Somewhere in Blood Soaked France: The Diary of Corporal Angus Mackay, Royal Scots, Machine Gun Corps 1914-1917
Edited by Alasdair Sutherland
Published by Spellmount Military Memoirs in paperback, £14.99
ANGUS Mackay was born on August 18, 1895, the ninth child of Alexander and Isabella Mackay, of 162, Scullomie, beside the Kyle of Tongue. Then, as now, employment was scarce on the north coast and, when he came of age, Angus joined two of his elder brothers, John and William, in Leith where he found work in the thriving dockyard.
The early 20th century was filled with “war and rumours of wars” and, like many young men of his day, Angus enlisted in the Territorial Army, joining the 1st5th Battalion (Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles) Royal Scots, which practised for its home defence role in a drill hall close to his new home.
The Royal Scots were mobilised at 5.30pm on August 4, 1914, 10 days before the outbreak of the First World War when the Kaiser and his generals launched their Schlieffen Plan, calculated to knock France out of the war within weeks and sweep aside the “contemptible little army” sent across the Channel from Britain in response to the German threat.
The Royal Scots were initially deployed in East Lothian, taking up defensive positions along the coast towards Dunbar to counter the threat of invasion and it was not until March 8, 1915, they left Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes, marching to Waverley Station as crowds lined the streets. They were destined initially to train with the 29th Infantry Division, 88th Brigade at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire in preparation for one of the most ill-conceived adventures in British military history, the Gallipoli Campaign.
Angus caught measles just before his battalion embarked for the Middle East and, in order to recuperate, was given leave to return to Scullomie for a few days. Thus, he missed the initial deployment to the Dardanelles and did not rejoin his compatriots until May 26, 1915, by which time they had been locked in combat with a determined enemy for six weeks. With a thousand men killed or wounded for every hundred yards of Turkish land captured, it was soon apparent there would be no easy way to knock Turkey out of the war and, on January 1, 1916, the High Command initiated a complete withdrawal from Gallipoli.
The futile invasion had left 5241 officers and 112,308 other ranks killed, wounded or missing, and left Turkey still able to threaten British interests in Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Through all the senseless slaughter of Gallipoli, Angus had survived and, in doing so, had kept a diary. To do so was against the rules as the capture of a diary might reveal significant information to the enemy but, both in the Dardanelles, and later in Egypt and in France, Angus maintained his daily record as his battalion was moved from one theatre of war to another.
Indeed, his progress reads like a potted history of World War One in which famous, and infamous, place names remain etched on the psyche of our nation – Suvla Bay, the Somme, the Ypres Salient, Ancre, Gueudecourt and Arras.
On April 15, 1917, though, at Arras, his luck ran out. Severely wounded while his machine gun unit took part in a desperate defence against a counterattack, he was captured by the enemy and, after receiving first aid on the battlefield, was transferred to a military hospital at Darmstadt in Germany.
Back home in Scullomie, his parents were informed Angus was missing in action but, remarkably, he was able to write to them from Germany to say he had been wounded. On May 5, 1917, however, Angus died of his wounds and was buried, with full military honours, by his captors. He was 21.
The diary of Corporal Angus Mackay, an almost unique document, was uncovered by Alasdair Sutherland, formerly of Tongue, in the course of his research for Nevermore, his earlier book on all those servicemen whose names appear on the war memorials in Tongue, Skerray and Melness.
The young corporal’s remarkable record somehow survived his demise and is now in the possession of his relative, Dorothy Johnson, of St Andrews. In Somewhere in Blood Soaked France Sutherland has done an excellent job in setting the diary in its context and in following the soldier’s story, in astonishing detail, across his years of service and sacrifice.
A highly worthwhile addition to the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in military history but, more so, it provides a direct view of life, and death, on the front line through the eyes of the common man which is as real today as it was in 1917.