How Jack Fahey became a tunneller in Belgium in World War I

Thousands of naive young men mad for adventure came marching along Australia’s dusty roads and piled down city streets in quest of recruiting stations as World War I rolled from 1914 into 1915.

But none set out on such an epic and gruelling trip as Jack Fahey.

Fahey, one of Australia’s great wanderers, was in the remote northern outpost of Darwin as the war got under way.

When word of what Fahey called “the magnificent but tragic landing at Gallipoli” reached Darwin in mid-1915, he decided he must sign up.

Jack Fahey came across a cameleer on his epic journey through central Australia.

Jack Fahey came across a cameleer on his epic journey through central Australia.

Port Darwin, however, had no recruiting station, and boats travelling south touched the northern port infrequently.

“Fourteen months previously, I had cycled from Melbourne to Darwin and I resolved to again undertake the overland trip to Adelaide and enlist,” wrote Fahey.

Blithe words, though Fahey had a pretty vivid understanding of what harsh challenges lay ahead on his 3000-kilometre bicycle trip through the Never Never.

Underground battle

Nothing, however, could prepare him for the abomination that awaited him over the sea. He never got to Gallipoli, but was sent to a vastly grimmer place: the Western Front in northern France and Belgium.

There, this outback adventurer and lover of landscapes without end was sent underground to burrow into sand and sucking clay as explosive shells fell from the sky and poison gas settled on battlefields, torturing men caught in the open.

Fahey was in Darwin in 1915 because he and another long-distance cyclist, Ted “Ryko” Reichenbach, had teamed up in 1914 in a famous attempt to break the record for the trip north from Adelaide to Darwin.

“Ryko” completed the journey in an astounding 28 days, breaking the record by more than 15 hours.

Fahey, however, toppled over a three-metre cliff into a creek bed while riding in the dark near Oodnadatta, injuring an ankle badly. After recuperating at a desolate cattle station, he reached Darwin 10 days after his companion.

Now, to sign up for war, he would ride the same 3000 kilometres, this time from north to south, alone.

Reichenbach, though born of Australian-born parents in Jeparit, on Victoria’s Wimmera-Mallee border, was burdened with a German surname – problematic in the paranoia of wartime, when “enemy aliens” were being rounded up and detained.

Jack Fahey with his bicycle.

Jack Fahey with his bicycle.

“Ryko”, who had built a successful photographic business, fled Darwin with his camera for Arnhem Land and other remote regions, building an important collection of images of Indigenous people and their ceremonies, later stolen.

Before leaving, “Ryko” gave his record-breaking bike to Fahey.

“The velvety darkness of the tropical night was merging into the first grey streaks of dawn when I left Darwin Post Office on the second of August, 1915,” Fahey recorded. “A filmy mist hung over the land and the cool calm air was heavy with the scent of the bush.”

And so, on a hard-worn bicycle, Fahey, aged 30, pedalled south, his machine shod with heavy “thornproof” tyres and weighed down with essential supplies, water containers and an acetylene lamp for night riding.

An arduous ride

He pedalled, time losing its meaning, along deep sandy tracks, through country where grass grew taller than his head, obscuring all chance of finding a path, and over endless gibber plains.

He dragged the bike over sand dunes and sometimes, with no track to follow, he walked or bumped painfully along rough beds of railway sleepers.

He sweated through suffocating humidity, fried beneath a pitiless sun, almost perished from thirst, shivered through desert nights and, trying to keep warm between two campfires one night, burnt his mosquito net to a crisp.

Jack Fahey, centre in back row, with fellow recruits in training before being sent to the Western Front.

Jack Fahey, centre in back row, with fellow recruits in training before being sent to the Western Front.

Travelling through high grass about halfway between Darwin and the South Australian border, he smashed into a termite mound, breaking off one of his bike’s cranks, forcing him to walk for two days, “an insignificant mite creeping over the vastness”, before undertaking a patch-up job at Banka Banka Station on the Barkly Tablelands.

And yet, he rejoiced in the wild beauty of the land and the freedom of his isolation, and wrote long dreamy tracts about it all.

Alone at midnight south of Alice Springs, a campfire burning, he wrote:

This then was a man transported by open spaces. War would rob him of such pleasure.

In what seems a bad cosmic joke, when he had completed his lonely ride through the free sweep of central Australia, he was assigned to a tunnelling company in the most dangerous place in the world.

‘One may as well be in a box’

In a letter home from the Western Front, written in late 1916 and published in the in January 1917, all the romance seemed stripped from his soul.

he wrote as the northern winter approached.

Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector, in October 1917.

Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector, in October 1917.Frank Hurley, Australian War Memorial

Though blessed with the ability to invest words with poetic power, Fahey had little formal education.

Born in 1886, the son of a railwayman, near the little town of Heywood in far south-west Victoria, and raised in the even smaller village of Henty, 18 kilometres south-east of Casterton, Fahey took to shearing as a young man, riding a pushbike between sheds.

His roaming led him to tackle increasingly extreme feats of endurance, riding from Adelaide to Perth, and from Perth to Melbourne. Eventually, he tried for the record from Adelaide to Darwin.

‘Call to peace and solitude’

His journals remain things of beauty.

Writing after answering what he called “a restless disposition, a love of change and a desire to see the empty spaces” that led him to ride the unmade track from Adelaide to Perth and back again in 1911 and 1912, he tried to describe his deeper motivation.

he wrote.

In “busy, crowded cities”, he said,

On September 10, 1915, 40 hard days after leaving Darwin, Fahey rode into Adelaide, shivering in a rainstorm “accompanied by a marrow-freezing wind”. Thinly clad, he observed wryly that “in the streaming streets, people drew their top coats around them as they panted for bus and tramcar”.

Australian troops on their way to positons at Ypres in Belgium, October 1917.

Australian troops on their way to positons at Ypres in Belgium, October 1917.Australian War Memorial

He presented himself for enlistment on September 21.

reported breathlessly of Fahey’s arrival on September 22, under the headline, “Two thousand miles to enlist”.

“Lithe of figure, sunburnt almost a mahogany shade, and with clear eyes and steady hands, he had no difficulty in passing the medical officers [at the recruitment station]. Every movement he made indicated the possession of abundant energy and great latent strength,” the reported.

On October 2, Fahey and the young woman who had waited long months for him to take a break from his restless travelling, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Moriarty, were married.

From cyclist to tunneller

Soon, Jack Fahey, cyclist, became Sapper 552 in the AIF Mining Corps, though he appears to have had no mining experience. His new wife was left alone again — pregnant, it turned out — as he went to Sydney for training before sailing on February 20, 1916, with 1302 other members of the corps on the SS Ulysses, bound for Europe.

In France, the corps was split into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Tunnelling Companies.

Alone among the AIF’s troops, the tunnellers never left the battle front from mid-1916 until the end of the war. Their work, dangerous and dirty and most of it underground, remained little known until 2010, when the film, was released.

It told of the 1st Company tunnelling deep beneath a crucial German observation post known as Hill 60 near the Belgian city of Ypres.

On June 7, 1917, the tunnellers detonated such a massive charge of high explosives — 450,000 kilograms — that the blast was said to have been heard in London. It killed an estimated 10,000 German troops and reduced the hill to craters still visible today.

A week later, Fahey, by now a veteran of 13 months on and under the Western Front, wrote sanguinely to friends: “Fritz got a very severe set-back, but I will not weary you with any attempted description of it. I will merely say that the positions lost by the Germans deprived them of dominating points that were also excellent observation posts, and now their guns are ‘blind’ except for a few captive balloons and aeroplanes.”

Fahey’s work with the 2nd Tunnelling Company involved building deep dugouts, subways and saps (covered trenches) for troops and, at one point, digging long tunnels beneath dunes close to the coast — a near impossible task, made tougher by constant deadly attacks by the Germans.

The sector he worked near Messines, outside Ypres, was the first to be drenched with mustard gas. Chlorine and the choking phosgene had been used previously, but the new mustard gas was designed to burn skin, often forcing soldiers to tear off their gas masks and inhale the gas, scorching their lungs.

A poem written in Jack Fahey’s diary about the horror of battle, leavened by the song of a blackbird and the loveliness of dawn.

A poem written in Jack Fahey’s diary about the horror of battle, leavened by the song of a blackbird and the loveliness of dawn.

In one of his letters to friends published in the , Fahey wrote of his particular loathing of the constant, pulverising shelling by artillery.

Fahey survived to the end. After spending three post-war months helping defuse booby traps and delayed-action mines left by the Germans, he came home to Lizzie.

They had two children, Dorothy Margaret — born in 1916, while Jack was at war — and Frank, born in 1923.

Fahey lived modestly for the rest of his life in Adelaide, his wandering days done, perhaps dreaming of the open plains and suffering nightmares about burrowing through clay.

He continued riding bicycles. In his 70s, he still rode regularly to Victor Harbor, 85 kilometres south of Adelaide, for the pleasure of it, and he rode around Adelaide every day until shortly before he died in 1975, aged 89, a year after Lizzie was gone.

  • Transcripts of Jack Fahey’s journals and pictures and news reports of his travels were supplied by his grandniece, Lynda Cooper, of Portland, and grandnephews by marriage, Kieran and Paul Minogue, of Adelaide and Canberra.

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