Every war produces its share of myths and the Great War was no exception. Notable examples being: The Angel of Mons in Flanders, Belgium (1914) and the Lost 1/5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, Turkey (1915). However, the invasion Frightfulness in Belgium and France in 1914 - engendered by German Kultur - had enough incidences of proven atrocities against civilians in both countries to deny it the status of being any kind of myth. Exaggerated perhaps, false never.
However, perhaps the strangest myth of the War was that concerning two senior army officers, one British (Scottish) and the other German (Prussian). It was alleged that the former had taken over the identity of the latter on his death and served in the Great War with the highest distinction for the enemy side. A further twist was that the British officer was reported to have committed suicide in March 1903 whilst under a cloud of suspicion as being an active homosexual; a capital offence in the British Army at the time. But it was alleged that in fact the suicide was a ruse to hide the British officer’s identity whilst he transferred his attentions to serving in the German Army incognito. Incredible though it may seem, there is evidence that during the War the Germans themselves propagated the myth to indicate that the story was true and indeed the British general had indeed willingly gone over to their side and was fighting with them in the Great War.
The background histories of the two generals
1. Major-General Hector Archibald Fighting Mac MacDonald (1852/53 -1903).
Born in either 1852 or 1853, the son of a simple crofter on the Black Isle, near Dingwall on the Cromarty Firth of Scotland, MacDonald enlisted, aged 17, in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. He rose rapidly through the ranks and by the time of the Second Afghan War in 1879 he was a Colour Sergeant of five years service. In the Afghan War he served with such distinction during the March on Kabul that he was commended by the force commander General Frederick Sleigh Bobs Roberts and offered a choice: The award of the Victoria Cross (from 1856 a new supreme decoration for valour, open to all ranks) or the extreme rarity of a commission in the elite Gordon Highlanders. MacDonald chose the latter, proclaiming to his superiors that he would earn his VC later.
As a junior officer MacDonald served in the First Boer War (1880-1881) and was taken prisoner-of-war at the Battle Majuba Hill. But, such was the Boer commanding general’s regard for his bravery in the fighting; MacDonald’s sword was returned and he was released.
In 1885, MacDonald was involved in the reorganisation of the Egyptian Army under British tutelage and participated in the Nile Expedition in 1885. Over the years he gained promotion and awards including the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) won at Toshki in the Sudan in 1889.
In 1898, he participated with high distinction in the Battle of Omdurman and was awarded particular praise by the commander Lord Kitchener as the saviour of the battle.
MacDonald was knighted in 1901 for his war service in northern and southern Africa.
By the end of the century his fame had grown abroad and he was lauded as a hero and known as Fighting Mac.
Promoted to Colonel he was made aide de camp to Queen Victoria, then a Major General and posted to an Indian command.
The Second Boer War brought him back to South Africa in command of the Highland Brigade where his popularity with both his fellow officer’s and the Other Ranks remained high and his military success much celebrated.
In 1902, now a KCB, he was appointed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as Commander-in-Chief and this became the source of his nemesis. It is alleged that rumours were circulating from unidentified sources (including possibly Kitchener himself) about his homosexuality; in the event he was found to have a secret wife and son. (In Kitchener’s Army, officers were forbidden to marry). Other sources claimed that the senior British commanders and officials on the island held a grudge against him due to his seniority and ‘low breeding’, allied with his strong administrative action against corrupt officials, and venal plantation owners. Whatever the truth of the matter, whilst reading the New York Herald newspaper at breakfast in the New Regina Hotel in Paris on the 25th March 1903, MacDonald read that a ‘grave charge’ had been levelled against him and learned that this could lead to a court marshal. In apparent despair, an already sick and depressed MacDonald went to his room and shot himself in the head with his personal revolver.
Learning that MacDonald indeed did have a wife and family, a chastened British Government offered a State Funeral. But MacDonald’s wife declined it. He is buried in the Dean’s Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland.
A sealed suicide note was found in MacDonald’s hand, but its contents have reportedly yet to be revealed to the general public. The contents are said to be ‘too sensitive".
Assumed to be guilty, in the absence of any further enquiry, Macdonald’s outstanding reputation quickly lapsed into obscurity.
2. General August von Mackensen. (1849-1945)
Although by no means from the upper levels of the German social order, von Mackensen, as the son of a land agent, was considerably better placed than MacDonald for preferment and promotion.
Mackensen enlisted, aged 19, in the elite Death’s Head Hussar Regiment and served with distinction in the 1890-91 Franco-Prussian War. This led to his being commissioned in 1893. He was also awarded the Iron Cross (Second Class).
Mackensen as a Corps Commander in the German Eighth Army on the Eastern Front in 1914 enjoyed mixed success in the early battles in the Great War: at Gumbinnen his forces were defeated, but he more than made up for it with splendid victories at Tannenberg and the Mansurian Lakes.
By September 1914, he was in the Polish campaign as General Officer Commanding of the Ninth Army and led the siege of Warsaw. Success soon followed as GOC Eleventh Army in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive and that in turn led to a Field Marshalship to accompany his newly acquired Orden Pour le Merite (Blue Max) – Germany’s highest grade of military award. His fame was rated to be second only to that of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, commander of the German Army on the Eastern Front, and the reverence lasted throughout the War.
September 1915 saw Mackensen in charge of the invasion of Serbia, to be followed by stewardship of the Roumanian Campaign. He spent the rest of the war in Roumania and never commanded on the Western Front. After his successful campaign with a multi-national army in Roumania, and his appointment as Military Governor, his plan of economic exploitation of that country provided Germany with much of the essential raw material it needed in the period of acute shortages during 1917-18.
Mackensen lived to attend the funeral of his commander, The Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1941, and died himself at the venerable age of 94.
Rationale for propagation of the MacDonald/von Mackensen myth
The contemporary literature suggests there were four putative reasons for the myth:
* The unexpected closeness of the name of Mackensen to the Scottish name of MacDonald and even a suggestion that the two generals were distant relatives.
* The physical likeness of the two men, allied with the closeness of their ages.
* The unwillingness of the many admirers of MacDonald to accept the suicide of their hero Fighting Jack at the peak of his career and fame; indeed, it was an early example of the now common ‘conspiracy theory’.
* German mischief-making, wishing to give the impression that a top ranking hero of the British Army had defected to them and was fighting on their side in the Great War.
To deal with these propositions one by one:
The similarity in the names. Mackensen was not a common name in Germany in the early 20th Century, but it certainly existed in some numbers. There was even a Mackensen class of battlecruisers in the Great War. It is unlikely that the Germans would use a name derived from the name-pool of the Allies for such an important purpose. Incidentally, a British equivalent of this type of ship was the famed HMS Hood.
The physical likeness. Excellent monochrome portrait photographs exist in the literature of both men in their maturity. Whilst there is indeed a superficial resemblance, certain facial features can be seen to differ.
1. MacDonald’s hair had a distinctive widow’s peak whilst Mackensen’s was swept straight across his forehead.
2. MacDonald’s brow was rounded whilst Mackensen’s was flatter and broader. The height of Makensen’s brow (eyebrow to hairline) relative to the height of his head, at 0.46:1, was clearly higher than MacDonald’s at 0.42:1. As might be expected, overall, Mackensen’s head had a more massive, squarer Junker-like, aspect.
3. Mackensen had a curved vertical scar above his left eyebrow.
4. MacDonald had a clearly cleft prominent chin – reminiscent of Field Marshal Heltmuth Molkte. Mackenses’s chin was less prominent, more like Hindenburg’s.
5. MacDonald’s ears protruded slightly whilst Mackensen’s were close against his head and lower set
The inability of the public to accept the fallibility of their heroes is well known.
Alternative explanations, however outlandish, have to be found and gain general acceptance amongst those who wish it to be so.
German machinations. Stranger things happened in the propaganda war. Germany had every incentive to create concern among the British public by inferring that one of their top generals and heroes had defected to them.
An example of such ostensibly outlandish machinations is the oft-quoted belief that the Germans knew all along that the French had mutinied on the Western Front in 1917. But they realised that the French troops would immediately rally if the soil of France were clearly put in danger by German opportunism. The French mutineers never refused en masse to defend their positions, but they did refuse to take offensive action. The Germans possibly hoped that the French Army would just progressively collapse in on itself by it own volition if the mutiny was allowed to fester unimpeded, and unresolved by the French Command, and the situation unexploited by themselves.
Most war historians dismiss the whole MacDonald/Mackensen business as a total myth and, whilst there may be kernels of truth hidden amongst the conspiracy claims, it is difficult to give any real credence to the story.
The death of General Hector MacDonald in 1903 definitely has some unexplained features about it. The contents of the purported suicide letter could well clarify matters definitively if the firm of unnamed solicitors who are said to hold it would make it public; always assuming such a letter was indeed written by MacDonald in his own hand. But, from the available information, it is an entirely different matter to suppose that someone who died in 1903 could be so successfully ‘embedded’ by 1914 so as to become a highly successful general officer in the army of his worst enemy.
Perhaps note should also be made here of the very similar death, under equally mysterious (conspiratorial?) circumstances of another extraordinary Great War personality – Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Norton-Griffiths, Royal Engineers. During the Great War Norton-Griffiths became a renowned military tunnel-master, miner and arsonist and was to a large extent responsible for the installation of many of the huge mines that were exploded under the German defences on the Western F