It was a balmy Sunday evening in El-Qantara el-Sharqîya, or Kantara, as it was known to the Allied forces. Situated in the northeast of Egypt, the city’s name comes from the Arabic for “the bridge” and it was here, on that night, 11th November 1917, that Private Lachlan Macdonald, slipped away over the bridge between time and eternity.
The Quiet before the Storm
In Palestine, ten days earlier, the first phase [of the third battle] for Gaza was carried out by the Allies: the assault on the sand dune known as Umbrella Hill. It was still under Turkish control, as was the city itself, following the Turks’ successful resistance to the Allied advance in April 1917.
While this resistance resulted in respite from fighting, the Royal Scots’ focus in the Middle Eastern theatre of war turned, instead, to the development of transportation infrastructure, gaining ground in No-Man’s-Land, and the construction of a series of elaborate trenches and fortifications facing the objective still very much in their sights: Gaza.
On the 30th September 1917, Lachlan, under the 4th Royal Scots, joined the 412th Field Company Royal Engineers, as part of the 156th (Scottish Rifles) Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. As a pioneer, he would likely have spent much of his time working on those roads, railways, and trenches, an experience vividly described by Major John Ewing: “The soil was infested with insects of every description, and in numerous trenches and hollows the troops found unpleasant companions in snakes, flies, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. During the hot and dry weather the atmosphere was thick with dust so that even the tiniest scratch tended to become a septic sore.”1
It was also during this lull that the soldiers received new rifles, steel helmets and, in the case of the 4th Royal Scots, new command: Lieutenant-Colonel A. M. Mitchell.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
But this was war, and the fighting was bound to resume, which it did with the attack on Umbrella Hill, on the 1st November 1917. At 23:00, under heavy fire from Ottoman soldiers, the 7th Cameronians and a company of the 7th Royal Scots advanced. Despite the ferocious aggression of the Turks, and the captain of the 7th Royal Scots taking a hit, they, together with their wounded leader, and the Cameronians, made superb headway and, within half an hour, by 23:30, the hill was theirs.
This victory paved the way for the second phase of the battle for the Palestinian city: prying El Arish Redoubt and “Little Devil” (a network of trenches to one side of the fortification) from the grip of the Turks.
The operation was to be carried out by Lachlan’s battalion, the 4th Royal Scots, together with the 8th Cameronians and the aid of the 7th Royals Scots, should it be required. The carefully-planned assault would take place in waves, formed along four lines of tape laid out earlier. As the men started to move out along the tapes, they were sighted by the Ottomans who unleashed a storm of fire from their machine guns. Nevertheless, the 4th Royal Scots resolutely concluded their deployment along the battle lines.
Just before 03:00 on the morning of the 2nd November 1917, the two tanks escorting the battalion set off toward enemy territory. Neither made it very far, though: the first was soon rendered inoperative and the second was hit and ended up in flames, having reached the opposing trenches, leaving the Royal Scots to advance without them. Even so, and despite the ceaseless barrage of machine gun fire from the Turkish soldiers, they made formidable progress through the lines of their enemy. Then, as Major John Ewing recorded, there was, “…a terrific crash, while stones and earth hurtled through the air and the ground seemed to rise in eruption…”2 Lance Corporal R. Loudon, a signaller with the 4th Royal Scots, added, “Two Turkish contact mines exploded… blowing many of the men to pieces… As I got near the Turkish trenches the enemy shell and machine–gun fire became so intense, with shells bursting all around…”3
Reeling from this massive blow, the Royal Scots somehow managed to pull together and press on with their mission. Still in the dark of those early hours, they attacked “Little Devil”, slowly but surely forcing the Ottomans out, “with bomb and bayonet”4.
On the Edge of Glory
The fighting continued all through the day but El Arish Redoubt had been successfully captured by the 4th Royal Scots. In the midst of the battle, they received a message from Brigadier-General A. H. Leggett: “Well done, 4th Royal Scots! Hold on for all you are worth. Your battalion has covered itself with glory.”5
They paid a high price for that glory, though: bloodshed, and lots of it. Many lost their lives; many were wounded and, somewhere among them, in what David R. Woodward termed “Hell in the Holy Land”6, was Lachlan. He was wounded in action on the 2nd November 1917. But how? Was it in that deadly machine gun fire? Or the explosion of the mines? Or in the assault on the series of trenches known as “Little Devil”? Perhaps we’ll never know, this side of eternity, but he must have been taken to Deir al-Balah where, on the 3rd of November 1917, his service records state that he was dangerously ill, having suffered shrapnel wounds to his midsection. It seems he was then transferred to the 44th Stationary Hospital in Kantara, Egypt.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell, in command of the 4th Royal Scots, received another letter from Brigadier-General Leggett: “I particularly desire to thank you and every officer, N.C.O., and man of your gallant battalion for their magnificent services and unequalled dash and bravery in the attack, capture, and consolidation of El Arish Redoubt. The task was a very formidable one, but nothing could or ever will be able to stand against the gallantry and iron determination, you, one and all, so recently displayed. I hope to see you all soon and thank you personally for all you have done, but in the meantime I should much like you to make it known to all ranks how grateful I am and how intensely proud I am of the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles.”7
I don’t know whether Brigadier-General Leggett ever met with the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles but I’m fairly certain that Lachlan never heard of his letter or got to meet him for, on 14th November 1917, the matron of the hospital wrote to Lachlan’s wife, Christina, informing her of his death, on 11th November 1917, from fatal wounds to the abdomen, while his service records confirm this and add that he suffered a secondary haemorrhage.
Lachlan Macdonald was my great-grandfather. Piecing together some of the story of his last days has filled me with emotion. In reading various accounts of the war in Palestine, there has been an almost tangible sense of terror at facing the horrors of battle. I’ve felt sick to my stomach as I’ve sought to place myself in Lachlan’s shoes at the instant he was wounded and then grappled with what it must have been like to endure. Tears have fallen as I’ve envisaged him dying in that hospital in Egypt, and as I’ve imagined Great-Granny Christina, back home in Leith, opening that letter from the matron, and needing to break the news to their three children, who would always carry in them something of the man she married.
But a character portrait has also begun to emerge of a man of courage, exhibiting selflessness, and who, while staring death in the face, “was most patient in bearing his sufferings”, as Matron Hughes observed. Today, 11th November 2017, is the 100th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s death. It’s also Remembrance Day and so I choose to remember, not only his death, but his life and the lessons and legacy he left behind.
Till we meet, Grandad Lachlan, till we meet…
Until fairly recently, we knew nothing of Lachlan Macdonald’s death, aside from the fact that he died while serving during the First World War. In fact, we knew very little about him at all.
Then I discovered his grave in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, as well as a family headstone in a small cemetery on Skye, through The War Graves Photographic Project. My uncle in Edinburgh, with whom it has been such a privilege to journey on this voyage of family discovery, scanned the letter through to me from Matron Hughes, which was found amongst papers belonging to our Macdonald relatives. Following the information on Lachlan’s Kantara grave, I ordered both volumes of Major John Ewing’s The Royal Scots 1914–1919, in the hope of gaining insight into the context in which my great-grandfather served and died. Subsequent to the September 1940 bombing of London, about 60% of soldiers’ service records from the First World War were lost in the ensuing fire. Those that remained became known as the “Burnt Documents”. We are therefore incredibly fortunate that, in Lachlan’s case, his service records survived and I was able to get hold of them through Ancestry.com.
While I cannot say for sure what happened in the events leading up to Lachlan’s death, it is from piecing together the information found in these sources that the story above has gradually taken shape and the picture of his last days has become clearer. I can’t, though, even pretend to understand the Great War, and am by no means a military researcher, but have tried to ensure that facts have been retained and that my findings are consistent with them. However, it’s entirely possible that the story may continue to evolve as more evidence and new information comes to light.
Similarly, I apologise where my military knowledge, and interpretation and use of military terms, may be lacking. I’m sure my proficiency in this area will also continue to develop with time and, consequently, lend a greater depth of understanding to what we have already been able to uncover.