Ton's War
recorded by John Dye

Ton MacDonald, in later years Moidart's postman and also father to Fergie MacDonald the famous musician, reminisces as to what it was like for him to serve in the First World War. He spoke to John Dye at length who made a record of what he heard.

Ton signed up in the Territorial Army when he was 15yrs 10 months old, opting for foreign service.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about his military service was that it was almost certainly unnecessary; Ton was almost blind in his right eye after an accident playing with matches when he was small. He never told the authorities and they never found out, although he always fired his gun left-handed. Before the Great War, Ton was in the Territorials and spent time every year on exercises in the Highlands near Beauly. He often recounted one episode when he completed a long and gruelling march, finally begging hospitality from a lady in a croft who invited him and the others into the kitchen, at which point he carefully noted all of the ingredients of the breakfast, never varying in the slightest.

Leaving Dalilea Pier: 'I saw cousin Flora and another of the maids, I kissed them both and took a ring from each of them. (Second time out).

When they reached Glenfinnan, Ton was first up to the Stage House.
Trained at the Port Home (?) Huntingdon (3 miles square). Ayrshires, Fife and Forfars, Lovat Scouts, Derbyshires, W. Yorkshires, Scottish Horse.

Ton served with the Lovat Scouts in Gallipoli and in France but the ones in France were much older men, all keepers.

Saw Ewen Cameron of Locheil in the trenches at Suvla Bay, (A. Mackin was with Locheil in the desert).

Ton landed in Gallipoli at Suvla Bay, noting that they used small, flat-bottomed boats for this. Their orders were to go inland for a certain distance and then 'dig in'. Ton was only young but he was well up to military philosophy: in the dunes behind the beach he captured a frightened young Turk and made him dig the trench before handing him over as a prisoner!

Ton in Gallipoli digging gun emplacements in 3rd line during daylight, bullet through one of the men's shovels, group nearly killed by a salvo - officer sent home

Ton was in Gallipoli for 6 months, leaving 3 weeks before the last evacuation, (Suvla Bay was evacuated between 10th and 18th December 1915). Ton said everyone wanted to be last off, he certainly wasn't!

Ton had a very revealing story about the evacuation which has not appeared anywhere else to my knowledge: Great preparations were made to set up the evacuation so that the Turks would not know they were going. A series of automatic patents were set up to keep on making shots as the men were going down to the beach and it was all done in complete silence, with rags around their boots. Just as the last men were getting into the boats on the deserted beach they heard a noise and found to their surprise several British prisoners walking across the beach. The Turks not only knew what was going on but they had successfully got a group of prisoners through the booby-trapped defences and left them at the beach without anyone hearing or seeing anything!

He then went to the 29th Brigade in Egypt, staying in Alexandria until the New Year, The Arabs seemed to be tall. They were also resourceful - some of them managed to obtain three bottles of Johnny Walker in apparently trackless desert.

April 1916(?)

30 miles past Cairo - trying to catch Arab gun-stealers, Could only patrol in sixes.

Got notice of Termination of Engagement - handed it in in Egypt although offered promotion to re-sign! Left Egypt to return to Britain with Donald MacLennan, Morar, They left the base and returned to Alexandria - he remembers seeing an Arab praying at dawn beside the track. They spent a month at Alexandria, ostensibly working at the docks, but Ton used to sneak off into the town, They returned to Britain on a cargo ship called the Donitia, Most of the troops were on leave, Ton got a job as a table steward for the voyage - in good weather, there were 32 at the table, only 7 in the Bay of Biscay, Ton kept spare food for the journey up to Scotland.

At Portsmouth, they all got a train to London, There was a scrimmage at one of the stations when the troops rushed at a load of stores - Ton got six loaves. They were offered an allowance for the journey, which only covered the cost of one cup of tea - Ton didn't bother to draw it.

They left London from Euston and went to Inverness, changing by bus in Glasgow, Ton went to the depot at Inverness where he stayed overnight, getting his discharge in the morning, with a payoff of 7/6. He walked to Fort Augustus, which at that time had the rail link to Fort William. He caught a goods train to Spean Bridge and then another to Fort William, ending up in the marshalling yard, He then caught the passenger train to Lochailort where he found a friend and borrowed £1 /10/- from him since he was now broke.

Walking once again, he reached Glenuig where he got a cup of tea at his cousin Annie MacDonald's house (now Ronald 'Tailor's'), but he didn't stop but carried on to Caolas where he found the two old men preparing dinner - 4 herring and a pile of potatoes. Alastair 'Kelly' was a big man and he was on his knees while Ton ate, firing questions at him all the time, When he had finished they took him to the causeway and Ton crossed over to Invermoidart, It was now 8 or 9 p.m. and Ton got Angus Kennedy, the keeper, to ferry him across to Castle Tioram.

He arrived home at half past midnight meeting John 'Deeke' on the road, who, unable to see him, immediately recognised him by his voice, He produced a half bottle and Ton was able to take half of it straight away.

The second time he joined up, Ton had a notion to join the Camerons or the Artillery, but he met a man on the train who persuaded him to go to Beauly. Rifle grading was 90 for a sniper and 140 for first class (crossed guns), Ton scored 129.

The first base was at Pigeon Wood (near Montenord - monastery?). His first officer in France was a South African volunteer, 1st Lt Leverit, who later lost a hand in a shell burst. Ton's duties were 48 hours in the line and 48 off - all the snipers had their own bicycles.
Saw Maoris firing a captured German gun on The Somme (without any training or authority).

Had his own drawing instruments, He once marked a field as suspicious after 48 hours of no activity; a salvo of 4 shells destroyed 3 enemy guns.

At High Wood, Ton saw navy guns. He saw Delville Wood before it was smashed.

In event of a gas attack, Ton put a cover on the pigeon boxes and released the dogs. Pigeons gave early warning.

Pigeoneers had a dangerous life since the birds drew fire, but only one out of 12 was lost in 14 months in the line.

Ton could remember seeing a captured German tank in the final attack at Bapaume, he thought it had a swastika on it (I saw a photograph of a tank taken at this time - it had a dissected cross on it JD).

Ton saw lots of rhododendrons in France, mostly around churches, There was some talk of scabies being associated with them, also suspected that German planes were somehow infecting the rhododendrons in the Cambrai area. Ton was very careful about scabies - he avoided any contact with anyone, not even using the toilets, but he caught it after about six months. He reported sick to the first Field Dressing Station, this was near Peronne, Some of the men waiting for attention (not wounded) had been there for a fortnight, 'I thought "I'm dashed sure I won't be waiting a fortnight" so I sat in a dark corner and when the sergeant called for the names of the men longest there. I yelled out my number and went out, We got to a place where we were given showers, A corporal came with a man and said we must scrub each other's backs, "I'll not take him" I said "I came here to get over it, not to catch it", The corporal went away and came back later with another man and an officer: "Well, will this one do you, Jock?"

Ton in hospital with scabies on 17th March when German leaflets gave notice of the attack on 21st March 1917 (Ton saved a lot of them and had them years afterwards). A lot of the men were jabbing themselves with stiff brushes to keep the scabies infection, but Ton was keen to return to his unit. He was back with his unit on the evening (4 o'clock) of 20th, 'and Capt MacGillivray gave me the rest of the day off', so he returned from the front line to 'Saltcoats'.
The next day was the day mentioned on the pamphlet and everyone was at 'Stand To:", even in England. On the stroke of 4 o'clock the guns opened up, 'The first German salvo got all the phone lines - good spotting by the Germans. A shell came through the door only a few feet from me and blew the place to atoms. Since all the wire were cut, Capt MacGillivray sent us all out as messengers, I was the last to go. I don't remember where I went, but on the way back I saw a garage at a place we called 'Saltcoats' (possibly Saulcourt JD). There were hundreds of cars and motorbikes blown up, wheels were hanging in the trees. I got back and there was nobody around. Capt. MacGillivray's telescope was still lying on his bunk, I grabbed it and ran out,'

Ton was sent out to deliver a message, returned to 'Saltcoats' to find the base empty. He ran 3 miles to St Emily, saw Germans in Saltcoats. There was a canal close to St Emily.

'We were on the run for a month, at one time I was 72 hours without food, but I was in the prime of life then, twenty years and five months, some of the men were well into their forties.' (Ton was actually several years older, but still a youngster in the Lovat Scouts JD) 'At one stage I saw an aerodrome being burned - you could feel the heat a mile away, there was a line of cars and motorbikes and anyone could take one, but out of 50 snipers and 30 maintenance men there, not one could drive. One of the lads was always telling how he drove this Red Indian motorbike at home. "Well", said the Captain, "here's your chance, we'll start it up for you." He drove it straight into a drain. The Sergeant said "It takes a good man to be a liar."

We had a great distance after that stunt, there were millions of us, civilians and soldiers, on the long straight roads near Mt St Quentin.'
At one stage Ton was in company with another soldier and they reached a wide canal, Although demolition squads were at work on the bridge as they crossed, they felt safer when they got over and took the opportunity of washing some things and sleeping in the sun while their shirts dried on the bushes, Ton was wakened by the other man who was whispering 'We've got to get out of here, We Germans are building a pontoon and they're almost across, Ton wasn't even able to get his shirt and haversack without being seen and had to leave without them (the two rings from Dalilea were in the haversack), all he had was his rifle and Capt, MacGillivray's telescope.

'We eventually reached a place they called 'The Red Line': there was every minister, preacher and priest available, all with megaphones saying: 'Remember the day you put up your hand to Almighty God saying you saying you would stand for King and Country, Turn your face to the enemy."

At this point, the war turned. They stopped anyone passing but I had a warrant to go anywhere in France and I was able to pass through the line. 'We left there after about a week for Etapes to be kitted up for the big offensive in January.

Every one of us had made it back.

'21st July, back at Bapaume and over the top. Went in behind tanks with pigeons and dog. Carried on to the 4th line.

At Poperinge near Arras for 10 days, saw German trains carrying 10 guns at 10 mile range, then Ton caught in barrage. He also mentioned counting troops passing a gap in the camouflage 4 miles away

Cease Fire - Ton was on leave, in Glasgow, returning to his unit travelling back at the time. He was looking into a gun shop window and was recognised and hailed because of his Lovat Scout uniform, by Archie from Mingarry.

Place names remembered from the Somme: Grevillers (pigeon and dog HQ), Merlinment, Mount St Quentin, Delville Wood, Clery, Cosing (chalk mine), Villers Pluich.

After 5 months training, Ton spent 14 months on the Somme, all in the front line.

Even when the war ended, Ton's time abroad was not over. He very rightly assumed that jobs could be difficult to get immediately after the war and he elected to stay in Belgium with the Army of Occupation for another year. He certainly learned a bit of conversational French, but when his Belgian girlfriend wrote letters to Mingarry, nobody could translate them.

Ton's history in the First World War:
(Joined up in the Territorial Army 1911)

Gallipoli July 1915 - December 1915
Alexandria December 1915 - March 1916
Stirling April 1916 - April 1917 (working in the Forestry)
Conscripted April 1917
France August 1917 - July 1918
Etapes/Namur October 1918 - August 1919

Although Ton never again served in the Army, his experience of the battlefield was not quite over.

During the second World War, Moidart was part of a huge area of the Highlands reserved for military training and live firing exercises were going on regularly. On one occasion Ton was on his rounds delivering mail to Gorten when a group of soldiers in Arivegaig started shelling the road (or it could have been mortars, I'm not sure - JD). At the first explosion Ton was off his bike and had thrown himself behind a rock. All of his war experience came back and he immediately started to time the intervals between the explosions and plan his escape. In the gaps between the shells he jumped up and ran to the next shelter. He was not slow to give the soldiers a piece of his mind when he finally got through, although he could see the funny side of it.

On another occasion a group of commandos dug a trench in the road near Cnoc Breac, which Ton rode his bike straight into. Cnoc Breac itself was riddled with bullets from a group of trigger-happy machine gunners. They were more than surprised when Peteran came out of the door: 'He slept in', said Ton, 'if he'd put a match to the roof he'd have got a new house.' Mingarry Cottage was renowned for its hospitality and during the war Ton and Mima often found themselves making tea for a group of soldiers passing through. There were quite a few Poles among them, and Ton got on with them particularly well. They were skilled poachers and took a lot of trout out of the hill lochs; one of them had a collie which would drive deer off the hill towards their guns.

The last time Ton fired a gun was when he was well into his nineties. He saw a crow on the fence early in the morning and rushed out with the 12 bore and loosed off a cartridge, only to suddenly remember that it was a Sunday! Not only that, but he only winged the bird, He may have fired at a few clay pigeons after that but I don't think he ever again aimed at a living creature, JD. There was an interesting little story associated with that incident: a day or two after shooting at the crow, Ton had tripped over a root in the garden and hurt his arm. When he told me about the crow, and how he had winged it, I said, 'Well, it's you that's winged now!' He looked quite alarmed and I'm not sure that he didn't think the crow had got back at him in some way - JD