Saturday, July 2, 2011

A bath in Albert

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Robert Lindsay Mackay, an infantry soldier in the First World War, present at the famous battles of the Somme and Ypres. While in action, he managed to keep a near daily diary of his activities, and this, though not published in print, has been made available online by one of his grandchildren. Of particular note are entries about ‘MUD’ and visiting the town called Albert (in the Somme region) for a bath.

Mackay was born in 1896 in Glasgow and studied at the university there. During the war, he served with an infantry regiment, the 11th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, holding the posts of Signalling Officer, Assistant Adjutant, and Platoon Officer, eventually achieving the rank of Lieutenant. He fought in the Battles of the Somme, Ypres and Arras, and was awarded a Military Cross and Bar.

After the war, Mackay trained as a doctor. He married Margaret McLellan, and they had four children. In 1941, he rejoined the army and, with a neurosurgical unit, was posted to the Middle East. Before the end of the war, he was also posted to Normandy and Northern Norway, to treat Russians who had fallen sick while prisoners of the Germans. He retired in 1961, and died on 2 July 1981. Further biographical information is available on the University of Glasgow website and some Mackay family tree web pages.

Mackay only kept a diary during the First World War, and later on wasn’t even sure why he had done that. In 1972 he wrote the following note to his children: ‘I am not quite clear why I wrote this diary, day by day, a scrappy record of a scrappy period. I had no literary or military ambitions. My parents did not read it. Perhaps it was to provide a kind of continuous alibi, to remind me where I had been, perhaps an interesting memorial if I failed to return. Like cakes off a hot griddle, it was written as events occurred, or immediately thereafter, in four little brown leather-covered notebooks, and when the war ended these were in no state to last long for they were soiled and grubby, and, where written in pencil, the writing was fading. So, in 1919, I copied their contents, straight off, without editing, into two larger note-books, and destroyed the four little ones.’

The text has been made available online by one of Mackay’s grandchildren, Bob Mackay, at, and on his own web pages. Here are a few entries.

12 September 1916
‘Ordered up to the 11th. Service Battalion Argylls - the one to which I most of all wanted to go. Train due to leave at 2 p.m. Left punctually at 4.30 p.m., which is not bad for a French train. Reached Albert on the Somme Front about 6.30 p.m. on the 13th. - a distance of some 70 - 80 miles in 28 hours - not bad going for a French train either! Albert is where the battle now going on began, so I hope to see something decent. Reported to the Details Orderly Room of the 11th. Bn. who heard next day that we were coming. Went along to a park after tea to see our latest form of frightfulness about which mystery hangs, namely, the tanks. They have not been used against the enemy yet. Heyworth (who joined with me) and I then went along to the Divisional Reinforcement Camp at Mericourt.’

14 September 1916
‘Loafed around.’

15 October 1916
‘Had a bath.’

16-17 October 1916
‘16th, 17th, and so on till the end - MUD, MUD, MUD!’

18 October 1916
‘Our ‘rest’ is now finished - when did it begin? Left Lozenge Wood, for Martinpuich.’

18 October 1916
‘Rotten ration party to take up to the Royal Scots. Bed 3 a.m. Half a bed is better than no bed at all!’

20 October 1916
‘Round the companies. The C.O. (MacNeil of Oban) got a mouldy haggis, which he ate all by himself. It came in a parcel labelled ‘CAKE’. He had kept it for three weeks!’

21 October 1916
‘Canadians on our left attack the ‘Quadrilateral’ and village of Pys. Partial success. Bombardment all night.’ Back to Martinpuich from the line. Frost came on us suddenly and played the mischief with the mens’ feet. Had to send a number to hospital.’

24 October 1916
‘Relieved by 7/8th. K.O.S.B. Back to Lozenge Wood. Roads heavy on way back. Got stuck in the mud.’

30 October 1916
‘Still at Bécourt, ‘X 27’ district, as bleak and as barren a place as the Western Hebrides. It is said that grass once grew here!’

31 October 1916
‘Front line again.’

2 November 1916
‘Chased by snipers. Relieved by 5th. Bn. Gloucesters, of 48th. Division.’

3 November 1916
‘Left Bécourt Dell for Albert and a bath.’

4 November 1916
‘Albert is knocked about in the most up-to-date fashion, in accordance with the most advanced ideas. There is not a pane of unbroken glass in the place. Every house, if not entirely demolished or with a gable or two missing, has a few holes in the roof, which help the ventilation and also assist materially in the disposal of surplus rain. Ye Gods! It is a funny life!

Albert Cathedral has been very badly smashed but the tower still remains with the figure of the Virgin and Child held out at right angles to it at the top and threatening to fall at any moment on the heads of countless people who pass below. It is commonly said that the War will not end until the Virgin falls. As the French don’t want it to fall (preferring to keep it as a monument of the Huns’ occupation of the place), what can we do?’

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