Alexander Mackay was the third
son of Mr and Mrs Alexander Mackay of Drum Terrace, High Bonnybridge near
Falkirk. He was employed alongside his father and two other brothers (Murdo and
James) at the Bonnybridge Silica and Fireclay, Co, Ltd.
In early 1916 Alexander and his brother
Murdo, who was serving in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were both in
Skerray visiting their Aunt Mrs Fairlie Mackay in Achtoty. Mrs Mackay had just
been informed that her husband Robert had been lost at sea in December 1915,
whilst serving with the Royal Naval Reserve. (Robert’s story appears on this website in the Skerray section ).
Alexander enlisted into the Seaforth
Highlanders with James McDougall from Skerray in May 1916 in Tongue, his
brother Murdo had already returned to his unit with his comrades from this area
(see Peter Burr, Dunvarrich and Magnus Mackay, Scullomie). Once Alexander had
completed his basic military training he was sent to the battlefield in France
joining the 5 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders serving with the 152
Brigade, 51 (Highland) Division.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme
the 51(Highland) Division was north of Arras at Neuville St Vaast
masquerading as the (English) 25 Division, transferred to the
Somme for the attack. The Highlanders had drawn English uniforms handing in
their kilts to deceive the enemy, this deception went on until the 12
of July when the Division left that sector of the line.
The Division was then moved to a rest camp
east of Arras between St Pol and Aubigny; one week later they moved to
Mericourt, followed by a night move to the large assembly camps in the valley
near Bazintin-le-Petit and Bazintin-le-Grand on the Somme.
At 1:30am on the 23 of July,
the 154 Brigade of the 51 Division moved forward and
attacked High Wood. The attacked failed when the 1/ 4
Gordon Highlanders lost direction in the wood, coming under heavy machine-gun
fire and being forced to retire. The 1/9 Royal Scots
moving up to support the Gordon Highlanders were heavily shelled as they
advanced up a depression to the Southwest of the wood, forcing them to retire.
By 3am both battalions were back at their start lines having taken 450
casualties, Alexander was slightly wounded at High Wood and spent some time in
a field hospital.
The 51(Highland) Division was
then moved back to reserve trenches to re-equip and receive replacement drafts.
In the reserve trenches the Division supplied men for front line duties and
patrolling, so that the battalions could get experience of being under fire
before the attack to come in November.
The Battle of the Somme was nearly over by
November 1916, some success had been achieved but the losses on both sides had
been horrendous. The British High Command decided to make one last attack at
Beaumont Hamel, enemy defences around the village were thick with machine-gun
posts and barbed wire; an area called Y ravine was found to be almost
impregnable by attacking Divisions.
51 (Highland) Division was tasked to attack Beaumont Hamel on the
13 of November 1916; the attack would take place after a two-hour
intensive bombardment destroyed the enemy wire. The attack would then be
launched alongside the 63(Naval) Division on the right and the 39
Division on the left.
The 5 Seaforths spent early
November 1916 camped in Mailly-Maillet Wood, the battalion supplied working
parties to the front line trenches opposite Beaumont Hamel, carried out route
marches and attack practice. On the 6 of November the Seaforths
were withdrawn to a camp in the village of Forceville, battalion strength was
35 officers and 852 other ranks.
On the 12 of November the
battalion paraded at 12:30pm for a kit inspection, before moving off for the
trenches at 9pm. The Seaforths marched from Forceville to Mailley-Mallet, and
then through Mailly Wood into their attack position, the move into the
frontline was helped by thick fog descending on the battlefield. Forty four
thousand British troops now sat waiting to attack over no-mans land, as British
artillery pounded away at the enemy lines.
The Seaforths found the frontline trenches
in a terrible state and the soldiers were forced to lie out in the open, behind
the edge of the trenches for cover. Some units moved out into no-mans land so
that they would be closer to the enemy with less distance to cover when the
At zero hour (5:45am) the Seaforth
Highlanders fixed bayonets and as the bombardment increased, a mine was
exploded under the Hawthorn Redoubt to the right of Y Ravine. The attacking
infantry rose from cover to advance on an 8000yard front into the fog and the
enemy positions across the flat land to their front.
Heavy machine gun fire from the enemy lines
and uncut wire in the centre delayed the advance so much, the leading waves
could not keep up with the barrage. The thick fog also caused some problems,
splitting the attacking waves into small parties who soon gained entry in the
German First line. Dazed German soldiers offered little resistance to the
kilted figures appearing through the mist; the Highlanders quickly took all
trenches south of Y Ravine. The first objective on the road from Beaumont Hamel
to the railway station was taken by 6:45am, exactly on time.
The 152 and 153 Brigade assaulted the
deep fold in the ground at Y Ravine; the going was very difficult due to the
dead bodies and litter of battle still present from the attack on July 1.
Fierce hand to hand fighting took place in Y Ravine as the 6 Black
Watch and 7 Gordon Highlanders tried to force their way through at
bayonet point, at one stage 100 men were pinned down by heavy fire. The 7 Black Watch moved forward
through heavy mud and got into Y Ravine, re-supplying the men pinned down there
with hand grenades and ammunition so the attack could continue.
When Hawthorn Re-doubt exploded at zero
hour, destroying six enemy dugouts and burying 300 Germans alive, the 5
Seaforths swarmed into the smouldering crater taking the German First line. The
5 Seaforths then carried on over the hill and into what remained
of Beaumont Hamel village, as they did some of their men became bogged down
waist deep in a sea of mud, many men were lost here due too heavy machine-gun
Seaforths were quickly moved forward to come to the assistance of their sister
battalion and with the help of the bombing platoons and Lewis gunners, the
bogged down 5 Battalion moved on. The two battalions carried the
fight into the second line and onto the third before two enemy machine gun
posts held them up, however those were soon dealt with as nothing would hold up
the advance of the 51 (Highland) Division on that day.
The Highland Division had taken its
objective, the impregnable village of Beaumont Hamel along with several
thousand Germans prisoners against all the odds; they now began to consolidate
the ground taken. The attack was continued on the 14 of November
but no further gains were made, the 1/7 Argyll and
Sutherland Highlanders got as far froward as Munich Trench. A lack of
communication saw the Argylls so heavily shelled by British heavy batteries,
they had to pull back.
The 6 Seaforth Highlanders dug
in their new positions beyond Beaumont Hamel and improved their new line until
they were withdrawn to Mailly Mallet Wood. Total battalion casualties for the
two days of the attack on Y Ravine and the village of Beaumont Hamel was eighty
men killed, fourteen died of wounds, one hundred and ninety-three were wounded and
five were reported as missing.
Private Alexander Mackay was one of those
killed as his battalion stormed through enemy lines at Hawthorn Redoubt; he was
nineteen years of age. In this area of the battlefield today is the
Newfoundland Memorial Park, the trenches here were left exactly as they were at
the time of the fighting. It is easy to follow the course of the battle inside
the Park; the ground crossed by the soldiers that day can easily be seen. (See
also James McDougall Skerray.)
The Memorial Park also remembers the 710
men from the Newfoundland Regiment killed or wounded as they crossed no-mans
land on the 1 of July 1916. At the bottom end of the park above Y
Ravine stands the 51 (Highland) Division Memorial, a bronze statue
of a kilted soldier facing the German lines, an inscription on the base of the
memorial says in Gaelic “ La A Bhlairs Math Na Cairndean”. (On the day of
battle friends are good).
Both of Alexander Mackay’s brothers were
killed during the First World War, Murdo was killed in September 1916 during
the Battle of the Somme near Martinpuich, his cousin William was killed beside
him on the same day. James was killed in Gallipoli in 1915 fighting the Turks
serving in the Royal Scots. (The stories of Murdo, James and William appear
elsewhere on this website ).
SCOTTISH NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL
Alexander 3771. Private. Killed in action F&F 13-11-16.
COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES
Mackay Private A. 3771. 5
Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders. 13 November 1916. Son of Mr A
Mackay of High Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire. Plot 1. Row F. Grave 26.
Private Alexander Mackay 3771, 5 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders is buried in a war grave in MAILLY WOOD CEMETERY, SOMME, FRANCE.
High Bonnybridge War Memorial
Alexander Mackay is buried in a war grave in Mailly Wood Cemetery