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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Denehy, Charles Aloysius (1879–1968)

by E. J. O'Donnell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Charles Aloysius Denehy (1879-1968), by unknown photographer

Charles Aloysius Denehy (1879-1968), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/1092

Charles Aloysius Denehy (1879-1968), soldier and schoolteacher, was born on 15 October 1879 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of Irish-born Daniel Francis Denehy, journalist, and his wife Maria Teresa, née Cleary. He matriculated from St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, where he was dux, and joined the Victorian Education Department. From 1902 he taught in little bush schools such as Delegate River, Tallageira, Upper Gundowring and Kevington, and at Rutherglen in 1911-14. From 1912 Denehy served in the militia as a second lieutenant in the 60th and 58th Battalions.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 15 August 1914 and was commissioned second lieutenant in the 7th Battalion. After training in Egypt the battalion took part in the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. Denehy, now a lieutenant, was wounded during the landing and evacuated via Egypt to England.

He rejoined his unit in September, was promoted captain in October, and was in charge of the last elements from the 7th during the successful evacuation from Gallipoli.

He arrived in France with the recently formed 57th Battalion in June 1916 but next month was transferred to temporary command of the 58th, just in time to take part in the battle of Fromelles in which the unit suffered heavy casualties. Denehy's accurate reports were among the first indications that the attack had totally failed, and later he was prominent in restoring the defence. On 27th August he was confirmed as commanding officer of the 58th Battalion and promoted lieutenant-colonel.

Denehy commanded this battalion throughout 1917. Following the heavy fighting at Bullecourt in May he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for 'conspicuous gallantry and ability'. He was gassed near Ypres in October and was invalided for one month. In March 1918 the battalion was one of those rushed south from Flanders to the Somme to help stem the great German offensive threatening Amiens. On 22 April Denehy requested a transfer to his old battalion, the 57th. No sooner had this been effected than he had to return to the 58th because of the German capture of Villers-Bretonneux. In the remarkable night counter-attack on 25 April, the 58th Battalion played only a minor part, being held in reserve.

On 1 May Denehy's transfer to the 57th was confirmed. He led this unit during the offensives of August-October. He particularly distinguished himself in the fighting around Bellicourt during the breaching of the Hindenburg line. The 57th Battalion were to pass through American troops who had carried out the initial assaults. Discovering that the Americans were disorganized and had failed to secure their objectives, Denehy collected them together and restored the situation. Later in the day he led his battalion further forward and consolidated on the Le Catelet line despite absence of artillery and tank support. For his gallantry and leadership he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O.

Denehy was one of the first commanders to master the tactics of infantry-tank co-operation, and was employed to instruct Australian and other troops on the use of tanks; for this he was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. He was three times mentioned in dispatches. After the Armistice he studied at the Sorbonne and developed a lifelong interest in the French language. He returned to Australia in January 1920.

Denehy went back to schoolteaching in Victoria. He was head-teacher at Rutherglen in 1926-34 and Westgarth Central in 1935-45. Although he had reached retirement age in 1944 he continued at Middle Park Central until 1956. He specialized in the teaching of French and Latin. After World War II he attended the University of Melbourne, graduating B.A. in 1949 when nearly 70. He had retained his interest in the army and commanded the 57th and 60th Battalions, Australian Military Forces, in 1920-26, and the 2nd Victorian Battalion of the Volunteer Defence Corps in 1942-45. When 82 he had the honour of leading the 1962 Anzac Day march in Melbourne.

Denehy married Margaret Burnett Douglas (d.1936) in Melbourne on 6 April 1904; they had one son and two daughters. In December 1950 he married Madge Elizabeth Tilley who survived him. Denehy is described as a quiet, scholarly man of generally conservative views, fond of reading and music. He trained successful school and church choirs wherever he was living. After his final retirement he moved to Kyneton. He died there on 22 April 1968 and was buried in the Catholic section of Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • London Gazette, 2 Jan, 17 July, 25 Dec 1917, 8 Mar, 5 Apr, 8 July 1919
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1962
  • records (Australian War Memorial)
  • register of careers (history section, Education Dept, Melbourne)
  • Denehy diary, 1914-19 (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. J. O'Donnell, 'Denehy, Charles Aloysius (1879–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 2 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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