Crickets fade into the low drone of a bagpipe as the men of the 1st Air Cavalry Division nervously peer through the tall grass of Vietnam’s central highlands. The order comes to fix bayonets, and as the soldiers on screen prepare for deadly close-quarters combat, the haunting tune of “Sgt. MacKenzie” overtakes the sounds of the soldiers moving to contact.
The memorable song from We Were Soldiers’ climactic battle was used again to similar effect in 2012’s End of Watch. Following the film’s finale, the familiar drone of bagpipes leads audiences to an emotional conclusion.
As the color guard prepares and a seemingly endless procession of patrol cars makes its way to a funeral, the song overpowers the actions on screen. And while “Sgt. MacKenzie” moves audiences with its beautiful bagpipes and touching lyrics, the true story behind its origin is a tragic historical footnote.
The song’s namesake, Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie, served with the Seaforth Highlanders — a Scottish regiment of the British Army — during World War I. He was reportedly wounded and briefly sent back to Scotland to recover. While recuperating, he was asked what killing Germans was like, to which he responded, “What a waste of a fine body of men.”
Sgt. MacKenzie soon returned to his unit, and in 1917, the Seaforth Highlanders were engaged in the Battle of Arras: the same battle Siegfried Sassoon famously referenced in “The General.” There, Sgt. MacKenzie chose to remain by the side of a wounded comrade rather than leave him to the advancing Germans. According to his great-grandson, Joseph Kilna MacKenzie, Sgt. MacKenzie was then bayoneted to death in the ensuing struggle.
The nature of his great-grandfather’s death touched Joseph MacKenzie, spurring him to eventually write the moving melody. Joseph MacKenzie was the founding member of the percussion band Clann An Drumma and first sang the tribute on their 2000 album, Tried & True.
Knowing the fate of the real Sgt. MacKenzie makes the song’s lyrics all the more meaningful.
Lay me down in the cold cold ground / Where before many more have gone / When they come / I will stand my ground / Stand my ground, I’ll not be afraid / Thoughts of home take away my fear / Sweat and blood hide my veil of tears / Once a year say a prayer for me / Close your eyes and remember me / Never more shall I see the sun / For I fell to a German’s gun.
When the song caught the ear of Randall Wallace — the writer behind Braveheart and We Were Soldiers — he convinced MacKenzie to rerecord the song for his Vietnam war film, this time with the addition of a full orchestra and backup vocals from West Point’s choir. The result is the hauntingly beautiful ode we’ve all heard on the big screen.
“The response to ‘Sgt MacKenzie’ has been overwhelming. […] It’s very humbling to hear stories of how the song has moved, touched and inspired people all over the world,” Joseph MacKenzie stated following the release of We Were Soldiers.
Though Joseph Kilna MacKenzie died in 2009 and never got to see his song used in another film, the impact of his touching tribute to his great-grandfather has evolved from an ode to the fallen of World War I to an homage to all those who sacrifice in service to others.