Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Autobiography: Chapter 5



‘Feitheamh airson dol gu batal’ / ‘Waiting to go to battle’

The brief life of John MacDonald


Several formal photographs were taken of John MacDonald in uniform
before he left Scotland for training.

Some characters are stronger in death than they ever were in life, or, at the very least, their posthumous ‘existence’ dominates the world of the living to an extent that they themselves would never have imagined.  This is true of the brief life of John MacDonald, whose early death at the Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917 gave him a curious kind of immortality among his surviving siblings.  His influence went beyond his siblings.   As I was growing up in ‘Coll View’, I was well aware that the big bedroom on the ground floor of the house had become something of a shrine to John’s memory.   It was dominated by a large framed picture of Private John MacDonald, baton under his arm, in the kilted uniform of the 8th (Territorial) Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  Shortly before the telegram came to tell his parents and siblings of his death, this large picture had fallen off the wall, and its glass and frame had been smashed.   I heard this story repeatedly from my Aunt Maggie and my father.  Aunt Maggie was the curator of John’s ‘shrine’, as she had assumed responsibility for his affairs after his death.

There was something ‘spooky’ about that room, and I remember well how I used to hurry past it at night on my way to bed in one of the upstairs rooms.   The sense of a ghostly presence was increased annually when November came round, and Remembrance Day loomed large, with all its gloomy associations.   At the local primary school in Ruaig, I and other pupils would be given a supply of collecting-tins and poppies to take round our townships in aid of ‘Earl Haig Homes’.   Needless to say, we knew next to nothing about the ‘cause’, but we discharged our annual collection with a sense of due solemnity and responsibility.   As the tilley lamp sputtered and hissed, I would try to read the magazine that accompanied the collection and was distributed to homes.   The magazine and additional leaflets extolled the work of Earl Haig.   He seemed to be the saviour of all who had been wounded in the war, making generous and kind provision for their needs by means of homes and financial support.   The ‘truth’ of the war – whatever that ‘truth’ was or is – was hidden from me, and it was only very much later in life that I realised that the First World War was generally regarded as one of the most appalling carnages ever to have afflicted Europe and other associated theatres of engagement.   Earl Haig, otherwise known as General Sir Douglas Haig, was a highly controversial figure, whose reputation was attacked from time to time by an emerging lobby of ‘war-haters’ or ‘Haig-haters’ who held him responsible for the massacre on the Western Front, most notably at the Somme.   Whatever the rights and wrongs of Haig’s military strategy, the need to make provision for the war-wounded remained a priority, as it still does in more modern contexts.   My lasting memory of these ‘collections’ is the rather sickly smell that was exuded by the cloth poppies – a smell which suddenly came back to my nostrils when I was coffining my own father in 1984 in the very room which had once been John’s ‘shrine’.  It was the smell of camphor.

Douglas Haig (died 1928) and his wife Dorothy are buried in Dryburgh Abbey, not far
from the resting-place of Sir Walter Scott in the same abbey.  I was struck by the unadorned
simplicity of their gravestones, which are in the same style as those of serving soldiers.

For me, war always stinks.   It is the absolute nadir of humanity, or rather of inhumanity, the price and consequence of a gross failure in human relationships.  I see nothing in it that is glorious, even if I admire individual acts of great bravery and self-sacrifice by those (on both sides) unfortunate enough to have had to participate in the ‘killing’.   In holding such views, I belong to another generation, a generation whose political understanding was fashioned in the late 1960s, when the Vietnam war caused students to take to the streets, the Paris Riots erupted, and Che Guevara’s image appeared on lamp-posts in University Avenue, Glasgow.  It was an age when undermining the status quo seemed more important than supporting it, and it was principally in the 1960s that the role and reputation of Douglas Haig were questioned to his severe detriment (though it has to be noted that, even in the context of the war, Haig’s tactics were not always considered wise by his contemporaries).  But another, much more powerful factor in turning me against war and in making me very much less than enthusiastic about military service of any kind was the death of my great-uncle, Private John MacDonald.  It sent his parents to their graves sooner than might otherwise have happened (as my father always maintained), it caused gloom in the family, most notably through the ritual of annual commemoration, and it ‘spooked’ the otherwise happy atmosphere of ‘Coll View’.

In the early twentieth century, however, the view was very different.  Young men were brought up with a sense of strong allegiance to king and country, and Kitchener’s famous poster, pointing the finger and stating, ‘Your country needs you’, would have elicited a disbelieving response only from those who would be regarded as ‘traitors’ by the vast majority of their contemporaries.  However complex the causes of the First World War may have been – a war of empires, declining on the one hand, and flexing their muscles on the other, in both east and west – it resolved itself into the defence of ‘our nation’, a national emergency.   As young men were blown to smithereens, seriously wounded, picked off instantaneously in the prime of life by a bullet, or sucked irrecoverably into the oceans of mud and blood at the Western Front, along with horses and field-guns, a never-ending tide of 'replacements' arrived by the boatload, busload and trainload.   There was no lack of volunteers, no lack of enthusiasm for the war effort – or so it seemed.  John MacDonald, youngest son of Hector and Effie MacDonald, ‘Coll View’, Caolas, Tiree, was one of the volunteers.

John MacDonald is sitting on the left, with a fellow soldier standing
beside him.

The wider context of John’s early years has been provided in Chapters Two and Four of this blog-book.   As the youngest of a family of ten, born in 1887, he would have been cared for by his elder sisters as well as his mother.   Like his siblings, he was educated at Ruaig Public School (as it was then called) in the neighbouring township of Ruaig, immediately west of Caolas.   The headmaster of the school in this period was Duncan Gunn, who was very highly regarded by his former pupils.   I heard nothing but good of ‘Mr Gunn’ from my great-aunts and great-uncles.   He was evidently a very able teacher, and imparted more than the ‘rudiments’ of education to those in his charge.  Looking through the substantial body of letters and cards written by my relatives to friends at home and abroad, and particularly by John, I am impressed by their fine command of English and their grasp of punctuation, grammar and syntax.   The fluency and maturity of their styles indicate that they were well equipped to make their way in the world, and this is further confirmed by their purposeful, knowledgeable engagement with the practical issues of life.   Their education would not have extended beyond the age of 14, and some may have left school before reaching that age.   Their ability to write Gaelic was, however, less impressive, and it is clear that the kind of education available in Ruaig School did not place much, if any, emphasis on the capacity of pupils to read and write their native language.  However, John could read and write Gaelic. This is nowhere more apparent than in his diary, compiled when he was in France.   It contains a page of verses from the Gaelic Metrical Psalms, all written fairly accurately (and quite possibly from memory).  Much more tellingly, the very last entries, written shortly before he was killed, are in Gaelic.   When it came to the ‘crunch’, John was thinking in Gaelic, remembering home and family, and writing in Gaelic.   This final ‘code switch’ is one of the most interesting and moving features of his diary, in which he summarises faithfully in English the principal activities of each day following his arrival in France.  John’s fluency in English is more than evident also in the series of letters which he wrote from France to his sister Annabel, and which are another very poignant record of his short period at the Front.   The very high standard of literacy characteristic of John and his siblings is everywhere apparent.


Ruaig School is the white building to the right.  It is now a block of flats.  Like John and his siblings,
I too attended this school.  Ruaig Congregational Church is the building in the middle.   John's father
was a Trustee of this church.


John lived in Tiree until his late teens, and we may assume that, like the rest of the family, he was well used to the work of the croft.  He appears to have left home when he was about eighteen.  In December 1905, he was working in a ‘big house’ at Banachra, Loch Lomond, and by July 1906 he was at ‘The Stables’, Glenoran, Helensburgh.   A year later, however, he is to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, with a postal address at Box 183, Minnedosa, Manitoba, Canada, where he was evidently staying with his MacLean relatives (his sister Ishbel being married to Dan MacLean).   He remained there until the autumn of 1909, but he had moved to Vancouver by May 1910, where he was initially in lodgings with Mrs Blanche, 25 Avenue, Secome Road, Hillcrest.  Vancouver was to be his location for the next four years.   He was employed from at least 1911 by Mackay, Smith, Blair and Co., Cambie Street, Vancouver, where he was evidently a warehouseman and clerk, sometimes working in the Shipping Office.  It is obvious from later correspondence, as well as from surviving photographs which show a very happy, well-adjusted young man, that John loved Vancouver, and his war correspondence suggests that by that stage he regarded himself as a Canadian first and foremost.

A fine picture of John, taken when he was in Canada, and another below.  What a
difference a smile makes!  John's facial expression could change markedly.  That is
evident in the military pictures too, making it slightly difficult to identify him in uniform.


John with a puzzled expression on his face!

John MacDonald, the young and well-dressed businessman, braves the Canadian snow,
complete with bowler hat!

In the early summer of 1914, John decided to return to Scotland to visit his friends and relatives.   On 11 July, he boarded the Donaldson liner Letitia, under the command of Captain William MacNeill, and sailed from Montreal to Glasgow.   As it happened, the Chief Officer of the Letitia on that voyage was John’s close neighbour from Ruaig, Tiree – none other than John Lamont, brother of the Rev. Donald Lamont of Blair Atholl, and of Hugh Lamont, ‘Daisy Bank’, Ruaig.  John Lamont was later promoted Master with the Donaldson Line.   We can imagine that the two Tiree men must surely have met and talked in Gaelic about Tiree and other matters.   The Passenger List for the Letitia survives, and shows the name of  ‘Mr. John McDonald’ on its fifth page.   On arrival in Scotland, John appears to have lodged initially with his brother Hector, then at ‘The Garage’, Courtallam, Upper Helensburgh.  From October 1914, John’s mail was being sent to ‘Coll View’, Caolas, Tiree, and he remained there until he left to enlist with the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the early summer of 1916.   It is clear that he busied himself with the work of the croft, and continued to take a great interest in its seasonal activity when he was in France.

John MacDonald on board the Letitia, but which one is John?  I have always considered him
to be the fellow with the pipe, though he looks older than his years!

The Passenger List for the Letitia, with John MacDonald listed on p. 5 below.

John MacDonald arrived in Scotland before the outbreak of the First World War, and there is no reason to suppose that his visit was intended to be anything other than a time ‘at home’.   By March 1916, he was thinking of returning to Canada, and wrote to the Allan Line Steamship Company Ltd.   It sent him ‘handbills of our Liverpool and Glasgow Services’, and informed him that ‘The Third Class fare from the landing port to Toronto is £1.15.8.’   However, as the Allan Line made clear, and as he had already anticipated, John now had to acquire a passport, because the war demanded that passports be issued.   To that end, John requested a ‘Form of Declaration for passport’ from the Foreign Secretary on 2 March, and enclosed a Postal Order for 5/- with his request.  He also required documents to confirm his identity and circumstances; so he wrote to the Donaldson Line, asking it to authenticate his previous passage on the Letitia.  His request was acknowledged, but no other relevant correspondence survives, and it seems that he was unable to obtain the passport.   When a passport was sought, ‘Men of military age, i.e. between 18 and 41, must fill up and sign, in addition to the usual application form, the “green” form, which can be attested only by a sheriff or a sheriff-substitute.’   In fact, a Military Service Bill had been introduced in January 1916, providing for the conscription of single men aged 18–41, and in May conscription was extended to married men.

Letters to John from the Donaldson Line (above) and the Allan Line (below).



 According to family tradition, John was determined to enlist, and could not be persuaded otherwise, even though, according to the family, he did not need to ‘join the colours’.  The course of national events, however, left little room for choice. As soon as John asked for a form for a passport and filled it up, it would have become evident that he was indeed of military age, and that he would become liable for service.   He resolved the problem himself, by deciding to volunteer for the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, rather than be conscripted, because he knew that, sooner or later, ‘his country would need him’.  Thus, it seems clear that he had no option in the longer term, in spite of what family tradition avers, and volunteering may have given him such choice as was still available. 

In a very 'newsy' letter to his brother Charles dated 3 November 1915, John provides a very illuminating picture of how war was affecting Tiree, and also determining his own circumstances.  Travel home by sea had become difficult, with unpredictable schedules and curtailed itineraries for the main steamships.  Food prices were rising: 'The war has almost upset everything and prices of food has gone up.  We heard that the sugar is £2 per Cwt and everything else the same [-] eggs are 1/8, butter 1/9 and so on.'    He continues:

'Conscription hasn't come yet.  I guess it will pass before the war finishes.  The reports from the front are more favourable on the Allies' side.  Roderick Lamont from Vancouver was in Tiree last week; he came to visit his people.  Donald saw him in Scarinish.  They are training in London.  We shall soon be commencing the potatoes; they are not so good this year.  I wish this war was over till I could return to Canada.  I sent Isabella and Sandy Father and Mother's photos, and I believe they would be lost with the Hesperian.  She was sunk by a German submarine.  I guess that you would hear that Dr Lang went to the front.'

Conscription appears to have arrived sooner than John anticipated, and this may have forced him to make one last attempt to return to his beloved Canada - in vain.  He would be eligible for 'the draft' - and it was only a matter of time.

The image on Morag's 'funny' card, with a lady (Morag herself?) in Highland dress on the left!


John was shortly to be separated from Vancouver, and from his family in 'Coll View'. Another aspect of the 'separation' caused by war, and of John's life at this stage, comes to light quite unexpectedly on the back of a ‘funny’ postcard showing some characters at a dressing-up parlour, one of whom is decked out in ostentatious Highland dress of a regimental kind.  The card seems to have been sent to John by a young lady called Morag, who was working in the Oban area.   She may have been the Morag MacKinnon, with an address at Kilmalieu, who is listed in his war diary.   Morag was obviously from Tiree, and quite probably from Ruaig, the township immediately to the west of Caolas.   Morag writes on the back of this card, with joking reference to the over-dressed character in the picture, ‘I am seriously thinking of joining the 8th A & SH’s.  Will they take me, do you think?’   She then draws a line, and writes again, ‘Keep well under cover,’ and signs off as ‘Morag’.  From this we might deduce that John had told Morag of his intention to enlist in the 8th Argylls, and that she had responded jokingly, suggesting that she might join too.  Her exhortation (presumably to John) to ‘keep well under cover’ is tragically ironic, given what was to happen in 1917. 

The message on Morag's 'funny' card!

There is a very poignant dimension to the relationship between Morag and John.  The war dashed what might have been a well-made match.  John and Morag seem to have become friendly during his time at home after 1914.  In addition to the ‘jokey’ card discussed above, Morag sent him at least two other cards from Oban, one dated 20 April 1915 and the other 1 July 1915.  The April card, with a picture of Dunollie Castle, refers to Tiree friends and possible work colleagues, including Archie McNeill, who ‘hasn’t put in an appearance yet’.  She refers to ‘Angus & Dan McPhee’, who were ‘both at home last week-end.  But Angus went away back to Aldershot today, & Dan will be leaving by the 12.30 tomorrow, so tomorrow night this house will be as quiet as ever it was.’  She goes on to ask whether John has been to Milton, in Tiree, and notes that ‘Alick McDonald isn’t away yet.’  (Alick MacDonald was Ailig Dhòmhnaill ’Illeasbaig, a Master Mariner.)

Morag's card to John enquiring about 'anything doing in Tiree this summer'.

In her card of 1 July, Morag anticipates her return to Tiree for her summer holidays.  She asks, ‘Is there going to be anything doing in Tiree this summer [?].  I am afraid myself it is going to be a deserted spot.  What do you think?  We won[’]t get much dancing this year seeing our musician [Hughie] is away.’   She then writes, with reference to the picture on the card (the cartoon of the ‘lady on the shelf’ shown in Chapter Four), ‘Look at the other side and you can see the latest war news.  Very sad, isn’t it?’   Morag, it would seem, had a lively sense of humour, with more than a trace of sarcasm.   She then continues, with perhaps another hint of dry wit, ‘I had a fine night of it last night along with Domhnull Eoghainn Mhoir and his wife.  They and many others were in Oban over the night waiting the arrival of the ‘Hebrides’ which did not put in an appearance until 5 p.m. tonight.’  

The SS Hebrides arriving at Oban about 1953 (John Hendy collection).


Morag's brief messages give some further insight into the dislocation to life in Tiree caused by the First World War, with a decline in social activities, a sense of the island being ‘deserted’, men away on war service, and soldiers returning for periods of leave.  Transport by sea was evidently 'subject to alteration without notice'.  John McCallum’s Hebrides, which maintained the Glasgow-Inner and Outer Isles services and was a stalwart vessel in all respects, appears to have become very unpredictable.  (The gentleman awaiting the ship’s arrival, Dòmhnall Eòghainn Mhòir, was a crofter from ‘Sea View’, Caolas, Tiree, and father of the late Angus MacLean, Caolas [latterly living in Scarinish].  I knew both Angus and his father very well indeed.)

John MacDonald would soon be part of Tiree’s contribution to the war effort, and Morag would indeed go with him – in his heart, and in his war diary.  When examining his diary for this chapter, I decided to have one further look in its leather pockets, just in case it should contain any items which I and others had previously missed.  It did.  There in a corner, along with a Canadian 25 cent note, was a passport-sized photograph of Morag, signed simply ‘Yours, Morag’. No more needed to be written.  Morag was very 'special' to this soldier.  The little photograph speaks volumes about the unfulfilled dreams and emotional destruction that the First World War must have left in its deadly wake.

John's close friend, Morag (MacKinnon?).  This image is an enlarged version of the
photograph tucked tightly into a pocket of his war diary.

John left Tiree about the end of April 1916, and went in Dunoon, where he enlisted at the headquarters of the 8th Battalion (Territorial) of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (popularly known as 'The Argyllshire', because of its area of recruitment).   By 2 May, when he wrote a card to his sister Maggie in ‘Coll View’, he was in uniform.  A month later he was at the Army training camp in Ripon, North Yorkshire, having travelled via Helensburgh, and he was sending cards from there (Hut 16, C Coy, North Camp) to Maggie and also to his sister-in-law Marion.   One of his earliest concerns was the quality and small amount of food, and this was to be a recurrent problem in France:  ‘…The food is not good yet anyhow’, he wrote to Maggie in a fine letter-card with pictures of Ripon, the Minster and Fountains Abbey, and to Marion he confided, ‘I had one potato for dinner & a small bone of mutton – I miss the potato dish, for the soldiers would appreciate it sometimes’, the reference being presumably to potatoes served on a platter in the traditional way.  One miserable spud, compared with a platter piled high with potatoes, was a shock.  ‘This is a flat country,’ he wrote to Maggie, ‘not many hills to be seen’ – which couldn’t have been too hard to bear for a man from Tiree!  

Private John MacDonald (second left, middle row, to the left of colleague with hands on other soldier?) with the
lads in his Company.

When in Ripon, John began to experience the ‘support system’ which families and friends provided for serving soldiers.  This included the regular receipt of cards and letters ‘from home’, and parcels of food and clothing, especially socks.  ‘I got a box of shortbread from Bella Scott & a pcl containing 2 pair of socks from Miss McLean, Scarinish[.]  [T]hey were knitted by Miss McMaster[,] Kenovay.  I need to write to her too – at least one pair was knitted by her,’ he told Maggie.  John duly wrote to Miss MacMaster, and received a card from her in response.  He conducted an extensive correspondence by card, which kept him in touch with his friends, expressed his gratitude for many kindnesses, and helped to while away the time during periods of considerable boredom.   Above all, it reassured him that he was being remembered and supported in his gallant effort on behalf of his country.    John filed his cards and photographs carefully in an album, in effect a treasury of personal messages, which survived his death at Arras, and remains in the family.  (It seems likely that family members added some cards to it retrospectively after John's death.)  It has provided an invaluable source of information for writing this chapter, as well as the preceding four chapters.  It is clear from the album that John was a cultured, well-read, broad-minded man, who enjoyed picture-cards and photography (he had his own camera when in Tiree), as well as warm interaction with his relatives, friends and fellows.  He was also an accomplished musician, and a fine organist.   He could also turn a verse or two of poetry in Gaelic and English.  Indeed, he composed a humorous ‘ditty’ (in English) while in France, in which he cleverly expresses his delight at receiving a gift of socks from his sister, Annabel.


Having reached the end of his training at Ripon, on 30 July 1916 John wrote to his cousin Mary MacDonald, Minnedosa, telling her that he was being posted to France the following week.  According to his own diary, he arrived in France on 3 August.  On 13 August he wrote a card (Scottish Churches’ Huts issue) to his sister, Annabel, then living at Shaughnessy Heights, Vancouver (where she had emigrated in 1913 with the Meeks), to inform her that

‘I am well & now in France.  I am not at the firing line yet, but won’t be long most likely.  The weather is very Hot. Something like the Canadian summers.  I met some fellows from Canada…I got the money all right & the fellow who stole it got 6 months hard labour…I haven’t much time now so don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me regular [sic].  I shall try & write home every week if possible & they will let you know.  I suppose you are still at Shaughnessy.  Perhaps I shall be back there yet; there is nothing like keeping on the sunny side of life.’

This church-based initiative, involving several Scottish churches, provided
food and facilities for soldiers near the Front Lines.

In fact, John wrote to Annabel regularly (every ten days or so) until the end of 1916, and she preserved all of his letters.  These give very little in the way of military details, as all such letters were subject to censorship, and John always tried to stay on the right side of the censor.  In spite of their lack of hard information, they are invaluable for providing a view of a soldier’s personal and emotional life when preparing for battle.  Only in the immediate run-up to the battle of Arras, when preparations were presumably intense, did the flow of hand-written letters stop.  They were then largely replaced in the spring of 1917 by small brown cards, which allowed a soldier to tick or underline phrases which summarised his current circumstances.


John wrote two larger letters on paper rather than card on Scottish Churches’ Huts notepaper, on 24 August and 6 September 1916 respectively, and, like the card, both were written in ink.  In the former he tells Annabel that ‘One of the young ladies in the Boys Scouts Hut or Y.M.C.A. asked me where I came from & I told her.  So she gave me a Gaelic testament & also put my name in it[;] it was kind of her.’  In a postscript he writes, ‘There are others of my name so put J. M.’ (as his initials).   His letter of 6 September, written from ‘Somewhere in France’, is the fuller of the two, with initial references to the receipt of letters and parcels (two sent from Tiree, one from Mary MacKinnon, Baugh House, and another from ‘a Miss MacMaster, Kenovay’).  He also gives Annabel a fair amount of home news:

 ‘I am getting on fine, but a man’s best friend is his purse. No matter where he goes.  They have started the harvest at home.  Marion always writes me & I must say that she has been awfully nice to me all the time I was in Tiree & Charlie brought her a nice set of dishes which she values very much.  Donald will have plenty to do, as Father is not able to do much since he got his foot hurt….We are miles away from the Firing Line, but I suppose before you get this, that we shall be up…We stay in tents.  My pals nearly all come from Oban – so you will understand that we often have a while at the Gaelic.  I had a letter from Charlie [his brother, and my great-uncle Charlie] & he is away to India again.’ 

Subsequent letters are written in pencil and not ink, presumably because John is operating in rougher terrain, and with less shelter, and the letters carry no headings.  The location is merely ‘France’.  By 12 November 1916, he was ‘now back from the trenches. I was up at the firing line for some time.  We are now out for a rest.’  He was well off for wearables, he said, and had received socks from ‘Miss Niven, Bearsden’.   He would appreciate a P.O. for 5/- every month.  ‘The weather is keeping wet & the ground is very muddy.  I wrote Charlie a letter & sent it on to Port Said.  It will catch him on his way back from Rangoon.’

By 18 November, when he next wrote, ‘the weather has been very cold lately, & we already had a small fall of snow.  The frosty weather is better than rain as one can always keep themselves clean.  I had a letter from Cousin Marion from Manitoba, & she has sent me on a fruit cake, but I haven’t received it yet.’  He gives news of Thompson and MacLean relatives who have ‘come over’ to England, and shares news of Tiree, disclosing that he has been home on leave, and that my father, Hector Meek, ‘was so pleased to see me when I was home on leave, & greatly admired the Kilt.  Before he would not hear of wearing one.’

John MacDonald in army trews!

More significantly, however, John relates that ‘I am an Officer’s Servant in the meantime.  It’s something like what I was when with Mr Caldwell in Bearsden…I hope the war will soon be over & me back to my own Job again.’  John’s transfer to the position of ‘officer’s servant’ (that of ADC) evidently led to a change in battalion, as he now indicates that he is a member of the 11th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  (The 11th was a Service Battalion, and, like other such battalions, it was part of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’.  A Service Battalion provided combat service support to a brigade group and its elements. It was able to fight in a defensive role, as well as to provide the vital logistical support to sustain the operations of the other units within the brigade group.  Service Battalions were intended to exist ‘for the duration of the war’, and were disbanded after 1918.)  This move was, sadly, to prove fatal for John, as it was while attending to his wounded officer, Second Lieutenant J. L. Stewart, that he himself was shot through the head when he went ‘over the top’ at Arras.

John’s letters for December 1916 reflect considerable activity in the trenches.  He writes on 12 December that ‘The weather here is keeping wet & cold.  I am not in the trenches meantime – but expect to be going up soon again.  Wish the winter was over…Had a letter from Cousin Annabel Orillia.  She was enquiring for you & Nan [his sister Nancy].  I think I have rheumatics in my feet, the joints are very sore sometimes…Will be in trenches before you get this.  We are only going up for a few days.’  In a letter written on 26 December, John tells Annabel: ‘My officer is away on leave & I am working in the Batt[alion] store until he returns.  I was only one night in trenches; they came down the line; lucky as I didn’t fancy the trenches much.  I shall be here till after New Year. Christmas was very quiet here.  I had some plum pudding & received a few Christmas Cards.  Had a nice letter from Miss McFadyen, Joint Hospital.  She is sending me a pcl…I am getting along fine as Officer’s Servant & he is awfully nice to me.  I like the Job better than the Co work, as you know I was used to this work…I don’t care for France at all, but I guess some parts will be all right such as the Cities, Paris and all other large places.’

'We're only here for the beer?'  John (second left, back row?) and the lads in party mood!


In January of 1917, the style and content of John’s letters continue much as before.  On 26 January he acknowledges his sister’s kindness in sending ‘cake, sweets & chewing gum…I was hungry and enjoyed the contents’.  He had received numerous parcels from friends and relatives in Vancouver and Tiree, including ‘Cousin Bella McLean, Sea View, Caolis, & a lot more besides’.  His feet are better, ‘but are a little sore yet; we do so much walking’.  Clearly, parcels which contained socks continued to be greatly appreciated for very practical reasons, and January’s mail had brought him a good supply.  His last letters of this kind to Annabel were written in March.  A letter of 13 March acknowledges letters (one from my father) and further gifts, including ‘nice butter, cheese, eggs & scones, also sweets’ from his home in Tiree – remarkable testimony to the care and efficiency of the postal service, even in wartime, though in his next letter on 23 March he states that it has taken Annabel’s letters six months to reach him from Vancouver.  ‘We are going back to trenches again, more dangerous now since the weather is getting better.’

John’s last surviving letter was written to his sister Maggie (not Annabel) on 28 March 1917.  He reports that ‘We are terrible [sic] busy from 8.15 to 4 or 3.30; perhaps you can guess why.’ Again, he acknowledges gifts of socks, knitted by ladies at home in Caolas, including Danina MacCallum, Port Ban (whom I knew well in boyhood).  He continues: ‘I get a shirt occasionally from the Army.  Whenever one is dirty we get a clean one, but sometimes we wear them for weeks, and they get dirty.  I am very fortunate so far, as I only find one stray creature occasionally; they come off the dirty blankets, as they are changed about so much.  Harrisons powder [?] is very good; it fairly keeps them off.’  He has received a dumpling, which was ‘delicious, as we often feel hungry.  Sometimes I think I could eat anything.  I am still Officer’s Servant, but haven’t much time to wait of him, as we go on parades.  I must not mention where we are. What is the name of the stream behind Miodar House where the[y] get the rotten seaweed[?]   Tell me in next letter.’

John's last surviving letter, written to his sister Maggie.


John MacDonald’s war diary, kept from the time of his arrival in France on 3 August 1916, and providing a one-line summary of each day’s principal events, confirms the activities described in his letters.  Parades appear regularly in the first fortnight of October, in the context of churches on Sundays and in military drill through the week, as do his spells in the trenches.  From 10 October onwards, however, the diary changes tone, and John is in the thick of military engagement, a ‘kinetic’ activity mentioned but somewhat underplayed in his letters, which display a calm sense of normality, focused (on the whole) on friendship and not hostility, and obviously intended to reassure relatives at home.  The diary entries, which are pointedly brief, record ‘Digging trenches. Shelling’ (10th), ‘Morning quiet. Heavy Bombardment’ (11th), ‘Heavy Bombardment Over Parapet’ (12th), ‘Nothing doing.  Left trenches’ (14th), ‘Resting Fatigue Work’ (15th), ‘Attended Doctor’ (16th), ‘Fatigue [    ]’ (17th), ‘No parade.  Came up to  [   ]’ (18th), ‘Left for front line’ (19th), ‘Still at front line’ (20th), ‘Back to Dug outs’ (21st, 22nd, where he apparently remained to the 31st).  Shelling and bombardment are not mentioned at all in the letters.

Neither the letters nor the diary entries disclose John’s precise location during the military activities described above.  Such disclosure was not allowed by the censor.   Where could he have been?   It is highly probable that he was at the Somme, as the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was part of the 51st Highland Division during that long and terrible engagement, which lasted from July to November 1916.  The 11th Battalion of the regiment was also at the Somme, where it made up part of the 15th Scottish Division.   The deployment record of both battalions with which John was associated thus demonstrates that he participated in one of the most self-defeating ‘victories’ of the First World War, which resulted in enormous losses on both sides, and is regarded as a marginal ‘points win’ for the British forces.  He came through it unscathed, which comparatively few managed to do.   His mental stamina and self-control were remarkable, to the extent that, in his letters to his sisters, he was able to portray the war – and most notably the horrors of the Somme – with outstanding detachment as ‘all in a day’s work’.   The markers of military activity (trenches, firing lines etc.) appear in his letters, but there is nothing to indicate discomfort beyond an occasional reference to pain in his feet.   The stench of war appears only once in a cross-reference to Tiree in his last letter to Maggie, in which he asks her to give him the name of the stream behind Miodar House ‘where the[y] get the rotten seaweed’.   Even the grim smell of the trenches, with their rotting bodies, became part of a psychological self-defence plan, in which war was relativised in terms of home and its seasonal work, from harvesting to fishing.   It is hardly surprising that in November 1916 John was moved from the 8th Battalion to become an Officer’s Servant (ADC) in the 11th Battalion.  His ‘coolness under fire’ had been duly noted, and it was to reveal itself finally and fatefully at Arras.

It is one of the ironies of John MacDonald’s life that it was only because he was killed at Arras that we know so much about his final contribution to the war.   Had he survived, we would have had to wait for his own post-war accounts of his role in this encounter, and, like many survivors, he might have been extremely reluctant to talk about his experiences.  Arras, too, has suffered from lack of attention from historians, compared with other engagements of the First World War, most notably the Somme and Third Ypres (Passchendaele).  The Somme in particular has exercised a ‘tyrannical hold’ over history.   As a battle, Arras shared some of the characteristics of the Somme, most notably the gradual ‘bogging down’ of the initiative by the time a month had passed.  It was, however, distinguished at the outset by some outstanding achievements.   The first day of the encounter, when Private MacDonald was killed, is widely regarded as one of the few clear and unequivocal ‘triumphs’ of the First World War, when (it would seem) General Sir Edmund Allenby had control and was less under the thumb of General Sir Douglas Haig.   Haig’s tendency to ‘slog it out to the bitter end’, by committing infantry to the lines regardless of the consequences, became increasingly evident at Arras, as it did later at Third Ypres, where his strategy (again) stirred controversy.  However, when John MacDonald ‘went over the top’ with Second Lieutenant J.L. Stewart on the early morning of 9 April 1917, the assault was characterised by a powerful momentum, which brought distinction to British forces and their allies.   The Canadian Corps achieved honour for its capture of Vimy Ridge, an engagement which is sometimes seen as a separate ‘battle’ from Arras, but was in fact part of the wider initiative.

It is clear from John MacDonald’s letters and his diary that his battalion was extremely busy in the prelude to Arras.  Trenches required to be dug, supply lines had to be created, and the soldiers themselves were, finally, held on high alert for the signal to ‘go’ first thing on that Monday morning.  The pre-engagement tensions surface in John’s diary, and for the first time these show us a man who knows that this is ‘for real’, and that it will be ‘big’.  The last two pages of his diary are filled with verses from popular Scottish songs, possibly because soldiers were singing these in the course of their preparations for Arras, as they went about their sombre duties – ‘Keep the home fires burning’, ‘You’ll take the high road’ (‘This is a song we all know,’ John writes, ‘it reminds the boys of bonny Scotland where the heather and the blue bells grow’), ‘I want to go home / I want to go home / I don’t want to go back to the trenches no more/ I want to go home / Oh my, I don’t want to die / I want to go home [x] 3’ and finally ‘My heart ay warms to the tartan / No matter where I be / My heart ay warms to the tartan / On land or on the sea / I hear the pibroch playing / The pipers of Dundee / The land of heath and heather is the land for me.’  Romanticism and nostalgia appear prominently as antidotes to pre-engagement tension, with a consoling set of emotional flash-backs to ‘bonny Scotland’.   We can hear the soldiers singing as they work and wait…to mount an attack which was well planned in advance, with its date well known to the soldiers.


Then John begins to write his final entries – in Gaelic.   ‘Tha mi sgriobhadh seo air an 29.3. 17’ is followed by a later entry ‘Tha sinn feadhabh air son dol gu batal air madain diluain April 9th 1917’ and finally ‘Tha mi gu math’.  [‘I am writing this on 29.3.17.  We are waiting to go to battle on the morning of Monday April 9th 1917.   I am well.’]

What happened when John ‘went over the top’ is best described in the words of Second Lieutenant J.L.Stewart, who wrote to my Aunt Maggie from his sick bed at Lady Cooper’s Hospital, Hursley Park, Winchester, on 29 April 1917, when he was recovering from his own wounds:

Dear Miss McDonald

I regret that I could not write before now to express my sympathy on your brother’s death, as I just received your address from Mr Ferguson yesterday.  Your brother John was my soldier servant for over six months, and I was very much attached to him indeed.  On the morning of the 9th April we attacked the German positions at Blangy near Arras.   I was in command of ‘A’ Coy. and was exposed very much to the enemy fire.  Your brother was the only one of the coy. Headquarters staff who never lost touch with me.  About three hours after the attack began we had advanced over a mile and were close up to a large railway embankment which runs down to the river Scarpe.  We were struck by a heavy machine gun fire and I was hit in the shoulder by a bullet and in the eye and cheek by shrapnel.   Your brother pulled me into a shell hole and was bandaging me up when he was shot through the head by a bullet.  He never uttered a groan even but just sank forward and died instantaneously.  He died as a soldier would wish to die, facing the enemy bravely and fearlessly.  Your brother was one of these men who, even in the smallest and most unimportant details of a soldier’s life, always did his duty and was man who could be always depended on and trusted.  He was well liked in the company and his death has been a great loss.  Would that we had more men like him.  He was always cheerful and I have never heard him complain even under the worst conditions in the trenches.  I do not know where he was buried but if you write to the Graves Registration Committee, Arras, giving his name and regimental number, regiment, date of death, 9th April, place as near as possible, that is Blangy sector (about 600 yards to the right of the river Scarpe and about 200 yards west of Arras-Leus railway, map location about H19-a 8-6 reference map 51B Arras 7A) they will in due time send you a photo of his grave.  Please accept my sincerest and most heartfelt sympathy in your bereavement.

Yours very sincerely

J.L. Stewart

2 Lt 11th A. & S. H.

By any standards, and certainly by the standards of the First World War and military citations for that war, this is an outstanding letter.   Had John MacDonald himself been a lieutenant, rather than an ‘ordinary Jock’, and had he shown these qualities in a position of leadership, he would almost certainly have been cited for a gallantry award such as the Military Cross.   He was cut down before he could progress through the ranks, and one can only wonder how many others of similar calibre must have perished at the front, though Lieutenant Stewart’s commendation suggests that John’s performance, even as a ‘Jock’, was exceptional.   The letter also demonstrates the kindness, thoughtfulness and affection of this serving Second Lieutenant.   As he recovered in hospital from the wounds which he had received, and which John MacDonald had tried to bandage when he himself was shot, Second Lieutenant Stewart showed great concern for John’s relatives in Tiree, and wrote a magnificent letter – the verbal equivalent, in my view, of a Military Cross.   Although I would regard his early death as an enormous waste of human life (multiplied thousands of times by the similar deaths of other young soldiers on both sides of the conflict), I am very proud indeed that this letter still survives in our family as a lasting memorial to my great-uncle, Private John MacDonald.  Lieutenant Stewart gave him a medal in words, even if John appears to have ‘wasted’ his life in a cause which seems remote from us today.




In fact, an earlier letter, written on Saturday 14 April 1917 by Alexander Ferguson (mentioned by Lieutenant Stewart), Second Lieutenant and Officer of No. 3 Platoon, had been received by my Aunt Maggie, and it too has survived, though only in copies.  Lieutenant Ferguson makes similar points to those of Lieutenant Stewart, and writes:

‘If ever a man did his duty in a big advance, it was your brother last Monday.  I wish you to accept, in name of the Battalion, our very deepest sympathy in your loss.  About an hour before we moved into the trenches for the attack, I was having a talk with him and asked if he were looking forward to the next morning’s work.  He said frankly, “No, I am not, but I am prepared to do all that’s required of me.” And he did it.  We lost a number of our very best fellows, and the four officers were wounded, but mine was very slight.’

This is another fine commendation.  The various bureaucratic departments of the British Expeditionary Force were also exemplary in all subsequent dealings with my Aunt Maggie, who acted on John’s behalf.  In due time she received a card with a photograph of his grave from the Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries.   It was located at the Railway Triangle, St Laurent Blangy, and the nearest railway station was Arras.   Later, John’s body was moved to Ste. Catherine British Cemetery, Arras, where it continues to lie in a well-attended grave numbered as KI.   John’s memory is honoured in a fine memorial page created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, accessible on internet.   The British military establishment, as best it can, has shown its appreciation generously.


The original grave of Private John MacDonald, with its location.


John’s memory is, of course, preserved in other ways too.   He himself left a wealth of documentation, from which this chapter has been constructed, including his fine album of postcards and his invaluable war diary (the latter, and possibly the former, dutifully and carefully returned by the Battalion to his family).   His sisters Annabel and Maggie retained his letters, as well as all the relevant forms for ‘Separation Allowance’ and the small ‘pension’ which was received by my Aunt Maggie after John’s death.   More formal acknowledgements of service, such as his standard-issue war medals, are also preserved.

In Tiree, John is commemorated on the white foot-slab at the family grave in Kirkapol Cemetery. His name is on Tiree’s War Memorial, and in the Roll of Honour for Tiree soldiers and sailors and other military personnel who gave their lives in the Great War. He was also honoured in a fine elegy composed by his own relative, Effie MacDonald, Milton, Caolas, Tiree.  For those who see his name as mere letters in stone or in print, and wonder who Private John MacDonald may have been or what he did, this chapter will perhaps assist in bringing him to life again, if only in words.   


The Last Will and Testament of Private John MacDonald
No. S / 40107, 11th (Service) Battalion,
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders


  1. Hi Donald,

    I'm the historian for Hursley Park, which was where Lady Cooper's Hospital was located during WW1. I was very interested in the letters 2nd Lt Stewart sent from Hursley and hoped you would allow me to include them in my work on the House and estate?

    Yours faithfully
    David Key

  2. Hello, David!

    What a delightful response! My goodness! How splendid to be in touch with you and with Hursley Park!

    Of course, you are MOST welcome to use the letter from 2nd Lt Stewart. I cannot imagine how it could be put to any other use that would be more appropriate. Surely, surely...I am so glad that it has survived for you to show to others, and particularly in that context.

    In fact, that letter was treasured in and by my family. It was a most thoughtful masterpiece. It meant a great deal to John's brothers and sisters, and it speaks volumes for 2nd Lt Stewart. His care, concern and courtesy, and manifest deep sympathy, even when he himself was recovering from his wounds, shine through the 'mud and blood' of WW1. He was very much aware that Private John MacDonald had died when trying to save him. It's a story worth telling - and re-telling.

    Now, can you tell me anything more about 2nd Lt Stewart? I wonder if any members of his family are still with us? I would love to meet a family member, and shake his/her hand in memory of the 2nd Lt. I am about to conduct my own research into his identity and career, but any information you could provide would be very gratefully received.

    If you can drop me a note at dem.meek@btinternet.com, I can send you photocopies of the letter. Should you wish to use any other parts of my chapter, please let me know, and you will be most welcome. I am delighted to share such information with others, as it is for that reason that I am writing the blog.

    I hope to resume writing very shortly, after various summer diversions.

    I feel honoured that 2nd Lt Stewart's letter can be shown to others through your work. Thank you very much for contacting me.

    With all best wishes for your project,
    Donald (Meek)