One hundred years ago, a young farm boy from the wilds of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia volunteered to fight in a war thousands of miles away, for a country he had never seen.
Malcolm Joseph MacKinnon’s forbears had come to Nova Scotia from the Outer Hebrides more than a century earlier, to escape the poverty that followed the notorious clearances of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, during which people were evicted from the land in their tens of thousands to make way for sheep. But Malcolm was Canadian born and bred, five feet nine inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, 38-inch chest at full expansion and, according to the medical officer who examined him at the recruiting office in the old colonial capital of Sydney, in A1 physical condition, apart from a nasty three-inch scar below his left elbow.
A year later he was gone. 478544 Private MacKinnon of the Royal Canadian Regiment perished on the Somme battlefield; one of the millions of mouthless dead who marched in their pale battalions to the grave. Just 22, he had already witnessed the horror of the Ypres salient, braving poison gas and matted rolls of barbed wire to attack entrenched German positions around the ironically named Sanctuary Wood and Mount Sorrel. How profoundly the reality of merciless, mechanised war with its deafening noise and everyday carnage affected this young man from a quiet family farm half the world away can only be imagined.
Days before his death, Malcolm surived a murderous action at Zollern Graben, in which 272 of his comrades were killed or wounded. But at Regina Trench, Thiepval Ridge at 04.50 on October 8, 1916 — in the pre-dawn darkness and cold autumn rain — Malcolm’s luck ran out. Like so many of the fallen in that pitiless offensive, his body was never identified — too mutilated by shot and shell, or simply buried too deeply in the cloying Picardy mud.
He is commemorated, along with 11,168 others, at the almost unbearably poignant Vimy Ridge memorial to the Canadian missing — where Mother Canada, in the sculpted form of a huge cloaked Madonna, looks down over the Douai plain, weeping for her lost children.
Malcolm’s real mother, Peggy, was so traumatised when told of his fate that she simply refused to believe he was dead, convincing herself instead that he was suffering from amnesia and wandering round Europe in a shell-shocked daze. Until the end of the Second World War, she would ask young Cape Breton men on their way to fight in France to seek news of him and report back.
The War Office entertained no such optimistic illusions. Malcolm was declared missing presumed dead and his parents were eventually sent the bronze memorial plaque given to the families of all soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in the Great War — referred to in the gallows humour of the Tommy as the Dead Man’s Penny. It shows the embossed figure of Britannia holding the victor’s laurels with a lion at her feet, and bears Malcolm’s name with the legend, “He Died for Freedom and Honour.”
Given that I have no links with the MacKinnon family and had never heard of Malcolm until very recently, how do I know these things? Because I am now the custodian of that bronze plaque, which somehow fell out of the hands of the MacKinnon family and found its way to a London auction house, where I bought it for £90 — a meagre sum considering its awesome symbolism.
I’ve had a lifelong attraction for ephemera — inherited from my father — and the house is littered with random “stuff” — a merlin’s egg taken from a nest in the Eston Hills by a Victorian sea captain, a 1958 FA Cup Final programme which tells, through the ghostly absence of Duncan Edwards and the rest, the tragedy of the Munich air disaster, and old coins from Persia, India and ancient Rome. There is an early edition of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, inscribed in 1899 to a man I fondly imagine to have been a subaltern on the North-West Frontier, a plate one Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and a signed etching by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. It’s not so much a collection as a jumble. But every item has a story.
I bought Malcolm’s plaque because I felt sad that it was no longer cherished and wanted to discover more about his short life and unquiet death. As much as anything, it was a mark of respect for his largely forgotten sacrifice. Like most Britons, I have folk stories of relatives who fought and died in the Great War, fighting for their homeland in what they believed to be an existential struggle. Malcolm was one of hundreds of thousands from the dominions and colonies with only historic ties to the old country but who stood with it side by side.
There are, of course, bitter criticisms of the way the war was conducted by the generals and politicians, and disillusionment over the unconscionable scale of human sacrifice had set in well before the end of the war, both in Britain and across the empire. More than 61,000 Canadians died, 60,000 Australians, 64,000 Indians, and 17,000 New Zealanders — with at least twice as many wounded and many more returning home as broken men. Yet sorrow and incomprehension at the waste of life is mixed with an intense national pride in the courage of those young men that remains strong a century later. In Canada, the name of Vimy Ridge has an almost biblical significance, as do Pozières in Australia, Flers-Courcelette in New Zealand, and Delville Wood in parts of South Africa. Travel to any of these Somme sites today and you will almost certainly hear the distinctive accents of those countries among the visitors, many of them children hungry for knowledge.
Malcolm, who lived on a remote family farmstead at Iona Rear, near Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or lakes, first enlisted with Nova Scotia’s Argyll Highlanders, later transferring to the Royal Canadian Regiment.
Some general information about his service was provided at the auction sale and I was able to piece together other fragments of his life from an internet trawl and with the invaluable assistance over email of three kind and helpful Cape Breton historians.
On his mother’s side, Malcolm was a MacNeil, probably a descendant of Donald “Og” MacNeil from the Hebridean island of Barra, who served with the British army in Canada during the late 1750s, helping to drive the French out of Cape Breton. During his service, local legend has it that MacNeil saw and was captivated by the uninhabited area around the Bras d’Or — with its freshwater springs and lakes teeming with fish — and returning to Barra on leave, sought to persuade his neighbours and relatives to emigrate there.
Og himself died with Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, but the people of Barra began arriving not long after, including two of his sons who landed in 1813. Malcolm’s paternal greatgrandfather John MacKinnon — also a Roman Catholic crofter from Barra — arrived at Cape Breton around the same time. One of five children, Malcolm is listed on the 1911 census as living on a subsistence farm. According to historian James St Clair, there would have been some sheep, a few cattle for making butter and cheese, and a large potato and turnip patch.
Local timber would have been cut for sale as pit props for coal mines in the Sydney area. Surrounding Malcolm’s family on similar small farms of 50 or 100 acres would have been many other MacKinnons and MacNeils, all of Roman Catholic faith and all descended from the emigrants of Barra. Gaelic was the language of the household, English of the local school.
Brian Tennyson, emeritus professor of history at Cape Breton University, said that despite being at least third-generation Canadian, Malcolm would still have felt a strong sense of duty to the crown, which may have been the key to why he joined up. But he would also have seen it as an adventure and a relief from the drudgery of his daily chores and the insularity of his life. At the time of his enlistment, few believed the war would last much longer and had little conception of the terrors the Western Front held.
The most thrilling moment of my brief flurry of research came when, on a website commemorating the war dead of Cape Breton’s Victoria County, I actually saw Malcolm’s face. The picture is grainy but the features unmistakeably Celtic, with a pale complexion, strong chin and jawline, and a tough, defiant stare.
I’m glad to have discovered something of Malcolm’s story and will certainly look for his name on the rolls next time I’m near Vimy. Who knows, I might even make it to the Bras d’Or lakes some day to see what so excited Og MacKinnon 250 years ago.
The empire is more or less over but the blood ties forged between Britain and the Commonwealth nations in the Great War live on. And whatever bitterness there may have been about the conduct of the war, 21 years later, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi terror, those same nations rallied again to the cause.
Today we have new alliances in Europe but they are built mainly on considerations of trade and security rather than lasting friendship. We share much of our DNA with the French and Germans but historically they have been our enemies at least as often as our comrades in arms. And it’s hard to think of anything we really have in common with Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria, engaging and hardworking as the people of those countries may be.
So even if in the forthcoming referendum Britain votes to remain in the EU, we should never forget those who have been our oldest and most constant friends. If my back is ever truly against the wall and I can choose who to stand with me, give me a Canadian, an Anzac or a Gurkha over a Luxembourger any day.