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William McKenzie (1869–1947)

by Michael McKernan

This article was published:

William McKenzie (1869-1947), by unknown photographer, 1918

William McKenzie (1869-1947), by unknown photographer, 1918

Australian War Memorial, P00329.001 [detail]

William McKenzie (1869-1947), Salvation Army officer and military chaplain, was born on 20 December 1869 at Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland, eldest of seven sons of Donald McKenzie, ploughman, and his wife Agnes, née Callan. He claimed to have been brought up on 'porridge, the shorter catechism and plenty of lickings' but his parents, strict Presbyterians, probably provided for his education. In 1884 the family migrated to Queensland. His father purchased a sugar-cane farm near Bundaberg and prospered, employing all his sons and Melanesians as well. McKenzie loved the outdoor life and worked as a jackeroo and on a dairy farm, intending to go on the land. In 1887, however, he attended a Salvation Army meeting and found the practical Christianity on display much to his liking. In 1889, following study at the training college in Melbourne, McKenzie became a commissioned officer. His first posting was to Newcastle, New South Wales—'a tough place', he described it. The Salvation creed 'meant giving up things—drink, tobacco and much else—and facing scorn and derision … it meant living with the lowest and the worst; it meant fighting with the devil himself for the souls of men … I said to myself “Here's the true religion for a fighting man”'.

McKenzie was posted throughout Australia, marrying Annie Dorothy Hoepper, a fellow Salvationist, at Horsham, Victoria, on 21 June 1899. In 1914 he was Australian delegate to the World Congress of the Salvation Army in London. On the outbreak of war McKenzie applied for a chaplaincy immediately and was selected. He joined the Australian Imperial Force on 25 September 1914, was attached to the 4th Battalion, and sailed on 20 October.

McKenzie soon made his presence felt on the transport. He was a very big man with a big voice to match. He conducted the usual church parades but also organized concerts and sports. Unlike many chaplains he participated in the men's recreations, taking particular delight in the boxing contests. His long reach, jarring upper-cuts and dangerous half-hooks left some of the A.I.F.'s best fighters dazed.

At Mena Camp, Egypt, McKenzie worked hard to improve physical conditions and was diligent in the provision of 'comforts'. The legend sprang up that, incensed that the venereal diseases camp had taken on the appearance of a prison, he helped the men to pull down the barbed-wire fence. This is unlikely because in his diary McKenzie shows a distinct lack of sympathy for venereal sufferers. His earliest A.I.F. nicknames were 'Holy Joe', 'Salvation Joe', then 'Padre Mac', but he was soon to become famous as 'Fighting Mac'.

McKenzie was one of the first chaplains ashore at Gallipoli; he lumped stretchers and carried water for months on end as well as tending the wounded and burying the dead. Observing that water carriers had difficulties on part of the track, he spent most of a night cutting out a series of steps. McKenzie enjoyed the company of all types of Australians and, with a relaxed manner and broad sense of humour, encouraged men to talk freely to him. Many other chaplains seemed comparatively aloof and rigid in their views. As one soldier remarked: 'I'm not religious, but your damned religion'll do me every damned time'.

'Fighting Mac' soon became renowned as a soldier as well as a chaplain. These stories may well have been exaggerated for chaplains were prevented by their calling from joining in the fight. Unlike John Fahey, another reputed soldier-chaplain, McKenzie did not deny these stories. Reports abound that he led charges at Gallipoli, often armed only with a shovel.

In France and Belgium he continued to live in the front line with the troops. He was at Pozières, Bullecourt, Mouquet Farm, Polygon Wood and Passchendaele. With the men he endured that terrible 1916-17 winter on the Somme and tried to help with coffee stalls and other comforts. By this time McKenzie had become famous, both in the A.I.F. and at home. He had lost five stone (32 kg) at Gallipoli but not his enthusiasm and certainly not his powerful singing voice. He was forever writing songs; one, 'Goodbye Cairo!', became the battalion's rallying cry.

In late 1917 McKenzie was released from active service, his health shattered, not surprising for a man of 48. He had been awarded a Military Cross in June 1916 for 'distinguished services in the field', and it was rumoured that he had three times been recommended for the Victoria Cross. He was farewelled officially from the battalion—a most unusual gesture.

7000 people crowded Melbourne's Exhibition Building to greet him on his return early in 1918; other welcomes followed in every State. But the war had profoundly affected him. He said he was 'completely unstrung and unnerved—I had seen so many fine chaps killed … I had buried so many, too—that I had to ask myself again and again, is it worthwhile living?'

Even after the war's end McKenzie remained famous and much in demand. He resumed Salvation Army work in several States until in 1926 he took charge of the Salvationists' work in North China. He spent more than three years in China and 'lost his heart to the country'. Again, practical Christianity dominated his approach during an appalling four-year drought with millions dying of starvation. McKenzie returned to Australia with some reluctance in 1930.

The Salvation Army promoted him to command of the 'southern territory' (Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia), 1930-32, then as commissioner to command of the 'eastern territory' (New South Wales and Queensland), 1932-39. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1935.

McKenzie, the most famous man in the A.I.F., as some dubbed him, was prominent in Anzac day celebrations in Sydney from 1933. With W. M. Hughes, he was the man every digger wanted to greet.

On 1 March 1939 McKenzie retired from active work and was farewelled quietly in accordance with his wish. He died on 26 July 1947 in Sydney, survived by his wife, three sons and daughter, a Salvationist medical missionary in Rhodesia, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Lieut-Col’ Bond, The Army that Went With the Boys (Melb, 1919)
  • London Gazette, 2, 3 June supp 1916
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Mar 1933
  • journal of Chaplain Major William McKenzie MC, 4th Battalion, AIF, and newsclippings file (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Michael McKernan, 'McKenzie, William (1869–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William McKenzie (1869-1947), by unknown photographer, 1918

William McKenzie (1869-1947), by unknown photographer, 1918

Australian War Memorial, P00329.001 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


20 December, 1869
Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland


26 July, 1947 (aged 77)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.