Monday 25 December 2023

John MacKay

It was a perfect spring morning with the temperature in the mid fifties when John MacKay, alias Tom Martin, showed up at the recruiting office to sign up with the 44th Battalion. He had chosen to enlist under an alias - as so many men did, perhaps avoiding the law, an employer or a girlfriend. His choice of “alias” was equally private.
  MacKay, the fourth son of Donald and Margaret Mackay (née Morrison), was just fifteen when he journeyed from the Isle of Lewis in the remote Outer Hebrides in 1903 to Canada, leaving behind three sisters and three brothers.

The 44th had just moved into the new Minto Armoury, but they would only be there a month before moving out in June to Camp Sewell where battalions from the West were training and where the 44th would assemble before heading overseas in October.  After a short stay in England Mackay left for France in the last week of March, 1916 and headed to the 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles. He arrived at the unit in the early evening of April 7th, joining them while they were in divisional reserve.

Two months later, in the early hours of June 2nd while the 1st Battalion CMR was in the front lines, the Germans commenced a bombardment along the entire front held by the Canadian 3rd Division but most severe in the positions held by the 8th Brigade. It continued in intensity for four and a half hours. Shortly after 1 o’clock all went quiet, but then the ground heaved in a massive mine explosion, and moments later the bombardment commenced again and the lines of the 1st Battalion were attacked by Germans and quickly over run. The battalion retired from the line on June 3rd having suffered 80% losses: there were 556 casualties among 692 men, including officers. 

John MacKay, alias Tom Martin, was listed as missing - believed to have been killed during the period of the attack - but it was a year before he was officially presumed to have been killed. In July 1917 a letter was received from Donald MacCallum, the parish minister of Keose Lochs, by Stornoway, Scotland, that stated the true name of John Mackay and his mother of the next-of-kin.

However, as of May 1921 there was still no information about the body of John MacKay and his name, serving as Tom Martin, was listed on Panel 32R of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. But in 1928, two years after the unveiling of the memorial, John MacKay's body was finally found - on Hill 60 -identified by his disc and a button.  Near his body was the identity disc of another man, Edward Currie, who was also in the 1st Battalion CMR, and the 44th Battalion before that. Currie's body, however, was not found and he is remembered on Menin Gate.

The body of John MacKay was exhumed and was buried in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery near Zillebeke. His mother provided an inscription on his gravestone. It was a biblical quotation from Psalms, chapter 90, verse 15:  Dean Subhach Sinn A Reir Nan La A Chraidh Thu Sinn Gu Goirt . . .  variously translated as Make Us Glad According to the Days Wherein Thou Hast Afflicted Us

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