James Robert Mackenzie was born in Ardgay, Ross-shire he was the son of Mr and Mrs John Mackenzie the owners of Tongue Hotel, Tongue. His father employed him at Tongue Hotel as a car driver, on the Tongue to Lairg and Tongue to Thurso routes. James was known to his family and friends as Hamish.
In 1916 he joined the Royal Engineers Wireless Section, once he had completed his military training he was sent to France in early 1917. The Royal Engineers Wireless Section was the forerunner of the modern British Army Royal Corps of Signals. The signals units were equipped with huge radio sets, called the BF (British Field) trench set. The radio required three men to carry them, under battlefield conditions six men were required to move the radio and its entire ancillary equipment.
In December 1917, Hamish was home on leave in Tongue, before he returned to his unit in the front lines in France.
On the 21 of March 1918 the German Army launched Operation ‘Michael’, against the British lines on the 1916 Somme battlefield. The German attack was launched at 4:30am with the sudden crash 4,000 guns firing a heavy barrage on to the British frontline. Five hours behind the bombardment enemy ‘Stormtroopers’ battalions hit the British lines like a battering ram, attempting to force their way through.
During the first day of the offensive it looked like this might happen, as the enemy broke through the thinly held line and into the British rear area. The 5 Army, on the Somme suffered a disaster and had to retire; whole regiments of British soldiers disappeared as the ‘Stormtroopers’ attacked using new tactics where they bypassed strongly held positions.
British losses on day one were 38,500 men of which 7,500 were killed; 5 Army alone lost 382 guns, only the arrival of French support troops stopped the retreat. The German High Command also made some serious mistakes, which robbed them of the success they required. Enemy units had no armoured cars, no motorised machine gunners or cavalry available to pursue the retreating British troops, the advance had to proceed at infantry pace. The ‘Stormtroopers’ soon began to take heavy losses as the British defence stiffened; casualties the German High Command could not replace with fresh troops.
The British Army now fought with its ‘back to the wall’ and were soon exhausted by the heavy enemy attacks, some parts of the line was only held by scratch units of cooks, drivers and other non-combatants. These men were rushed forward from rear areas to plug gaps in the line; most of them had joined the army never expecting to meet the enemy with a fixed bayonet.
Private James Robert Mackenzie was killed in action when he volunteered for a last stand attack launched on March 26; the attack was to finally stop the German onslaught. He was told that those men who volunteered for the attack would not survive, he was killed in action at the age of 20 as his unit of volunteer’s advanced towards the enemy line to try and stem a German offensive.
His brother Donald Ian Mackenzie was a piper in the Scots Guards; he survived the war and returned to Tongue. His Uncle Peter from the Oykell Hotel, Oykell Bridge near Lairg who served in the Canadian Forces, died in Tongue Hotel in May 1918 from the wounds and the effects of gas. He had fought in France for three years before he was wounded; he was buried at Tomnahurich cemetery in Inverness with full military honours.