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McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864–1930)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

James Whiteside McCay (1864-1930), by unknown photographer

James Whiteside McCay (1864-1930), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H01890

Sir James Whiteside McCay (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.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccay-sir-james-whiteside-7312/text12683, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 31 July 2016.

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

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