Francis Walter MCKAY
Eyes grey, Hair brown, Complexion dark
Our Cobber and One of the Best
This is a story of “Uncle Frank” as he was known within his family, and of his niece, Julie Werner, our friend.
It is with great sadness that we report that our long-time colleague and friend, Julie Werner passed away on Monday 4th July 2022. Julie joined the Fromelles Association in 2012, and since then has been a highly valued researcher and contributor to our organisation. She was a great and passionate supporter and will be deeply missed. We treasure our memories, and our deepest sympathy is extended to her family and friends.
Francis Walter (‘Frank’) McKay was born on 25 November 1892 at ‘Glenbower,’ Broken Dam, NSW. He was the son of Emily Ellen (nee Cleal) 1866-1927 and Robert McKay 1858-1944 of ‘Oakwood,’ Ariah Park.
The McKay family ran a wheat and sheep property that was originally taken up by Robert’s father, Donald McKay. Frank was the fourth of ten children born between 1888 and 1908. In birth order, the children were:
- Donald (died in infancy)
- and Ivy.
Frank, as part of a large family, was a very practical farmer’s son who trained as a motor mechanic. He was also a good sportsman. A talented boxer, he toured country shows with the Jim Sharman Boxing tent before moving to Sydney where his boxing career flourished with the Olympia Athletic Club at Newtown. As was the custom of the time, Frank boxed under the pseudonym of ‘Frank Keane’. Frank also played with the Newtown Football Club.
In 1915, this promising sporting career was placed on hold as he heeded the call and enlisted in the AIF on 12 September 1915 at the age of 22 years and 10 months. According to family lore, Frank and three mates (all brothers) were keen to enlist after hearing a recruitment talk targeting fit young sportsmen. However, only Frank and two of the brothers (Arthur and Jack Higgins) signed up as the boys’ mother, Mrs Higgins, insisted that one of her three boys must stay home to look after her.
Frank and the two Higgins brothers underwent training in various camps around Sydney preparing to join British forces overseas. They were allocated as part of a group of 300 sportsmen to the 7th reinforcements of the 20th Battalion.
Prior to leaving Australia, Frank - like thousands of other young soldiers - made out his will leaving all his property to his mother, Emily McKay. This included a £300 life insurance policy payable in the event of his death.
Frank sailed for Egypt on HMAT A29 Suevic on 20 December 1915 with the 20th Infantry Battalion. According to a fellow soldier, he was known as ‘Big Mac’ as he stood at 5 feet 10 inches, weighed 168 pounds and won the heavyweight championship on the voyage.
In Egypt in February 1916, Frank was taken on strength with the 56th Battalion and then shortly after transferred to the 14th Machine Gun Company in March. This unit disembarked at Marseilles on 25 June 1916.
By July, the unit was in the trenches on the Western Front but after the Battle of Fromelles, Frank was officially listed as missing on 20 July 1916.
In early August, his father was notified as next of kin - and so began a long wait for news of Frank’s fate.
News trickles in
In December 1916, Private Jack Collins (believed to be Private 3059 James Collins) wrote from the front to Frank’s father, Robert McKay, stating:
“... I feel sure that poor Frank went under in the Fromelles battle ... One of the chaps told me that Frank had received a slight wound and had gone down to the base.
Alf Howard was with Frank during the retirement, and when they saw that our boys were having a hard fight, Frank told Alf to get away with the spare parts and ammunition while he opened fire on the Germans. Alf heard the gun open fire and had gone a few yards when he heard a coal box [5.9” shell] coming and took cover. When the shell had burst, Alf looked for Frank but could not see him. Alf is of the opinion that the shell landed on Frank and his gun and buried them both
... I have had a chat with the MO who received Frank for treatment shortly after he was wounded in the hand and I understand that the MO ordered Frank to go back to the casualty clearing station, but as Frank was bent on going back to his mates the MO let him have his way. I also heard that Frank was again slightly wounded in the shoulder prior to the retirement ...”
In letters to military authorities seeking news and also the return of any of his son’s personal effects, Robert McKay advised that he had received “four different letters from comrades who are all of the opinion that he was killed.”
The lack of information from official sources must have been a great source of stress and concern for the family.
In late December 1916, Sergeant 3115 Albert Edward Howard (the “Alf Howard” referred to by Collins) provided a full eyewitness report to the Red Cross concerning Frank’s death. It is likely that the Red Cross passed this information on to Frank’s family. Sgt Howard stated:
“I do not think there is anyone who could give you more information about him than I could, as both he and I have been together since we left Australia.
The morning of the 20th of July last when we had a raid, he and I were together all the time; we were over in the German lines and when the order came to retire to our own front line, we came back as far as the German front line together, but I got into the sap leading across No Man’s Land first and he stood up on the parapet and said he would hop down in a minute.
Well, I walked about 50 yards away from him and looked back, and he was missing, but just where I had left him a shell had fallen – right on the spot where he was standing, so I can assure you that he must have been blown to pieces.
He was never taken prisoner because he was too near to be taken, and besides there were men we had left back further in the German lines, why they came back about half an hour after I did.
You can rest assured that Private FW McKay met his death on the 20th July 1916, fighting for his country.”
Finally, in September 1917, an official court of enquiry was completed and a finding was made that Private Frank McKay was killed in action on 20 July 1916.
His memory cherished by family and friends
Francis Walter McKay has no known grave but his name is commemorated at:
- Ariah Park War Memorial
- The Glebe Town Hall First World War Roll of Honour
- The Glebe War Memorial
- The Australian War Memorial in Canberra
- V.C. Corner, panel 23, Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles
Frank was also remembered in newspaper memorial notices. These were inserted not only by his immediate family but also by his uncle, aunt and cousins and also his fellow soldiers who paid tribute to Frank as “our cobber, one of the best”. Truly a fitting tribute.
To this day, Frank’s family continue to remember and honour his sacrifice. Many family members have been keen to assist with research and to contribute DNA where possible.
One such family member was Julie Werner who was Frank’s niece, the daughter of Frank’s youngest sister, Ivy. Julie became a dedicated researcher and was delighted to be included on the 2010 FFFAIF tour. Unfortunately, Julie was taken ill and could not attend the dedication of the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. She was however consoled by knowing that many small Australian flags that she had handed out to tour participants were left all over the Western Front on selected graves – including some of the new graves at Fromelles. She was also pleased to have Dr Brendan Nelson, then Australian Ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, visit her in hospital. It was not the trip that Julie had planned, but it was memorable none the less.
Frank’s final burial place remains unknown. We understand that DNA donor samples have been received by Army, and “at this time, have not matched with any samples held”.
Despite the dwindling hopes of finding Frank’s final resting place, his comrades’ tribute to Frank as “Our cobber, one of the best” continues to stand the test of time. He is not forgotten.
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