The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Padre Francis Timoney

Francis Timoney - Fighting Padre and Whistle Blower

Francis Timoney came from Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He was educated in Ireland and France, coming to Australia in 1878 to become inspector of Catholic schools. Fr Timoney was the first parish priest (1899 - 1900) of Sacred Heart, Mosman.

After Black Week in 1899, the War Office appealed for men from the bush, able to ride hard and shoot well. The response from Australia was immediate and in the three years of the Boer War successive contingents sailed. All were accompanied by chaplains representing the mainstream Christian churches of Australia.

Father Francis Timoney, 42, was the Catholic Chaplain with NSW Citizens Bushmen in the Third Contingent which landed in Portuguese East Africa. They suffered much from disease while they were involved in the Columns War pursuing the self-sufficient commandos commanded by Generals de Wet and de la Rey. The hard riding flying columns of Dominion mounted columns were particularly suited to this type of warfare. It was however hard on the chaplains. Nevertheless, they accompanied the columns, shared the fatigue and hard-ship, and had to cope with their own stress of witnessing the awfulness of a war that became increasingly bitter and distasteful

Francis Timoney volunteered to go to the Boer War because he believed that change was necessary in South Africa. Although Cardinal Moran was later to say that he had invited Francis Timoney to volunteer.

"Many thought that it might be better to depute another to accompany the contingent for Father Timoney was a bad horseman, and was in rather delicate health, but he, knowing the temperament and energy of Father Timoney, could not see in the ranks of the priests a single one whom he considered to be better qualified to discharge the duties of chaplain. The result had justified (Moran's) judgment. Father Timoney soon became a splendid horseman, he was fearless in danger, and was most self-sacrificing devoting his energies to comfort, to console, to instruct, and enlighten the soldiers entrusted to his care."

As a founder and director of The Catholic Press until he departed for Africa, he became an unpaid war correspondent, reporting what he saw which did not favour the British administration in South Africa. To-day he would be described as a whistle blower. His letters and articles to the press brought to the public first-hand accounts of the clearances by then taking place on the veldt.

He was not afraid to be critical of any forms of moral laxity even among his own men and was known to castigate all who fell short. He did not mince words in describing the behaviour of a small larrikin element of his contingent. The very outset three bushmen had killed a policeman in Beria, the port of disembarkation. While exonerating the majority of troopers, Fr Timoney roundly and publicly condemned the troublemakers.

"The majority of our troopers are good honest fellows, but there is a small number of worthless adventurers, who, as far as I can learn, stand at the head of civilised nations for indecent language, dishonesty and even blasphemy. They have no reverence to God or man."

Whilst this was in an article he was known to take trouble makers aside and tell them what he thought.

In a private letter to Cardinal Moran on 20th Oct 1900 he expressed his views on the British tactics of farm burning and clearances

"If I were not an eyewitness to the sickening scenes of plunder and incendiarism committed by our troops I should decline to believe them capable of such atrocities. And yet these Boers have not injured an English subject in the Transvaal. In England and Australia one only hears a garbled suppressio veri account of the war. They see their country in ruins, their fields and crops destroyed, their cattle driven away by the enemy, and the flames from their burning houses rising sky high. I have known instances in which our troopers did not leave in a house one morsel of bread for the women and children. Is it any wonder that among a people so independent a spirit of hatred consumes them?"

Whilst in Rhodesia he used a letter of introduction to Lord Milner from the NSW premier Sir William Lyne, to put the case of a young Irish soldier condemned to death for murder. He had been brought into the case as the only catholic padre in the area and appears to have discussed the issues with his fellow Australian officers in some detail. His pleas resulted in the charge being downgraded to manslaughter and a sentence of 10 years being imposed. Timoney remarked about the condemned man:

"I hope that he may turn out a wiser and better man."

On another occasion in a widely circulated article he was ascerbically critical of the condoning of looting of Boer property by British soldiers and officers not to mention the fraud of government funds undertaken by supply agents.

"The commanding officer has the right to appoint, certain men, whose duty is to scour the country and annex all movable property. Of course there are, and must be, many abuses, many incentives to personal aggrandisement. Do you require a comfortable buggy, an easy chair, a table, or a lounge? Don't go to the principal commanding officer, but to one of the satellites, and the matter can be satisfactorily arranged at the lowest price. The profits are, I understand, divided among the staff. But this is only a matter of small importance compared to the whole sale swindling of the Imperial Government by its own agents. .The exchange of Government horses for others which can be, sold, is, a very common industry. The sale of Government stores to outsiders is a flourishing business, and so ably are all these transactions conducted that it is impossible to sheet his guilt home to the swindler."

In another part of the article he suggested the British army might do well to follow the Boer practice of electing all officers. He then went on to be extremely disparaging of the class system of England as he saw an action in the British army.

"When General Carrington showed the white feather at Elands River, his poltroonery cost the British taxpayers a few millions of pounds. Another officer who ought to have been shot for cowardice in Africa is now making speeches in England, and receiving the honors that are only intended for brave men. The British army is composed of three classes. Tommy Atkins is recruited from the scum of the population in the manufacturing towns of England, and he is wanting in energy, physique, and initiative. The poorer officers come from respectable but poor parents and no matter what maybe their ability and courage, very few of them will rise to the higher ranks in the army. The last class consists of idle, wealthy mediocrities, who did not join the army to become soldiers, but because it was the right thing to do. To this last class, many of whom are blockheads belong, all worth having in the army, such as honours, prizes positions, medals, clasps and crosses."

He pungently criticised those soldiers who talked a good fight and then could not be found anywhere near the action.

I have heard cooks, tailors, and other artists enumerate the number of Boers whom they had killed, and modestly refer to their deeds of valor. Most of these fellows would fail to strike a haystack at a hundred yards' distance, and a Boer armed with a broomstick would annihilate a company of such braggarts. Besides, these swaggering warriors live in mortal terror of the Boers, and it would require a Baldwin engine to drag them within range of the Mauser rifle. I am now referring to the noisy, rowdy element of our army, to the men who neither do nor dare anything, but who are ever gabbling overland recounting exploits that never took place. I suppose every army has its coterie of worthless individuals.

Clearly the padre led from the front. Found in the Sydney Morning Herald of 23 Oct 1900 a letter from Tpr S Dawson of Lithgow.

"Father Timoney is always in the thick of the fight and the men adore him."

One can see his rather unique personality in his photo not only is the revolver he carries one of the largest 'cannons' that could be found but it is unusual that a padre would be armed at all. W E Dexter, DCM, a Boer War veteran (Lumsden's Horse) and later an AIF padre in the First World War maintained that padres had to constantly avoid the temptation to be actively involved in the combat. Timoney did record his concern about meeting carnivores on his travels, no self respecting leopard would want to mess with him.

"But to explore these freaks of nature is foolish unless one has a good rifle and a good nerve. For there on some ledge lies the panther, the most cruel and ferocious of all beasts of prey in Africa. He kills for the sake of killing."

So perhaps this explains the weapon.

He also expressed concern on the plight of African natives.

"One of them, a very tall and important-looking chief, asked me yesterday for a box of matches. He wore only two articles of clothing, a rug of loud colours that fell down to his knees, and a new pair of nickel spurs on his bare ankles. Possibly these two articles cost him six months' wages; for there is only one store here, that in which I bought the bottle of ink. And so the poor negro is not only defrauded of his lands and hunting grounds, but even his wages are filched from him."

One officer stated.

"If Father Timoney continues at his work long enough the whole garrison will be converted not only did he pay attention the Roman Catholic soldiers but to those of every other dominant denomination he showed the same love, respect and devotion"

It is little wonder that Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner to South Africa and one of the architects of the policies that have led to war in 1899 naturally objected strongly to many of Timoney's dispatches. According to one newspaper report he had

"a dramatic interview with Lord Milner during which he refused to withdraw one word he had written"

However Milner as we have seen, had already acceded to Timoney's request on another matter and it is likely that the two did have a grudging respect for each other and ended agreeing to disagree.

Fr Timoney was granted permission to accompany wounded Australians going to England. During his service in 1900 he had mentioned to fellow officers of some slight trouble with his throat that he regarded as of no importance. However, now in London he decided to consult a specialist who diagnosed cancer. He underwent a throat operation at St Thomas's Hospital in London. Soon after he died in that same hospital on 9 August 1901. A year later on a visit to London, Cardinal Moran unveiled a memorial Celtic cross over the grave in Kensal Green cemetery.

His affect went far beyond his religious base. His and others whistleblowing activities eventually alerted English liberals like Emily Hobhouse to the concentration camp issues. In a letter written to Cardinal Moran by the Anglican senior chaplain, Rev H J Rose who served there expressed his pleasure at serving with catholic chaplains and indicated that, chaplains cooperated very well on active service. Ministering to the troops across denominational boundaries, it was ecumenism far in advance of its time. In Australia he gained great respect amongst not only the soldiers of his unit but with the other chaplains he worked with. The Protestant Peace, Humanity and Arbitration Society of Victoria, a pacifist anti-war group, passed a motion to send condolences to Timoney's relatives as he had been the only Chaplain to protest about the burning of Boer farms, a unique distinction.

He is commemorated at St Joseph's Mosman as well as at St Benedict's Broadway Sydney, a church with which he was also parish priest as the chapel of the Sacred Heart is dedicated to his memory.

From The Cross of Anzac Tom Johnstone with additions by Tony Larnach Jones and David Deasey

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