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Monday, 17th December 2007

Huge quantities of cards than I care to imagine have passed through my hands. Years of sorting, cataloguing and writing about them mean I have looked at a good many.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words but 15 accusing words can be more critical than any number of words in praise.

Generally you did not get your face on a cigarette card without being known to the smoking public in one form or another. Now though the passage of time has meant some of these people have all but been forgotten which is a shame.

A lot of these 'forgotten' people are depicted on the vast collections of Ogdens, Guinea Golds.

They came across around 700 Dervishes but unknown to them around about 2000 others were lying in wait

Most Guinea Golds do not help the cause due to the simple fact there is no text on the reverse of the cards. Although it might not immediately be obvious who the person was; on the reverse of a lot of cigarette cards it is a simple matter of reading the text and you begin to get a 'feel' for the person depicted. In some cases they are masterpieces of potted history as can be easily proved by checking out the obituary section of this site.


This is a whole area of cigarette cards I have largely ignored until this article. If any of you have ever tried to make a serious study of these things then you will know why I have been less than keen to get involved. I am going to need at least two more life times before I could possibly complete a decent working knowledge of these cards. As far as I am aware I have not been given the gift (?) of two extra lifetimes for this work, maybe it is not considered important enough by the blind watchmaker, although I cannot imagine why.

Anyway this is the story of one card in the Guinea Gold series showing one such 'forgotten' man.

Sir Hector MacDonald
Hector MacDonald in Guinea Gold Form

During the latter half of the 19th century he was very well known and could have been considered something of a national hero during the Second South African War (1899-1902)

Whenever you hear about someone being a national hero in time of war it is usually because they killed a lot of people one way or another. Hector MacDonald was called, 'Fighting Mac' so guess what he did.

Born April 13th 1853 in Ross-shire, Scotland he was the son of a crofter and took on work as a draper's assistant. However at the age of 17 he enlisted in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. By 21 he rose to the rank of Colour Sergeant. I mention this on the understanding some of you have a clue to the ranks within the Army (I have not a clue really, more stripes more saluting is a good rule).

This period of history was a good time to be part of the 'British' Army, there was plenty of fighting to be done and a fair bit of winning. In 1879 MacDonald saw action in the Second Afghan War and he marched into Kabul under the command of Sir Frederick Roberts (later Lord Roberts and as far as I know the only man to wear two Victoria Crosses, one being his son's who fell in battle and also the only non-royal to be holder of 8 official post nominal letters. Its the sort of thing that might come up in a quiz one day and you can amaze your friends with this tedious knowledge)

The march on Kabul was required because of the murder of the British resident and his staff there. Hector displayed a good deal of courage during a march in which they met considerable opposition.

Hector was fortunate in his acts of bravery being noticed by Roberts himself, which is never a bad idea. Sir Roberts was mightily impressed and asked to see Hector when they reached Kabul.

'Do you want the Victoria Cross or a commission?' was the thrust of the questioning.

Hector chose the commission which I presume was a rare choice for a rare question. In Jan 1880 Hector got the commission.

Hector and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders were sent to South Africa the following year. Here they joined Major-General Sir George Colley. I must be careful what I say at this point but lets just say Colley was having a streak of misfortune and had been defeated twice by the Boers.

He then had another bout of misfortune when he miscalculated the tactical advantage of taking a hill. This ended in a major defeat for the British and Colley himself was killed. Unlucky for Colley but probably lucky for the men serving under him.

You can beat any man but a lucky man. Second Lieutenant H MacDonald was in command of 20 men on the hill and they fought like the devil. Eventually every one of his troop had been killed and Hector was reduced to hand to hand combat with the enemy.

He was taken prisoner but so impressed was the Boer Commander General Joubert on his release he returned Hector's sword, 'A brave man and his sword should not be separated.'

General Joubert (known by now as late)

In 1885 Hector was fighting in the Sudan where he was part of the failed attempt to save General Gordon. The attempt was futile and the Anglo-Egyptian army had to retreat from the whole Sudan area. It was to be 13 years before they would recapture the Sudan.

In 1885 Captain Hector MacDonald joined the Egyptian army. He worked closely with the Sudanese troops within that army and with them played a vital part in the repelling of the Dervishes at Toski in 1889. For this he won the DSO.

Details from Card
Text from Wills, Transvaal Series #54 [1901]
General Hector MacDonald
was born in 1856. He served with distinction in Afghanistan 1879-80. He was also in the Boer War of 1881 and has sionce gained considerable experience in Egypt and the Soudan.
He is a man of strong determination and by sheer force has become one of our greatest generals. He commands the Highland Brigade in place of Gen. Wauchope.
He was wounded in the foot at the battle at Paardeberg, on Feb 18th

In 1891 his Sudanese battalion acquitted themselves well at the battle of Tokar for which he was promoted to the rank of Major.

He rose steadily through the ranks and by the time Sir Herbert Kitchener was ready to retake the Sudan in 1896 Hector was Lieutenant-Colonel.

The biggest obstacle for the successful invasion was the 60,000 strong Dervish army at Omdurman.

The battle took place 2 September 1898. To the east of the Dervish the Anglo-Egyptian army deployed themselves in a semi-circle around a village called Egeiga with their backs to the Nile.

At 6.30am 18000 dervishes attacked. The Anglo-Egyptian army were better drilled and had far more impressive fire-power. Dervish loses were horrific and after two hours of bloodshed they were forced to retreat with somewhere in the region 6000 laying dead or dying.

Kitchener sent in the 21st Lancers to examine the situation before making his final victory assault. It was this that led to the last great cavalry charge in history.

They came across around 700 Dervishes but unknown to them around about 2000 others were lying in wait for the ambush.

The event is well-known with a lot of words written about it as into the valley of death they rode. Three Victoria Crosses were won that day and it must have had an affect on a young Winston Churchill.

At Egeiga Kitchener got his troops into marching order at 9am and set off for Omdurman. Lieut-Colonel H. MacDonald commanded the rear of the army with some 3000 troops.

The mood was one of victory and soon the rear of the fighting force was separated from the front. At the Jebel Surgham ridge his force encountered a 15000 strong Dervish force.

This force was enough to wipe out the Anglo-Egyptian army if it fell on them from the rear whilst marching. Realising this MacDonald gave the order to stand firm.

Wave after wave of Dervish crashed into his troops but they refused to yield.

Kitchener belatedly realised something was amiss and sent back reinforcements but even this was not the end, although fortunate.

As the reinforcements arrived another band of possibly 20000 Dervish swept down onto the MacDonald flank. Hector turned his troops half battalion by half battalion to met this second onslaught and once more they stood firm in the teeth of such violence.

Having broken the charge MacDonald ordered an advance upon the retreating Dervish army.

It was this action that made Hector a great public hero, he was made a CB and appointed an ADC to Queen Victoria and promoted to full Colonel.

In 1899, October, he was promoted to Brig-General and when Maj-Gen Wauchope was killed at the battle of Magersfontein he was sent to take command of the Highland Brigade. This gave him the rank of Maj-Gen and he was to receive a knighthood for his services during the war.

In 1901 ill-health forced his retirement and he returned home from South Africa.

In 1902 he was given the job as district commander of India but was transferred to command the troops in Ceylon.

In Feb 1903 certain grave charges were brought against him which involved a rather unfortunate allegation of immoral conduct.

The situation was grave and Hector returned home to speak to Lord Roberts. What was said at this meeting or the one that followed with King Edward VII is not known but it was determined he should return to Ceylon to face the accusations.

On his return he stayed at the Hotel Regina, Paris and on March 23 1903 he saw the news had been made public and was front page news of the European edition of the New York Herald.

After reading the report he retired to his room.

It was here he shot himself in the head.

I have examined the cards he appears on, charted his rise through the ranks on the captions beneath the Guinea Gold series. You always die alone but some more alone than others.

An investigation into the allegations after his death failed to turn up anything and most considered him innocent of the charges (that does not mean innocent though and shooting yourself suggests a certain element of guilt in my simple book of black and white issues).

In 1907 a 100 foot tower was erected to the man in Dingwall, Scotland.

About twenty years ago (perhaps longer) there was an article in a Sunday newspaper which dealt with the story that Fighting Mac did not die in the hotel room but took on the identity of a high-ranking German officer, Field Marshal Von Mackensen. There was no conclusive proof of this however.

MacDonald has now probably became more infamous for the allegations against him than all the killing which made him such a famous hero. Strange world.

He was allegedly caught in a railway carriage with no fewer than four Sudanese boys.

It kind of changes a person's perspective on the man.