John Mackenzie Mackay was born in Skerray, son of Hugh and Ann Mackay from Aird, Torrisdale he emigrated to live in South Africa sometime before the First World War. It is thought that John travelled to South America to either Brazil or Chile before the war and began working as a Gaucho (a South American cowboy) on a cattle ranch. At the outbreak of war he travelled to South Africa to enlist and fight in the war, he enlisted in the South African Army joining the 4 Infantry Regiment, South African (Scottish).
The South African Brigade left Cape Town in September 1915 for Egypt, spending the next eight months guarding the Suez Canal from Turkish attack. In April 1916 the South African Brigade was transferred to France, joining the 9 (Scottish) Division in May as the 28(South African) Brigade. The Brigade was made up from the 1, 2, 3 and 4 Infantry Regiments from the South African Army, mainly Scotsmen who served in South African Regiments such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles, the Transvaal Scottish and Cape Town Highlanders.
On the 1 of July 1916 the 9 (Scottish) Division was in the reserve trenches for the Battle of the Somme and it was not until the next day that they saw action. The Division moved in to the front lines near Montauban to the east of Berfnay Wood to relieve the 30 Division, the South Africans then made a successful attack on the wood on the morning of July 3.
Two hours before dawn on the 15 of July 1916 the 28 South African Brigade moved up the road (code-named Pall Mall) from Berfnay Wood to the village of Longueval and prepared to assault Delville Wood. The Brigade went into action on the morning of the 15 of July 1916, with 121 officers and 3,032 other ranks fit for battle.
The South African Infantry entered the south-west corner of Delville Wood at 6:am and by 7:am had a foothold inside the southern edge. The infantry then forced their way through the wood until a company reached the northern edge at 9:am and began to dig in, the whole wood except the strongly fortified Northwest corner fell by 3:pm.
German artillery now began to shell the South Africans as they dug in and erected barbed
wire entanglements, to prepare to repel the expected German counter-attack. Enemy trenches were only about seventy yards away as the South Africans worked away digging in etc; many men fell casualties to accurate German sniper and constant machine gun fire.
An enemy counter-attack was seen massing on the edge of the wood as the South Africans dug and toiled all night, by morning the men were absolutely exhausted but the ground had to be held. Heavy losses were suffered over night and at dawn on the 16 July an attempt was made to dislodge the German defenders from the north-west corner of the wood, the attempt failed.
Due to the heavy losses the South African Brigade was forced to fall back while British artillery tried to blast the enemy out of the trenches in the wood. The attack was then resumed in the dark on the night of the 17; the South African Infantry again got back to the Northwest edge of the wood and began to dig in. The enemy then bombarded the South African lines for the next three hours causing grievous losses, as the losses mounted the ground could not be held and the enemy regained his lost territory.
The enemy counter attacked in strength and with fierce hand to hand fighting taking place all over the wood gradually pushed the remnants of the South African Brigade back into Southwest corner of the wood. The South Africans held onto this piece of wood under heavy shellfire and constant sniper attack until they were relieve on the 20th.
The 26 South African Brigade then marched back down the road to Montauban with only 29 officers and 751 other ranks still fit for duty; the losses had been horrendous. A total of approximately 2,373 men from the four battalions in the Brigade were dead, seriously wounded or prisoners of war and had paid the supreme sacrifice of war.
In Delville Wood today (the troops renamed it “Devil Wood” after the fighting) stands a memorial to the losses of that day, the memorial is surrounded by a museum built by the South African Government. The wood it self has re-grown over the years since that terrible battle and is now a peaceful and beautiful place, but if you look closely it is not difficult to see the scars of war. A bullet marked tree stands near the location of the South African Brigade headquarters; as you walk around you must also remember that most of the dead were never found and “Devil Wood” is a huge war grave.
The South African Brigade was reinforced over the following months and moved to Arras at full strength in December 1916. On the 9th of April 1917 the British attacked the Hindenburg Line east of Arras in an attempt to break through the enemy line and take Cambrai, however the Germans saw the British build up. Enemy reinforcements were rushed to the sector and the Germans began to prepare strong defences, enemy working parties laboured day and night strengthening their lines.
The 9 (Scottish) Division attacked from the suburbs of Arras at dawn on the 9 of April 1917, the attacking waves of infantry left the houses and cellars they had sheltered in overnight and charged the enemy lines. The German 1 Line Trench (the Brown Line) was the first objective, once this was taken the 4 Infantry Division moved through the 9 Division and assaulted the village of Fampoux.
The attack was an outstanding success, a creeping barrage helped the attacking waves cross no-mans land then quickly overwhelm the German defenders in the 1 Line trenches. The attackers quickly moved along the ridge above the River Scarpe taking the German trenches one by one, any German soldiers not killed were taken prisoner and sent to the rear. Enemy guns at Battery Valley on Observation Ridge were abandoned by their crews, as they saw the Highlanders charge towards them with fixed bayonets, the German lines now began to fall back.
The 2 Battalion Seaforth Highlanders who were moving up behind the 9 (Scottish) Division, says in its Battalion War Diary that they stood by a road “watching batches of between 50 and 100 prisoners being marched to the rear by cavalry escorts.”
The enemy was now completely disorganised and the line had been breached; however no follow up operations could be mounted due a lack of reserves. The cavalry were to far away to be brought forward and even though the way was open right through to the German Headquarters at the village of Monchy-le Preux no follow up attacks were made.
The Battle of Arras continued until the 11 of May 1917, again no breakthrough was made and the attack, which had promised so much on the first day was a failure. A total of 150,000 British troops became casualties in the fighting around Arras in 1917 and every Scottish Battalion of the British Army today carries “Arras” as a Battle Honour. The area around Arras is dotted with small battlefield cemeteries filled with the dead from Highland Regiments; the ridge above the River Scarpe is dotted with memorials to the fighting of eighty years ago.
Private John M Mackay was killed in action as the South African Brigade fought its way through the enemy trench line on Fampoux Ridge above the river Scarpe; he was twenty-nine years of age. Close to this point today stands the 9(Scottish) Division Memorial on Pont du Jour, a memorial set between a border of granite boulders. Each boulder has the name of the units and brigades serving in the Division carved upon it.
John's brother James Mackay fought in the war with the Australian Imperial Force.
He was injured but did survive until 1925 when he died in Dumbleyung, Western Australia.His grave there had no headstone. His great niece, Fiona Mackay, was successful in a request to the Office of Australian War Graves, Department of Veterans' Affairs to have a Bronze Plaque placed on James's grave.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL WAR MEMORIAL EDINBURGH CASTLE No entry found. This is normally because the person killed had taken the nationality of the country he had served with and does not qualify for inclusion in the National War Memorial
COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION Mackay Private John 9263. 4 Regiment South African Infantry. 9 April 1917. Age 29. Son of Mr and Mrs Hugh Mackay of Aird Torrisdale, Skerray, Sutherland. Plot II. Row G. Grave 24.
Private John M Mackay 9263, 4 Regiment South African (Scottish) Infantry is buried in a war grave at POINT- DU -JOUR MILITARY CEMETERY, PAS DE CALAIS, FRANCE.
The original grave marker on John Mackay grave in 1917
Anson Mackay John Mackay James Mackay
James Mackay brother of John Mackay.Aird Skerray
James served in the Australian Army in World War 1.
He died 10th November 1925 aged 40. This is the new grave marker placed on his grave after the research carried out by his Great Niece Fiona Mackay Tongue.
Anson Mackay brother of John Mackay