John Doran Macdonald was born in Edinburgh 23 February 1867 the second son of Sir John Hay Athole Macdonald KCB PC who became Lord Kingsburgh in 1888. Lord Kingsburgh was a keen motorist, he was a founding member of the AA (automobile Association) and became President of the Scottish Automobile Association. He had been one of the first officers to introduce the use of traction engines into the army, and was responsible for the first use by the British Army of a motor car (for mail transport).
In 1892 John was married in Kensington to Katherine Alleyne Borthwick of Bebington, The Wirral. Katherine was the sister of the “Irish” writer and publisher Norma Borthwick who was living with John and Elizabeth in Woking at the time of the 1911 Census.
Following their marriage, John and Katherine spent some time in Florida where their first 3 children were born but returned with the 2 surviving children by May 1898 to occupy Hambledon House in Hampshire (severely damaged by a fire in January 2018), where John was described as a Civil Engineer, and had moved to The Whins on Hook Heath, Woking, by 1904, where John was described as an actor when his sixth and last child was baptised at St John the Baptist, St John’s, Woking.
At some point John had established a link with the Vauxhall Motor Company and he opened a service station on Hook Heath, Woking. At the outbreak of war in 1914, John at the age of 47 volunteered for service with the British Red Cross and was one of the men who converted their own vehicles into ambulances and drove to northern France to help with the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefields; this group known as “the flying unit” was based in Lille. On the 19 September 1914, Fabian Ware was sent out to lead and control them as some of their more adventurous exercises were endangering the status of Red Cross volunteers as non-combatants. Apparently, crossing the front line under a Red Cross and trying to liberate POWs was not supposed to be part of their role.
The waiting time at casualty stations and field hospitals, which were basically tent cities surrounded by ever increasing burial fields, had weighed heavily on the volunteers and they had noticed that although graves were marked at the time of burial, the burial party did not always have waterproof writing equipment, so the drivers and their stretcher bearers started re-marking the crosses with indelible ink supplied by the Red Cross and, later, with metal embossed tags.
However, artillery bombardments and other activities meant that many graves were being lost as the front line swung back and forth, so in October 1914 Ware asked his men to start recording the details (name, number, unit, rank and location) of as many of the graves as they could, sending handwritten notebooks and sheets of paper back to the Red Cross offices in Paris. The authorities in France realised the impact that the unit’s activities were having on morale and issued ID papers identifying them as the “Graves Registration Commission” so that they could access battlefield areas more easily.
These activities were brought to the attention of General Haig and in March 1915 he reported to the War Office that the activities of Ware’s men were having a considerable effect on morale (“a symbolic value to the men that it would be difficult to exaggerate”). The enlisted men knew that for the first time in the history of the British Army a permanent record of the location where they fell in war could be kept. The War Office formalised the Graves Registration Commission as part of the Red Cross in May 1915, by which time this small group had moved 12,000 soldiers to casualty stations and hospitals and recorded 4,300 grave sites. Fabian Ware was appointed an Army Major in charge of the Graves Registration Unit in addition to his role in the Commission, which now concentrated on establishing the permanent cemetery sites by negotiating with the local authorities. His deputy became a Captain and four of his original volunteers “Lieutenant Local Officers”, leading the unit’s teams of four vehicles and 5 men.
The London Gazette shows that John Doran Macdonald was formally commissioned as a British Army Lieutenant 9 September 1915 (backdated to 22 February 1915) when the Commission was transferred to be part of the British Army, having marked and recorded a further 27,000 graves. The Gazette then shows him as promoted to Captain 12 November 1915 (backdated to 30 September 1915)
The Graves Registration Unit continued its work and following Fabian Ware’s principle that all the of dead should be treated equally regardless of rank or class, it was instrumental in getting the exhumation and repatriation of fallen British soldiers by the rich banned following the exhumation under fire of W E Gladstone’s grandson. It became the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGR&E) in February 1916, having registered 50,000 graves and arranged for the creation of over 200 permanent war cemeteries with the local authorities.
On the 18 March 1916, John was erecting and recording crosses on graves along the Ypres-Menin road when he was injured by shellfire; he died of his wounds and is buried in the Extension to the Bailleul Communal Cemetery.
The DGRE continued its work until 1917 when in order to encompass all the theatres of war a Royal Charter created the Imperial War Graves Commission, an internationally-funded organisation attempting to provide a service without political interference, which in turn became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.