From Yeoman to Tunneller

My final post on the MacDuff family’s war experiences focuses on Donald MacDuff. Son of Peter and younger brother of William, Donald had a very interesting army career. On the face of it his war record seems quite strange; he started as a Private in the Scottish Horse and ended the war as a Second Lieutenant in the 184th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. His service record was to hold the key to this puzzle.

Donald as a Private in the Scottish Horse

Donald enlisted in Dunkeld on 3rd September 1914, aged 22. He stated that he had previous territorial service with the 7th Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) which he had joined in 1909; the same battalion as his father. He was posted to the 1/1st Scottish Horse and in March 1915 was promoted to Acting Lance Corporal.

The 1/1st Scottish Horse were sent to Gallipoli, where they served as infantry. They landed at Sulva Bay on 2nd September 1915 and almost straightaway started suffering casualties from shellfire. By the time they were evacuated on 28th December 1915 the three battalions of the regiment had suffered over 120 casualties, with no doubt many more wounded and sick. Donald, however, was not with them, having been invalided home with jaundice two weeks previously.

After recuperation, he rejoined his regiment; however it seems that around this time he decided to apply for a commission in the Royal Engineers. A letter to the War Office in his service record dated 8th August 1916 gives the reasons behind this:


I have the honour to inform you that in accordance with your instructions I have today interviewed Private Donald MacDuff, no. 4170, aged 24.5, single, 1/1 Scottish Horse, Pitlochry, Perthshire, whose application was submitted by his C.O., to the War Office.

Pte. MacDuff was born at Lochgelly, Fifeshire, and received his education there until the age of 14 years, when he went for a period of 12 months to Dunfermline Technical College. He commenced his training with the Lochgelly Iron & Coal Coy., and after serving 4 years apprenticeship, received an appointment with the Dalmellington Iron & Coal Coy., Ayrshire, as Mine Surveyor. After being in this employ for 2 years, he returned to the Lochgelly Iron & Coal Company, and for one year acted as Mine Surveyor and Assistant Engineer. He then received an appointment with the Horden Coal Company Ltd., Durham, as Mine Surveyor and after 10 months service in this capacity, joined the Scottish Horse on the 3rd September 1914. After training, he was sent to Gallipoli at the end of August 1915, and was invalided home on the 14th December 1915 with jaundice, arriving in England on the 10th February 1916, re-joining his Regt., on the 1st April 1916.

Pte. MacDuff’s experience has been gained chiefly in the coal mines of Scotland, and he holds the Home Office Surveyor’s certificate. He is a qualified Surveyor, and tells me that he is experienced in shaft sinking, timbering through loose ground, the use of H.E. and low explosives with battery firing, mine pumps and fans, and compressed air drilling machines, and has also had some experience of the Proto set at the Cowdenbeath Mines Rescue Station.

Although Private MacDuff is underage, I am sending him up for your consideration and decision.

Captain G.M. Miles-Bailey, O.C. Depot, Tunnelling Companies, R.E.

I am unsure why he was referred to as ‘underage’ as I can find no reference to the minimum age for Royal Engineers or Tunnelling Officers being any different to that of the infantry.

Donald was commissioned into the Royal Engineers on 1st October 1916 and was sent for a week’s course of instruction with the South Staffordshire & East Worcestershire Mines Rescue Association in Dudley, before heading to the Royal Engineers in Chatham. On 10th November 1916 he joined 184th Tunnelling Company.

Donald MacDuff - Royal Engineers

Donald after he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers

In April 1917 the Company were sent to Arras to work on ‘Fish Avenue’ tunnel and construct emplacements for mortars. In June they moved to Nieuport to construct underground shelters. Prior to the start of the Third Ypres campaign at the end of July the company were engaged preparing tank crossings. This highlights the range of work the tunnelling companies were engaged in, not always underground.

Donald remained with the tunnellers until 1918; returning from a course of infantry instruction near Messines on 28th March 1918 his hand was severely burned by mustard oil gas when handling camouflage netting on a dugout that had been saturated by the gas. He was sent to the 87th Field Ambulance on 17th April 1918 and from there to the General Hospital at Wimereux on 22nd April. Finally on 2nd May he was sent back to England, ending up at the Prince of Wales’ hospital for officers in Marylebone. The wound was classed as very severe and it was noted that it healed slowly.

However by August it had healed sufficiently and Donald became an instructor at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham. Here he was to stay until after the end of the war when he was demobilised in February 1919.

Details of Donald’s post-war life are sparse; he married and had a son and apparently went on to manage a tin mine in Nigeria. Family stories suggest his lungs were affected by the mustard gas later in his life. He died in 1965.

For more information about tunnelling during the war, see the excellent La Boiselle Study Group website.

For details of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies see the Long Long Trail website.

This entry was posted in Research, WW1 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From Yeoman to Tunneller

  1. Daniel says:

    Wonderful article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website.
    Keep up the good writing.

  2. Simon Jones says:

    Excellent research and marvellous photographs!

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