Listen: Brett Gallaher in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
In April 1915, at a little-known beach in Turkey named Gallipoli, two legends were created. The first was the courage of the Australian soldier: the second was the wartime service of the Salvation Army. On Open House Major Brett Gallager, the head of The Salvation Army’s Red Shield Defence Services remembered the role of The Salvation Army in conflicts past and present.
The Salvation Army in the Australian Army
At the outbreak of World War One, The Salvation Army in Australia was still a new organisation. But what it lacked in material resources it compensated for in the commitment of its people.
In November 1914 the first Australian troops departed in November from Albany, Western Australia, bound for training in Egypt. Among the early departures was the Salvation Army’s Major William McKenzie, (“Fighting Mack”) appointed as a chaplain with the 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Australian Imperial Force.
Salvation Army resources
The territorial commander of the day, Commissioner James Hay, also offered a contingent of Salvation Army nurses to serve in military hospitals overseas, an offer that was accepted by the minister for defence.
Apart from the nursing sisters, the Army also supplied ambulances and drivers to the front lines in Egypt and France, and released its officers to serve as military chaplains.
The Salvos ‘spoke’ army
By 1916, there were 13 Australian Salvation Army officers serving as military chaplains. It was quickly realised that a significant advantage of Salvation Army chaplains was their ability to quickly assimilate because of the understanding of a military system.
Many of those chaplains who met the needs of troops were first-generation Christians, having come to a personal experience of God through The Salvation Army.
One of the unique characteristics of the early Army was that it spoke the same language and understood the common man. No doubt for many soldiers, some of them little more than boys, there was a sense of comfort and security about a man who could identify with and relate to them, yet still have that sense of being God’s representative.
Christianity with its sleeves rolled up
It was in the First World War that the image of the Salvation Army chaplain, tending to the physical and spiritual needs of the Diggers wherever they were, was truly forged. The Salvation Army was already becoming widely identified as ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’, and men like Chaplain Major William McKenzie, MC, of the Salvation Army, was attached to the 4th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, during the 1914-18 War were the real people that made the image true.
As chaplain to the 1st Infantry Brigade, he went ashore with the troops at Gallipoli.He soon became known as ‘Fighting Mac’ McKenzie because he was always to be found in the most dangerous of situations as he tended to his men in both spiritual and practical ways. In one three-day period, he conducted 647 funeral services. He was constantly in the front line — after one funeral service he found three bullet holes in his hat.
As the fighting dragged on, and with no significant advance made to take the peninsula, the battle at Gallipoli settled down to a brutal stalemate. McKenzie was called upon to bury hundreds of fallen Australian soldiers and minister to those who were wounded and dying. He shared every danger with his men, disregarding his own safety if there was a wounded or dying man who needed what spiritual comfort he could give.
Legendary journalist Keith Murdock interviewed McKenzie and in an article in the Sydney Sun, reprinted in The War Cry (Australia) on 22 December 1917, Murdock wrote: “Padre McKenzie has gone where shelling has made burial parties impossible to bury the dead. He has brought in the wounded, and lasted out the most intense shell-fire with his men, so that he might cheer them and comfort them. He has stayed afterwards to collect as much as two sandbags full of identity discs and pay books off the dead.”
A grateful government awarded him the Military Cross for his work, a gallantry honour virtually unheard of for a military chaplain.
The kangaroo ‘hop in’ sign
The Salvation Army did its work in every theatre of that terrible conflict. At Le Havre, in France, the famous ‘HOP IN’ sign made its first appearance. These were centres where the ordinary soldier could get a cup of tea and a bit of advice or encouragement if he needed it.
Salvation Army chaplains and workers would hold religious services, pray with the soldiers, and counsel them. Without criticism or condemnation, they would also do their best to keep them out of bars, brothels and gambling halls.
Doing their bit
The Salvation Army women did their part too. Dozens of nurses from Salvation Army homes such as Bethesda volunteered, and gave distinguished service in the Australian Army Nursing Service.
By the last year of the war, the Salvation Army was operating nearly five hundred hostels or rest centres, with more than eight hundred officers in the field. They had served in places as far-flung as Egypt, France, Belgium, India, Palestine and, of course, Gallipoli.
A letter from King George V
Their work did not go unnoticed at the highest level. When the terrible conflict was finally over, King George V personally dictated a letter to General Bramwell Booth in which he said:
“By its work of love and mercy, in both peace and war, the Salvation Army has become honoured and endeared in the hearts of the nations of the world.”
But it had achieved more than just praise from high places. The Salvation Army had won itself a place in the hearts of thousands of ordinary soldiers who had gratefully received help and comfort in their darkest hour.
Servicemen remembered chaplains
The ministry and interaction between service personnel and Salvation Army chaplains at Gallipoli was to become a defining and significant dynamic in the role and future of the Salvation Army in Australia. The courage, compassion, humour and resourcefulness of the chaplains and other Salvation Army personnel was respected and remembered with great gratitude by those serving in the regular Australian army.
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