Main Image: 1st Battalion Troops waiting near Jacob’s Trench, Lone Pine (Australian War Memorial). Listen: Battlefield historian Mat McLachlan talks about the Battle of Lone Pine in August 1915.
It was December 1st 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula and Private George Scott’s luck was about to change.
The Turkish Army had just taken delivery of new heavy artillery that they hoped could end the Gallipoli campaign – the Austrian K.u.K Motormorser-Batterie M98.
Until then the Turks artillery was outdated, and they suffered from a shortage of shells, and what they did have was unreliable.
Private Scott of the 4th Battalion AIF was resting in Victoria Gully, which had been untouched by Turkish shellfire, before being called away to take part in a game of Two-Up. As he recalls:
“I was called away to watch a game and was hoping to try my luck as well! Suddenly a newly arrived howitzer battery (Austrian it was said) dropped one amongst the five or six I had just left. All died.”
Only days later the Australians and New Zealanders would be evacuated from the peninsula, in what would ironically become the most successful element of the campaign.
This Thursday marks the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Lone Pine, an area of Gallipoli that had been captured just after the ANZAC landing on April 25th. The area was named for the solitary pine tree that stood near the frontline trenches, the only survivor after shellfire and battles had raged across the area.
Mat McLachlan is the host of the Living History podcast and a battlefield historian, and told 96five that the Battle of Lone Pine was part of the August Offensive; a plan to break the stalemate and win the Gallipoli campaign once and for all.
“A key part of the offensive was a huge attack on the Turkish trenches at Lone Pine. It was a big diversionary attack because British troops were landing further north at Suvla Bay. The attack was successful and they did capture the Turkish trenches, but it went on for several days and was some of the most horrific fighting of the Gallipoli campaign. The words Lone Pine have become synonymous with this bitter, brutal, hand to hand fighting in the Turkish trenches.”
Mat said that the Battle of Lone Pine has played a part in defining what we now call the ANZAC spirit – one of gritty determination against all odds.
“Veterans in particular, were always very proud of the achievement of capturing the trenches, even though ultimately it didn’t make any difference to the campaign as by December we were evacuating the peninsula. It was still a great achievement to come out of those trenches and capture a large area of enemy position.”
Although the battle and evacuation were not linked, these were the positions the Australians held until the December evacuation, when under the cover of darkness, the troops were loaded onto ships, with the now legendary self-firing rifles duping the enemy into believing they were still in the trenches.
Throughout the Gallipoli campaign the battle was not only against the enemy, but against one’s own mind as the men wrestled with ever present danger.
“The thing we need to understand about Gallipoli is that you were never safe. There was no rear area that you could go to and be safe when you came out of the trenches and not be under fire. Whether you were on the front line, the beach, the rest area – no matter where you were, there was always the risk of being killed or wounded, and that put an incredible strain on the men.”
Despite the danger the Australians dealt with their mental health challenges in typical fashion.
“The rest area was down near the beach and was under constant shell and machine gun fire. One soldier joked that it was called a rest area because most of the bullets went towards the front line, but the rest came here!”
One of the men who was tasked with supporting the troops was an Army Chaplain who was known to the soldiers as ‘Fighting Mac’. He gained their respect by training with them, digging trenches and fox holes, as well as leading church and burial services.
He earned his nickname through a love of boxing, with his skills in the ring learnt during a rough and wild youth, where encounters with the police were common.
He was born William McKenzie in Scotland, 1869, but moved to Bundaberg with his family at the age of 15. Young William had his mind set on farming as a career, and enjoyed his time off in the pubs of Bundaberg.
But a chance encounter with the Salvation Army at age 20, inspired the young man to ditch the wild life and set his course on the straight and narrow. He became a minister with the Salvation Army, and when the First World War broke out he was appointed as chaplain to the Australian Expeditionary Force.
A straight up, no nonsense man, Mac urged the diggers to steer clear of booze, brothels and bad language; famously while the troops were stationed in Cairo before the landing at Gallipoli, he would go to the red-light district and physically drag men out.
But it was the way that Fighting Mac gave of himself that truly earned respect among the ANZAC soldiers – he would carry their packs if they were tired, he would fetch water and supplies for the front line, and worked tirelessly to ensure that every soldier who was killed received a proper burial.
Mac was with the troops before and during the Battle of Lone Pine, with some reports stating that he even went ‘over the top’ armed with only a shovel.
Mat McLachlan said that this would have been unlikely though, as this is not how would have seen his role.
“He was a huge support to the men, but one of his most important roles was to help bury the dead. The idea that you could be killed at any moment and that your body would be lost was a terrible thing to face for the men. When they saw chaplains working really hard to provide formal burials for dead soldiers, that was an important form of comfort for them. That was something that Fighting Mac was very well known for.”
After Gallipoli, McKenzie served on the Western Front in France and Belgium, before being repatriated to Australia in 1918.
The big, burly Queenslander was awarded the Military Cross for his service during World War I, and on his return to Australia continued his work with the Salvation Army, making his way to the rank of Commissioner.
He spent a number of years in China, before returning home in 1930, where he would routinely be stopped on the street by ex-servicemen who recognised him.
In 1935 he was appointed an Order of the British Empire, and continued his leadership role within the Salvation Army until 1939.
When he passed away in 1947 at the age of 78, he was still held in such esteem that 7000 people attended his funeral.
Mat McLachlan’s Living History has documented the ANZAC garrison’s escape in The Gallipoli Evacuation, a new book by historian Peter Hart examining how the Allies escaped the peninsula without losing a single man.
If you’d like to listen to more about the life of William ‘Fighting Mac’ McKenzie, the Salvation Army have produced a podcast that is well worth a listen.