justice were a delight to journalists. He was a believer in the fairness of conscription for overseas service, and was one of the chief Catholic advocates in support of the 'yes' party in the conscription referenda campaigns. Today, such an indefatigable spotlighted campaigner, although a delight for TV audiences, would be a nightmare for Church or Army administrators. What they thought then can only be guessed. His own Archbishop approved his application for a military chaplaincy, but the Chaplain-General (RC), Archbishop Mannix, declined to appoint him--until his hand was forced by Fr O'Donnell's enlisting in the AIF as a private soldier? As a military chaplain O'Donnell proved a brave, diligent and compassionate front-line pastor. Indeed, during the battle of the Hindenburg Line, he was cited and recommended for the Military Cross for distinguished service at a battalion aid-post during the battle. When the aid-post came under fire and the battalion medical officer was wounded, the chaplain took charge of treating the wounded. As with many other officers and men recommended for gallantry awards, his was denied.

Upon the cessation of hostilities, Fr O'Donnell, in common with many other Empire soldiers, applied for and was granted leave to visit relatives in the British Isles--in his case, Ireland. He also wished to make a presentation of a pistol which had once belonged to John Mitchel. Mitchel, a member of the Young Ireland movement involved in the 1848 abortive rebellion, had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation but escaped from Van Diemen's Land to the United States. Fr O'Donnell, wearing the uniform of an officer of the AIF (without his Roman collar), presented the pistol to Mr Arthur Griffith, President of Sinn Fein in the dining room of the Gresham Hotel, Dublin. By making the presentation publicly at a time when Ireland was in a state of revolutionary ferment, Fr O'Donnell attracted the attention of the Irish Special Branch.

The Alleged Offence

Fr O' Donnell toured Ireland, where he met and was entertained by various military and civilian friends and notables. While visiting Killarney he attended religious services and stayed in a local hotel. An English junior officer, 2/Lieutenant S. Chambers of the King's Regiment, who was staying in the same hotel as O'Donnell, alleged that on 10 October 1919 the offence was committed in conversation with a civilian in the hotel dining room.

   This officer was holding a conversation with a civilian gentleman
   and was talking in a very loud tone ..., he uttered violently
   disparaging remarks about H.M. the King, the Royal Family, Mr Lloyd
   George, and the whole British Government. I rose and asked him to
   desist; whereupon he asked me what 'damn business of mine was his
   conversation'. I was supported by two civilian gentlemen, who for
   obvious reasons do not wish their names to appear.

   The Officer in question Captain O'Donnell ceased his utterances and
   shortly afterwards left the room. He appears to be an Australian
   R. 

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