John McDonald - 1890-1947
Home ] Up ] Photo Galleries ] Town Guides ] Notables ] Community ] News ] Places ] History ] Search ] Contact Us ]


John Mc Donald was born at Lochfoot, Dumfries. He served in the first World War with the Army Service Corps from 1914 to 1919. John's granddaughter Brenda Collins has preserved several letters and photographs from his military service which give us a remarkable first hand account of the conditions under which members of the British and Greek forces served in the Salonika campaign in the Struma valley. Excerpts of John's letters with photos from his war years and other family photos can be found below. The full text of the letters follows at the end of the page. Click on the images to view full size.

After his service in World War I John was appointed headmaster of Kirkmichael Public School in 1919 where he served until 1941 when he as promoted to Tarbolton. He was also a Mason of Lodge St. John Maybole No 11. See John McDonald's obituary from the Ayrshire Post below for full details. Our thanks for Brenda Collins for sharing these photos and documents with our visitors.


...Early in October we left the Langaza district for the fighting area. At the end of our first day's march we tied up the horses and mules, and slept at the roadside near Likovan. Next morning we set out again, and in the afternoon we could hear the artillery very distinctly. Towards evening we reached the top of the range of high hills running along the South-West of the Struma Valley.

 

There I got my first glimpse of war. I shall never forget it. Away down in front of us lay the Struma Plain shut in with the ranges of hills reaching the clouds on both sides of it. Along the plain the Struma was winding, and on this side our guns, and on the other side the enemy guns were pouring out shells, and the noise rolled like thunder among the hills. We left the main road, and we were divided up for the different companies we had to reinforce.

 


.... Every day you could see little clouds of dust rising from these tracks as small parties of our troops or pack-mule convoys passed along them. These fellows had a terrible thirst. How could they escape it? Water was scarce, and the air was hot and dust-laden. One of these tracks led along a ridge till you came to a level space, from which you could see a native village lying away down the valley. There would be water there.

 

At this point you would always find an old woman waiting for the troops to halt. She was old, very old, and as ugly as she was old. Apparently she was in poverty too. But the water she served out from these urns beside her was clear, very clear, and as cold as it was clear.

 


 

...After dark I went down the Mahmudli Pass in the moonlight. I had a few Britishers and a number of Greeks each with several mules. When we reached the plain I had a little adventure *** of which I will tell you when I come home. At last we reached our destination, fed and tied up the mules, and then lay and shivered till morning. The guns continued to thunder all night.

Next day they suddenly stopped. There was a short truce to bury the dead and gather in the wounded. The enemy took advantage of the truce to retreat, and then you would read that the British Forces had crossed the Strums, and were holding the ground lately in the hands of the enemy. The enemy took up a position along the foot of the hills on the other side, and so things have stood all winter.

It has been a case of watching one another all winter, and both sides building up strength. A few nights ago a terrific bombardment commenced. We thought the crash had come. We got out of our beds to see how things were going, but within an hour all was quiet again. Some nights there is a great deal of rifle fire, but there has been no great engagement for months. But there are rumours.  The air seems to be electrified with them and it is expected everywhere that there will be a big push before the end of this month.


...Comparatively speaking, I am not in great danger. Of course a shell may come over at any time, and I may get a share of it, but it is the Infantry that get the worst of it.

...It is no wonder that this country is full of disease. The skeletons of men and animals killed in the last Balkan War are still lying bleaching in the sun. When an animal belonging to the Greeks dies, they skin it, and leave the carcass to the eagles.

 ... I feel confident that I shall get through all right. My life here has been better guided for me than I could have planned it myself, and out of the past I get confidence for the future, but should the final sacrifice be required, I shall not shrink from it.

(In the photos left and right are John McDonald's wife Agnes.)

                                     

Photo on the left:
John McDonald in 1892 at the age of 2.

Photo on the right:
John McDonald on his graduation from Glasgow University where he graduated M.A. In his earlier years he gained experience in several Glasgow Schools.


Image on the left: Dumfries Academy report card for the session 1904-1905.

Image on the right: Merit Certificate for John McDonald December 1902 at the age of 12.


 

Kirkmichael School House where John McDonald was appointed headmaster of Kirkmichael Public School in 1919, and continued as such until his promotion to Tarbolton in 1941. In Kirkmichael he identified himself with various local activities, taking an active interest in the British Legion, the Amateur Dramatic Society, the Ayrshire Beekeepers' Association; he was secretary of the Kirkmichael Working Men's Club and president and secretary of the Horticultural Association.

During World War II John McDonald has some responsibilities for taking care of evacuees as noted in this letter.  "...The headmaster, who is in charge of affairs here, visited us today to see how we were managing and I told him I was seriously thinking of going home and I told him a few home truths about the place. He was very nice indeed and advised me to try and remain now that war has broken out."


A few weeks after posting this page to the Maybole website we received the following message.

"I found information on John McDonald from your Maybole site. For your interest I have a Book by John Sadleir called Recollections of a Police Officer.. a book on his time as a policeman in Victoria Australia. Its mainly about Ned Kelly the Australian Bushranger and the book was awarded as prize for Art to Thomas Huston by John McDonald school principal in 1921. Here is a scan of the Prize page.  
Michael Ball, Sydney Australia


Certificate on the left: Grand Lodge of Scotland, 13 Day of June 1939.
Be it Known to all whom it may concern that Brother John McDonald Master Mason of the Lodge St. John Maybole No. 11 has been admitted a Mark Master in the manner authorised by the Constitution and Laws.
 

Certificate on the right: Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland for John McDonald.


Photo on the left: Father of John McDonald and his wife Catherine McKenzie at Fort George. Inset is John McDonald.

Photo on the right: John McDonald.

TRUE TALES of the GREAT WAR 
As Told By Those Who Took Part In It

 

A CUP OF COLD WATER

The Struma Valley proved a veritable death-trap to our fellows. No wonder the mosquito buzzed so gaily at night when so many of us lay there for him to feast upon. Later, however, we tried to dodge him, for we were withdrawn to the hills when the hot season came round. This brought us nearer to the villages in which the natives were still allowed to live.

 

From Mirova, a rail-head, mountain tracks led away across towards Kopriva and other parts of our front. Every day you could see little clouds of dust rising from these tracks as small parties of our troops or pack-mule convoys passed along them. These fellows had a terrible thirst. How could they escape it? Water was scarce, and the air was hot and dust-laden.

One of these tracks led along a ridge till you came to a level space, from which you could see a native village lying away down the valley. There would be water there. It seemed guile near, and yet it was too far for the short time our men were allowed to rest there.

 

At this point you would always find an old woman waiting for the troops to halt. She was old, very old, and as ugly as she was old. Apparently she was in poverty too. But the water she served out from these urns beside her was clear, very clear, and as cold as it was clear. What a chance for her to make a little fortune!

 

I had my drink, and then, taking out some money. I said. "How much?" She was adamant in her refusal to take money. This was surprising. the natives were all alter Tommy's cash, and a drink like that was worth half a drachma. So she continued carrying up her urns early every morning, and serving out drinks to our thirsty men. Having the interpreter with me one day, I asked him why she took no money. He had a chat with her. Now, if any fellow who has had a drink from this old woman should happen to see this, he will remember her with gratitude; but let him read on, and reverence will be added to his gratitude.

 

Here is her story briefly. She was a Christian, and her home was in Asia Minor. Her life, and the lives of her friends, were endangered by the advance of the Turks. But British troops saved them, and from Smyrna British sailors took them to Salonika. Then a British motor lorry brought them up to that village down in the valley. She was in poverty and she was too old to work. But the others were working down there, and she came up with the water every day to pay back the British for having saved them.

J. Mc D.

 

AYRSHIRE POST NOVEMBER 7, 1947 OBITUARY MR. J. MC DONALD

The death took place at Lochend, Tarbolton, on Thursday of last week, after a long illness, of Mr. John Mc Donald, who had been headmaster of the Public School there since the summer of 1941. Mr. Mc Donald was born at Lochfoot, Dumfries, and educated at Dumfries Academy and at Glasgow University where he graduated M.A. In his earlier years he gained experience in several Glasgow Schools, and in the first World War served with the Army Service Corps from 1914 to 1919, being finally attached to the Greek Army at Salonika. He was appointed headmaster of Kirkmichael Public School in 1919, and continued as such until his promotion to Tarbolton.

 

In Kirkmichael he identified himself with various local activities, taking an active interest in the British Legion, the Amateur Dramatic Society, the Ayrshire Beekeepers' Association; he was secretary of the Kirkmichael Working Men's Club and president and secretary of the Horticultural Association. Mr. Mc Donald was a recognized authority on beekeeping and had lectured on the subject, while he was a firm believer in the value of gardening as a school subject. Since going to Tarbolton Mr. Mc Donald continued to take an active part in community life and he did good work as secretary and treasurer of the local Nursing Association and the Boy Scout Troop. He was an Elder in Tarbolton Church. His wife predeceased him some years ago, and Mr. Mc Donald (who was 57), is survived by his married daughter, resident in Staffordshire. His father is still alive at the age of 92.

LETTER FROM JOHN MC DONALD TO HIS SISTER MEG FROM MACEDONIA -- WRITTEN ON PAGES FROM HIS ARMY NOTEBOOK

MEKES,              1.

STRUMA VALLEY.

MACEDONIA.

16/03/17

My Dear Sister,

I intend to send you this letter uncensored, so I shall be able to tell you some things I could not tell you in the ordinary course. I have already sent Nessie similar letters in a similar way, and I daresay she will have told you about the Division I am in, and the front I am on. I left the Base about the middle of last September, and came up with reinforcements, - men and mules, - for the 10th (Irish) Division. The old Lowland Divisional Train has become the 10th Divisional Train. We lay near Langaza Lakes for a few weeks, and our Sergt.-Major went with a draft for a Field Ambulance, and was left as acting Sergt.-Major of the Reinforcements.

 

Early in October we left the Langaza district for the fighting area. The country we had to cross consisted of range after range of high hills, and between every two ranges, a flat plain. At the end of our first day's march we tied up the horses and mules, and slept at the roadside near Likovan. Next morning we set out again, and in the afternoon we could hear the artillery very distinctly. Towards evening we reached the top of the range of high hills running along the South-West of the Struma Valley. There I got my first glimpse of war. I shall never forget it. Away down in front of us lay the Struma Plain shut in with the ranges of hills reaching the clouds on both sides of it. Along the plain the Struma was winding, and on this side our guns, and on the other side the enemy guns were pouring out shells, and the noise rolled like thunder among the hills. We left the main road, and we were divided up for the different companies we had to reinforce.

 

After dark I went down the Mahmudli Pass in the moonlight. I had a few Britishers and a number of Greeks each with several mules. When we reached the plain I had a little adventure *** of which I will tell you when I come home. At last we reached our destination, fed and tied up the mules, and then lay and shivered till morning. The guns continued to thunder all night. Next day they suddenly stopped. There was a short truce to bury the dead and gather in the wounded. The enemy took advantage of the truce to retreat, and then you would read that the British Forces had crossed the Strums, and were holding the ground lately in the hands of the enemy. The enemy took up a position along the foot of the hills on the other side, and so things have stood all winter.

 

For a time we were in dug-outs, and in December we moved forward a little nearer the Strums and our Company was lucky enough to get into the village of Mekes, and of course we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We cannot go much further forward. I do not see how we can possibly drive the enemy over the hills. They have a strong position on the hills. they have search lights on them that can light up any part of the plain, and they have at least one gun which fires shells a considerable distance, - two miles or so, across the Strums, but they have not used their heavy artillery much. Neither have our men.

 

It has been a case of watching one another all winter, and both sides building up strength. A few nights ago a terrific bombardment commenced. We thought the crash had come. We got out of our beds to see how things were going, but within an hour all was quiet again. Some nights there is a great deal of rifle fire, but there has been no great engagement for months. But there are rumours  in the air seems to be electrified with them, and it is expected everywhere that there will be a big push before the end of this month.

 

It is certain that we cannot remain in the valley during the summer on account of the terrific heat and the disease. It is called the Valley of Death. The Greeks lay their heads to one side and shut their eyes and say, 'English soldier stay here: plenty sick; English soldier finish'. As you know we have more Greeks in our Company than Britishers. It is a cause of great discontent. The Greeks are fed and clothed as we are, but they get 2/6 a day, whereas the most a British A.S.C. Driver can yet is 1/8 a day. Besides, the Greek is unarmed. He goes light, and the British A.S.C. man here dare not go out without his rifle and ammunition. In the event of a retreat the British A.S.C. man would have to fight, while the Greek would go down the line with the mules and wagons. In our Company it is a case of Pack Saddles, not wagons.

 

For a long time I was acting C.O.M.S. and the Commanding Officer applied for my promotion, but it did not go through. Lately I have been employed in connection with the Greeks, and in a day or two I expect to take up another job. I am going to the Gas School to be trained to act as Company Gas N.C.O. It seems from the preparations that are being made that they expect gas attacks to take a large place in the fighting this Spring. While being trained in gas work I shall be attached to the 31st field Ambulance for rations. S.M. Ross is Sergt. Major there.

 

I shall tell you in an ordinary letter more about two visits I have had there. During the winter I had the opportunity of returning to England to undergo a course for a commission in the Cavalry, but I decided to carry on here. I have been very fortunate out here, and in fact. I have much to be thankful for. I was not long out before I had to mount any horse given me and go on one job or another, and I have never yet had an accident with horses. Several limes my horse has lost his footing on rough loose hill sides, and if I had not got clear I would have been crushed to pulp. But I have always escaped without a scratch. I have never been exposed to rifle fire as yet, and any time I have been under shell fire I have been spared.

 

I shall never forget one moment in my life when I dismounted and stood at my horse's head prepared to leave this world. Several shrapnel shells burst overhead but I did not get as much as a souvenir. As you know we had a severe though short winter. We depend on one road from Salonika for food and ammunition. That road is over 70 Kilometres long, about 50 miles. There is a constant stream of motor lorries on it. When the snow came, the motors could not come over the high hills, so nearly all our men and our mules had to go down and meet them. Two Sergeants went from this Company, and I was lucky enough not to be one of them. The men on this job had to travel all the day in the snow storm, and pitch their tents among the snow at night. This went on for several weeks. We were on short rations, of course, but the enemy were worse off. Some prisoners we captured at this time were sick, and the first time they were given food they vomited it and grass along with it. Our mules suffered more than our men. The Drivers going out to harness up in the mornings several times found their mules up to the belly in mud and some of them frozen to death, and we had several cases of mules sinking in mud and slush, and being suffocated. But we were well prepared for winter.

 

Every man had more than he required in winter clothing, and with lying so long at the one place a good supply of spare tinned food had accumulated. Now we are having beautiful sunny days, - like a Scotch summer. Last Monday I was out on the plain for the first time since October. It was a lovely day, and I had to go away down the road towards Salonika, - about 10 Kilometres. It was delightful to be up among the hills again. In dry weather there is a continual cloud of dust hanging over the road on account of the traffic, the road is as busy as a city street. There is one long line of traffic going in each direction, motor lorries with stores of all kinds, ammunition columns, wagons with teams of mules, ambulance wagons, Indian transport wagons, and sometimes Greek bullock wagons.

 

The whole valley is filled with fig trees, vines, melon fields, cotton fields, maize fields etc. and in summer it is swarming with tortoises, lizards, frogs, mosquitoes, ants and a few snakes. There are no civilians, of course, in the fighting area. I wish you could see the church in this village. I shall tell you about it when I come back.

 

The people must have had a rough time when they had to clear out. In this village an old woman was left, - too old to go with the rest. The village was under shell fire, and when our men reached it they found the woman dead; - the shock had killed her. The Engineers buried her, and put up a cross made from two boards off a biscuit box. Many a time I have passed it looking desperately for wood to make a fire, and I am glad to see now that the cold weather is past that nobody in the Company has interfered with that cross though they went the length of pulling down houses in the night-time to get firewood. The houses are built with beams of wood and mud bricks.

Comparatively speaking, I am not in great danger. Of course a shell may come over at any time, and I may get a share of it, but it is the Infantry that get the worst of it. We are lying behind the artillery, and it is very seldom that the enemy shells come much beyond our artillery. I do not expect to get through the summer if we stay here but you must not be alarmed if you hear of my admission to Hospital. I was just struggling along last October when the cool weather came and saved me from going down with fever. The chances are that I shall take it again this summer when we get the intense heat. Last summer in the British Salonika Force 69,000 men were admitted to Hospital with Malaria. These are official figures. But they have a good service of motor ambulances and they soon get the men down to Salonika and on board ship for Malta.

Nearly all the men in this Company who were here last summer were in Hospital some time or other with fever or dysentery. During the hot weather every man is forced to take a dose of quinine every day. It is no wonder that this country is full of disease. The skeletons of men and animals killed in the last Balkan War are still lying bleaching in the sun. When an animal belonging to the Greeks dies, they skin it, and leave the carcass to the eagles. The water too is bad, and in summer it is impossible to do without drinking it. Dysentery sets in, and you can see men getting thinner every day. Sometimes the dysentery is too slight to cause a man to go to Hospital, but he does not get the good of his food and after he becomes weak the fever soon sets in.

However, I am getting too gloomy in this letter. Don't think I am worrying about it. I am just facing the fact that I shall get my share of the troubles going, but somehow I feel confident that I shall get through all right. My life here has been better guided for me than I could have planned it myself, and out of the past I get confidence for the future, but should the final sacrifice be required, I shall not shrink from it.

You will soon be having sunny days at home. I hope your good health will continue none the worse of the winter.

Best Love.
Your loving brother,            
Jack.

( *** Dad's ' little adventure " was when he was riding by the river looking at the shell bursting overhead with his mouth open, and lost his dentures he was lucky to find them in the sand.)

 

ADDRESS IN AUGUST 1916

JOHN MCDONALD

T. 4/213815

NO. 663 COY.,AS.C.,

HORSE TRANSPORT