Events of Remembrance Day caught up with me, and so I’m publishing this reflection on my Great-Grandfather William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie a couple of days late.
In a few hours I will have the honour of leading the Remembrance Day service at St. Philip’s. As priest at St. Philip’s I also serve as padre for the Norwood-St.Boniface Legion Branch #43. One aspect of being the padre that is significant for me is that my great-grandfather William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie, was also a padre.
That however is where the similar ends. For one thing Fighting Mac was a larger than life individual. He was several inches taller, and many pounds heavier. than me. He was dynamic and charismatic. Most importantly he was a chaplain in the trenches. While I have the privilege of serving at my local Legion Branch, my great-grandfather served at Gallipoli, and in France.
The war took a great toll on him and on his family. My great-grandmother was left at home with 4 children, and at times was down to the very end of her supplies. Some of this was due to my great-grandfather giving money away to soldiers in need, and some of it was from times where the money he sent home from the front, didn’t make it there. Finally, at some point during the war the Salvation Army, of which she was an officer, stepped in and provided her with a pension.
Statue unveiled by my Great-Grandfather William “Fighting Mac” McKenzie. Photo credit June Kindiak. Fighting Mac’s granddaughter and my aunt.
Fighting Mac Biographies
Over the years there have been several biographies of my great-grandfather. The first of these was written by Adelaide Ah Kow. A couple of more followed in recent years, neither of which I intend to provide a link to. This is not because they reflect badly on my great-grandfather, but because they add a great deal of embellishment to this life in an attempt to further their own agendas.
Last year, Daniel Reynaud, associate professor of history at Avondale College, published a new biography, Fighting Mac: The Man the Anzacs Revered. Despite the impression that you may get from the title, this book does a lot to strip away the legends that accrued to my great-grandfather and focus more on his humanity. These are thoughts on the book rather than a review.
Some of the legends that accrued, involved my great-grandfather encouraging the burning down of Cairo’s red light district, an actual event. While Fighting Mac did preach against the brothels and was known for going in and dragging soldiers out, Reynaud points out that he was no where near the scene at the time of the riots.
Likewise Reynaud sifts through the evidence surrounding rumours of Fighting Mac leading troops over the trenches with just his trenching tool in hand. Although he was often as close to the front as he could get, this is just fanciful embroidery that comes from times of war.
One of the things that Reynaud does add to my great-grandfather’s story is his recounting of FIghting Mac’s family life before, during and after the war. The statements I made about my great-grandmother, earlier in this post, are based on Reynaud’s work.
However, there is still much about my great-grandfather for me to admire and emulate. He buried thousands of soldiers. Wrote thousands of letters home to the families of soldiers who had died. He encouraged Australians to write to the soldiers who were separated from families, and in many cases had no family to write to them.
Mac preached with Evangelical fervour. Yet he also developed a great deal of sympathy for the soldiers, and came to hold to little account the ways in which they attempted to to dull the pain and horrors they experienced. As much as he preached, he would also lead the troops in sing a longs. Some of these featured songs that he himself wrote.
A few months ago, Reynaud came across a copy of Fighting Mac’s most famous song, The Sunshine Song. One of Reynaud’s students transcribed it, and I hope to put it up on YouTube soon(I’ve added it below). The Sunshine Song was a song to be sung as a morale booster, while the soldiers were on the march. The second video features a march written in Fighting Mac’s honour.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puMpdtBkgQw]Recently, Reynaud and two of his colleagues, Paul Bogacs, and Carolynn Ricketts, released a paper chronicling how my great-grandfather used letters home to deal with the many traumas he faced during WWI. This paper along with the biography helps to bring home the horrors that “Fighting Mac,” and all soldiers faced. Reynaud’s biography also details some of the lasting traumas that Fighting Mac faced after he returned home from the war.
It his here that I think my great-grandfather’s story connects most strongly with Remembrance Day. At the root of the word remember is the concept of being mindful. It involves bringing the past into the present.
For many such as myself, Remembrance Day is not much more than the remembering of events long past. Yet we have many veterans for whom Remembrance day brings past horrors back into the present. For pretty much all veterans, every day is Remembrance Day. Too often these remembrances are too much to bear. This is what we need to remember. To be mindful of. For veterans, war and it’s horrors never end. The past is constantly in their present.
Fighting Mac and Me
So, how do I honour Fighting Mac’s legacy? How do I bring his past into my present? I need to listen. I need to hear more of the stories of our veterans. Advocacy. I need to work, where possible, to help our veterans get the help they need. For me it is a matter of living out Fighting Mac’s words delivered one Armistice Day:
“It is not gold, or goods, or weapons that make a nation strong and great,” he said. “It is love, unselfishness, brotherly kindness, and, above, all righteousness.”
Thank you for your legacy, great-grandpa, Fighting Mac. Lest we forget.