Boxing chaplain was spirit of Anzac sacrifice

Forgotten hero ‘Fighting Mac’ lived Australian values on the frontline

Australia has produced some amazing war heroes but there is, arguably, none so remarkable or popular as Fighting McKenzie from World War I.

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.

Daniel Reynaud, author of the book The Man the Anzacs Revered asked, “How did a wowser become an Anzac legend? And how did this legend become totally unknown today?”

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.

McKenzie was particularly impressed with the testimony of two fellow Scotsmen who, like him, had been hardened drinkers, fighters and adept in the use of foul language.

McKenzie was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1869 and migrated to Australia in his teens in search of adventure. He gained a reputation as a good fighter while drinking and brawling in the pubs of Bundaberg, Queensland. It was at a Salvation Army open-air meeting in Bundaberg that he began to “see the light” offered by those who were proclaiming Jesus Christ. McKenzie was particularly impressed with the testimony of two fellow Scotsmen who, like him, had been hardened drinkers, fighters and adept in the use of foul language.

Their story of change touched him so deeply that he joined the Salvation Army and began a long period of ministry all over Australia, but particularly in the outback areas.

In August 1914, war was declared and Fighting McKenzie was one of 416,809 volunteers who served in the Armed Forces. The population of Australia was fewer than five million people at the time. 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.

“What the hell have we done to deserve this?”

When McKenzie received his posting as an army chaplain, he was not always received with open arms by his fellow soldiers. One Australian trooper exclaimed, “What the hell have we done to deserve this?” when he saw the chaplain’s luggage which said, “Chaplain, W. McKenzie, Salvation Army.”

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’.”

“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.

“Are you sure you really are a chaplain?”

“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’.”

When the troops reached Cairo, Egypt, Fighting Mac was deeply concerned about the brothels and gin dens of Cairo that preyed upon the young Australian soldiers. With a fellow padre and a group of Anzacs, he went into the red-light district of Cairo and burned it to the ground. The following report was found in The Sun newspaper, 24 April, 1972.

“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.”

An Australian officer wrote: “There are men back in Australia, valued citizens, loved husbands, revered parents – who would never have returned home had not Mac single-handedly challenged the hell-houses of the Wasa district in Cairo.”

The “great adventure” became Australia’s greatest military defeat.

It was Easter Sunday 1915 when the Anzacs embarked for the Dardanelles. They landed at dawn on 25 April for what many of them thought was to be a great adventure. The “great adventure” became Australia’s greatest military defeat. 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!”

“War is nothing short of insensitive folly.”

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’. ”

Col Stringer provides an account of the Battle of Lone Pine and William McKenzie’s intimate involvement with it: “This was a day that has gone down in the annals of the young nation’s history as one of our blackest. Some of Australia’s finest young men were needlessly sacrificed.”

“Do you think I’m now afraid to die with you?”

“It was shocking decisions such as this that must have torn at the heart of Chaplain William McKenzie. The men pleaded with Mac not to put his life in danger, but to stay behind in the safety of the trenches … But Mac responded to a higher call, his boys needed him now. He replied, in a quote that is now famous in the annals of Anzac: ‘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?'”

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.

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.

Fighting McKenzie went on to serve with distinction in France. When he returned home, Melbourne’s The Age wrote: “No soldier of the Australian Army could ever wish for a finer welcome home.”

Col Stringer adds in Fighting McKenzie: “Australia gave her favourite son, Fighting Mac, a tremendous welcome home, despite the fact they had been warned that the largest building would simply not be able to contain the crowds that would throng to meet their hero. And they were right. All over the nation huge crowds gathered.”

“Mac was the most popular man in the country, save for Prime Minister Billy Hughes. From the city to the ‘bush’, thousands of people welcomed Mac home. In Melbourne’s Exhibition Building some 7000 people packed the building out. Hundreds of others were bitterly disappointed to be turned away at the door. Some admirers had waited from 2pm in the afternoon to be sure of getting a seat. Among the crowd were 1500 returned soldiers, blind and maimed veterans amongst them. And what a tumultuous welcome they gave to their ‘old padre’ as his bodyguard of Diggers bore him into the building on their shoulders.”

These overwhelming scenes were repeated across the nation in state capitals and bush centres and continued for almost two decades.

But why such an outpouring of appreciation? Perhaps it is summed up by the words from the Bible which describe Jesus’ sacrifice, words that are repeated at every Anzac Dawn Service across Australia on 25 April: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”

Mateship, self-sacrifice and bravery are the values Australians hold dear. These deeply spiritual values underpin the Anzac spirit and are exemplified by “Fighting Mac”. Lest we forget.