George Gunn Mackay was born in Skerray; he was the youngest son of George Clark Mackay and Johan Bruce Mackay from the first in house in Strathen, Skerray. He enlisted into the Army in Golspie at the age of nineteen, after completing his military training he was sent as a battlefield replacement to the 5 Battalion, (Caithness & Sutherland) Seaforth Highlanders.
He arrived in Ypres in Belgium as the 5 Battalion was preparing to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres, launched in July 1917 in support of the attacks going on at Arras in the South. The British Generals now thought that they could deal with the Germans in Flanders, breakout to the Belgian ports and knockout the submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.
The offensive was doomed before it even began; the delicate drainage system was destroyed by British artillery fire turning the area into a huge churned up swamp. Prior to the attack the Germans knew an offensive was coming and began to soak the British rear areas with mustard gas, making movement of men and supplies very difficult. (See also Hugh John Murray, Tongue.) British artillery totalling 3091 guns, one for every six yards of front began to shell the Germans on the 22 of July, continuing the bombardment for the next ten days. Four and a half million shells were fired, a total of four and three quarter tons on each square mile of attack front.
At 8pm on the 28 of July 1917, ‘A’ Company and three platoons of ‘B’ Company from the 5 Seaforths moved from Camp along Perth Road in single file. They were attached to the 8 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders until 9:30pm on the 30th of July, returning to Seaforth command for the main attack.
The remainder of the 5 Seaforths moved up Perth Road in single file at 6:30pm on July 30, led by ‘C’ Company with ‘D’ Company and Battalion Headquarters behind. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies were placed in the British front line with two platoons from ‘C’ Company, ‘D’ Company and number 10 platoon from ‘C’ Company were placed in reserve at Hardie’s Trench. Number 12 platoon of ‘C’ Company was then placed in the rear of Hardie’s Trench to act as stretcher-bearers and ammunitioncarriers.
The march into the front line was completed without incident and all attacking troops were in position by 11pm, the troops in Hardie’s Trench were in place at 1:25am. Enemy shelling of the frontline was slight; most of the enemy shellfire landing on the ground behind the British assaulting positions.
At zero hour (3:50am) on July 31 1917 the British attacked the German Army positions to the east of Ypres, heavy artillery and machine -gun fire was poured on to the enemy. Burning oil projectors (Basic flame-throwers) showered the enemy line with liquid fire, ‘A’ Company then quickly advanced and took the First and support lines, meeting little resistance.
‘B’ Company following behind ‘A’, by fifty yards, advanced in two waves and quickly captured the German Blue Line consisting of reserve trenches and a Switch Line. Number 9 and 11 platoons of ‘C’ Company advanced in a double wave, passed through ‘B’ Company and took Sandown and Welsh Farms capturing one machine-gun post. These platoons saw no other enemy resistance but had to withdraw during the morning to the Blue Line, digging in to avoid the heavy shelling.
‘A’ Company withdrew back to the British lines at 9am to reorganise and supply working parties, for road repairs. One officer and sixty men joined the 8 (Pioneer) Battalion, Royal Scots, to begin work on a road across no mans land to Kempton Park trench, this party was joined by forty other ranks from ‘B’ Company.
At 9:25am the red SOS (Save our Souls) flares went up to the front and enemy shelling increased, Battalion Headquarters fearing an enemy counter-attack had taken place sent forward two platoons. These platoons, one from ‘C’ Company and one from ‘B’, took up positions on Race Course Hill, about 300yards from Race Course Farm to protect the Divisional flank from attack. The expected attack did not materialise and the two platoons returned to the Blue Line at 11pm.
At 12noon on August the 1, ten men from Number 10 platoon ‘C’ Company in the reserve trenches were sent to Minty’s Farm as a carrying party. Ten men from Number 12 platoon were also sent to carry ammunition forward for two Stokes mortars belonging to 152 (Trench Mortar) Battery, Royal Artillery. (Nine of these men later became casualties).
The 5 Seaforth Highlanders were ordered to withdraw from the German lines at 1:50pm, beginning the withdrawal at 2:30pm. The battalion moved from the German lines back over no mans land and down a very muddy and heavy Perth Road to Camp Central at Grid Reference A.30.
On the 2 August 1917 the Commanding Officer of the 5 Seaforth Highlanders received a letter from his Divisional Commander offering “heartiest congratulations to the troops under his command for the success gained by them on 31 July.” The letter went on to say that the British had taken enemy trenches about eight miles wide and was in to the enemy second line (about 200yards depth).
Around 5,448 prisoners had been taken along with 8 field guns, 10 trench mortars and 35 machineguns; heavy casualties had been inflicted on the enemy. The Second Army on the right and 1 French Army on the left had similar success, capturing much enemy equipment and taking many enemy soldiers prisoner. During the battle the Division shot down five enemy aircraft and one observation balloon, for the loss of one British aircraft. The 5 Seaforth Highlanders casualties, during the attack North East of Ypres on the 31 of July 1917 was one officer wounded, twenty-three other ranks killed, one hundred and eighteen wounded, nine men were reported as missing.
Private George Gunn Mackay was one of those wounded on the 31 of July the battalion stretcher-bearers evacuated him to the field dressing station. He had his wounds dressed and was then moved on to the casualty clearing station at Dozingham near Ypres for assessment and further medical treatment, before evacuation to a Field Hospital. He died from his wounds the following day in Dozingham Casualty Clearing Station at the age of nineteen, he had been at the front for only two months. George had two brothers who both served in the Forces during the First World War, Robert served in the Canadian Engineers and Hector with the Army Service Corps, they both survived the war and returned home. His sister Jessie (Tot) married Gordon Burr (younger brother of Peter and Charles Burr, Tongue War Memorial) and lived at Dunvarrich Tongue, with her family.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL EDINBURGH CASTLE Mackay George G (b) Skerray Sutherlandshire. 241832. Private. Died of Wounds F&F 1-8-17. 5 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders.
COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVESCOMMISSIONMackay George Gunn. 241832. 1/5 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders. 1August 1917. Age 19. Son of George Clarke and Johan Mackay of Strathen, Skerray, Thurso. Plot 11. Row H. Grave 11.
Private George Gunn Mackay, 241832,5 Battalion Seaforth Highlanders is buried at DOZINGHAM MILITARY CEMETERY, BELGIUM. (See also Corporal John Donald Mackay, Skerray War Memorial).