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 Somme.
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 come.
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 death.
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 attack.
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 enemy.
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 Sucrerie
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 known grave.
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 EDINBURGH CASTLE Mackay John Angus Grant. (b) Tongue. (e) Edinburgh. S/8317. Lance Corporal. Killed in Action F&F 1-7-16. 2 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders.
COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION 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, FRANCE.
SUCRERIE MILITARY CEMETERY, SOMME, FRANCE.