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Joseph MacKenzie wrote the haunting lament after the death of his wife, Christine, and in memory of his great-grandfather, Charles Stuart MacKenzie, a sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders, who along with hundreds of his brothers-in-arms from the Elgin-Rothes area in Moray, Scotland went to fight in World War I. Sergeant MacKenzie was bayoneted to death at age 35, while defending one of his badly injured fellow soldiers during hand-to-hand trench warfare.
The track was then included in his band Clann An Drumma's album Tried and True (2001). While working on the film We Were Soldiers (2002), director Randall Wallace received a CD of the album and was haunted by the emotion and spirit of reverence captured in "Sgt. MacKenzie". He arranged for Joe and his band mate Donnie MacNeil, who played the pipes, to re-record "Sgt. MacKenzie" with the backing of an 80-piece orchestra and the United States Military Academy Choir at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. The lament was introduced into the film during key scenes, with MacKenzie singing on his own, and on the last track of the film with the orchestra and choir. It is mistakenly believed the original version was in Scottish (Gaelic), but it was in Scots, an English dialect heard in Scotland.
The original pipe score was written and played by Seoras Wallace, when Joe MacKenzie read his poem to him and Tu-Bardh Wilson in a house in Govan many years ago. The original recording is on the ClanWallace live album, and it was this recording that inspired Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson to contact Seoras about using the track on the film We Were Soldiers (2002). Seoras waived his rights but remains the holder of the production rights returned to him three years after the film's release.
Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie
Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie went to fight in France during World War I and was shot in the shoulder. The military sent him home to Scotland for treatment, where the surgeon wanted to amputate his arm. Sgt. MacKenzie refused, stating that he had to go back to his men. While recuperating in the hospital, he was asked what it was like to kill "the Hun" (as the Germans were called then). He replied, "what a waste of a fine body of men". His last picture, with him in uniform, was taken on the steps of the hospital. This picture hung in his home above the fireplace. Upon his return to the front, he and his men were engaged in fixed bayonet combat. The composer says,
To the best of my knowledge, and taken from reports of the returning soldiers, one of his close friends fell, badly wounded. Charles stood his ground and fought until he was overcome and died from bayonet wounds. On that day, my great grandmother and my grandmother were sitting at the fire when the picture fell from the wall. My great grandmother looked, and said to my grandmother "Oh, my bonnie Charlie's dead". Sure enough a few days passed, and the local policeman brought the news - that Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie had been killed in action. This same picture now hangs above my fireplace. A few years back my wife Christine died of cancer, and in my grief I looked at his picture to ask what gave him the strength to go on. It was then, in my mind, that I saw him lying on the field and wondered what his final thoughts were. The words and music just appeared into my head. I believe the men and women like yourself who are prepared to stand their ground for their family - for their friends - and for their country; deserve to be remembered, respected and honoured. "Sgt. MacKenzie", is my very small tribute to them. After "Sgt. MacKenzie" was first released on our Tried and True CD album in 2000, a copy of the song made its way to the hands of Hollywood director, Randall Wallace and actor Mel Gibson. Immediately they both agreed that "Sgt. MacKenzie" should feature prominently in their upcoming movie We Were Soldiers. The rest, as they say - is history!— Joseph Kilna MacKenzie
In later works
Child actor Atticus Shaffer was interested in the story of the actual soldier, so he dressed up as McKenzie on Halloween. This was incorporated into his character, Brick, on The Middle, who did the same. It was also played during a scene in the film End of Watch (2012), starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña.
- Sgt. MacKenzie on Clan An Drumma's website
- Sgt. Charles Stewart MacKenzie (6th Bn. Seaforth Highlanders) in the CWGC(Commonwealth War Graves Commission) Online "Find War Dead" Records Database