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McArthur, John (1875–1947)

by Matthew Higgins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John McArthur (1875-1947), soldier, was born on 6 April 1875 at Bannockburn, Stirling, Scotland, son of John McArthur, engineman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Baird. The family migrated to Queensland and young John was educated at Helidon and Ipswich. 

McArthur's military career began when at 19 he joined the Queensland Mounted Infantry (militia). In November 1899 he sailed for South Africa as a sergeant with the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry Contingent, and saw action at the relief of Kimberley and at Driefontein before being invalided back to Australia in September 1900. At Toowoomba on 23 September 1903 he married Isabella Agnes Bruce; they had five children. Two years earlier McArthur had joined the instructional staff of the new Commonwealth (permanent) Military Forces as a squadron sergeant major and in 1911 he was transferred to Melbourne. He was a warrant officer when war broke out in 1914. In August 1915 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force as a lieutenant and on 10 November he embarked for Egypt as a captain and adjutant of the 29th Battalion.

In July 1916, during the abortive battle of Fromelles, McArthur played a part in the informal truce which permitted the recovery of many wounded from no man's land. Soon after he was promoted major and given command of 'D' Company. Several months later the battalion was on the Somme; McArthur later reflected that the Somme winter of 1916-17 was 'the most trying time' of the entire war. In March 1917 he commanded the battalion's forward companies during the German counter-attack on the village of Beaumetz. From October to December he attended the senior officers' school at Aldershot, England, and was made lieutenant-colonel, with command of the 29th Battalion, in March 1918.

On the night of 28 July the battalion attacked German trenches on a ridge south of Morlancourt, France. McArthur personally reconnoitred the position and moved his headquarters into the front line. Despite heavy German artillery fire he went out to the captured position as soon as it was consolidated and remained continuously on duty for forty-eight hours, ensuring the success of the operation. His gallantry and able leadership won him the Distinguished Service Order. Twelve days later McArthur led the battalion's attack on Vauvillers. Disregarding heavy machine-gun fire he again went forward and when the advance was temporarily checked personally conducted operations, being severely wounded in the neck while doing so. The village was captured. For his leadership, gallantry and initiative he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O.

McArthur was evacuated to England but returned to the front in October. Until early December he commanded the 31st Battalion before taking command of the 32nd (with which the 29th merged). In March 1919 he became commandant of the Convalescent Training Battalion at Tidworth, England. He returned to Australia in November and his A.I.F. appointment ended in January 1920. He had been twice mentioned in dispatches.

In 1921 McArthur resumed duty with the Australian Instructional Corps. He held positions with various militia units and was appointed O.B.E. in June 1933 for his long and distinguished military service. Two years later he was placed on the retired list as an honorary colonel and during the next few years worked in the circulation department of the Melbourne Age. After the outbreak of World War II he re-entered the army and was a general staff officer at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, from 1940 until his final retirement in 1942. Survived by two sons and three daughters, he died on 22 July 1947 at his East Kew home and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1938, 1942)
  • C. E. W. Bean, Anzac to Amiens (Canb, 1946)
  • R. Clark, First Queensland Mounted Infantry in the South African War 1899-1900 (Canb, 1971)
  • London Gazette, 25 Dec, supplement 28 Dec 1917, 5 Nov, supplement 7 Nov, 27 Dec, supp 31 Dec 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 June 1933
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 July 1947
  • C. E. W. Bean, diaries, nos 145, 191 (Australian War Memorial)
  • war diary, 29th Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • 29th Battalion brief record (Australian War Memorial)
  • biographical details of Lieutenant-Colonel McArthur J. (Australian War Memorial)
  • AIF nominal roll, 29th Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • honours and rewards, 5th Australian Division, 13-31 July, 5-12 Aug 1980 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Matthew Higgins, 'McArthur, John (1875–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcarthur-john-7285/text12633, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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