It was while working as a producer for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 that Lyn Macdonald, who died at the age of 91, first met veterans of the First World War. The former soldiers of the Rifle Brigade were planning another trip to the Western Front in July 1973 to pay their last respects to their fallen comrades and Macdonald, hearing this, suggested that it might be a good fit for the program.
After securing £ 30 in expenses from the company, she left with the veterans in their coach. Along the way the old men sang songs and remembered each other and Macdonald, who had always had an ear for a good story, listened, more and more captivated.
The trip would change his life. The former soldiers clearly enjoyed the company of a bright and attentive Scottish journalist, and began to tell him stories of life on the Western Front, of what it was like to go over, of raids in the no man’s land, but also camaraderie. . She realized that these men never had a voice and that their incredible stories were in danger of being lost forever, and upon her return she began to speak at length to each of them, recording their experiences for posterity.
Later that year, she left the BBC and took the plunge to become a historian – although that’s not a term she’s ever used to describe herself; she saw herself as a journalist and a recorder of the memories of these men. His first book, published in 1978, on the battles around Ypres in the fall of 1917, was They Called It Passchendaele. An instant hit and bestseller, Macdonald discovered she had found her craft and one that struck a chord with audiences. She went on to publish six more books on WWI.
Born in Glasgow, Lyn was the daughter of Gertrude (née King) and Hugh Macdonald. His father was an engineer and a great storyteller. Although Lyn was an only child, she was part of a large and larger family, and at gatherings at the family home in Ayrshire, she would hear the men talking in their smoky room, then sneak into the kitchen where the women were chatting, crawling under the table to listen to their gossip and their stories too. Thus began a love of the great oral tradition of storytelling.
She attended the Hutchesons high school in the city and made her first trip to France in 1948. During World War II, her father had joined the RAF as an engineer, landing in Normandy on June 8, 1944, two days after D-Day. , where he helped build airfields. Later, in northern France, he was hosted with a French family who would become lifelong friends. A few years after the war, the two daughters of the families made an exchange.
It was a transformative experience for 18-year-old Macdonald. She discovered that she had an aptitude for the language and that she liked French culture. A love affair with France begins, which she maintains until the end of her life.
In 1960, she was working for Scottish television as a writer and producer, and it was around this time that she met Ian McNeilage, journalist and reporter (who used the professional name of Ian Ross as others found his name difficult to pronounce). They married and then moved to London, where she first worked for ITV before joining the BBC and Woman’s Hour.
Her first book was followed by The Roses of No Man’s Land, on nurses on the front line, two years later, then, in 1983, Somme. At that time, she was an internationally renowned bestselling author. Along with historian Martin Middlebrook, she pioneered a new approach to writing history: bottom-up. His books weren’t about generals and grand strategy, but about the war experience for the millions of young men – and women – caught up in this terrible conflict. In 1987, she published 1914: The days of hope, then 1914-1918: Voices and images of the Great War (1988) and 1915: The death of innocence (1993); his last book was To the Last Man: Spring 1918 (1998).
Never sentimental or cutesy, she was nevertheless an empathetic listener and an exceptional interviewer; her “old boys,” as she called them, immediately felt comfortable and opened up to her. The war they told him about was not one of war poets or lions led by donkeys or even Blackadder, but one that men had been proud to be a part of.
“In over 1,500 hours of interviews,” she said, “I have never heard a single man use the word ‘horror’ to describe his experiences. That’s not to say it wasn’t horrible at times – it was – but they saw it very differently from how it is widely viewed today.
She also received photographs, diaries, letters and other documents. Over the years, she has amassed a vast and invaluable archive, now housed in the Imperial War Museum. His influence is considerable, both through his work on the First World War and through his new approach to the writing of history.
She is survived by Ian, their three children, Aline, Alastair and Michael, five grandsons and nine great grandchildren.