Eternity is always at risk of one particular sin of the media

Eternity’s hopefully non-fatal weakness is hagiography. That’s a big word for treating the subject of a profile or biography with undue reverence.

It’s not the only besetting sin of Christian media – or even of Eternity – but it is the one we are confessing to today.

This story begins with a really worthy subject: William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie, a famous Anzac chaplain who, despite what is discussed here, was clearly a hero.

The original Eternity story by Warwick Marsh is here.

A correspondent sent us quite a detailed list of criticisms of the piece which, because it was written by a contributor, we needed to have a little time to respond. And at the beginning of a new year it is good to put things right.

William McKenzie does remain, as the profile puts it, “the wowser who became a hero.” But we added details that were not correct or not sufficiently well corroborated.

We’ll go through the list because it is quite fascinating – and some myths are usefully busted (see below). But first, let’s honour McKenzie using Warwick Marsh’s story.

“Known as ‘Fighting Mac’, William McKenzie enlisted as an Anzac chaplain, being a commissioned officer with the Salvation Army. He preached against booze, brothels, betting and bad language, but was Australia’s most popular soldier after World War I. After the ‘Great War’, everywhere Fighting Mac went, he was mobbed by adoring soldiers, their families and bereaved family members.”

“In Fighting McKenzie Anzac Chaplain – Tribute to a Hero by Col Stringer, the author writes: ‘McKenzie, however, soon disarmed and endeared himself to the troopers; he began to organise singsongs and sporting events, such as boxing matches. The burly 17-stone chaplain was a formidable boxer himself and the troopers found to their amazement that there was no Digger or Light Horseman aboard ship who could get the better of ‘Fighting Mac’ when it came to ‘fistycuffs’.

“My heart is full of one big sob for the loss of so many, hundreds of whom I knew so well.”

“He was to remain undefeated in boxing matches throughout the war. Many a young trooper was sent crashing to the canvas – the result of a swift upper cut from Mac – after misjudging the fighting abilities of this huge man of God. But the burly chaplain was always quick to lend a helping hand to a groggy young Aussie ‘Billijim’ that he had just knocked to the ground.

“Often the first thing many a dazed young Anzac saw – as he regained consciousness – was a huge hand and a broad smile as ‘Fighting Mac’ helped him back to his feet. One dumbfounded young soldier responded with: ‘Are you sure you really are a chaplain?’

“McKenzie quickly grew to love and admire these young men, describing them later as ‘the finest fighting men in the world’.

“The horror of the Gallipoli campaign claimed two out of three dead or wounded, such was the price they paid, and all arguably for nothing. Although many would argue our national identity and our ‘Australian Values’ were born in the midst of the blood and fire of Gallipoli.

“Fighting Mac wrote of those memorable days: ‘I don’t know what the Australian papers say about these brave boys, but I want to tell you they accomplished a well-nigh impossible task … My heart is full of one big sob for the loss of so many, hundreds of whom I knew so well.’

“’Our brigadier and major are both gone, with so many other brave officers and men … When I think of the anguish of the mothers I can only weep and pray for them. May God comfort them!’

“Fighting Mac personally buried hundreds of young Anzacs, often in the middle of a hail of bullets. During this period, he developed a lifelong hatred for war. He wrote: ‘Many of the bravest and the best are gone … War is nothing short of insensitive folly. It is inconclusive in its results and devastating in its ultimate consequences.’

“Other soldiers described the duty and demeanour of this humble but courageous chaplain: “Among the duties of this Anzac chaplain – dubbed ‘Anzac Mac’ or ‘Fighting Mac’ by the men who had grown to love and respect him – was searching for the wounded and dead, as well as identifying bodies and giving them a decent burial and advising relatives by letter. Although officially forbidden from remaining in the front lines or from taking part in battles, Mac had no intention of standing idly by while, ‘my boys fight’.”

“I now know that if I pay heed, and obey God, I will continue unharmed till my work is finished …”

We’ll examine whether a story that follows of McKenzie fighting with a trenching shovel at Lone Pine is accurate, as we look at the problems that were raised with us.

One aspect of McKenzie’s wartime experience that we came across while refining Marsh’s story was an account of McKenzie’s perception of how God cared for him in the trenches.

In Michael Gladwin’s Captains of the Soul – a scholarly history of Australia’s Military Chaplains – we read McKenzie’s worship, as taken from NZ paper The Press:

Some of my time in the trenches was employed in burying British dead . . . Going forth with a pick and shovel, I sought to give these heroes Christian burial. In doing this one morning, just after daybreak, I had occasion to go on to a ridge in full view of the enemy from two points. They started shelling, evidently thinking I was one of the digging party. They sent over whizzbangs-77’s and later big shells; these fell in close proximity to where I was working. I had buried seven of these fallen heroes (all Sussex men) when my Guardian Angel said, ‘Get away from here quickly.’ I obeyed instantly, and had got away twenty-five yards in a slanting direction from the enemy’s fire when a big shell landed right on the spot where I had been standing a few seconds before. I only got a shower of earth! At all times of great danger I am quietly conscious of this Guardian Angel’s presence. I cannot see him, nor can I tell who or what he is like, but I hear his voice. Sometimes it says ‘Do not go there,’ ‘Get in here,’ ‘Lie down in that shell hole,’ ‘Be careful,’ ‘You are quite safe,’ ‘Wait five minutes here,’ and such-like messages. I could give at least six instances within the past week where a prompt attention to his instructions has saved me from those big shells. I now know that if I pay heed, and obey God, I will continue unharmed till my work is finished, so if I fall on the field you will know the reason. I’m ready to live or die! 

Claim number one

The Eternity story stated: “William McKenzie served in both Gallipoli and France and was said to have been recommended for a Victoria Cross three times. Unfortunately, the recommending officers were killed in action before they could file their reports.”

Our complainant claims this is probably fictitious.

McKenzie’s bravery under fire is not contested. Historian Michael Gladwin in Captains of the Soul confirms the account in the Eternity story of him telling the troops, “Boys, I have lived with you, I’ve preached to you and I’ve prayed with you. Do you think I’m now afraid to die with you?” And also the claim of McKenzie’s fame: “By the end of the war McKenzie was a household name across Australia. McKenzie’s battalion the ‘Fighting Fourth’ broke with tradition to hold a parade honouring his departure; General Birdwood wrote him an intimate letter; and the King of England presented him with the Military Cross (McKenzie was rumoured to have been recommended three times for the Victoria Cross).”

The claim that Mckenzie “was said to have been recommended for a Victoria cross” is confirmed by Gladwin.

Claim number two

The Eternity story claimed: “On a country by country basis, Australia had more troops at war per head of population – and suffered higher death rates and casualty rates than any other country that fought in World War I.”

This is wrong. Our complainant points out that while 1.45 per cent of the Australian population was killed and 7.6 per cent were mobilised, in Britain and Ireland 1.6 per cent of the population were killed (if you add civilian deaths, it is 2.9 per cent) and 12.3 per cent of the population was mobilised.

In New Zealand 1.7 per cent of the population was killed and 9.1 per cent mobilised. Non-English speaking countries suffered more, with Serbia 24.2 per cent of the population were mobilised and 18.5 per cent of the population was killed.

The Eternity contributor accepts this correction. It is useful to have busted this myth.

Claim number three

The Eternity story claimed: “McKenzie thundered against Cairo’s ‘blighting evils’. After dragging out scores of men ‘by the ears’, he led an Anzac contingent in an onslaught against the vice dens. Armed with firebrands and sticks, they stormed through the streets setting the whole district ablaze … By enthusiastically slashing through every fire hose, McKenzie and his men prevented the fires’ extinction and the area was razed to the ground.”

The complainant says this is improbable fiction.

This is a reference to well-documented events in Cairo in 1915 on two days. the first was Good Friday, April 2.

McKenzie’s own diary shows that he was conducting church services that day. There’s no record in his papers of him leading a second riot on July 31.

Our contributor relied on the book Fighting McKenzie” by Col Stringer, who has removed the ‘brothel incident’ from his second edition “because it is hotly contested” (as Stringer wrote in an email to our contributor). So the claim that this is improbable is upheld.

Claim number four

“Fighting Mac’s great heart and love for his men just could not be contained any further. Snatching up a trenching shovel, he climbed over the parapet and charged straight at the Turkish trenches. McKenzie was prepared to fight for the lives of his ‘brave boys’. He must have thought that a shovel got around the regulations of international rules of war which stated that chaplains could not be armed.”

Our correspondent points out that this is not in the official history.

Stringer gives his source as “regarding the charging with the shovel incident, I got this along with the quote to his men that he was not afraid to die with them [from] pages 104 and 105 of Chaplain McKenzie – The Man and his Work, written by Lt-Colonel Bond, published by the Salvation Army 1919 … The charging with the shovel incident is also recorded in War Cry, page 12, April 24, 1999; and again in a Daily Mirror two-page article entitled Fighting Chaplain – Legend of WW1 (page 60, August 28, 1981).”

Historian Robert D Linder, an expert of the period, conforms the “I’ll die for you” quote and that “rumours abounded that he even led charges armed only with a shovel.”

Gladwin concurs, saying there were lots of reports at the time.

Linder’s account in the two volume history of Evangelicals in Australia, co-authored with Stuart Piggin (in the second volume, ‘Attending the National Soul’) is a wonderful account of McKenzie. Along with Gladwin’s work, it adds to the McKenzie story.

Let’s call this claim a draw as it is unproven but there were lots of reports at the time.

Claim number five.

This claim is actually not about Fighting Mac, but a general comment. The Eternity story included: “I think the mateship, self-sacrifice and bravery, in the face of impossible odds, shown in the battlefields of World War I, exemplify the values that have made Australia great.”

Our complainant says: “Love of one’s comrades, sacrifice, and bravery in the face of impossible odds are not unique Australian or even uniquely military virtues. They are expressed in many settings in many countries. Indeed they are common to all humanity.”

This claim is not really about Fighting Mac. It is certainly true that Fighting Mac himself showed self-sacrifice and bravery, and countless others did too. However, ”Australians were 10 times more likely to go absent in the Great War than British soldiers, or the Canadians or New Zealanders,” according to Peter Stanley who was principal historian at the Australian War Memorial before moving to the National Museum of Australia where he is the director of historical research.

Eternity tackles many complicated stories. This one started out as simple. But like many stories about well-known Christians, we have to tackle a layer of exaggeration.

Fighting Mac’s story teaches us to be careful. A good lesson.

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