It was while working as a producer on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that Lyn Macdonald, who has died aged 91, first met veterans of the first world war. The former soldiers of the Rifle Brigade were planning one more trip to the western front in July 1973 to pay their last respects to their fallen comrades and Macdonald, hearing of this, suggested it might make a good feature for the programme.
Having secured £30 expenses from the corporation, she headed off with the veterans on their coach. Along the way, the old men sang songs and reminisced and Macdonald, who had always had an ear for a good story, listened, increasingly captivated.
The trip was to prove life-changing for her. The old soldiers clearly enjoyed the company of a bright and attentive Scottish journalist, and began telling her stories of life on the western front, of what it was like going over the top, of raids out into no man’s land, but about the camaraderie too. She realised these men had never had a voice and that their incredible stories were in danger of being lost forever, and so on her return she began talking to each of them at length, recording their experiences for posterity.
Later that year, she left the BBC and took the plunge to become a historian – although it was not a term she ever used to describe herself; she regarded herself as a journalist and a recorder of these men’s memories. Her first book, published in 1978, about the battles around Ypres in the autumn of 1917, was They Called It Passchendaele. An instant hit and bestseller, Macdonald discovered she had found her metier and one that struck a chord with the public. She went on to publish six further books about the first world war.
Born in Glasgow, Lyn was the daughter of Gertrude (nee King) and Hugh Macdonald. Her father was an engineer and a great storyteller. Although Lyn was an only child, she was part of a large wider family, and on gatherings at the family home in Ayrshire, she would hear the men talking in their smoke-filled room then sneak into the kitchen where the women were chatting, crawling under the table to listen to their gossip and stories too. So began a love of the great oral tradition of storytelling.
She attended Hutchesons’ grammar school in the city and mde her first trip to France in 1948. During the second world war, her father had joined the RAF as an engineer, landing in Normandy on 8 June 1944, two days after D-day, where he helped construct airfields. Later, in northern France, he was billeted with a French family who were to become lifelong friends. A few years after the war, the families’ two daughters did an exchange.
This was a transformative experience for the 18-year-old Macdonald. She found she had an aptitude for the language and loved French culture. A love affair with France began, which she maintained until the end of her life.
By 1960, she was working for Scottish TV as a writer and producer, and it was during this time she met Ian McNeilage, a journalist and reporter (who used the professional name of Ian Ross as others found his surname hard to pronounce). They married and later moved to London, where she worked first for ITV before joining the BBC and Woman’s Hour.
Her first book was followed by The Roses of No Man’s Land, about nurses on the frontline, two years later and then, in 1983, Somme. By this time she was an internationally renowned, bestselling author. Along with the historian Martin Middlebrook, she was pioneering a new approach to writing history: from the bottom up. Her books were not about the generals and grand strategy, but about the experience of war for the millions of young men – and women – caught up in this terrible conflict. In 1987 she published 1914: The Days of Hope, followed by 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War (1988), and 1915: The Death of Innocence (1993); her last book was To the Last Man: Spring 1918 (1998).
Never sentimental or mawkish, she was, however, an empathetic listener and exceptional interviewer; her “old boys”, as she called them, were instantly put at ease and opened up to her. The war they told her about was not that of the war poets or of lions being led by donkeys or even of Blackadder, but one about which the men had been proud to be a part.
“In more than 1,500 hours of interviews,” she said, “I never heard one man use the word ‘horror’ to describe their experiences. That is not to say it wasn’t horrible at times – it was – but they viewed it very differently to how it is widely perceived today.”
She also received photographs, diaries, letters and other material. Over the years, she amassed a vast and priceless archive, now in the Imperial War Museum. Her influence was considerable, both in terms of her work on the first world war and for her fresh approach to writing history.
She is survived by Ian, their three children, Aline, Alastair and Michael, five grandsons and nine great-grandchildren.