William Finn, who volunteered to serve as a military chaplain during the First World War, is believed to be the first Catholic chaplain killed in the war, when he fell in action during the Gallipoli landings of April 1915.
He came from Hull and prior to the war had served as curate at the Cathedral, then as chaplain at Houghton Hall and Market Weighton. After enlistment, he was attached to the first battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, joining them on their return to England from India. They sailed from England on St Patrick’s Day 1915 to join the rest of the 29th Division who were to be part of the landing force at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles. Their particular responsibility was V beach at the southern tip of the Dardenelles peninsula, at a place called Cape Helles. Strategically, it was a disastrous choice for a landing place, as despite the fact that there was some open beach, most of the land rose straight out of the sea, making it ideal for Turkish defensive gun emplacements. The troops were to be landed by means of a ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy, which took the form of an old steam collier, the SS River Clyde that would be run aground. A pontoon, made up of barges towed behind it, would then be anchored in a line to the shore, enabling the men to jump ashore dry and ready to fight the Turks. The whole engagement was to be preceded by a naval bombardment to take out the Turkish defences. Unsurprisingly, given the terrain and the inadequate planning of the entire campaign, the whole landing went disastrously wrong. The initial naval bombardment failed to destroy the Turkish defences, and so the men poured off the SS River Clyde into a hail of bullets. Furthermore, difficulties in getting the barges into the correct position meant many men landed in the sea; with backpacks weighing over 60 lbs, they sank under the weight of their equipment and drowned. Fr Finn was under orders to remain on the collier, but on seeing the sight of the men being mown down, and needing his care, he managed to scramble ashore in order to minister to the dead and dying. Despite being hit several times by enemy bullets, he continued to crawl out to wounded men and was finally killed whilst giving absolution to a dying soldier. An eyewitness who survived the carnage later wrote home:
Dear Joe, the worst of all was we had a priest who came along with us. He was in the boat; he insisted on coming with us, as he said he would be wanted for the poor boys. They were all calling for him, but the poor priest could do nothing for them. He got out of the boat afterwards and made a great run for the beach, but the Turks got him as soon he landed, for he was hit four times. He died that evening, but he was still asking for us up to the time he died.
Fr Finn was awarded the Military Cross, although many felt he deserved to be given the Victoria Cross. This was refused on the grounds that he had disobeyed orders in going ashore with the men instead of remaining on the collier until it was safe to disembark. From the battalion of 25 officers and 987 men who embarked on the SS River Clyde with Fr Finn, only one officer and 374 other ranks survived the initial carnage, and by the time they left the Dardanelles on 1st January 1916, only 11 of them were still alive. The action of William Finn was typical of many Catholic chaplains in the First World War and is the reason that a higher proportion of them were killed in comparison to chaplains of other denominations who were not allowed to minister within the forward lines. Frank Finn, his brother, later built Sacred Heart Church in Hull in memory of William, but there was also another quieter response to the actions of the Catholic chaplains in that there was an increase in conversions to Catholicism of men returning home ‘after seeing how Catholic priests looked after the soldiers during the war’.