The Gordons


Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald DSO KCB


Early Life
Hector Archibald Macdonald was one of the most famous British soldiers of the late 19th century. He rose from the ranks to the officer class, gaining a reputation for great bravery but fell short of expectations in his private life, so that when the threat of public exposure loomed large he committed suicide.

He was born on 4th March 1853, the Gaelic-speaking son of a poor crofter, near Dingwall in Ross-shire. His first job at the age of 15 was as a draper's apprentice but he was always hankering after a military life. On 11th June 1870 he joined the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, adding a year to his real age to gain entrance, and failing to tell his employer or his parents.

He was a keen soldier and rose to the rank of sergeant by December 1873. His CO told him, 'Remember that a sergeant in the 92nd is at least equal to a member of Parliament, and I expect you to behave accordingly.' Hector studied hard and while in India learned Hindustani, Urdu and Pashto.

Second Afghan War 1878-80
In 1879 the 92nd were part of Lord Roberts's advance on Kabul, and Colour Sergeant Macdonald proved himself to be a skilled leader in a small engagement near Karatiga where he led a detachment of highlanders and Sikhs up a steep slope to scatter a force of 2000 tribesmen. This action was mentioned in Lord Roberts' despatch.

A second display of courage and leadership, this time at Charasia, prompted Roberts to recommend him for a commission. And so, on 7th Jan 1880, after 9 years in the ranks, at the age of 27, Hector Macdonald became a 2nd Lieutenant in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. He took part in the fighting at Sherpur and the march from Kabul to Kandahar.

First Boer War 1881
In 1881 the 92nd embarked for South Africa to take part in the ill-fated first Boer War. General Colley decided to take 650 of his men, including 180 Gordons, up Majuba Hill. The Boers managed to scale the hill and forced the British to retreat. Macdonald was one of the few men to distinguish himself that day. He was in charge of 20 men on the west face of the hill who put up a stiff resistance. Eight of them were killed and the rest, apart from Macdonald and one other, were wounded. They were forced to surrender and he was taken prisoner. Out of their 180 men the Gordons lost 44 killed and 52 wounded.

Macdonald was taken to the corpse of General Colley to identify it. He was also allowed to give help to the wounded. He was not held prisoner for long; his sword was returned to him and he was released at Newcastle in Natal. Evelyn Wood's despatch mentioned his 'conspicuous gallantry'.

Marriage
The success of Macdonald's army career was in direct contrast to his private life. When the 92nd (now the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders) returned to Britain in Jan 1882 after 12 years overseas service Hector faced a break from campaigning of two and a half years. In Edinburgh he was introduced to the Duncan family who had a daughter, Christina, aged 15. He visited the family frequently and Hector and Christina fell in love. Marriage was not on the cards because of her age and because Hector could not afford it. He had no private income and was struggling to support himself on his army pay.

However, when Christina reached the age of 17 Hector convinced the Duncans that he was soon to be promoted to captain and would be able to afford to support them both, so a secret marriage was arranged on 16th June 1884. But he must have had doubts because in November Macdonald exchanged into the 1st Battalion to take part in the Gordon Relief Expedition in the Sudan. He told Christina that he would only be away for a few months but he was gone for nearly 3 years.

When the battalion moved to Malta in 1885 Macdonald decided to stay in Egypt and join Valentine Baker's Egyptian Constabulary. He remained there until 1888. On 16th March 1888 Christina bore him a son, called Hector. The absent father managed to return on leave the following year but he carried on with his pursuit of advancement and by July 1891 was a major. He saw action in the Sudan, and at Toski he won the newly instituted DSO.

He did not neglect his wife, he sent money to her, but she was under pressure to legitamise her son. Their marriage, although legal in Scottish law, was not properly recognised so she had to take the matter to court where the marriage was granted a decree. But Macdonald never lived with his wife.

Sudan 1896-97
Gordon Macdonald
Macdonald in the Sudan
Macdonald had learned Arabic whilst in Egypt and he was now in command of the 11th Sudanese Battalion which he moulded into an effective unit. In 1896 he was ordered to establish a fort at Akasha and advance on Dongola with a brigade. He attacked Firket and managed to occupy the town of Dongola on 23rd Sep. He was rewarded with a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy.

When Lord Kitchener was sirdar of the Egyptian Army he organised the building of the railway to Dongola. A terminus was planned at Abu Hamed but Dervishes were in control of the area. A flying column led by Archibald Hunter was sent there to secure Abu Hamed. Macdonald's Sudanese brigade were part of the column and help achieve the objective, and to occupy Berber.

This encouraged Kitchener and the British to re-conquer Sudan. On 8th April 1898 the Dervish camp at Atbara was successfully over-run and the enemy defeated. The British press were there to see it all and their attention was drawn to Hector Macdonald. They dubbed him 'Fighting Mac' and created a celebrity for the public.

Omdurman 1st Sep 1898
But Fighting Mac's finest hour was yet to come. At the battle of Omdurman it at first appeared that the Dervishes had been stopped after a devastating storm of rifle fire from the British troops caused the enemy bodies to pile up. As the army marched towards Omdurman, Macdonald's men were ordered to bring up the rear. They were still deployed for battle which was fortunate because a fresh mass of Dervishes threw themselves at the marching column. But Kitchener's army was protected by Mac's men and the enemy were beaten off by them. Then from another direction a new force of Dervishes attacked. The brigade had to move themselves around to face them. Under Macdonad's command the manoeuvre was accomplished like a parade ground drill. In fact his officers had started to wheel into line before the order was given and Mac rebuked them for it as the enemy were running towards them.

The Dervishes were engaging with Mac's Sudanese while other brigades came to their aid. Finally the battle of Omdurman was finished. The press were delighted with the performance of their new celebrity. The most famous account, by G W Steevens of the Daily Mail, was as follows:

"Beneath the strong, square-hewn face you can tell that the brain is working as if packed in ice. He sat solid on his horse, and bent his black brows towards the green flag and the Remingtons...He saw everything; knew what to do; knew how to do it; did it...all saw him, and knew that they were being nursed to triumph."

Fighting Mac's reward was to be promoted to colonel. He was also appointed ADC to the Queen which brought in no extra money but cost him the price of a new uniform. The press were critical of the authorities for not including him on the honours list. But he was feted as a hero by the public and invited to banquets in his honour. Kitchener, of course, was jealous of Macdonald for deflecting the glory away from him.

Boer War 1899-1902
Mac soon tired of the constant round of dinners and presentations and was glad to be sent to India in 1899 to command a district in the Punjab. But a few months later he was on his way to South Africa for the Boer War. He arrived after the terrible defeat of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein. Their commander, Major-General Wachope had been killed so Mac was given the job, but he was astonished at the demoralised state of the decimated brigade.

At Paardeberg he led his men in a futile assault and was wounded by a bullet through the foot. He was disabled for several months and prevented from living up to the public's great expectations of his military prowess. The war produced few opportunities for him to shine and it seemed that he had passed his peak. However, at Brandwater basin he was involved in the capture of General Prinsloo. Later he directed operations from his HQ at Aliwal North. It was here that a rumour developed about Hector's homosexual involvement with a Boer prisoner.

Ceylon 1902
Gordon Macdonald
von Mackensen
Macdonald expressed a hope that he might be appointed Commander-in-Chief in Australia and emphasised the point by going there at his own expense. He was given a hero's welcome, and in New Zealand ex-patriat Scots hauled his carriage through Auckland. As it turned out he was given command of Ceylon instead. He arrived there in May 1902, newly knighted, amidst talk of his lack of interest in ladies.

In Feb 1903 a complaint was made to the Governor, by a clergyman and some schoolmasters, that Macdonald was in the practice of indulging in inappropriate behaviour with English boys aged 12 or 13. There was also talk of misbehaviour with native boys in a railway carriage and another story of indecent exposure. The Governor sent him on leave to England in early 1903 but he was hoping not to see him again. However, Macdonald was ordered to return to Ceylon to face a court martial. He booked his return passage from Marsailles to Ceylon and checked in to the Regina Hotel in Paris. It was there, on the 25th March, in room 105, that he put a pistol to his head and shot himself.

It was only after his death that it became generally known that he had a wife and son. His widow declined the offer of a full military funeral and had him buried privately at 6am in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. But he was a national hero in Scotland so the crowds gathered that weekend, 30,000 of them.

Many people refused to believe the rumours of his homosexuality and could see no reason for him to kill himself. Stories circulated about his disappearing abroad to take up a new life. The most plausible theory was that the German Field Marshal von Mackensen was in fact Hector Macdonald. They were the same age and bore a passing resemblance. Mackensen was reputed, in the First World War, to have refused to fight British troops, confining his war to the Balkans.

Christina died in 1911 and is buried next to her husband. Their son, Hector became an engineer in North Shields. He was regarded as dour and unsociable; he never married and became a recluse. He died in 1951 and is buried with his parents.

map of campaign
Fighting Mac
Suggested Reading
Eminent Victorian Soldiers: Seekers of Glory
by Byron Farwell
(Viking 1986)

Major-General Hector A Macdonald
by David Campbell
(London, Hood Douglas & Howard 1899)

Hector Macdonald: His Rise through the Ranks and His Contributions to the British Empire 1853-1903
by Lester Louis Clements
(PhD thesis, St John's University, New York 1980)

Hector Macdonald: or The Private Who Became a General
by Thomas F G Coates
(London, S W Partridge 1900)

The Ranker: The Story of Sir Hector Macdonald's Death
by Kenneth I E Macleod
(New York, privately printed booklet 1976)

Death before Dishonour: The True Story of Fighting Mac
by Trevor Royle
(New York, St Martin's Press 1982)


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by Stephen Luscombe