With the global significance of the Great War, the input of a small community like that of the University of Glasgow could very easily be marginalized. Glasgow University’s Roll of Honour, however, refuses to let this happen in its efforts to commemorate the life of every student and staff member who fell in the years between 1914 and 1918, as well as those who served and survived. It is this restoration of the human element to the Great War that inspired my involvement in writing Roll of Honour biographies. With the passing of the last of the WWI veterans, the lives of these servicemen may seem, more so than ever, very distant from our own. Yet many of them studied the same subjects as I study, had the same aims as I have and even lived on the same road as I live on now. Glasgow University’s Roll of Honour reminds us of these similarities and allows us to glimpse the people and life behind the action of the War.
Nothing embodies this humanity like the diary of Robert Lindsay Mackay, a young Glaswegian who enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1914 and studied for a few short months before the outbreak of war. He enlisted at the tender age of 18 and was commissioned to the 11th Battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Throughout the course of the war Robert held various different posts including Signalling Officer, Assistant Adjutant, Platoon Officer, and achieved the rank of Lieutenant.
Like the University Roll of Honour, which commemorates ordinary people in the context of world shaking events, Mackay’s diary records every-day, minor military activities in a context of great defeats and victories. On certain days, the testing conditions of the war were clearly too bleak to disguise in writing:
“30th. Dec. (1916) Longest day in my life so far…All the trenches had fallen in, and our men just lay about in shell holes”
However, on other days Robert records the trials of life in the trenches and on the frontline with a heart-warming sense of humour. During a particularly dangerous period spent in a half-dug trench on the western edge of Martinpuich (1916), Robert simply chooses to note down that “We had a very lively three days of it” and he continually reminds readers how “splendid” his battalion is: “hard drinkers and hard fighters”. While the horrors of war loom large and should not by any means be side-lined, to my surprise on reading I found that this youthful energy and emotion really was at the forefront of the diary.
Robert Lindsay Mackay was lucky enough to return to Glasgow in 1918. Perhaps inspired by the life lost in the previous four years, he matriculated in Medicine and Science. His diary returned with him, however, lay untouched for about fifty years until a conversation with a neighbour about the Battle of the Somme inspired him to retrieve it. I hope that it never goes unread for such a long time again, being both a fascinating historical record and a touching insight into the lives and personalities of these young Glasgow servicemen.
Learn more about Glaswegians in the First World War by exploring the City of Glasgow’s WWI website. For more information about the University of Glasgow in the First World War, explore the online Roll of Honour.