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McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864 - 1930)

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    Posted: 01 Sep 2010 at 17:57

This artilcle was taken from the Australian Dictionary of Biography Website;


McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864 - 1930)

Alternative Names:
M'Cay, James Whiteside
21 December 1864, Ballynure, Antrim, Ireland
1 October 1930, Victoria, Australia
Cultural Heritage:
Religious Influence:
  • Presbyterian
  • army officer
  • colonial militia (Australia)
  • government adviser
  • intelligence officer
  • liberal/conservative politician
  • local government councillor
  • Member of Lower House
  • protectionist politician
  • school owner
  • school principal
  • schoolteacher
  • solicitor 

Sir James Whiteside McCay (1864 - 1930), by unknown photographer, courtesy of Australian War Memorial. H01890. .

McCAY, Sir JAMES WHITESIDE (1864-1930), soldier, politician and lawyer, was born on 21 December 1864 at Ballynure, Antrim, Ireland, eldest of ten children of Rev. Andrew Ross Boyd McCay (1837-1915), Presbyterian minister, and his wife Lily Ann Esther Waring, née Brown. Adam Cairns and Delamore William McCay were brothers. The family pronounced the name to rhyme with sky; for much of his life James signed himself M'Cay. After migrating to Victoria in 1865, Boyd McCay accepted a call to Castlemaine where he remained minister for twenty-five years. He taught church history to theological students, graduated M.A. at the University of Melbourne in 1882 and had an Irish D.D. conferred on him in 1887. Esther McCay 'spoke seven languages fluently'.

James attended Castlemaine State School and when 12 won a scholarship to Scotch College, Melbourne. He passed the matriculation examination next year and was dux of the school in 1880 when at the public examinations he won the classics and shared the mathematics exhibition with J. H. Michell. He entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and in 1881 and 1882 took exhibitions in classics, logic and English, with second-class honours both years. In 1883 he interrupted his course in order to teach privately and at Toorak Grammar School. He learned to read French, Italian and Spanish.

In 1885 McCay bought the Castlemaine Grammar School. As its principal he made a reputation as a good teacher, a firm disciplinarian who birched freely and, influenced by his mother who taught at the school, a supporter of higher education for women. McCay was tall with a wilting moustache and was generally referred to as Jim. In 1892 he completed his degree, concentrating on mathematics (M.A., 1894). He won two exhibitions in law in 1893 and in February 1895 finished with first-class honours and the Supreme Court prize (LL.M., 1897). Still teaching at Castlemaine, he reputedly had not attended a single lecture. He put up his shingle as a solicitor in Barker Street and installed the first telephone in the town. On 8 April 1896 he married Julia Mary O'Meara, daughter of the Catholic police magistrate at Kyneton; they had two daughters.

On 29 October 1886 McCay had been commissioned in the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles, and was promoted captain in 1889, major in 1896 and lieutenant-colonel in 1900. A practical soldier, he did not encourage practice of 'pretty parade-ground movements' or adoption of 'gold-lace' uniforms.

He was a member of the Castlemaine Borough Council in 1890-93, president of the mechanics' institute and treasurer of the school of mines. He became something of a 'political boss' of the radical faction opposing the sitting parliamentarian (Sir) James Patterson. When Patterson died in 1895, McCay won the November by-election by ten votes. He had declared himself a collectivist rather than an individualist, in support of (Sir) George Turner's Liberal government. His radical tendencies soon withered and with other bright young Liberals he was prominent in the intrigue which led to Turner's defeat by Allan McLean on 5 December 1899. McCay described Turner's as 'a Government that cannot be followed because it does not lead'. He was appointed to the ministry, but was defeated in the ministerial election at Castlemaine by the young football hero (Sir) Harry Lawson, one of his former pupils who eventually became a staunch friend. McCay's questioning of the wisdom of sending a Victorian contingent to the South African War—for surely England did not need assistance—cost him votes. At the elections in November 1900 he could not even win the second seat.

McCay had worked for Federation and in March 1901, as a protectionist supporter of (Sir) Edmund Barton, won the Federal seat of Corinella; he was unopposed in 1903. He made his mark in parliament by hard work, but cutting and satirically witty remarks about fellow members reduced his popularity, which he always scorned to seek. Hungry for office, he harried the Watson Labor government of 1904, carrying a vital amendment to its arbitration bill which eventually led to Watson's resignation. He became minister for defence from 18 August to 5 July 1905 in the Reid-McLean ministry. McCay had earned a reputation as a defence specialist, especially in modifying Major General Hutton's reform proposals in the Defence Act of 1903. He entirely supported Hutton's basic plans for a citizen soldiery (though not for their service overseas) but represented a moderate nationalist consensus (supported by Labor) in eliminating many of Hutton's proposals regarded as militarist, Imperialist or extravagant. As minister, he was capable, cool and lucid. Amendments to the Defence Act late in 1904, without consultation with Westminster, led to establishment of a Council of Defence and military and naval boards with strong civil representation, confirming ministerial control of defence policy. At the first meeting of the Council of Defence, McCay brusquely rejected recommendations for naval expansion in preference to military.

In 1906 McCay's electorate was eliminated and, unwisely choosing to stand in Corio against R. A. Crouch, he was soundly defeated. Disillusioned with politics, he stood only once more, for the Senate in 1910, and was swept away in the Labor landslide, though he could still stir Labor supporters to fury. About 1900 McCay had taken William Thwaites into legal partnership; about 1905 they opened a Melbourne office. He turned to further self-education as a soldier. As minister he had supported Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) William Bridges's pleas for additional staff for the Intelligence Department. On Bridges's recommendation McCay was appointed on 6 December 1907 to command the new Australian Intelligence Corps, a militia body, and promoted colonel. Because of alleged abrasiveness of personality, the appointment was not widely welcomed. Recognition of the total inadequacy of national mapping speeded development, and research on conditions in neighbouring countries and on local transport proceeded. McCay worked closely with his commandant in Victoria (Sir) John Monash. The corps was infiltrating into staff work and McCay was irritating his permanent-officer superiors. In 1911 he lectured on 'The true principles of Australia's defence' (published in the Commonwealth Military Journal). By 1912 he was on bad terms with the Military Board and the corps was removed from militia control; his appointment was terminated on 31 March 1913. He had taken a prolonged trip to Europe.

On the outbreak of war McCay was immediately given charge of censorship, diligently applying the prepared plan, establishing district offices in the capital cities. However, on 15 August 1914 he was appointed to command the 2nd Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. At a function in his honour he surprised many by asserting that 'This titanic struggle cannot end early, nor easily'. The first contingent reached Egypt early in December. McCay trained his command exhaustingly, 'drawing his own orders, and sometimes training his own platoons', and became unpopular as a martinet. According to the 5th Battalion historian, after some playing-up on New Years Eve he paraded the brigade and let loose 'a torrent of invective [which] deeply wounded the decent-minded men who were in the majority'. He had brushes with Major General Bridges who considered relieving McCay of his command because of his 'tendency to regard all orders from the point of view of the lawyer and to argue about them'. But Bridges became more than satisfied.

Bridges chose the 2nd Brigade to follow close behind Colonel Sinclair-MacLagan's 3rd Brigade in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April. The 2nd was intended to extend left to the north, but the misjudged landing led to utter confusion. Soon after McCay landed about 6 a.m., he found MacLagan and accepted his request, although MacLagan was his junior and it was against orders, to come in on the right where for the next few days the brigade concentrated on 400 Plateau. In those first hours McCay was shot twice through his cap and once through his sleeve. By midday he had made contact with three of his four battalions, many of whose men, however, had pushed on out of control. Bridges ordered digging in on Second Ridge but by late afternoon a dangerous gap at Lone Pine was evident: McCay requested support from the last reserve battalion, Bridges agreed and the position was held. McCay was not consulted that night about possible evacuation and later said he would have opposed it. The brigade lost half its strength in the first two days, and was relieved on the 29th and 30th.

On 3 May General Sir Ian Hamilton demanded reinforcements at Cape Helles. Believing that McCay's leadership was enhanced by his week's experience, Bridges sent the 2nd Brigade. On the 8th it was brought in at thirty-five minutes notice, more than half a mile (800 m) behind the line, to make a futile open attack on Krithia. McCay could do little more than rip out an order to his battalions. Reaching 'Tommies' Trench' under a tempest of fire, McCay said to Charles Bean, 'This is where I suppose I have to do the damned heroic act' and scrambled on to the parapet shouting, 'Now then, Australians! Which of you men are Australians? Come on, Australians!' ('I said in effect to them', he wrote home, '“Come and die”, and they came with a laugh and a cheer'.) Urging on his senior officers, McCay advanced to probably the most forward position occupied by an A.I.F. brigade headquarters during the war, and realized the attack was hopeless: the rest of the line was held up. They had made 'the only worthwhile advance in the entire battle of Krithia', but suffered more than 1000 casualties. The brigade dug in: at 2 a.m., while arranging for stretcher-bearers and rations, McCay had his leg broken by a bullet. He suffered unjust blame for the attack which was not his responsibility.

After evacuation to Egypt, he returned to Anzac on 8 June 1915 with his leg not properly healed. He was outraged by the appointment of Major General Legge to succeed Bridges; 'McCay talks far too much', Bean remarked. Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood and Legge chose McCay to take command of the new 2nd Division but on 11 July his leg snapped.

In hospital in Malta he endured several operations and dangerous wastage of weight before being invalided home. Meanwhile his wife had died on 13 July and his father on 1 September. He reached Melbourne on 11 November to a hero's welcome. On 29 November he was promoted temporary major general as inspector general of the A.I.F. in Australia; he had also been appointed C.B. and awarded the Légion d'honneur. In December he quelled a near-riot among troops at Liverpool, New South Wales.

Birdwood recommended to the Australian government that McCay take command of the 3rd Division forming in Australia. However, the government insisted on Australian command of one of the two new divisions in Egypt. So, escaping a medical board, McCay was appointed to the 5th Division and took command on 22 March 1916. Bad luck continued to dog him. II Australian Corps had to march across open desert to replace I Anzac Corps at Suez Canal. McCay objected, but was ordered to carry on. His 14th Brigade finished the march in 'utter exhaustion … like the remnant of a broken army'; McCay sacked Brigadier General Irving for his defective arrangements. Rigorous training continued until June when the 5th was the last of the four divisions to transfer to France but the first to see serious action, at Fromelles.

In support of the Somme offensive the division, under the tactical control of the British XI Corps, was intended to eliminate a German salient. Planning was hurried and indecisive, the experienced opposing German division expected the attack, the troops were heavily shelled while assembling and the British barrage was ineffective. The Australians reached their first objectives but the third line which was their aim turned out not to exist, and they were forced back in disarray. In a few hours the division suffered over 5500 casualties. McCay had made only one conspicuous mistake in ordering his men to vacate the first trench after clearing it. He also had Colonel Pope sent back to Australia for alleged drunkenness; Pope was probably merely totally exhausted. Once again McCay was widely blamed by his men for the defeat, but the A.I.F. commanders knew the responsibility was not his.

The division was crippled for weeks, but in September and October often raided successfully at Fleurbaix. It was then transferred to the Somme where rain and mud held up an intended attack at Flers and the 5th Division was relieved by the 2nd.

In January 1917 McCay was relieved of his command, probably because of his lameness and uncertain health during the winter, his general unpopularity and in particular his unsatisfactory relations with his staff; officially he was invalided out. Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. McGlinn disliked his 'priggish pedantic mannerism'. On 1 May the government appointed him to command the base depots in England, against the advice of Birdwood who would have preferred his appointment to administrative command at Horseferry Road. Brigadier General Griffiths, commandant there, found co-operation with McCay so difficult that he pleaded to be allowed to return to France.

McCay in 1917 and until May 1918 was the senior A.I.F. officer in the area, and nearly all the other senior commanders dreaded the possibility of his appointment either to the Corps or to administrative command if Birdwood were to leave the A.I.F. Birdwood warned the minister of defence of McCay's unsuitability as general officer commanding. His old friend Monash in July 1917 wrote home that Jim 'declares he has become an old man and will be able to see no more active service [but] he showed all his old clearness of grasp and power, and was as nice and amiable and friendly as it was possible for any one to be'. McCay nevertheless still fruitlessly strove for either the fighting or administrative command. For almost two years at Salisbury Plain he efficiently and loyally trained and supplied reinforcements and controlled movements during demobilization. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1918 and K.B.E. in 1919.

Lieutenant-General Sir Brudenell White later remarked that McCay was 'one of the greatest soldiers that ever served Australia … greater even than Monash'. In intellect and military education he was indeed comparable with Monash. But whatever his potential he had no opportunity to excel at high command; and he had little of Monash's capacity to work harmoniously with staff or to earn essential trust in his leadership. And he had none of Monash's luck: as Bean concluded, the popular verdicts against him following the charge at Krithia, the desert march and Fromelles were grossly unjust. But they wrecked his military career.

McCay was demobilized in August 1919 and had to attempt to live down his reputation as a reckless commander; he never deigned to defend himself. He abandoned his legal practice and was appointed as business adviser to the Commonwealth government, which he remained until 1922, and, on Lawson's nomination, chairman in 1919 of a Victorian royal commission on high prices on whose recommendation a Fair Profits Commission was established. He had been a commissioner of the State Savings Bank of Victoria since 1912 and now became deputy chairman. During the police strike McCay acted for several months in 1923-24 without pay as commander of the Special Constabulary Force. He frequently wrote for the Argus leading articles and essays on political and economic subjects, sometimes under pseudonyms. He retired from the army as honorary lieutenant-general in 1926. In his later troubled years he was in constant pain from his wound.

McCay died on 1 October 1930 of hypertensive renal disease and was buried in Box Hill cemetery; he had long been a trustee of the Castlemaine Presbyterian Church. His daughters survived him: Beatrix Waring, LL.M., married (Sir) George Reid, Q.C., attorney-general of Victoria in 1967-73; Margaret Mary, M.A., became a teaching nun. McCay's portrait by Marion Jones is in the Castlemaine Art Gallery of which he had been a trustee.

Select Bibliography

A. W. Keown, Forward with the Fifth (Melb, 1921); C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942); N. Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, vol I (Syd, 1976); C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Citizen General Staff (Canb, 1976); G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982); D. McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme (Syd, 1983); Victorian Historical Magazine, 31 (1960-61), no 1; Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1919, 2, p 431; Table Talk (Melbourne), 13 Dec 1895; Punch (Melbourne), 21 Jan 1909, 14 Mar 1912, 2 Sept 1914; Argus (Melbourne), 7 July 1915, 2 Oct 1930; Castlemaine Mail, 3 Oct 1930; L. D. Atkinson, Australian Defence Policy. A Study of Empire and Nation 1897-1910 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964); Monash papers (National Library of Australia); private information.

Author: Geoffrey Serle

Print Publication Details: Geoffrey Serle, 'McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864 - 1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 224-227.

Edited by Mal Murray - 11 Oct 2011 at 17:44
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The Wikipedia article on this officer follows;

James Whiteside McCay

The Honourable
Sir James McCay
Head and shoulders portrait of a man with a moustache in a suit and tie with a high collar.
Minister for Defence
In office
18 August 1904 – 2 July 1905
Prime Minister George Reid
Preceded by Anderson Dawson
Succeeded by Thomas Playford
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Corinella
In office
29 March 1901 – 12 December 1906
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Division abolished
Personal details
Born 21 December 1864(1864-12-21)
Ballynure, Ireland
Died 1 October 1930(1930-10-01) (aged 65)
Melbourne, Australia
Nationality Australian
Political party Protectionist Party
Alma mater University of Melbourne
Occupation Solicitor
Religion Presbyterian
Military service
Allegiance  Australia
Service/branch Australian Army
Years of service 1884–1926
Rank Lieutenant General
Commands AIF Depots in the United Kingdom
5th Division
2nd Infantry Brigade
Battles/wars Great War:
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Mentioned in Despatches (4)
Légion d'honneur (France)

Lieutenant General Sir James Whiteside McCay KCMG, KBE, CB, VD (21 December 1864 – 1 October 1930) was an Australian general and politician. A graduate of the University of Melbourne, where he earned Master of Arts and Master of Laws degrees, he established a successful legal practice, McCay & Thwaites. He was a member of the Victorian Parliament from 1895 to 1899, where he was a champion of women's suffrage and federation. He lost his seat in 1899 but became a member of the first Australian Federal Parliament in 1901. He was Minister for Defence from 1904 to 1905, during which he implemented long-lasting reforms, including the creation of the Military Board.

As a soldier, McCay commanded the 2nd Infantry Brigade in the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, during the Gallipoli Campaign of the Great War. He was later wounded in the Second Battle of Krithia and invalided to Australia, but returned to command the 5th Division, which he led in the Battle of Fromelles in 1916, dubbed "the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history."[1] His failures in difficult military operations made him a controversial figure who earned the disfavour of his superiors, while his efforts to succeed in the face of insurmountable obstacles earned him the odium of troops under his command, who blamed him for high casualties. In the latter part of the war he commanded the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom.

After the war, McCay resumed his old job as Deputy Chairman of the State Bank of Victoria and also served on a panel that deliberated on the future structure of the Army. He was chairman of the Fair Profits Commission, the War Service Homes Scheme of the Repatriation Commission, and the Repatriation Commission's Disposals Board. He commanded the Special Constabulary Force during the 1923 Victorian Police strike.

Education and early life

McCay was born on 21 December 1864 in Ballynure, County Antrim, Ireland, the oldest of ten children to the Reverend Andrew Ross Boyd McCay, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Lily Ann Esther Waring (née Brown).[2] Although he was christened with the surname McCay, James usually signed his name as "M'Cay". The family emigrated to Australia in 1865, settling in Castlemaine, Victoria.[2] Boyd McCay continued his theological studies while he was a minister in Castlemaine, earning a Master of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1882 and a Doctor of Divinity from the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland in 1887.[3] Esther could speak seven languages.[4] The two separated in 1891.[3]

James attended Castlemaine State School.[2] At the age of twelve he won a scholarship to Scotch College, Melbourne to the value of £35 per annum for six years.[5] He was dux of the school in 1880. At Scotch College McCay first met John Monash, who would be dux the following year, and would later become a close friend. McCay entered Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in 1881, the year that the college first opened, and commenced studying for his Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree.[6] McCay left the university without completing his degree in 1883 and took a job as a teacher at Toorak Grammar School. In 1885, he bought Castlemaine Grammar School. The school was co-educational; McCay believed that girls should have the same opportunities as boys. Among its students who attended university with McCay's encouragement and support was Sussanah Jane Williams, who later became principal of Janet Clarke Hall at the University of Melbourne, and The Women's College at the University of Sydney.[7] The job of running the school was soon delegated to McCay's mother and brother Adam.[8]

He returned to the university in 1892 and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree. He then embarked on a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree. In 1895, he was awarded a Master of Arts (MA) degree, majoring in mathematics. He completed his law degree the next year, with first class honours, in spite of rarely attending the lectures due to his work, political and military commitments. In 1895, he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria and established a legal practice in Castlemaine. His practice had the first telephone in the town.[9] He was awarded his Master of Laws (LLM) degree in 1897.[2] In 1898, he went into partnership with William Thwaites, whose brother Walter married his sister. The firm's name was then changed to McCay & Thwaites.[10] It would later hire one of the first women to become an articled clerk in Victoria.[11] On 8 April 1896, McCay married Julia Mary O'Meara, the daughter of a Roman Catholic Kyneton police magistrate.[2] Sectarianism in Australia made such marriages uncommon, and the marriage was opposed by both their families. It produced two daughters, Margaret Mary ("Mardi") and Beatrix Waring ("Bixie"), born in 1897 and 1901, respectively.[12]

Political career

Victorian parliament

In August 1890, McCay was elected to the local council of the Castlemaine Borough.[13] When the prominent local Member of the Legislative Assembly, Sir James Patterson, died in 1894, McCay ran for his seat of Castlemaine in the resulting by-election. After a hard-fought campaign, McCay won by just ten votes.[14] McCay devoted his maiden speech to what would be his defining cause as a state politician, women's suffrage:

I believe the principle applies to woman by virtue of her citizenship as applies to man. As she has to bear her share of the duties of citizenship, she is entitled to vote unless good cause can be shown to the contrary; and I submit that good cause has not been shown to the contrary.[15]

On other issues, McCay supported Federation, and was one of a number of young politicians who rallied around Alfred Deakin, threatening to bring down Sir George Turner's government if it attempted to block federation.[16] McCay opposed sending Victorian troops to fight in the Boer War, calling war in general an "anachronism".[17] In 1899, McCay was one of the young radicals who supported Allan McLean and crossed the floor to bring down the Turner government. McLean gave McCay the portfolio of Minister for Education and Customs in his new ministry. At the time it was the custom for members who had accepted a ministerial appointment to re-submit themselves for election. In the subsequent by-election, McCay's opposition to the war in South Africa became an election issue. The war was now going badly for Britain. Feelings ran high and McCay lost his seat.[4] McCay attempted to win his seat back at the general election in 1900 but lost again.[18]

Federal parliament

With Federation in 1901 came the opportunity to run for the new Parliament of Australia. McCay contested the 1901 election as a Protectionist Party candidate for Corinella, the Federal electorate that encompassed the Castlemaine area. McCay, who characterised himself as a liberal, supported the widest possible enfranchisement of women, the protection of industry and revenue through tariffs, and the White Australia policy. The war in South Africa was now in its final stages and the electorate forgot or forgave McCay's "treason", electing him to the first Australian Parliament.[19]

Formal group portrait of nine men, four sitting at the front and five standing behind. Three are wearing suits; the others are wearing formal double breasted military uniforms with sashes.
Group portrait of Commonwealth Headquarters Staff. Identified left to right, back row: Captain P. N. Buckley; Mr S. Petherbridge; Surgeon General W. D. C. Williams; Mr F. Savage. Front row: Colonel H. Le Mesurie; Colonel J. C. Hoad; Lieutenant Colonel J. W. McCay; Colonel W. T. Bridges, Mr J. A. Thompson.

As a backbencher, McCay opposed amendments to the Defence Act 1903 proposed by Billy Hughes of the Australian Labor Party that called for peacetime conscription. He accepted its necessity in wartime, but only for service within Australia. McCay believed that volunteers would always be plentiful, and he feared that peacetime conscription would result in militarism. He was re-elected unopposed in the 1903 election, the first in which Victorian women were eligible to vote.[20] In 1904, McCay moved an amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 to remove the clause that empowered the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to give preference to trade unions. The debate became unexpectedly heated and resulted in the fall of Chris Watson's Labor government. The Free Trade Party's George Reid became Prime Minister and offered McCay the post of Minister for Defence.[21]

McCay became the sixth Minister for Defence in four years.[22] His predecessor, Senator Anderson Dawson, had chaired a committee that had produced a detailed report recommending the abolition of the post of General Officer Commanding Australian Military Forces and the creation of a Council of Defence, a Naval Board and a Military Board. It fell to McCay to implement the report's recommendations and create a five-man Military Board consisting of himself, a finance member and three military officers. McCay preferred the senior member not be styled the Chief of the General Staff.[23] This change would not be made until 1909.[24] At the first meeting of the Council of Defence, McCay rejected the arguments of Captain William Rooke Creswell for the majority of the defence budget to be spent on supporting the British fleet.[25] In 1905 the Reid government collapsed and McCay became a backbencher once more.[26] Since the Federal parliament sat in Parliament House, Melbourne, McCay lived at the Stock Exchange Club in Collins Street, Melbourne while his family remained in Castlemaine. He maintained a liaison with a married woman, Ella Gavan Duffy.[27]

In the 1906 redistribution, McCay's electorate of Corinella was abolished and its territory divided between the electorates of Laanecoorie and Corio. McCay decided to run in Corio against the sitting member, Richard Crouch, although he was also a Protectionist, but Crouch won convincingly. In 1910, the Commonwealth Liberal Party Senate candidate, Thomas Skene, died suddenly two days before the nomination date for the 1910 election. McCay submitted himself as candidate but lost.[4]

Military career

McCay's military career began in 1884, when he enlisted in the 4th (Castlemaine) Battalion, Victorian Rifles. He was commissioned as a lieutenant on 29 October 1886, and was subsequently promoted to captain on 5 March 1889 and major on 13 March 1896.[28] Following the forced resignation of the commander of the 8th Regiment for making a political speech touting McCay, McCay was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assumed command of the regiment on 12 January 1900.[18]

Director of Military Intelligence

On 6 December 1907, on the recommendation of the Chief of Intelligence, Colonel William Throsby Bridges, the Minister for Defence, Thomas Ewing appointed McCay as Director of Military Intelligence, with the rank of colonel.[29] In turn, McCay turned to his former schoolmate, John Monash, whom he had appointed to the command of the Victorian section of the new Australian Army Intelligence Corps (AIC), with a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel on 28 March 1908. The AIC set about compiling information such as the suitability of lighthouses for signalling, the availability of railway rolling stock, and the number of civilian motor vehicles suitable for military use. A concerted effort was put into creating sets of detailed maps.[30] McCay and Monash became close friends. In 1912, McCay & Thwaites moved into offices at 360 Collins Street, where businesses associated with the Baillieu family were located. Monash moved his offices into the same building, and the two addressed each other as "Jack" and "Jim".[31] On 5 March 1912, McCay was appointed a commissioner of the State Bank of Victoria.[32]

In 1911, McCay delivered a lecture at the Victorian United Services Institution entitled "The True Principles of Australia's Defence". He suggested that the Australian Army should be equipped to the same standard as the British Army and should be prepared to fight an enemy overseas rather than waiting for an invasion of Australia.[33] On 11 April 1913, he resigned his position as Director of Military Intelligence and was placed on the unattached list.[32]

Great War


On 2 August 1914, the government activated the preliminary stage of the war plan, which included the establishment of censorship. McCay was recalled to duty as Deputy Chief Censor (Australia), answerable to the Chief Censor in London. McCay organised a headquarters in Melbourne, and established district offices in the other state capitals. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War on 4 August, Bridges, now a brigadier general, appointed McCay to command the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Tunbridge on 10 August, who in turn was succeeded by Colonel Monash on 17 August.[34]

Two ships lying offshore, surrounded by small boats
The sun rising over Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli peninsula, on the morning of 25 April 1915 during the landing at Anzac Cove. In the centre of the photo is SS Novian carrying the headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. At the right is the SS Galeka from which the brigade's 6th and 7th Infantry Battalions have been landing.

McCay was assigned two regular officers as his brigade major and staff captain, but was permitted to choose his four battalion commanders.[35] All of McCay's choices were senior Militia commanders from Victoria. Three of them proved to be too old for the vigours of a modern campaign. The exception was his youngest appointment, Lieutenant Colonel Harold Edward Elliott of the 7th Infantry Battalion, a University of Melbourne educated lawyer like himself.[36] The brigade assembled at Broadmeadows Camp where it commenced its training.[37] On 21 October McCay and his brigade headquarters embarked from Melbourne on the former P&O ocean liner RMS Orvieto, which also carried Major General Bridges and the staff of his 1st Division. After sailing through the Suez canal, it arrived at Alexandria, Egypt on 4 December 1914. The brigade camped at Mena, on the outskirts of Cairo, where training resumed.[38] War correspondent Charles Bean noted that McCay "trained his command with conspicuous ability. He did a great deal of detail work himself, drawing his own orders, and sometimes training his own platoons."[36] On 4 April 1915, the 2nd Brigade packed its camp and moved by rail to Alexandria, from whence it embarked for Gallipoli for the landing at Anzac Cove.[39]

McCay arrived off Anzac Cove on the transport SS Novian on the morning of Anzac Day, 25 April 1915, with his headquarters and the 5th Infantry Battalion on board. Novian had difficulties reaching her berth and when she finally reached it there were no boats to unload her.[40] McCay therefore did not step ashore until about 06:00.[41] There, he met Colonel Ewen Sinclair MacLagan, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, who asked him to deploy the 2nd Infantry Brigade on the right, on the 400 Plateau, instead of the left as planned.[42] McCay did so, establishing his headquarters on what became known as McCay's Hill. The 2nd Infantry Brigade was soon involved in "the most costly struggle of the day".[43] At 16:45 McCay telephoned Bridges at 1st Division headquarters to ask for reinforcements.

The reply came from Colonel White: "The General has only one battalion left; MacLagan has been very hard pressed, and the General is loath to dispense with this battalion until other troops come ashore tonight."

McCay answered that he could not manage to bridge the gap in his line; unless reinforcements arrived, the Turks might come through it at any moment. Major Blamey, standing beside McCay, added that in his opinion the situation was very dangerous—that some of the men were giving way. A few minutes later the voice of Bridges came to McCay through the telephone. "McCay," he said, "I want you to speak to me, not as subordinate to general, but as McCay to Bridges. I have only one battalion left. Do you assure me that your need for it is absolute?" McCay replied that he did; unless it were sent to him, the Turks could come in behind the right of the line. Bridges promised him the 4th Battalion, and ordered Blamey to come down and lead it up.[44]

The Australian line was forced back on to the reverse slope, but did not break.[45]

The commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, General Sir Ian Hamilton, now decided to make his main effort at Cape Helles.[46] The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, was ordered to send a brigade from each of his two divisions to Helles to reinforce the British and French troops there. McCay's brigade and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade were chosen. They embarked for Helles on 6 May.[47] On the evening of 8 May, during the Second Battle of Krithia, McCay was given 35 minutes notice to conduct an advance across open ground in broad daylight. McCay protested that there was insufficient time to organise this but was overruled by Hamilton.[48] The brigade suffered heavily. McCay led his men from the front, driving them on despite the futility of the attack.[49] All of his staff were killed or wounded, and McCay's leg was broken by a bullet. The advance was also pointless, for it could have been conducted after dark without loss. As a result, his men regarded him as responsible for their fate.[50]

McCay was evacuated to hospital in Alexandria. He rejoined his brigade at Anzac on 8 June but the wound had not fully healed and he was lame, walking with the aid of a stick.[51] In the meantime, General Bridges had been mortally wounded on 18 May and the Australian government sent the Chief of the General Staff, Major General James Gordon Legge, to replace him as commander of the 1st Division.[52] McCay, Monash and Colonel Harry Chauvel were all disappointed at being passed over for the command, and protested to Birdwood and the Australian government, but to no avail. However, Legge chose McCay to command the 2nd Division, then forming in Egypt. Unfortunately, on 11 July, the day before he was due to leave for Egypt, McCay's leg snapped where the bone had been broken at Krithia.[53] He was evacuated again, this time to Malta, and then to the United Kingdom, where he was visited by Sir George Reid, now the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. McCay's wife Julia died while he was in hospital. Several weeks later his father died as well. McCay was therefore sent back to Australia on compassionate leave.[54] He arrived back in Melbourne on RMS Malwa on 11 November 1915,[55] accompanied by his two teenage daughters and his brother Hugh, who had joined the ship in Adelaide, to a hero's welcome.[56] For his service at Gallipoli, McCay was mentioned in despatches[57] for his "great promptitude in supporting the threatened flank of the covering force" during the landing and his "conspicuous gallantry" at Krithia.[58] He was also appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath,[59] and bestowed the Croix de Commander de la Légion d'honneur by the President of France.[60]

Western Front

Statue of a man lifting another on his shoulder atop a base of flat stones. There is a bronze plaque on the base, decorated with a small Australian flag. The French flag flies from a flagpole in the background.
The "Cobbers" memorial at the Australian Forces cemetery at Fromelles, northern France

The Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce, appointed McCay to the newly-created post of Inspector General of the AIF on 29 November 1915, with the local rank of major general. McCay was involved in recruiting campaigns, and inspected AIF units and reported on their training and equipment. He proposed a new training regime, with a national syllabus that increased the number of hours per week of training and the duration of training to twelve weeks. This led to strikes at the camps at Casula and Liverpool. Rioting soldiers clashed with police at Circular Quay and at Central Station striking soldiers were shot and one killed by soldiers sent to return them to Liverpool.[61] As a result, new liquor laws were introduced, including six o'clock closing.[62]

Meanwhile, the Gallipoli Campaign had ended and the AIF in Egypt was in the process of doubling in size from two divisions to four. Birdwood wished to appoint two British generals to command the new divisions, but Senator Pearce opposed this, ordering that one be given to McCay.[63] On 22 March 1916, McCay arrived back in Egypt to assume command of the 5th Division. He found that General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force had ordered II Anzac Corps, of which the 5th Division was a part, to replace I Anzac Corps in the defence of the Suez Canal. Owing to a shortage of rolling stock, the 4th and 5th Divisions were ordered to undertake a three-day route march across the desert under service conditions, carrying their packs and weapons. This proved to be a greater test of staff and troops than anticipated, and many men dropped from thirst or exhaustion.[64] Many of his men blamed McCay for subjecting them to such a humiliating and severe trial.[65]

In June 1916, the 5th Division moved to the Western Front.[66] Although the last to arrive in France, it would be the first to see serious action,[67] a part of an ill-conceived plan by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Haking, whose British XI Corps would attack a strong part of the line with inexperienced 5th Division and British 61st (2nd South Midland) Division.[64] The resulting Battle of Fromelles was an unmitigated disaster. In one night, the 5th Division sustained 5,533 casualties, while the 61st Division lost 1,547.[68] Haking was principally responsible but McCay bore some of the blame. He made tactical errors; his order to vacate the first trench after it was cleared "undoubtedly contributed to the causes of failure".[69] His refusal to permit a truce to recover wounded further damaged his popularity.[70] For his part, McCay was mentioned in despatches a second time.[71]

The 5th Division was out of action for some months. It finally moved with the rest of the I Anzac Corps to the Somme sector in October.[72] After months of fighting and recent rain, the front line area was a devastated muddy morass. McCay was ordered to undertake an attack with the 2nd Division's 7th Infantry Brigade at Flers, which cost 819 casualties and gained no ground.[73] Once again, McCay's handling of his division showed poor planning and tactics. Moreover, at Flers he showed that he had not learned from the lessons of Fromelles. His relief was now only a matter of time.[74] Nonetheless, McCay remained in command of the 5th Division until 18 December 1916 when he was granted medical leave in the United Kingdom for treatment on his leg, which the doctors diagnosed as neuralgia.[55] Birdwood took the opportunity of removing McCay, ostensibly on medical grounds.[75] McCay was mentioned in despatches a third time.[76]

United Kingdom

Two-storey brick house with bay window and two large chimneys.
Exterior view of McCay's residence, at Bhurtpore Barracks, Tidworth, Wiltshire, England, as General Officer Commanding AIF Depots in England

On the recommendation of Brigadier General Robert Anderson, the Commandant, Administrative Headquarters, AIF, and against the opposition of Birdwood, Senator Pearce appointed McCay as commander of the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom.[77] These depots received and trained reinforcements arriving from Australia, and rehabilitated and retrained convalescents who were released from hospital.[78] McCay established his headquarters at Tidworth, in the heart of the Salisbury Plain where most of the Australian camps were located. He occupied this post for the remainder of the war, failing in bids to return to an active command at the head of the 5th Division, the Australian Corps, or the 3rd Division when Monash was promoted to corps commander. A bid to replace Birdwood as administrative commander of the AIF also came to naught.[79] For his services in the United Kingdom, McCay was mentioned in despatches a fourth time,[80] made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1918,[81] and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1919.[82]

On 10 March 1919, McCay handed over command of the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom to Major General Charles Rosenthal. After a farewell dinner hosted by Monash, he embarked for Australia, where his AIF appointment was terminated. In 1919, along with George Swinburne and Generals White and Legge, he produced a report on the organisation of the post-war Army. In 1920, he joined Generals Chauvel, White, Monash, Legge, and Hobbs to produce a second report on the subject.[83] McCay retired from the Army in 1926 with the honorary rank of Lieutenant General.[2]

Later life

McCay resumed his old job as Deputy Chairman of the State Savings Bank of Victoria on 10 June 1919, a few days after he returned to Melbourne. He also resumed his relationship with Ella Gavan Duffy. On 30 December 1919, the Premier of Victoria, Harry Lawson, McCay's successor in Legislative Assembly seat of Castlemaine and a former student at Castlemaine Grammar and Scotch College, appointed McCay as chairman of the Fair Profits Commission, a consumer protection body set up to monitor prices and profits. After his term ended in 1921, he was appointed to the advisory board of the War Service Homes Scheme of the Repatriation Commission. He was also Chairman of its Disposals Board from 1921 to 1922. In 1922, the State Savings Bank of Victoria took over the construction of war service homes in Victoria. During the 1923 Victorian Police strike, Monash appointed McCay to create, and later command the Special Constabulary Force that was established to carry out police duties during the strike. McCay ran this organisation from the Melbourne Town Hall, and later the Repatriation Department offices, which were made available rent free by the Commonwealth Government. The Special Constabulary Force was wound up in May 1924.[84]

McCay's daughter Mardi matriculated from Sacré Cœur School in 1914 and earned Master of Arts and Diploma of Education degrees from the University of Melbourne. In 1922, she entered the Society of the Sacred Heart.[85] She taught at Kincoppal-Rose Bay, School of the Sacred Heart, Sydney until 1956 when she returned to Sacré Cœur as Mistress of Studies. Bixie also attended Sacré Cœur and the University of Melbourne, at Janet Clarke Hall, where she became only the third woman in Victoria to earn a Master of Laws degree, and was enrolled as a barrister on 10 June 1925. Like Joan Rosanove, she could not obtain room in the Selborne Chambers, as women were not allowed to do so, so she put up her plate in the building next door. McCay followed his daughter and became a barrister, enrolling on 8 October 1925.[86] In 1930, she married George Reid, a young barrister who later became Attorney-General of Victoria.[87]

McCay became ill in 1930 with cancer. In his last months he destroyed all his papers. He died on 12 October 1930. He was survived by his daughters, now Reverend Mother McCay and Mrs George Reid, and six brothers and two sisters.[4] He was given, at his request, a non-military funeral at Cairns Memorial Presbyterian Church in East Melbourne, and was buried at Box Hill Cemetery. For pallbearers he had Generals John Monash, Harold Edward Elliott, Cecil Henry Foott, R.E. Williams, and J. Stanley, along with Sir William McBeath, the chairman of the State Savings Bank; William Thwaites, his law partner; and businessman A. S. Baillieu. Among the other mourners was Generals Brudenell White and John Patrick McGlinn, who had been his deputy commander of AIF Depots in the United Kingdom; John Latham, the Leader of the Opposition; Dr W. S. Littlejohn, the headmaster of Scotch College and Sir John MacFarland, the Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.[88]


McCay is a controversial figure in Australian history. Disagreement about his significance and reputation began before his death and continues to the present. General Sir Brudenell White considered McCay to be "one of the greatest soldiers that ever served Australia, greater even than Monash."[89] McCay's achievements included the creation of the Military Board and the Australian Army Intelligence Corps, and the development of the Staff Corps, "laying the foundations on which the Australian Army was built."[89] In writing Volume III of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, which covered 1916, official historian Charles Bean exonerated McCay of blame for Fromelles. This led to a public debate in the pages of The Bulletin in 1929 between critics of McCay and his defenders, led by General Elliott.[90] A revival of interest in Australian military history and the rediscovery of graves at Fromelles in the 21st Century led to a number of books being written about the battle, which tended to be critical of McCay.[91]


  1. ^ McMullin 2006
  2. ^ a b c d e f Serle, Geoffrey (1986). "McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864 – 1930)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  3. ^ a b Wray 2002, p. 22
  4. ^ a b c d "Death of Sir James McCay", The Argus: 7, Thursday 2 October 1930 
  5. ^ Wray 2002, p. 12
  6. ^ Wray 2002, p. 13
  7. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 14–16
  8. ^ Wray 2002, p. 19
  9. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 18–19
  10. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 22–23
  11. ^ Wray 2002, p. 16
  12. ^ Wray 2002, p. 66
  13. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 17–18
  14. ^ Wray 2002, p. 18
  15. ^ Wray 2002, p. 20
  16. ^ Wray 2002, p. 24
  17. ^ Wray 2002, p. 25
  18. ^ a b Wray 2002, p. 29
  19. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 30–33
  20. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 48–51
  21. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 52–54
  22. ^ Wray 2002, p. 55
  23. ^ Wood 2006, pp. 51–59
  24. ^ Wood 2006, p. 66
  25. ^ Wray 2002, p. 61
  26. ^ Wray 2002, p. 64
  27. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 67, 87
  28. ^ Wray 2002, p. 17
  29. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 75–77
  30. ^ Pedersen 1985, pp. 22–24
  31. ^ Wray 2002, p. 87
  32. ^ a b Wray 2002, p. 91
  33. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 85–86
  34. ^ Scott 1936, pp. 59–61
  35. ^ Bean 1921, pp. 50–51
  36. ^ a b Bean 1921, pp. 132–133
  37. ^ Bean 1921, p. 82
  38. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 100–103
  39. ^ Wray 2002, p. 108
  40. ^ Bean 1921, p. 363
  41. ^ Wray 2002, p. 112
  42. ^ Bean 1921, pp. 364–365
  43. ^ Bean 1921, p. 370
  44. ^ Bean 1921, p. 401
  45. ^ Bean 1921, pp. 402–404
  46. ^ Bean 1921, pp. 600–601
  47. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 3–6
  48. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 22–23
  49. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 27–28
  50. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 40–41
  51. ^ Wray 2002, p. 143
  52. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 130–131
  53. ^ Bean 1924, pp. 423–424
  54. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 145–147
  55. ^ a b NAA (ACT): B2455 McCay J W, National Archives of Australia,, retrieved 2 December 2009 
  56. ^ Wray 2002, p. 148
  57. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29303. p. 9313. 20 September 1915. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  58. ^ Honours and Awards - J W McCay, Australian War Memorial,, retrieved 15 December 2009 
  59. ^ London Gazette: no. 29328. p. 10149. 15 October 1915. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  60. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29486. p. 2065. 22 February 1916. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  61. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 151–156
  62. ^ Scott 1936, p. 230
  63. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 45–46
  64. ^ a b Bean 1929, pp. 288–291
  65. ^ Bean 1929, p. 447
  66. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 304–306
  67. ^ Bean 1929, p. 335
  68. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 442–447
  69. ^ Bean 1929, p. 445
  70. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 440–442
  71. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29763. p. 9334. 25 September 1916. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  72. ^ Bean 1929, p. 896
  73. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 904–915
  74. ^ Wray 2002, p. 211
  75. ^ Wray 2002, p. 210
  76. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29890. p. 253. 4 January 1917. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  77. ^ Bean 1933, pp. 23–24
  78. ^ Bean 1929, pp. 168–172
  79. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 212–215
  80. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30521. p. 1935. 12 February 1918. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  81. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30450. p. 7. 1 January 1918. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  82. ^ London Gazette: no. 31395. p. 7426. 9 June 1919. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  83. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 220–222
  84. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 224–232
  85. ^ Wray 2002, p. 152
  86. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 221–222
  87. ^ Wray 2002, p. 234
  88. ^ Wray 2002, p. 235
  89. ^ a b Canberra Times: 16, 31 August 2002 
  90. ^ Wray 2002, pp. 233–234
  91. ^ Corfield 2009, pp. 428–429


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