John Angus Grant Mackay was
born in Tongue, son of Mrs Angusina Gunn Mackay of Lamigo Skerray, he lived at
Clashbuie with his Aunt and Uncle, Mr and Mrs McKinnon. He left Skerray
sometime before the outbreak of war, becoming a policeman with the Edinburgh
City Police, joining to serve beside D Newlands and John D Mackay (both Skerray).
He resigned from the police
in May 1915, enlisting into the 2 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
with his two friends from Skerray. Once he had carried out his basic military
training he joined the 2 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders with the
10 Brigade, 4 Division as a battlefield replacement
on the battlefield in France, as the battalion prepared for the Battle of the
On the night of the 30 of June
1916, the 2 Battalion Seaforth Highlanders moved through the
village of Mailly-Maillet, into Mailly-Maillet wood The battalion then moved
forward to the frontline trenches just before daybreak and the start of the
greatest offensive the British Army had ever undertaken.
The Battle of the Somme was to be a
simultaneous attack by the British and French Armies on a twenty-five mile wide
front. The attack was planned to take some of the pressure from the French Army
fighting with it’s back to the wall at Verdun. The British attack was to be
made towards Bapaume in the North and Maricourt in the South; attacks would
then take place at Arras with a general advance towards Cambrai.
British artillery began to bombard the
enemy lines on the 24 of June in an attempt to destroy the German
defences and barbed wire, leaving a huge gap for the attacking infantry to pour
through into the enemy rear. German Engineers however had built formidable
trenches with deep underground bunkers to shelter their infantry, the enemy now
lay underground waiting for the shelling to end and the attack they knew would
Saturday the 1 of July 1916,
was a fine warm summer’s day on the Somme as thousands of British troops stood
to in their trenches, preparing to go over the top and attack across no-mans
land. The British soldiers were fully equipped for the attack armed with one of
the best rifles of that time, the short magazine Lee-Enfield and an eleven-inch
bayonet. They wore webbing with large packs, containing all their spare kit,
many men carried picks or shovels while others carried barbed wire, ammunition
boxes, Lewis guns and trench mortars.
The heavily loaded attackers were told to
walk across to the enemy line, not run unless they wanted to get blown to
pieces by their own artillery. The British Army after the Battle of the Somme
would sent it’s attacking formations over the top lightly armed, with support
troops following on behind with the heavy equipment.
At 7:30am (zero hour) the 4
Division prepared to attack it’s objective, the ridge from Grandcourt to
Puisieux-on-Mont, a distance of about 3,600yards. The 11 Brigade
would lead the attack towards Munich trench, once that trench was taken the 10
and 12 Brigades would advance through the 11 Brigade
and onto the final objective up on the ridge. This attack would take place in
support of the 29 Division on the right flank (see Corporal Angus
Mackay, Tongue) and the 31 Division on the left flank.
The artillery increased it’s bombardment
from 5:30am until 7:30am, obliterating the enemy line to the battalion front.
At zero hour, the artillery barrage stopped and the 11 Brigade
began to move forward in waves, as they did the German machine gunners began to
come out of their underground bunkers to set up their deadly instruments of
By 8:45am no message had been received from
the 11 Brigade or Brigade headquarters but it was time the 10
Brigade moved forward. Patrols under Lt Harrison now left the assembly trench
and advanced, immediately coming under heavy fire from Beaumont Hamel; Lt
Harrison was badly wounded. (He died five days later).
When the battalion HQ was unable to contact
Brigade HQ by telephone, two runners were sent back to try and find out what
the situation was in front and bring back fresh orders. At 9am the runners had
not returned, so the Commanding Officer of the Seaforths decided to stick to
his original orders and begin to advance, hoping that the 11
Brigade troops to his front had taken their objectives.
The battalion moved off with ‘A’ Company in
the centre, ‘C’ on the left flank, ‘B’ on the right flank and ‘D’ in reserve,
the companies moved off in waves by platoons. The 12 Brigade was
on the Seaforths left with the 2 Battalion Essex Regiment
advancing alongside the Highlanders, the 2 Royal Dublin Fusiliers
did not move forward but awaited further orders from Brigade.
As the advancing troops came in view of the
enemy trenches, they received heavy machine-gun fire from the front and the
village of Beaumont-Hamel. Enemy gunners firing from the Redan Ridge caused
heavy casualties, forcing the rear companies to turn left and crossed into the
enemy line at a position called Quadrilateral. Battalion Lewis Gunners then managed
to get behind some of the German machine-gun posts to knock them out.
The attacking formations managed to push
past the first and second German lines to reach the third line, the Seaforth
War Diary says that some parties of men may of reached Munich Trench deep
behind the enemy line. All communication was now lost between the attacking
companies and it was never established how far the Seaforths actually got, no
survivors returned from the area of Munich Trench.
Attacking Seaforths now found themselves
mixed up with the remains of the 11 Brigade, the lead attacking
battalions had been decimated by machine-guns and casualties were severe. No
objectives had been taken by 11 Brigade and they had lost their commander,
Brigadier Prowse, who had died from wounds. The lead battalions of the 11
Brigade, 1 Somerset Light Infantry, 1 East Lancashire
Regiment, 1 Hampshire’s and 1 Battalion Rifle Brigade
all lost their Commanding Officers killed in action in the carnage of the
The attackers now held a section of the
enemy line, but due to the failure of the attacks on the flanks the enemy held
the trenches on either side. Fierce fighting now took place as the survivors
tried in vain to consolidate the area they held, determined enemy bombing
attacks launched on the captured third line caused many casualties and it was
given up at 1pm.
By 11am only five Seaforth officers remained
alive and uninjured, with heavy casualties amongst the other ranks, men from
other attacking British Regiments now joined the Seaforths and fought side by
side with the Highlanders. At this point Drummer Ritchie jumped up on the edge
of the trench, in full view of the enemy and repeatedly sounded the charge on
his bugle to encourage those men with no leaders. This gallant action earned
Drummer Ritchie the Victoria Cross for his selfless heroism in the face of the
There were now about forty men from the
Seaforths left, in addition to two platoons unable to advance from trenches on
the south side of the Redan Ridge. Battalion HQ received orders at 5:15pm to
return to original position after dark, at 5:30pm a supply of bombs arrived by
carriers and bomb depots were established on the flanks. The enemy made no
serious attacks; those that were launched being driven back.
A message was sent back for stretcher
-bearers to be sent up, several of the wounded were evacuated before dark along
with men from the 11 and 12 Brigades. At 7pm two
platoons from the Irish Fusiliers arrived with a supply of bombs, these
platoons were placed on the right flank. Two other platoons, which were
following behind, went astray and were shelled by the enemy in No Mans Land.
Two messages were received from 10
Brigade at 9pm, the first message H.18 said, “the battalion must hold on at all
costs”; the second message J.22 contained orders for the battalion to return to
original front line. Neither of these
messages was timed and the battalion was not sure which order to follow, it was
decided that as both messages arrived with the same runner, they would act on
the later order J.22 and retire.
At 1am on the 2 of July, the
survivors from the 2 Battalion Seaforth Highlanders retired back
to the sunken road they left the previous day. They took with them as many of
the wounded that they could find and all the material the men could carry, this
took place with no further losses.
Corporal John Angus Grant Mackay was killed
in action on the 1 of July 1916, one of fifty-nine other ranks
killed, two hundred and fifty six other ranks were wounded and fifty eight
reported missing by the Seaforth Highlanders that day. Thirteen officers were
killed and nine were wounded. The bodies
of five officers and twenty-five other ranks were taken back by the survivors
and buried side by side in the nearest British Cemetery 200yards north-west of
Total British casualties on the first day
of the Battle of the Somme were 57,470 officers and men of which 19,240 men
were killed. The opening day of the attack was a total failure and only on the
right of the attack was any gain made, a total of three and a half miles wide
and one mile deep.
The Battle of the Somme continued until the
18 of November 1916 when it finally came to a halt in the mud and
rain of Autumn, total British casualties are put at 419,654 with estimated
German losses put at between 450,000 and 680,000. The Thiepval memorial on the
Somme lists the names of 73,357 men who went missing on the Somme and have no
Seven men from Skerray died on the Somme,
many more were wounded and bore witness to the slaughter that took place there.
The battlefield today is littered with war cemeteries, some big some small, but
all filled with the graves of brave men who died far from home.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL
Mackay John Angus Grant. (b) Tongue. (e) Edinburgh. S/8317. Lance
Corporal. Killed in Action F&F 1-7-16. 2 Battalion, Seaforth
COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES
Mackay, Lance Corporal J.A.G. S/8137. 2 Battalion Seaforth
Highlanders. 1 July 1916.
Age 23. Son of Mrs Augustine Gunn Mackay of
Lamigo, Skerray, Thurso.
Plot 1. Row 8. Grave 26.
Lance Corporal John Angus
Grant Mackay is buried in a war grave at SUCRERIE MILITARY CEMETERY, SOMME,
SUCRERIE MILITARY CEMETERY, SOMME, FRANCE.