James McKenzie was a Northland farmer when he joined the New Zealand Army in January 1917.
McKenzie was almost 39 years old, and the officer who conducted his medical examination noted that even though the sight in his left eye was bad, his right eye was very good, so he should pass, as he was a fine recruit.
McKenzie trained in England before arriving in France in October 1917, where he joined the First Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. As luck would have it, he made it through the remainder of the war without any illness or injuries.
Although his unit was involved in the capture of the French town of Le Quesnoy on 4 November 1918, McKenzie was out of the line in a rest camp at that time. He marched north to rejoin his battalion shortly afterwards, right before the end of the war.
Like many other soldiers, McKenzie had been anticipating Germany’s surrender weeks before it arrived. In an uncensored letter, he wrote to his sister Margaret on 30 October 1918.
Well the war news is very good now, we heard today that Austria has chucked it in, if so I guess Germany won’t last long, & we are sincerely hoping we won’t see any more fighting. I think we’ll all go just about crazy when the time comes to turn homewards.
When news of the armistice did finally arrive, the celebratory response that McKenzie had expected did not eventuate. He explained to his sweetheart, Alice White, in a letter on 23 November.
I thought at one time when peace came we would all go mad like, but strange to say when the news came through the boys took it very quietly, & there was practically no demonstration. It took us quite a while to realize that it was all over, & that we would go over the top no more, but we are just beginning to believe it now. Fancy no more shells, no more bullets, no more sleeping in dirty wet trenches etc, etc. I was about on the verge of tears, thinking of putting in another winter on the line, & I sometimes used to wish I’d get a smack to get out for a while, but my luck was out.
While heading north during the Hundred Days Offensive, and after the Armistice, McKenzie passed through many French towns that had been occupied by Germany throughout the war. In Beauvois, southeast of Cambrai, McKenzie noted the return of the refugees, as well as acts of destruction committed by the retreating Germans.
Since hostilities have ceased the people are coming back in good numbers every day, old men and women, & children of all ages, each carrying a bundle of some sort, all their worldly possessions.
I had a look through the church here a few days ago and it was simply lovely inside, beautiful carving etc, but Fritz before he retired from the town, had put a mine under the front door to blow it up, but it had only blown the doorway out & cracked the walls a bit, by jove my blood fairly boiled, when I went in & saw what a beautiful place the dirty dogs had tried to destroy.
In some other town we passed through I have seen the church, left a heap of bricks & masonry, that’s German Kulture for you.
After the Armistice, McKenzie took part in the occupation of the Rhineland. As they crossed the Rhine into Cologne, he noted that the Germans – or ‘Huns’, as he called them – gave them a rather good reception and were ‘mighty civil.’
After returning to New Zealand, McKenzie married his sweetheart Alice White. They settled in Okaihau, where James died on 24 January 1958.