Gillies MacKirdy was born into a Scottish maritime family, but served in the infantry with the Bedfordshire Regiment, having previously served with the West African Frontier Force in Nigeria. He was killed in the Operations on the Ancre in early 1917.
Gillies MacKirdy was born at 360 Green Lanes, Stoke Newington in north-east London on 27 October 1886, the fifth of seven children born to Commander John MacKirdy (1848–1909) and his wife, Isabella Colts née Dobbie (1849–1932).
John MacKirdy was born in Gorbals, Glasgow although his family originated from Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. His father, also John (1815–1862), was the Master of the ‘Champion of the Seas’, a clipper ship taking immigrant passengers from England to Australia, from 1854 to 1858. John junior married Isabella Colts Dobbie (the daughter of Lockhart Dobbie, a coalmine engineer from Airdrie) in Rothesay on 19 January 1876.
The couple had seven children:
John Hansard MacKirdy, born Hong Kong on 23 January 1878
Isabella Colts MacKirdy, born Rothesay on 19 Aug 1882
Mary Gilchrist MacKirdy, born Rothesay on 12 January 1884
Lockhart Dobbie MacKirdy, born Rothesay on 14 August 1885
Gillies MacKirdy Captain, born Stoke Newington on 27 Oct 1886
Margaret MacKirdy, born Greenwich on 12 Jun 1889
Elsie MacKirdy, born Greenwich on 24 Oct 1890
John MacKirdy received his certificate of competency as a Master in the Merchant Marine from the Board of Trade in September 1872, although at the time of the 1881 Scottish census he gave his occupation as a ‘civil engineer’.
At the birth of his daughter, Isabella, in August 1882, John MacKirdy was referred to as the captain of the SS Chittagong of the Albion Line.
In 1882, the Albion Shipping Company had amalgamated with Shaw, Savill and Company to form the Shaw, Savill and Albion Company Limited, with John MacKirdy at some time (possibly when the family moved to London in 1885/86) becoming marine superintendent of the new company. In May 1888, John was appointed as Honorary Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, in common with the marine superintendents of several large shipping companies.
Gillies MacKirdy was baptised at the Park Presbyterian Church in Grosvenor Road, Highbury on 19 December 1886.
At the 1891 census, John and Isabella were living with their seven children and three servants at ‘Bute Cottage’ in Humber Road, Greenwich, when John (aged 42) described himself as a ‘retired master mariner/engineer, now Superintendent of Albion, London’.
At the 1901 census, the family (John, Isabella and their six youngest children) were living at ‘Ravenscroft’, 6 Westcombe Park Road, Greenwich with one live-in servant. John still gave his occupation as ‘Marine Superintendent’.
Gillies attended Colfe’s School in Lewisham in 1899–1900, having previously attended the John Roan School in Greenwich, while his brother, Lockhart was at Colfe’s from 1899 to 1903.
John MacKirdy died on 16 March 1909, aged 60, with toxaemia and acute gout. Shortly after his death, Isabella moved to ‘Penthorpe’, 62 Coleraine Road in Blackheath where she was living at the time of the 1911 census, with her three youngest daughters, Mary, Margaret and Elsie.
On leaving school, Gillies followed the family tradition of joining the Merchant Navy, becoming a purser with the White Star Line. His occupation took him to sea, and he was away from home at the time of the 1911 census.
Gillies MacKirdy never married.
During the war, Isabella lived with her oldest son, John, and his family at The Croft, Gresham Road in Staines (then in Middlesex) but after the war, she moved to Ingleside Grove in Blackheath, South-east London.
Although he appears to have no other connection with the town, it is probable that his career in the Merchant Navy took him to the port of Southampton, where Gillies MacKirdy, aged 25, was initiated into the Lodge of Peace and Harmony No 359 on 20 January 1913, together with 28-year old Customs & Excise clerk George David Irons. Both men were passed to the second degree on 17 February and raised to the degree of a Master Mason on 17 March 1913. At the ceremony on 17 February, two candidates were also initiated: 42-year old George Alexander Cunningham and 45-year old Richard Mather, both marine engineers.
When he was initiated into Freemasonry, Gillies’s place of residence was recorded as ‘Greenwich’ and his occupation as ‘purser’.
In 1911, Gillies volunteered with the Queen’s Own West Kent Yeomanry. As a member of the Territorial Force, Gillies was required to attend regular drill practices as well as an annual training camp of between eight and fifteen days.
On 27 August 1914, Gillies signed on at Maidstone to serve overseas during the war, becoming Private No 1066 in ‘A’ Squadron of the 1/1st Queen’s Own West Kent Yeomanry. The battalion remained in Kent, based at Westbere near Canterbury until September 1915.
In July 1915, Gillies applied for a commission and on 12 August he was commissioned as a (Temporary) Second Lieutenant in the 9th (Reserve) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. On 20 October, Gillies was promoted to (Temporary) Lieutenant and attached to the Nigeria Regiment as part of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) and sent to Nigeria, where he arrived on 6 November.
Since the start of the war in August 1914, the WAFF in Nigeria had been engaged in fighting against the German forces in neighbouring Togo and Cameroon (Kamerun). By the time that Gillies arrived in Nigeria, the fighting was coming to its conclusion, with the Kamerun Campaign ending with the surrender of the German forces in February 1916. It is unlikely, therefore, that Gillies was engaged in any fighting before he was taken ill.
On 20 June 1916, he was examined at Zungeru hospital having previously been under treatment at Kaduna hospital “for some considerable time”. The examination report states that Gillies had been infected with syphilis some seven years earlier and that he had noticed sores on his penis some six to nine weeks prior to the examination. His glands in his groin were inflamed and he had a discharge from his penis. As a result, he was very anaemic, had lost a lot of weight and had a high temperature.
Gillies was treated with quinine and returned to England, leaving Lagos on 8 July, arriving at Plymouth on 25 July. On 7 August, he was examined in Harley Street and found to be recovering well, with little trace of swollen glands. He was given leave until 2 September and stayed with his mother at The Croft in Staines.
At a Medical Board on 2 September, Gillies’s medical condition was referred to as ‘debility after malaria’. The Board reported that his health was very much improved and found him fit for general service. Gillies was employed with the Colonial Office until 25 September, when he joined the 4th (Special Reserve) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment (part of the 190th Brigade of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division), with the rank of Second Lieutenant.
He arrived with the 4th Battalion on 4 December 1916, when they were in reserve at Nouvion-en-Ponthieu, 16 km north of Abbeville. The battalion remained in training at Nouvion until 13 January 1917, when they commenced a 76 km march south-east, arriving at Forceville, 32 km north-east of Amiens, on 24 January. On 26 January, Gillies was appointed a company commander with the rank of Acting Captain.
On the same day, the 4th Battalion moved into the front line on the north bank of the River Ancre, near Beaucourt, where they remained until 31 January. In this five days, the battalion suffered the death of five men, with 15 wounded.
On 31 January, the battalion moved into reserve occupying former German trenches, before withdrawing to Forceville on 4 February.
On 5/6 February, the battalion again moved 10 km forward into the front line, taking up position at Bois de Hollande (Holland Wood).
Death and commemoration
Since the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the allied forces had slowly pushed the German army backwards in a north-easterly direction, but in over six months of fierce fighting, with horrendous loss of life, the front line had moved less than five kilometres.
On 11 February, the 4th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment were ordered to push forward in an attempt to straighten the front line around Holland Wood to the eastern side of the road from Beaucourt to Puisieux.
Two companies started their advance at 9:05 pm and immediately ran into heavy machine gun fire as well as being held up by barbed wire which had not been detected by the surveillance.
At 3 am the following morning, the battalion gained their objective and consolidated their position on the new, straightened front line, barely 500 metres from the start point.
In the period between 6 and 12 February, the 4th Battalion incurred the death of 68 men, with 90 wounded and three missing, with three officers killed and five wounded.
Captain Gillies MacKirdy was killed in the attack on 11 February. Lieut.-Colonel John Stanhope Collings-Wells wrote to Gillies’s mother:
He fell while leading his company, and had already penetrated the German lines. I cannot tell you what a loss your son will be to me, as he was shaping into a splendid company commander, and was most popular with all.
Gillies was buried at Knightsbridge Cemetery, Mesnil-Martinsart, 5 km from where he was killed. His grave bears the inscription: ‘In God’s Keeping’.
As well as the Masonic Roll of Honour, he is commemorated on the Staines War Memorial and on the memorial in Blackheath Congregational Church.
He was awarded the 1915 Star and the Victory and British War Medals.
Other family members
Lockhart Dobbie MacKirdy joined the Royal Navy in July 1904 and served throughout the war. He was on the cruiser HMS Nottingham when she was sunk by a torpedo on 19 August 1916. He retired from the Royal Navy in August 1930 and died in 1971.
In July 1921, Lockhart married Gladys Jackson. Their son, born in 1923, was named Gillies in memory of his uncle. In the Second World War, Gillies joined the Royal Army Service Corps, but died in York Military Hospital aged 20 on 7 December 1943 with Acute Septicaemia.
Lieut.-Colonel John Stanhope Collings-Wells was also a Freemason, having been initiated into Apollo University Lodge No 357 in 1902, while a student at Oxford University. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross following his death in action near Albert on 27 March 1918.
1891 England Census
1901 England Census
1911 England Census
Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929
British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914–1920
England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966
London, England, Non-conformist Registers, 1694-1931
United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Records, 1751–1921
Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914–1919
The Army & Navy Gazette. 24 February 1917. Bedfordshire Regiment
The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War:
Bedfordshire Times and Independent. 23 February 1917. Local War Casualties
Birmingham Daily Press. 27 November 1915. Naval & Military Appointments
Broad Arrow: 14 March 1917. Bedfordshire Regiment
Colfe’s School Archive: Captain Gillies MacKirdy (Colfe’s 1899-1900)
CWGC Casualty Details:
Find a Grave: Capt. Gillies MacKirdy
Great War Forum: Captain Gillies MacKirdy (West African Frontier Force)
Lewisham War Memorials: Mackirdy, Gillies
Masonic Roll of Honour:
The National Archives:
Surrey in the Great War: Gillis Mackirdy
John MacKirdy: Ancestry.com
Map of Front Line. longlongtrail.co.uk
Staines War Memorial: Surrey in the Great War