[This article was prepared for posting in December 2017 but had to be deferred until a problem accessing the website was rectified.]
When writing The High Life of Oswald Watt, I mentioned the occasion in November 1901 when the 21-year-old Captain Watt of the New South Wales Scottish Rifles, aide-de-camp of the NSW Governor, was called upon to also act as personal aide for the visiting British war hero, Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald. The general’s public profile as “Fighting Mac”—a name conferred by admiring journalists in Egypt a decade earlier, not the war in South Africa from which he had just come—ensured that his brief stay in Sydney was a highlight of young Oswald Watt’s newly-minted military career. But there was little space available, in the story I had set out to tell, to provide the full background and significance of the visit, or explain the circumstances in which the general’s illustrious career came to a spectacular and controversial end barely eighteen months later.
“Archie” Macdonald was the Gaelic-speaking son of a poor Scottish crofter (small-scale farmer) when he entered the British Army as an ordinary soldier in 1871, aged just 17. He quickly passed through the non-commissioned ranks in India and Afghanistan, before being granted a commission (reputedly instead of a VC) in recognition of his gallantry in the field. After taking part in the First Boer War in South Africa, surviving the Majuba Hill disaster in 1881, he went on to greater glory in Egypt and Sudan by winning the Distinguished Service Order and a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy, in addition to the sobriquet that made him famous around the British empire. During Britain’s 1898 campaign to re-conquer Sudan he fought with such brilliance at the head of his brigade of Sudanese troops that many thought he had saved the day at the battle of Omdurman—but at the cost of attracting the ire of General Kitchener who resented having to share public glory for the victory.
It was the enmities Macdonald had earned by his conspicuous abilities and success among less talented but socially well-connected army colleagues that marked out his service in the new war against the Boers of South Africa that began in 1899. Sent out in 1900 to take command of the Highland Brigade after its savage defeat at Magersfontein, he lost the chance to shine after being wounded in the foot at Paardeberg. It was while recovering from his injury in a less active post that a rumour began to circulate, involving claims that he had engaged in some sort of homosexual relationship with a Boer prisoner in a concentration camp that came under his command. Despite the story being mentioned in official papers by Kitchener and others, Macdonald was still appointed KCB in April 1901.
With the federation of the Australian colonies having come into effect at the start of 1901, the fact that the new Commonwealth government was in need of a commander for its newly-unified military forces was apparently what prompted Macdonald to undertake his visit to Australia later that year—reportedly at his own expense. Although enthusiastically embraced by the Caledonian community across not only Australia but in New Zealand too (in Auckland ex-patriate Scots reportedly hauled his carriage through the streets!), his angling for the GOC (General Officer Commanding) job was rejected by officials in the corridors of power. His name was certainly on the short list of candidates, but Australia’s Governor-General (Lord Hopetoun) cabled the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London that Macdonald would be ‘most unsuitable’ for the appointment. It is unclear whether Hopetoun was swayed by establishment distaste for Macdonald’s lowly social origins, or by the lurid stories that had possibly reached even his ears by that stage.
General Macdonald among Caledonian welcomers at Auckland, New Zealand
So, after having finished his Australasian tour and departed, Macdonald was given command not in Australia, but Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Arriving there in May 1902, it was there—among that island’s socially exclusive British planter society—that his world literally fell apart. By the following February the Governor, having already taken an active dislike to Macdonald’s lowly ‘antecedents’, was reporting to London on accusations circulating about the general’s supposed homosexual activities. No evidence was produced for any of the claims being made, but the rumours themselves were apparently sufficient to damn him. In a purported effort to quell a growing scandal, the Governor sent the general on leave to England.
Once in London, Macdonald discovered how few friends he had among members of the Whitehall establishment. The Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, ordered him to return to face a court-martial over the allegations that had been made. It was while staying in a Paris hotel en route to Ceylon that Macdonald saw press reports about his predicament, and used a pistol to end his life on 25 March 1903. Only on his death was it discovered that the general had a wife and 15-year-old son living in Edinburgh, whose existence he had kept secret because of an inability to maintain his family at the standard deemed socially appropriate to his rank, since he lacked the sort of private income possessed by fellow senior officers.
Despite his suicide having been taken as an admission of guilt among the caste for whom he was always an outsider, the allegations of homosexuality were rejected by large segments of British opinion who saw Macdonald as a victim of spiteful and jealous snobbery. Nowhere was this sentiment more marked than in Scotland, where his countrymen turned out in tens of thousands to pay respects at the Edinburgh graveyard where his widow had privately interred his remains, without any official assistance—an act of calculated indifference almost unheard of for an officer of such senior rank. A government commission appointed to consider the case reported in June 1903 that it found ‘not the slightest particle of truth’ in any of the allegations made against the general. With no evidence that he had committed any crime, the commissioners declared that he had been ‘cruelly assassinated by vile and slandering tongues’ and unanimously upheld his good name and reputation.
What Oswald Watt made of this whole affair has never been recorded—that I found at any rate. He and the rest of Sydney’s Caledonian community were probably dumfounded and confused by the scandal that had so swiftly overwhelmed a figure they had so recently feted as a hero, a feeling no doubt compounded as the initial stories were then burnished and embellished by the imported social elite which dominated Australian official circles at that time. Whether or not Watt and his fellow Scots believed what they heard and read, it was probably more convenient to consign Hector Macdonald’s name to the dustbin of history.