How Sleep the Brave: Fighting Mac
We were honoured to be invited to the Scottish Poppy Armistice Commemoration Edinburgh on the 6th November. The Lady Mayor and other dignitaries were present among the old guard of ex-service personnel.
Next to us was a gentleman of 2. Para who happened to mention Fighting Mac and his exploits.
This is our version of the famous man's life.
Born in 1853 in Rootfield Ross-Shire Scotland, Hector Macdonald was one of four sons of a Stonemason Crofter William Macdonald in the Parish of Ferintosh and Urquhart. Williams wife was Ann Boyd, a lady from a village near Inverness, whom he married in 1844.
Life would have been hard at times and dreams of adventures would be common.
Hector was six when he arrived at Mulbuie School ,an energetic and discerning boy. He would sit on the wooden bench amid the new pupils facing headmaster Alexander Treasurer, who was perched on a higher platform. The Headmaster remembered Hector for not allowing the bully boys to terrorise the meek.
Young Hector Macdonald worked on the farm till he reached the age of fifteen. He would have been expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, but dreamt of travelling to the places he saw in books and newspapers. In 1868 he became an apprentice draper for two years before moving to Inverness. There, he was employed in a Tartan Ware House and during that time he joined the Merchants Company of the Inverness Highland Rifle Volunteers.
On a Saturday in 1870 at the Inverness market a Sergeant of a Highland regiment was on the lookout for recruits. Hector often stood for a moment to listen to the recruiting Sergeants exciting stories. Hector approached the Sergeant to enlist but was told the age for enlisting was eighteen. Hector argued he was nearly that age anyway, the Sergeant then agreed.
Hector Mcdonald at seventeen joined the 92nd Gordon Highlanders.
By the time he had finished his basic training, he was promoted to Lance-Corporal and ready to join his unit in India. He arrived in Jullundur and took part in garrison duties till the regiment moved to Multan in 1874. Then a route march to Delhi and take part in the Imperial Assemblage where Queen Victoria on the first of January became Empress of India.
The Empire in 1879 with its many outpost was continually in a state of flux. Trouble brewed in Afghanistan and the 92nd Highlanders were sent to join General Frederick Roberts know to all as Bobs.
A company of the 92nd was called to march to Karatiga under the command of Lieutenant Grant and Hector who was now a Colour Sergeant of C. Company. Overlooking a valley they noticed a small army of Afghans ( sometimes called Mogals) getting into place to ambush Roberts. A group of Highlands and Sikhs climbed the precipitous slopes to find the Afghans ready to attack them. Hector Macdonald waited till they were within a hundred yards. The fire was so effective the Afghans ran from the valley. For this action he was mentioned in despatches. As he marched along a comrade shouted “Well mak ye an officer for this days work.” “and a General too!” shouted another. Fighting Mac distinguished himself again in the battle for the Hazardarakht defile dislodging a determined enemy.
Fighting Mac was sent to Kabul, an open city vulnerable to attack. It was decided the fortified Sherpur area in the north of the city was the most suitable to defend. The Afghans attacked with some 100,000 men on the 23rd of December shaking the defenders. Fortunately a rescue force of 1,500 British and Ghurkhas arrived and tilted the balance.
Fighting Mac was given a well earned commission of Lieutenant in a Gordon Highlanders. It was not long before the Afghans attacked the British again forcing a retreat to Kandahar. Roberts arrived just in time to save the weakening defenders. Fighting Mac’s men formed the left of the advance and forced the Afghans to fight hand to hand. The victory ended the second Afghanistan War and Fighting Mac and his men returned to India.
Once more the World seemed to be at peace and they soon fell into a lazy regime of manoeuvres, sport and parades.
The First Boer War began in December the 16th 1880 sometimes known as the Transvaal War.
Duty called the Cordons to South Africa and the plains of the Transvaal to fight the Boers. The Boers were regarded as an easy enemy and naturally would be overcome quickly. Boers were self reliant farmers dressed in civilian khaki suitable for the vast veldt. Most of British Army still favoured red jackets, white pith helmets and Crimean War tactics. Whereas the Boers formed commando groups to move across country swiftly and stealthily living off the land. They were extremely good shots armed with the accurate Mauser rifle and a common cry was Victory through God and the Mauser.
During one occasion a British Naval Officer looking over a parapet asked the range of a Boer soldier and was told nine hundred yards. Just at that moment a bullet struck him, wounding him fatally.
On the 27th of February 1881 Major General Colley sent a force of Soldiers and Sailors up the steep ascent called Majuba Hill in the Northern tip of Natal. From Majuba hill the British force would be able to see the Boar encampment far below. The way to the summit was torturous and it took all night for the Army to get to the top and into position. Colley did not consider the positioning worthy of entrenchment and by doing so left his exhausted troops exposed. Below the Boers waited to be attacked but Colley did not do so.
With a new confidence, the Boers, who knew the country well sent up a force to surprise them. The younger men made their way up the sides and the older men sniped any exposed British soldier. On reaching the summit the Boers opened rapid fire creating a pall of smoke that made them difficult to see. Soon the British began a withdrawal in panic. Colley standing upright to shout an order was fatally wounded in the head. All that was left was a small band of Highlanders to defend the hill.
Second Lieutenant Hector Macdonald who originally had twenty men in command to hold the west side of the hill, had now been reduced to only one man. Mac was forced to fight with his fists until he was subdued and taken prisoner. One of his captors enraged Hector by attempting to seize his sporran. In the ongoing fight hector was jumped on punched and nearly strangled. He hurtled Gaelic curses at his captors who replied in course Dutch. Losing his pistol and sword and held down by four strong Boers, he was unable to escape.
Soon the battle for the hill was over with losses of 93 killed and 133 prisoner. General Joubert of the Boers read the inscription on Fighting Mac’s sword which had been given to him by his fellow officers and gave it back saying 'A brave man and his sword should not be separated.'
After a few days he was released and allowed to return to his own camp. It is interesting to note Joubert chastised the British for fighting on the Lords day and also losing uttered “What do you expect for fighting on a Sunday.”.
Back in Edinburgh Mac met Christina MacLouchan Duncan in 1883 who was only fifteen and married her a year later in the spring. The marriage was accomplish in the old Scots manner of kissing and pledging on the bible. Apparently the Duncan family did not completely approve of their daughter marrying Mac, who was not her social equal and an older man to boot. But the secret of the marriage could not last forever as they had a son Hector Duncan Macdonald in 1887 and Mac would become a national figure.
General Gordon was already well known in the Sudan when he was sent to Khartoum in1884. On a previous assignment he mapped the upper Nile and built stations en route. Gordon had also ended a series of rebellions and was considered the saviour of Egypt. He was murdered in 1885 while the British government procrastinated and sent General Garnet Wolseley to his rescue too late.
Fighting Mac in1888 was transferred the Egyptian Army as a Captain to instil discipline and loyalty to the troops. He became commander of the Sudanese 11th Battalion and saw action at Gemaizeh on the Sudan border against Osman Digna. At Toski he distinguished himself by ending Sudan’s ambitions in Egypt and received the Khedive’s Star along with a mention in dispatches. During this battle he had to restrain his troops from breaking rank and throwing themselves at the Dervishes. He did this by riding in front of their rifles swearing in as many languages as he could muster which included Gaelic.
Kitchener following Cordons route up the Nile in 1898 with a force of 8,200 British troops and 17,600 Egyptians and Sudanese to take the largest Sudanese city of Omdurman. Omdurman is across the Nile from Khartoum in the east side. Kitchener encamped placing his troops with their backs to the river.
Fighting Mac’s men formed the centre part of the defence of a shallow arc.
The morning at six am brought the Dervish army of 50,000 charging against the British position. The effect of Artillery and Maxim machine fire devastated the enemy and reduced the Dervish force to a shambles.
Kitchener considered the enemy vanquished and then ordered the advance on Omdurman city. Then he sent the 21st Lancers to observe before making his final assault. This action is understood to have led to the last great cavalry charge in history but some 2000 Dervishes were waiting for the ambush. Winston Churchill took part in this event and was saved by an injury to his sword arm when he was forced to use a pistol.
Mac was left behind in reserve, when a Camel Corps officer informed him of a band of around 20,000 Dervishes were heading his way. Mac had only 3,000 troops to protect Kitcheners exposed rear at Jebel Surgham ridge, and ordered a semi circular defence. The line had to be held to save Kitcheners army which was still completing its turn around. The Dervishes came on in waves with so much force hand to hand fighting took place. Mac’s troops were well organised and met each charged with disciplined and effective fire, His troops held the line by responsive manoeuvres to meet the enemies charges from any direction. Eventually Kitchener turned his force around to assist Mac.
It was said 10,000 Dervishes lay dead in the desert field and much more wounded. The British losses were a lot less, with 48 killed and less than 400 wounded. The victory had avenged Gordon’s death in Khartoum and Mac attained a CB and appointed an ADC to Queen Victoria. Victory at Omdurman and his display enormous valour earned him promotion to full Colonel
In late January 1900 he arrived at the Modder river camp to command the Highland Brigade as the successor to Major General Andy Wauchope, who was killed in the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899.
His camp was at delta of the Modder and Reit. Mac explained to his troops they should not forget the lessons of the past and the problems that lay ahead. He reminded them of the cunning tactics of the enemy and how it was possible to beat them.
Mac took command of a company and drilled the men showing he had not lost his touch. His men saw him as a man who had served in the ranks and understood them. Mac took the time to visit his soldiers to ensure they were well looked after.
Lord Roberts and Kitchener arrived on the 8th of February 1900. Mac had anticipated their plans and as a diversion marched to Koodosberg Drift five days before. He had with him along with the Brigade, Artillery and Lancers to help seize the opposite bank of the Modder river. He ordered the surrounding heights and Koodosberg to be taken. This was done without resistance but Boer scouts had watched the activities. They promptly rode off to their commander with the news.
Roberts and Kitchener had a large army of over 35,000 men,113 guns and thousands of transports, On the 6th a large detachment of the enemy was sighted on the northern bank of the river.
The next morning they began an attack on the hill summit against the Black Watch, Seaforths and HLI. The Boers suffered cruel losses and during a lull, Mac decided to attempt to surround the Boers. Unfortunately some enemy scouts once again saw the movement and they withdrew their force rapidly. When the Brigade returned to camp both Lord Roberts and Kitchener congratulated the Brigade on their rebuff of the enemy. Roberts had moved his force craftily by rail in to Ramsden to prepare for battle. Due to an illness Kitchener took command of the 5,000 force and placed it on a hill near a river. From the hill he saw some 5,000 Boers including women and children surmising they could be surrounded easily. Fighting Mac was sent to do the encircling and noticed there was no real cover for the advancing soldiers. Kitchener was sure of his plan and ordered the advance. The battle of Paardeberg had began and Mac and his men into
the open within the range of the Boer guns.
In silence the enemy waited till the highlanders first wave was within one hundred yards. The first volley struck sending the highlanders to ground completely exposed. Many were killed and the wounded lay in the glaring morning sun to be sniped at.
Holding their ground the Scots refused to retreat despite Fighting Mac being hit in the foot and his horse killed. Fortunately that night Roberts returned as commander and ordered a disciplined withdrawal. During which he made excellent use of his artillery with information supplied by Mac’s men.
At a place known as Kitcheners Kopje a handful of British colonists volunteers were left to guard the south east of the British position. And prevent the escape of Cronje the Boer leader. De Wet took this position with ease and therefore commanded the best positions. Robert moved his troops further back after discovering the hill now in the hands of the Boers and his soldiers dead and rotting in the sun.
Mac consoled his soldiers for their losses as Roberts and Cronje send messages to each other. Lord Roberts had the sense to use his artillery effectively firing into the Boer positions. On the ninth day the intrepid enemy surrendered and Roberts invited Cronje to lunch.
After the march into Bloemfontein, Fighting Mac wrote to his brother William, admitting he still could not walk but would do so in one month. Despite this wound he had his brigade speed across the Orange Free State in the hope of finishing off the remainder of the Boers. This proved quite difficult as they began to attack supply trains and take many prisoners. Mac captured some 5,000 Boers and their guns at Prinsloo in a brilliant action. To the North of Bloemfontein they chased the enemy with such speediness they left many important supplies behind.
Queen Victoria was an avid follower of the course of the war. She expressed sadness for her poor General Macdonald and sent a message to tell him so. Lord Roberts praised the magnificent conduct of Mac and his men in keeping to noble traditions of the Scots regiments.
King Edward VII knighted Fighting Mac in April 1901 when ill-health forced his retirement and he returned home to Britain. In 1902 he was given the job as district commander of India but was transferred to command the troops in Ceylon.
Major General Macdonald arrived in Ceylon in March of that year. It had always been his style to have little to do with society and keep to martial affairs, it is likely this may have alienated him from an administrative Ceylon culture. He became friendly with a family called de Saram who had two sons. He seemed to have spent a bit of time with them just as many older men form a bond with young people.
Idle gossip took over and suspicions of Homosexuality began to reach high places. The rumours ran from exposing himself to full sex with boys, but remained allegations and never proven. Sir Joseph West Ridgeway acting on this information sent for Fighting Mac.
The idea was to send him home as he was now becoming unpopular in Ceylon. Under a pretext of leave, Mac left by Liner to London. During the trip he proved to be an amiable gentleman and seemed to have mixed well with other passengers. At the Pall Mall Club in London he discussed the allegations of homosexuality with his wife. The story may have wrecked an already diminishing relationship.
Lord Roberts made it clear he had to prove his total innocence to stay in the Army. Fighting Mac decided to return to Ceylon and wrestle it out. The Liner SS Britannia docked in France and Mac went to Paris and signed into the Hotel Regina room 105. He took occasional walks and wrote the some letters and dined with the other guests. But circumstances changed as Ridgeway’s Legislative Committee gave the newspapers the right to print the story. After breakfast he ambled into the hotel drawing room. There he saw a newspaper with a depiction of himself and the allegations presented in print to the world.
Being a gentleman he made no fuss and took up the newspaper, tucked it under his arm and left for his room. Placing his cloths neatly away and then picking up a small pistol, he shot himself in the head. The date was 25th March 1903.
In Ceylon the administration were perhaps thankful it brought the matter to an end as it could have pointed the finger at others.Mac’s wife travelled to Paris to hasten the arrangements for Mac to be returned to Scotland. William his brother was not allowed a last view of Mac as his body was hastily transported to London and then to Edinburgh. Hector Mcdonalds body arrived at the Dean Cemetery for a simple service. Thousands of people gathered outside the gates of the Cemetery to pay respects to a great man.
Then followed the media circus and all it entails, till it became newsworthy.
What we have to ask is, why a very brave man chose to take his life? The theories are multiple from homosexuality being rampant in the higher echelons of the army, an association with Sir Joseph West Ridgeway’s daughter, he had fabricated his death. More likely rampant jealousy by the less gifted in an intolerant society. But his story did not fade away without incident, was he stabbed or shot from behind?
He was apparently seen in the Russian Japanese War and other places of battle. The suggestions that German Von Mackensen was really Fighting Mac seems a bit over the top until you see the remarkable resemblance.
During our childhood we heard that Hector Macdonald may have had an affair with Queen Victoria, similar to John Brown and was detested with the same venom. He had been Aid de Camp to the Queen in 1889 some six years after the death of John Brown.
Victoria died in 1901 and Mac 1903 only two years down the line. It may have been Victoria saw in Mac the same loyalty and sense of duty she sorely missed. If the accusations had been right, why did the Public Office Papers of the Ceylon assembly of the 1903 year vanish without trace. Inevitably a brave man will find an enemy at his back ready to denounce him.
It is too late now for Fighting Mac, but enough time to remember a son of Scotland.
We apologise for the compressing of so many events.
Eddie Anderson and Eddie McCarthy.
All credit to:
Death. Before. Dishonour by Trevor Royle.
Toll of the Brave: The Tragedy of Sir Hector Mcdonald by John Montgomery.
Goodbye Dolly Grey by Rayne Kruger.