In July 1917, the 15 (Scottish) Division was in the Ypres Salient Belgium, to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres. The allied plan was to support the attacks taking place at Arras, then breakthrough towards the Belgian coast and liberate the coastal ports, being used as German submarine bases.
The offensive was doomed before it even began, the heavy shelling had destroyed the delicate drainage system in Flanders and the whole area had become a huge swamp. The area was also heavily defended with concrete bunkers and pillboxes, built by the enemy over the previous two years. These bunkers were well-constructed in depth, with inter connecting fields of fire and were well suited to the defence of this type of battlefield. The Germans also shelled the British rear with mustard gas causing chaos and havoc amongst artillery and re-supply troops.
British troops went ‘over the top’ at the end of a ten day artillery barrage, which had fired four and a half million shells, an average of four and three quarter tons of shells on each square mile of the attack area.
On the 31 of July 1917 the 15 (Scottish) Division attacked out of the village of Potijze to the Northeast of Ypres, towards the village of Verlorenhoek and onto enemy positions up on the Frezenberg Ridge. As they advanced heavy rain began to fall, soaking the Highlanders as they moved forwards and began to push the enemy back from his frontline positions. The 7 Camerons attacked Square Farm, over the Steenbeck River and on into Pomern Redoubt.
The British soon captured the village of Bixshoote and the Pilkem Ridge, before advancing short of the Frezenburg Ridge and then digging in; the Camerons were now near Gallipoli Farm and Hill 135. The attack took place in terrible conditions of torrential rain and mud, in some places the advancing troops had to wade through mud up to their waists under murderous artillery and machine gun fire.
The 7 Camerons had been in the frontline since the 22 of July and at 1pm on the 24 mounted a trench raid into enemy lines. A prisoner and a machine gun were captured when the crew bolted as they saw the Highlanders advancing towards them, on the 28 another trench raid was launched causing many enemy casualties. The raiding parties penetrated deep into the enemy lines and inflicted heavy damage, as they went in one German officer and thirty-nine other ranks were captured.
At zero hour (3:50am) on the 31 of July 1917, the 7 Camerons were in Brigade Reserves in South Lane trench, ‘A’ Company was tasked with supplying ammunition carrying parties. Number One platoon suffered severe loss of life when Thatch Barn ammunition dump blew up and carrying parties were severely disorganised. Full loads could not be carried by the men owing to the heavy enemy shellfire and muddy ground, men carrying cumbersome Yukon packs found they were top heavy constantly making them fall over.
The battalion, less ‘A’ Company then moved forward into the enemy lines at 10am, coming under heavy shellfire as they did. Battalion headquarters moved forward to the German Reserve lines at 1pm and sent an officer from the Royal Engineers to construct a strong point in Black Line trench. As the officer led a platoon from the battalion forward they came under heavy fire and were forced to withdraw, the battalion then consolidated its gains and waited for reinforcements.
Private Charles Mackay was reported missing in action, believed killed on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres 31 July 1917, he was 22 years of age. The battle at Ypres in the summer and autumn of 1917 is remembered as one of the most terrible fought during World War 1, over 250,000 men died capturing five miles of muddy rat infested swampland from the Germans. Many men reported as missing were blown to pieces in the maelstrom of shellfire; others drown in the morass of mud and water the land became.
Robert and Ann Mackay also lost their other son Sinclair, he died while serving with the Royal Navy and his story appears elsewhere on Tongue War Memorial. A younger son Daniel (Danny) was to young to serve during the war.