He was sent overseas in the early summer of 1916, joining the 11 Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders serving with the 45 Brigade of the 15(Scottish) Division in France. The 15 Division was on the Somme preparing to take part in the big push planned for July 1916, which the British High Command hoped would end the war.
The 15 (Scottish) Division spent the winter of 1915-16 close to Loos, holding the Hulluch and Hohenzollern sectors of the line. (See Magnus Mackay, Scullomie). In July 1916 the 11 Argylls were ordered to move to reserve trenches on the Somme and prepare for action, the battalion then relieved the 23 Division at Pozieres on the 8 of August.
On August 15 1916 the 11 Argylls were at Contalmaison supplying working parties and preparing for a new stint in the trenches. The battalion had received a new draft of 100 men on the 16 and by the 18 all preparations for the move to the front had been made. On the night of August the 19 the 11 Argylls relieved the 10 Royal Scots under heavy shellfire at Martinpuich.
At 5pm on August 20, ‘D’ Company filed through a barricade at the head of Welsh Sap trench and entered Sanderson Trench. No enemy opposition was met as the battalion consolidated its new positions and prepared to dig a new trench to the Switch Line for a machine gun post. (See also Peter Burr, Tongue.)
Lieutenant Hutcheson was sent out to reconnoitre the ground in front and missed his bearing, as he was returning to the British lines he was shot by a sniper and severely wounded. He managed to reach a shell hole where Murdoch Mackay joined him and began to treat the wounded officer, caring for him until daybreak the next day.
For his outstanding heroism during the night and early morning of the 21 of August 1916, Private Murdoch Mackay was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation reads - “ For conspicuous gallantry in remaining all night within 50 yards of the enemy, with Lt J.H. Hutcheson who had been shot by a sniper. At daylight Private Mackay crawled back from shell hole to shell hole to fetch assistance. He then returned to rescue Lt Hutcheson with 2 Lt G Beattie and 2 Lt R Irvine, the three rescuers dragging the injured officer back to the British line on a ground sheet. This action took a total of 5 hours under enemy fire at close range.” He also received the French medal Croix De Geurre and the Russian Order of St George Class 3 for his bravery.
The 11 Argylls remained in the front line until Tuesday the 22 of August consolidating their positions, building strong points and sniping. The battalion were relieved by the 6/7 Royal Scots Fusiliers in the afternoon of 22, returning to Brigade Reserve at the Cutting and Shelter Wood to the North of Fricourt.
The battalion remained in this sector of line carrying out work details, trench duties and consolidation of the trenches for the next three weeks. New trenches were constructed in front off Martinpuich and assault positions constructed, the British now aimed to capture more of the enemy line in this sector. The Argylls also received drafts of men to replace the losses of the previous attack, the battalion now began to build up and prepare for the next assault on the enemy lines.
In early September the 11 Argylls were moved to the village of Lavieville behind Albert to carry out training, receive new drafts and reorganise specialist squads. Lewis gunners were trained and men were sent to the companies to replace battlefield losses, Murdoch and his cousin William were now with the bombing platoon of ‘C’ Company.
On the 9 of September the battalion began to train for forthcoming operations in the front line, the 11 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were tasked to attack and take the village of Martinpuich. The assault would be made in four waves, once the village was taken the battalion would consolidate its new position on the railway embankment to the North of the village.
The Argylls moved off up the Amiens to Albert road on September the 12 to become the Divisional Reserve Battalion, then relieve the 2/10 Gordons in Brigade Reserve near Shelter Wood. Two Companies were in an area of trenches called the Cutting, with two Companies at Shelter Wood , Battalion Headquarters was under the road at Peake Wood.
On the morning of the 14 as the battalion prepared to move forward to assault positions all surplus papers, document, maps etc were handed over to the Quarter Master. The battalion then began to move into the front at 8pm, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies were placed on the right occupying Ham and Liver Trench. ‘C’ Company was in support of ‘A’ in Sanderson Trench with ‘D’ Company in Bacon and Egg Trench; Battalion Headquarters was at the junction of 6 Avenue and Welch Avenue(See map overleaf).
The battalion was in position by 11:30pm with constant artillery covering fire, at 1am an officer and several men were killed when a British bombardment fell short. At 6:20am(zero hour) the artillery began to quicken its fire up to intense, as they did the first wave of attacking Argylls moved quickly over no-mans land and assaulted Bottom Trench.
The attackers met with little opposition as they swept on and took possession of Tangle Trench, bombing platoons now began to assault Tangle North and South. Some resistance was met within the Cutting where several large and deep dugouts were seen to be situated, one well directed hand grenade exploded in an enemy bomb store. When the enemy bomb store blew up the occupants of the neighbouring dugouts quickly surrendered.
By 7am, the left and centre of the battalion had reached its objective on the railway embankment and began to dig in. Casualties so far were slight and telephone communications had been established, all reports being quickly passed back.
At 9am the 6 Cameron Highlanders attacked Martinpuich as a tank cleared the enemy from Bottom Trench to Tangle Trench; the Gordon Highlanders then cleared the village of enemy troops by 2pm. Cameron Highlander casualties were only slight as the village was cleared; they then pushed on to Push Alley Trench to consolidate and dig in. The tank had managed to reach the Southwest edge of Martinpuich before returning at midday for fuel; it then returned in the evening and dropped ammunition at the edge of the village.
The 11 Argylls came under heavy shellfire as the enemy bombarded the ground between Tangle Trench and the Cutting. A few hidden German snipers and some isolated machine-guns caused some casualties, all wounded men were collected by German prisoners on stretchers and carried to the Field Ambulance. At 4:30pm part of ‘C’ Company moved forward to assist in holding the left position of the line, all was quiet except for sporadic 4.2 and5.9-inch shell-fire on the battalion rear lines.
The night of September 15/16 was quiet as the 11 Argylls dug in on the railway line constructing a formidable trench system. Work on the consolidation of the line continued with the construction of bomb and small arms ammunition stores, rations and water was issued as it arrived in the front lines.
Saturday September 16 was a fine day with the 11 Argylls coming under occasional shellfire, Martinpuich suffered a heavy barrage between 12noon and 6pm at intervals of one hour. British aircraft were very active warding off any hostile aerial observation; one enemy balloon was set on fire and rapidly hauled down. The situation remained unchanged on the 17 until 8pm, when orders were received to hand over the line to the 8 Seaforth Highlanders and pull back to Gourlay Trench
At 2pm on the 18 of September 1916 the 11 Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlander were relieved in Gourlay Trench by the 12 Battalion Durham Light Infantry. The Argylls then marched back in the pouring rain to billets at Millencourt via Fricourt and Albert, arriving soaked through in Millencourt at 6:30pm.
Private Murdoch Mackay and his cousin William were both killed in action on the 15 September 1916; Murdoch was killed as he went forward to assist a wounded man. The 11 Argylls casualties were six officers killed, five were wounded, forty-five other ranks were killed, thirty missing and two hundred and forty-five were wounded. One of the company officers wrote to the family of Murdoch Mackay saying that “his coolness under fire was a great inspiration to his comrades and that Private Mackay and his cousin William were his two best men”. (William Mackay's story appears on this site).
In 1917 Mr Alexander Mackay was invited to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh where the Lord High Commissioner for Scotland presented him with his son Private Murdoch Mackay's medals. The Falkirk Herald reported that “in handing over the medals to Mr Mackay, the Duke sympathised with him in the loss of his son remarking that he would have had greater pleasure presenting the decorations to the soldier himself.”
Murdoch Mackay lost two brothers during World War One, Alexander was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme and James killed in action in Gallipoli.