Major Murdoch Mackay in uniform.

A brilliant scholastic record so exceptional that it ranks with the most gifted students in Ormond’s long history would be special enough in itself. Combine this, though, with outstanding leadership at some of Australia’s most famous battlefields, and you have a rare individual indeed. No wonder those closest to Doch Mackay (1907) concluded that becoming prime minister was not beyond him. However, Murdoch Mackay is long forgotten today. He deserves better.

Murdoch was born at Bendigo in 1891. His father, George, was the accomplished editor of The Bendigo Advertiser, an author whose books established him as Bendigo’s leading historian, and an excellent cricketer who was selected for an Australian tour of England.

Mary Mackay, wife of George and mother of Murdoch, was an acclaimed teacher before her marriage. After her five (surviving) children reached school age, she became active in numerous pursuits, including political activism, charitable activities for the underprivileged, and dynamic leadership of the Bendigo Red Cross.

So Murdoch, widely known as Doch, emerged from a high-achieving family. He entered Ormond as a resident law student in 1907 having just turned 16. He remained in College throughout his course, aided by the scholarships arising from his superlative results, including the feat of double first-class honours in his third year.

Doch finished top in final year with first-class honours, winning the prestigious Supreme Court Prize and qualifying for the Master of Laws degree — all shortly after he turned 20. The law professor concluded that in almost two decades at Melbourne University he had taught no abler student.

During his final year he met Margot Watson of Elsternwick, and soon became head-over-heels in love.

Unfortunately for Doch, Margot did not reciprocate his intensity. She liked him, and was flattered by his ardent interest, but was not willing to close off her options with an exclusive commitment when she was only 18. Doch realised that his only option was to play a long game to win her over, but he found the requisite patience increasingly difficult.

Like his father, he was a talented cricketer. Playing for Bendigo in 1911 against the touring English team between that summer’s first two Ashes Tests, Doch Mackay top-scored with a fine innings.

He completed his articles with a Bendigo firm of solicitors, and embarked on a career as a barrister. His ability was soon evident. Having been at the Bar little more than two years, he was engaged to appear in a landmark constitutional case before the High Court, a remarkable achievement when he had just turned 24.

Like his parents, he was interested in politics. In 1913 he involved himself in the campaign against trade and commerce referendum proposals to expand the federal government’s powers, writing articles and delivering speeches in Melbourne and regional localities.

Doch Mackay involved himself in the militia, and served in Melbourne and Bendigo units. One of his admirers, who was to become renowned as Pompey Elliott (1898), had much in common with Mackay — residence at Ormond College, a law degree culminating in the Supreme Court Prize, and militia service as an officer. Elliott’s firm of solicitors sometimes briefed Mackay as a barrister.

Murdoch Mackay seated second from left in the Ormond dining hall.

When European war suddenly erupted, Australian contingents were formed to take part, and Elliott was chosen to command a battalion. He invited Mackay to become an officer in it. But Doch preferred to undertake advanced officer training with a view to serving in a later contingent.

Doch had been fervently in love with Margot for more than four years, but was still waiting for her to commit. The prospect of his imminent departure seemed to galvanise things for Margot. They became engaged in mid-April 1915, and then married early in May, only a week before he left Melbourne as a captain in the 22nd Battalion.

Doch proved to be an outstanding officer — brave and decisive, inspiring and selfless. He was also the battalion’s champion letter-writer, renowned for the hours he devoted to long love-letters to Margot. He served at Gallipoli throughout the 22nd Battalion’s months opposite the Turkish trenches at Johnston’s Jolly until the nerve-racking evacuation.

Perilous experiences followed in France in 1916, particularly after his unit participated in the Somme offensive. The 22nd was involved in two attempts to drive the enemy away from the Pozières heights. The first conspicuously failed, and the second seemed on the verge of becoming a similar fiasco when Major Murdoch Mackay made a crucial front-line intervention. He took charge, devised and directed alternative methods, and enabled the attackers to attain their objective.

This was leadership of the highest quality. No less an authority than the official AIF historian, Charles Bean, concluded that this battle had been Australia’s “greatest victory on the Somme”, and the result had depended on the “courage and resource” of “one man”. His “gallantry and presence of mind constitute a feat of arms that ought to be known to all Australians”, Bean added.

Regrettably, while displaying this superb leadership, Major Mackay had been killed. Doch was 25 when he died. The tributes were glowing. Some who knew him well felt that he had appropriate attributes for the very highest positions in the nation.

His name is listed on Ormond’s memorial tablet, visible near the entrance to the Dining Hall. Spare a thought for him as you pass by.

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