Hector MacDonald

DESCRIPTION: Hector joins the army and defeats Afghans in Kandahar. At Omdurman "in his great roll of glory It added the crown to his wide-world fame." "Now the great soldier's brave soul has departed ... he died broken hearted"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1914 (GreigDuncan1)
KEYWORDS: battle death Africa nonballad soldier
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (1 citation):
GreigDuncan1 141, "Hector MacDonald" (1 text)
Roud #5774
NOTES: GreigDuncan1: "Hector Macdonald (1853-1903) became a hero in Britain, and particularly in Scotland, following the spectacular part he played in the battle of Omdurman fought in the Sudan on 2 September 1898. He shot himself when about to be court-martialled on a charge which has never been divulged but is presumed to have been one of homosexuality."
For an account of MacDonald's part on September 2 see Winson Churchill, The River War (London, 1997), pp. 209-218. Churchill: "All depended on MacDonald, and that officer, who by valour and conduct in war had won his way from the rank of a private soldier to the command of a brigade, was equal to the emergency" [p. 215]. See also Wikipedia article Battle of Omdurman - BS
Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria's Little Wars, 1972 (I use the 1985 Norton edition), p. 207. says that MacDonald first came to be noticed two dozen years before his death, in Afghanistan. As Lord Roberts traveled with a small escort in 1879, his force was attacked by Afghans. "In the sharp engagement that followed, Roberts was struck by the bravery and leadership shown by a colour sergeant of the 92nd. His name was Hector MacDonald and during the course of the action one of his men had called out to him, 'We'll make ye an officer for this day's work, Sergeant!' And another added, 'Aye, and a general too!' Roberts gave MacDonald a battlefield commission...."
He certainly didn't seem destined to be an officer in the very class-conscious British army, being a draper's assistant who had run away from home to become a soldier (Farwell, p. 247). And, indeed, he was more than nine years in the ranks before his promotion, and was still only a lieutenant in 1881, when he fought at Majuba Hill (for which see the song of that name). MacDonald was so determined that, once all else had failed, he actually fought the Boers with his fists, but finally was taken prisoner (Farwell, p. 250). Soon after, he was selected by General Evelyn Wood to be one of the two dozen officers Wood took to Egypt to rebuild the Egyptian army (Farwell, p. 282).
Initially he served as a battalion commander of Sudanese troops (Farwell, p. 332) -- another job looked down on by the snobs. He seems to have been known at this time as "Fighting Mac" (Farwell, p. 333). In 1898, as Kitchener went to fight in Sudan, Macdonald (then a colonel) was given command of a brigade of local troops (Farwell, p. 334). The Battle of Omdurman came about because Kitchener, without knowing it, planned to march across the front of a major force of dervishes. MacDonald was rather far from the main body when the Africans attacked. He calmly swung his brigade to face them, and beat off a force estimated at 20,000 (Farwell, p. 338). Farwell credits MacDonald solely with the victory; he thinks Kitchener botched his part. David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition), p. 208, also mentions his noteworthy work at Omdurman, which "enable[d] Kitchener to complete the rout of the enemy and enter Omdurman in triumph."
Other battles in which Macdonald served included Gemaizah, Toski, Tokar, Firket, and Hafir (Farwell, p. 334).
"The fate of the crofter's son was [sad]. Macdonald further distinguished himself in the Boer War and he eventually became a major-general, but in 1903, while commanding the British forces in Ceylon, he was charged with being a practicing homosexual. He went to London to defend himself, but was ordered back to Ceylon to face a court of inquiry. He got no further than Paris. There in a hotel room this officer, so brave under the fire of Afghans, Dervishes and Boers, shot himself" (Farwell, p. 338).
MacDonald would have been 61 in 1914 -- still young enough, probably, for field service. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if he, rather than the excitable John French (one year older) or the unimaginative Douglas Haig (eight years younger) had commanded the British in France.
This is all the more so since there were apparently legends about his death, and perhaps even his return to fight for Britain; according to Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint), p. 25, "Such theories [about sleeping heroes] cannot now survive the natural span of a life.... but that they spring up as spontaneously in modern as in earlier times can hardly be denied by any who remember toe loss of Lord Kitchener, or the many curious stories which followed the deaths of Sir Hector Macdonald and Adolf Hitler."
Hole describes this theory on pp. 36-37. One version makes the German general Mackensen to be MacDonald in disguise! She suggests that this was because MacDonald received a very low-key funeral, without military honors. Presumably this was because he was a suicide and a probable homosexual, but it led to rumors that he wasn't really dead. - RBW
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File: GrD1141

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