William Duncan Mackay was born in Skerrabeg Tongue, son of William and Betsy Mackay of Badininish, Skelbo, Sutherlandshire. He was working at the Castle Hotel in Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands when war was declared in 1914.
He enlisted into the Territorial Army in Kirkwall as a piper, when he was called up for active service and sent to the band of the 8 Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders. The 8 Seaforths were stationed in Aldershot, Hampshire with the 44 Brigade, 15(Scottish) Division preparing to embark for France.
On the 4 of July 1915, the 15 Division received orders to embark overseas and on the 7 of July the advance party moved down to Southampton, crossing to France via Le Havre. The remainder of the Division moved to France via Folkestone and Boulogne on the 8 of July, when the Seaforths arrived in France they were billeted in the town of Ganspette.
The battalion was soon in the front line on trench holding duties, training for the first major offensive they would take part in at the Battle of Loos. The British planned to break the German first and second line trenches between the Loos and Haisnes, then push on to the Haut Duele Canal in the East.
The B.E.F. Commander General Haig inspected the area to be attacked and found it to be totally unsuitable. The British were also short of artillery shells; this shortfall however was to be offset by the British first use of poison chlorine gas that was carried into the trenches in five thousand cylinders. The French General Joffre would not listen to any reason to postpone the attack or change of location; it would go ahead.
British artillery began to bombard the enemy on September the 21, due to the ammunition shortage the guns were limited to 90 rounds per heavy gun and 150 rounds per field gun to be fired over a twenty-four hour period. The damage caused was not extensive and the British commanders began to study wind speed and direction in preparation for the use of gas.
The 8 Seaforths began to move from Vermeules into the front line trenches at 5:30pm on September 24, the move was made slowly due to the amount of equipment the men had to carry and the congested state of the communication trenches. The battalion had a problem with water supplies but every second man carrying a petrol tin full of water solved this, the soldiers then filled their water bottles from this tin. The Seaforths were in position by midnight ready to launch their attack at dawn the following day. At zero hour (5:50am) on the 25 of September 1915, the 44 Brigade headquarters gave orders for the Special Battalions Royal Engineers (See John Barnetson, Melness), to begin releasing the gas from the cylinders. The gas would be sent for twelve minutes, followed by smoke for eight minutes, more gas for twelve minutes, smoke for eight minutes and then heavy smoke from candles for the final two minutes. The attacking waves of troops would then move off into the smoke and gas to assault the enemy lines.
As the gas was being deployed the wind suddenly calmed down in some sectors and in others changed direction, blowing the gas back over the British line. One gas cylinder in the Seaforths leading Company trench was hit by a shell and burst open, those men were badly gassed and unable to leave the trenches at all. German artillery now began to shell the Seaforths and with shrapnel shells bursting above their heads the men climbed out on to the trench parapet to form up ready for the attack. The pipers from the battalion struck up a tune on their pipes and moved off leading ‘A’ Company towards the enemy.
The 8 Seaforths Commanding Officer led ‘B’ Company into the attack, followed close behind by ‘C’ Company. The C.O had decided to join the attack to lead by his own example because some of the men appeared to waver in the gas, blowing back into them as they advanced. His actions were successful and the battalion charged off heading into the gas towards the heavily defended enemy lines beyond. The 8 Seaforths suffered heavy casualties from artillery fire as they took the enemy first line trench, the battalion found that the enemy wire was well cut and not many obstacles were in their way. The Commanding Officer was severely wounded by a bullet in the eye and shrapnel as he neared the German wire, Captain Ravenhill and many men from ‘A’ Company were also killed in this area.
Several officers and many non-commissioned officers were killed as the Seaforths crossed no-mans land, bearing down on the enemy trench line. German resistance broke in the face of this determined attack and the Seaforths soon fought their way through the first line of trenches into the second. Heavy hand to hand fighting took place in this sector of the line and many casualties were again suffered until the enemy broke, the Seaforths now found themselves on the edge of Loos village. Enemy machine-gun posts in front of the village were soon put out of action and battalion bombers began to clear the streets and buildings. Many Germans were killed here as the bombers attacked bunkers and cellars clearing them one by one, taking prisoner those who could fight no more. The battalion carried on pushing forward through the village capturing a battery of field guns, Sgt Macphail of ‘D’ Company shooting the German commander when he failed to surrender.
The speed of this attack had been incredible, the first line trenches were taken in fifteen minutes with the second line falling fifteen minutes later. The Germans now fled back to defences in the rear, leaving isolated pockets of resistance in the village to be cleared in desperate hand to hand fighting inside the houses.
By 10am the battalion had taken the village of Loos and moved on to attack Hill 70, a distance of 2,000 yards from the battalion start point. As the battalion moved forward onto Hill 70 other attacking British battalions joined them and the Seaforths broke up into small sections to fight alongside these units.
Once Loos had been taken the troops found that there was little enemy resistance to their front, they began to stroll forward onto the slopes of Hill 70 and sort themselves out. 0n the crest of the hill there was some uncertainty and hesitation of what to do next, those officers remaining alive were uncertain of their exact position and awaited orders from Brigade H.Q.
In front of the coal mine buildings called Puits No 12 a German battery was firing at the infantry pinning them down in their new positions, British artillery began to sweep the sides of the hill making any forward movement hazardous. Enemy machine-gun fire was now brought to bear on the attackers from a heavily defended salient in front of the village of Dynamitiere making any further advance impossible. The steady flow of reinforcements expected did not appear and for two hours the surviving attackers sat and waited for the relief to arrive. Only one artillery battery was now firing in support of the troops on Hill 70, if this battery had fired on the salient in Dynamitiere then a further advance could have been made in to Cite St Laurent.
Enemy soldiers now began to arrive and deploy in front of Hill 70, at 11:30am the enemy began to pour machine-gun fire on to the crest of the hill. A new trench was quickly dug on the western slope of the hill by men from the 10 Gordon Highlanders and 7 Cameron Highlanders, soldiers then gathered on this position and under a near by embankment.
The two remaining officers from the 8 Seaforths rallied the remnants of the battalion on this bank and steadied the men. Two machine-guns were set up, ammunition collected and when the enemy counter attack appeared over the brow of the hill it was checked and forced back. The position could not however be held and at 1pm the survivors began to pull back to a new line, then try to hold the ground taken.
The 8 Seaforths were relieved in the afternoon and withdrawn back to Loos village, where Brigade headquarters discovered that the remainder of the battalion was one junior officer and 35 men. The survivors made there way to their start point at Quality Street trench to be fed, from there they proceeded back to Vermeules to be rested and reinforced.
At the end of thirty hours fighting during the Battle of Loos the 8 Seaforth Highlanders suffered casualties of nineteen officers and seven hundred men killed or wounded. The battalion had fought well and taken its objective but at a terrible cost, men who had been civilians a few months before fought well and had proved their worth on the field of battle.
The Battle of Loos went on until October the 13, with attack and counter-attack taking place until losses made it futile to continue. The attack at Loos did not achieve any great victory and at the end of it no great gains were made, British losses were 60,392 dead and wounded with the Germans losses around 20,000 despite costly counter-attacks. The French Army suffered grievous losses in attacks to the South in support of the British at Loos, 191,797 dead and wounded with German losses around 150,000.
Piper William Duncan Mackay was killed in action at the age of twenty-four, as he piped his battalion through the gas in no-mans land and onto attack the German first line trench. He was one of five pipers killed, five were wounded; the pipers from the 8 Battalion displayed great gallantry that day as they led their comrades forward in the attack.