Born in Grafton, New South Wales in 1882, Iven Mackay grew up in an austere, religious home. He was academically adept and excelled at cricket, rugby and shooting. He attended university, doing well in physics and mathematics and became a teacher. Mackay prepared himself for war by studying military science and undertaking infantry training. He was serious, diligent and above all thorough. He was a 32-year-old Sydney University science lecturer and a captain in the Citizen Military Forces at the outbreak of war and was appointed adjutant of 4th Battalion.
In early October 1914 a horse riding accident during parade saw Mackay crushed when his horse fell on him, breaking several ribs and puncturing his lung. His injuries prevented him embarking on the First Convoy. After several weeks of convalescence, and still experiencing pain, he departed Melbourne on 22 December on HMAT Berrima headed to Albany to join the Second Convoy.
Despite promises that he would be attached to 4th Battalion, Mackay was appointed captain in command of the 1st reinforcements of 13th Battalion. He did not go ashore during the four days anchored off Albany; his time spent going through his men’s paperwork and trying to sort out equipment and clothing shortages. He was already displaying the characteristic attention to detail that would mark him out for future leadership roles.
A former P&O vessel, armed merchant ship Berrima was converted to transport 1,500 officers and other ranks. Departing for Egypt with the Second Convoy on 31 December, the vessel also towed the submarine AE2, although on several occasions during the voyage the towline broke and had to be repaired. The Second Convoy arrived safely in Alexandria exactly one month after leaving Albany.
During the voyage, Mackay found the men under his charge lacking in discipline, and seemed incredulous that many had never fired a rifle. Remarking on the ignorance of basic military knowledge he commented, “One man today in loading with dummies turned the charger through a right angle and tried to load with bullets pointing downwards.” He set about running courses in small-arms and physical training. This was difficult on a troop ship so crowded that units were rostered to spend only forty-five minutes per day using the boat deck. The physical training included boxing tournaments, deck-cricket and use of gym equipment.
Once in Egypt, Mackay set about rejoining 4th Battalion, which he did at the start of March. However, he was disappointed to be given the role of military transport officer. Impatient with inactivity Mackay was eager to see action.
On 8 May Mackay landed on Gallipoli and was made a platoon commander. He was soon in the thick of the action. His platoon helped resist the large Ottoman offensive of 19 May. Firing continually for six hours, their rifles ran hot. During this action a shell hit the parapet in front of Mackay but failed to explode. Another shell exploded nearby and buried him, but he was dug out alive. He was promoted to major in July and given command of a company just before the battle of Lone Pine.
At Lone Pine Mackay led his men by example and was one of the first into enemy trenches. In the ensuing fighting, there was a constant exchange of bombs, and sometimes the Australians caught them and threw them back. After two days in action Mackay was twice wounded, once when a bomb exploded beside him. Though badly wounded in the thigh, he managed to walk out on his own. For his efforts at Lone Pine, he was Mentioned in Despatches.
For this action Major Iven Mackay was Mentioned in Dispatches. The recommendation read:
This officer was the first into the furthest Turkish trenches on August 6th where he shot 5 Turks and bayoneted a sixth. He then held by himself a corner of the Turkish Trench while his men erected a barricade. He was wounded during the night of Aug. 6th and 7th but remained at his post until he was again wounded on the night of Aug. 7th and 8th when he was carried out of the trench on a stretcher. By his personal courage and devotion to duty he was very materially responsible for retaining the trenches captured to repelling constant bomb attacks and by the example he set his men. Up to the time of Major MACKAY being carried off the TURKS were not more than 6 yards away and whilst the captured trenches were being cleared of the dead and wounded Major MACKAY remained on guard personally the whole time with bayonet and rifle to repel any TURKS who should come over the parapet though he was constantly under a hail of bombs and for a considerable portion of the time had no bombs with which to retaliate.
Mackay was declared medically fit at the end of December and in February 1916, rejoined the Australian forces in Egypt in charge of his own AIF contingent. He was sent to France in March as part of the advance party to prepare for the arrival of 1st Division. By mid-May he had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel in command of the 4th Battalion.
At Pozières the 4th Battalion witnessed an unparalleled 48 hours of continuous shelling. Mackay described the onset of German artillery: ‘[It came] slowly, regularly, methodically at first … then with growing intensity. Gradually leading with a terrifying ferocity to the worst bombardment ever experienced by the Australians.’ The 4th attacked early on 25 July seizing a vital trench and the hotly contested Pozières cemetery. Mackay was in the thick of it; his pockets filled with Mills bombs (grenades). The barrage seemed never-ending, with constant shell explosions punctuated only by regular calls for stretcher-bearers. Men were being bombed to pieces or buried alive. They met all their objectives but at a cost of 434 casualties. Mackay received the Distinguished Service Order.
Understrength and following a short period of rest and training, the 4th Battalion was sent back into battle near Mouquet Farm. Though the action was not as intense as at Pozières, battalion casualties still reached 307. Australian sacrifice had been supreme. In less than three weeks 23,000 men had been lost. With incoming reinforcements reduced to a trickle, Mackay feared it would take until the end of the year for the battalion to regain full strength. The Distinguished Service Order was awarded to Mackay on 3 December 1916 for distinguished and gallant services in the field for his efforts at Pozières and Mouquet Farm.
Mackay was detached as temporary brigadier to command 1st Australian Infantry Brigade five times between 19 January and 25 August 1917. According to his superiors Mackay’s prompt action and extreme resolution at Bullecourt displayed leadership skills of a high order. For his service in this role he was Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty in the Field.
Mackay’s efficient, resolute leadership was noticed and rewarded. In March 1918 he was appointed commander of the 1st Australian Machine Gun Battalion. His gunners helped repulse the Germans east of Hazebrouck. By June Mackay was given command of the 1st Australian Infantry Brigade and promoted to temporary brigadier general. His brigade saw success at Chuignolles and Hargicourt, but a mutiny by 120 tired and disillusioned men of the 1st Battalion on 21 September was a shock to him. The remainder of the battalion went successfully into action, and most of the mutineers were later court-martialled. This was to be Mackay’s last involvement in combat for the war. In October he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and the CMG in the New Year.
Just prior to Christmas 1918, in response to an offer by the Australian Government for non-military employment, Mackay applied to study physics at Cambridge University. He settled with his wife Marjorie in a cottage close to Cambridge and it was there that his daughter Jean was born in July 1919. His non-military employment at an end, Mackay, his wife and daughter sailed for Australia on 3 January arriving back in Sydney on 19 February 1920. His AIF appointment was terminated on 4 April 1920, however, he continued to serve as a citizen soldier and was given command of 9th Brigade in July 1920.
Mackay settled back into his teaching position at Sydney University with relative ease, however, he was overlooked for promotion and applied for positions elsewhere. In 1933, he commenced new employment as a headmaster, leaving in February 1940.
In March 1940, Mackay was appointed to the position of General Officer Commanding (GOC) 6th Australian Division AIF. A year later in March 1941, after 6th Division’s victories in the Libyan Desert, notably the battle of Tobruk, Mackay was knighted. In August he returned to Australia to take up his new appointment as General Officer Commanding Home Forces.
Mackay’s role as GOC Home Forces included him advising the war cabinet. He was given command of the Second Army in early 1942, and commanded the New Guinea Force until early 1944. Between 1944 and 1948 he served as Australia’s first High Commissioner to India. He retired from the army in 1946. He retained his interest and involvement in military decision-making and was active in ex-servicemen’s organisations. Mackay died at his home in Sydney on 30 September 1966, aged 84 years, survived by his wife, son and two daughters.
Austin, R., 2007, The Fighting Fourth: A History of Sydney’s 4th Battalion, 1914-1919, Slouch Hat Publications, McCrae
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/
Bean, C E W, 1936, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. I, 5th Edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Chapman, I. D., 1975, Ivan G. Mackay Citizen and Soldier, Melway Publishing, Melbourne
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B883, NX363, Iven Giffard Mackay’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1948; MACKAY I G, 1914-1948
Plowman, P. 2013, Voyage to Gallipoli, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural
Ritchie, J. (Ed.), 2000, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, 1940-1980, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne