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Commonwealth sacrifice: Mother Canada, part of the Vimy Ridge Memorial, dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers who died during the First World War, including Malcolm Joseph MacKinnon (photo: DRSAT)

One hundred years ago, a young farm boy from the wilds of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia volunteered to fight in a war thousands of miles away, for a country he had never seen.

Malcolm Joseph MacKinnon’s forbears had come to Nova Scotia from the Outer Hebrides more than a century earlier, to escape the poverty that followed the notorious clearances of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, during which people were evicted from the land in their tens of thousands to make way for sheep. But Malcolm was Canadian born and bred, five feet nine inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, 38-inch chest at full expansion and, according to the medical officer who examined him at the recruiting office in the old colonial capital of Sydney, in A1 physical condition, apart from a nasty three-inch scar below his left elbow.

A year later he was gone. 478544 Private MacKinnon of the Royal Canadian Regiment perished on the Somme battlefield; one of the millions of mouthless dead who marched in their pale battalions to the grave. Just 22, he had already witnessed the horror of the Ypres salient, braving poison gas and matted rolls of barbed wire to attack entrenched German positions around the ironically named Sanctuary Wood and Mount Sorrel. How profoundly the reality of merciless, mechanised war with its deafening noise and everyday carnage affected this young man from a quiet family farm half the world away can only be imagined.

Days before his death, Malcolm surived a murderous action at Zollern Graben, in which 272 of his comrades were killed or wounded. But at Regina Trench, Thiepval Ridge at 04.50 on October 8, 1916 — in the pre-dawn darkness and cold autumn rain — Malcolm’s luck ran out. Like so many of the fallen in that pitiless offensive, his body was never identified — too mutilated by shot and shell, or simply buried too deeply in the cloying Picardy mud.

He is commemorated, along with 11,168 others, at the almost unbearably poignant Vimy Ridge memorial to the Canadian missing — where Mother Canada, in the sculpted form of a huge cloaked Madonna, looks down over the Douai plain, weeping  for her lost children.

Malcolm’s real mother, Peggy, was so traumatised when told of his fate that she simply refused to believe he was dead, convincing herself instead that he was suffering from amnesia and wandering round Europe in a shell-shocked daze. Until the end of the Second World War, she would ask young Cape Breton men on their way to fight in France to seek news of him and report back.

The War Office entertained no such optimistic illusions. Malcolm was declared missing presumed dead and his parents were eventually sent the bronze memorial plaque given to the families of all soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in the Great War — referred to in the gallows humour of the Tommy as the Dead Man’s Penny. It shows the embossed figure of Britannia holding the victor’s laurels with a lion at her feet, and bears Malcolm’s name with the legend, “He Died for Freedom and Honour.”

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