World War One Victoria Cross hero honoured

A commemorative paving stone is to be unveiled in memory of a Liverpool-born soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One whilst serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Regiment (PPCLI).

The Commemorative Paving Stone scheme is to mark the First World War centenary commemorations, and honour men awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) during the First World War.

There were 175 overseas Victoria Cross winners in total from 11 different countries, including 70 from Canada, which has the highest number of overseas recipients.

On Monday 30 October, a Victoria Cross paving stone will be laid in honour of Lieutenant Hugh McDonald McKenzie (1885 – 1917), who was killed in action on 30 October 1917 at Meetscheele Spur, near Passchendaele, Belgium.

He was born at 62 Hunter Street in Liverpool on 5 December 1885, the second son of Jane McDonald McKenzie and James McKenzie.

The family moved from Liverpool to Inverness in 1887, following the death of his father who was in the Merchant Navy working as an engineer and was lost at sea.

The family then moved to Dundee around 1905 where Hugh worked for Watson & Sons, Seagate and the Caledonian Railway Company as a Carter.

He was also a keen sportsman and was a founder member of the Dundee Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Club and was crowned North Scotland wrestling champion.

Hugh emigrated to Canada in 1912, living with his wife Marjorie, in North Bay, Ontario.In August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Hugh McKenzie volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and enlisted in the newly formed Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).

Serving initially as a Private, Hugh trained as a machine-gunner and was promoted steadily through the ranks.

Whilst serving as a Corporal in May 1915 at St Eloi, he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal for actions while in command of a machine-gun section.

Hugh then became a Sergeant in September 1915 and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in February 1916 for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field, the first machine-gunner ever to receive this award.

In September 1916 he became a company Sergeant-Major, then in January 1917, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and was transferred to the Canadian Machine Gun Corps, attached to the 7th Brigade Machine Gun Company.

The action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross took place on 30 October 1917 at Meetscheele Spur, near Passchendaele, Belgium.

Lt McKenzie was in charge of a section of four machine guns accompanying the infantry in an attack. Seeing that all the Officers, and most of the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s), had become casualties, and that the men were hesitating before a nest of enemy machine-guns, he handed over his command to an NCO, rallied the infantry, organised an attack and captured the strong-point. As machine-gun fire from a pill-box nearby inflicted further casualties on the advancing Canadians, Lt Hugh McKenzie conducted a brief reconnaissance of the position and after placing down troops in fire support positions, he led a frontal attack on the position.

The pill-box was subsequently captured but Lt Hugh McKenzie was killed in action, and he received his VC award posthumously on 13th February 1918.

Hugh has no known grave but is commemorated on the Menin Gate war memorial in Ypres, Belgium.Hugh’s widowed wife settled in North Bay, Ontario and married Peter Smith who was also from Dundee and had been a witness to Hugh and Marjory’s wedding. Hugh’s daughter, Elizabeth, later moved out to Canada to live with her mother until she died. Their son Alex later served in the Canadian army during WW2 and was killed in a road accident shortly after being demobbed.

Tragedy continued to stalk the McKenzie’s. On 24th May 1955 a fire ripped through Elizabeth’s house in Amherstburg on the shores of Lake Erie, killing her sister-in-law and her three children. All her possessions were destroyed in the blaze, including her father’s Victoria Cross. Unaware of the medals loss, the Princess Patricia’s regimental museum embarked on a quest to locate the McKenzie V.C. and any surviving relatives. Appeals were published in Canada and Scotland which eventually resulted in contact being made with his daughter in 1970. She had just returned from Scotland, bringing with her the D.C.M. and Croix de Guerre that her father had left with relatives during the war. On learning of the loss of the V.C. the regiment organised an official replacement to be presented which she in turn donated to the Canadian War Museum.

Today the V.C., D.C.M., Croix de Guerre and service medals are on extended loan to the PPCLI Museum in Calgary.When the award of his Victoria Cross was announced in the London Gazette on 13th February 1918, his surname was misspelled as “Mackenzie.” 

The citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery and leading when in charge of a section of four machine guns accompanying the infantry in an attack.Seeing that all the officers and most of the non-commissioned officers of an infantry company had become casualties, and that the men were hesitating before a nest of enemy machine guns, which were on commanding ground and causing them severe casualties, he handed over command of his guns to an N.C.O., rallied the infantry, organised an attack, and captured the strong point.

Finding that the position was swept by machine-gun fire from a ‘pill-box’ which dominated all the ground over which the troops were advancing, Lt. MacKenzie made a reconnaissance and detailed flanking and frontal attacking parties which captured the ‘pill-box,’ he himself being killed while leading the frontal attack.

By his valour and leadership this gallant officer ensured the capture of these strong points and so saved the lives of many men and enabled the objectives to be attained.”

(London Gazette, no.30523)

The commemorative paving stone will be unveiled in his honour at Liverpool Parish Church, at a service attended by the Rector of Liverpool, Liverpool’s Lord Mayor, military representatives and also relatives of Hugh McKenzie. 

Lord Mayor, Councillor Malcolm Kennedy, said: “Hugh McKenzie was a courageous soldier whose selfless actions saved many lives. He was completely devoted to his duty and Liverpool is incredibly proud of him and this is why the City is honouring him with this fitting ceremony.

“I am personally privileged to be able to attend and unveil this stone in his honour.”The stone will be a permanent reminder of the incredible contribution that he made to the war effort and his role in making sure that more soldiers weren’t lost.”