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Fighting McKenzie, the Anzac spirit and Australian values

By Warwick Marsh - posted Monday, 24 April 2017

Australia has produced some amazing war heroes but none so remarkable, or popular, as Fighting McKenzie from World War 1. 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?"

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.

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 1. After the Great War, everywhere Fighting Mac went, he was mobbed by adoring soldiers, their families and bereaved family members.


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. It was at a Salvation Army open air meeting in Bundaberg that he began to see the light. He 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 5 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 the first World War.

When McKenzie received his posting, it 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'.

McKenzie however, soon disarmed and endeared himself to the troopers; he began to organise singsongs and sporting events, such as boxing matches. The burly seventeen 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. 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'." Extract from Fighting McKenzie Anzac Chaplain - Tribute to a Hero by Col Stringer.

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. So much so, that he, with a fellow padre and a group of Anzacs 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. (The Battle of the Wazzir). Arab mobs fought back, but the Australians didn't even feel the resistance. Leaving the pavement littered with unconscious natives, the Australians withdrew to clash with the fire brigades. 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.

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 2 out of 3 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:

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About the Author

Warwick Marsh is the founder of the Dads4Kids Fatherhood Foundation with his wife Alison. They have five children and two grandchildren and have been married for 34 years.

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