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McLeish, Duncan (1851–1920)

by W. M. Chamberlain

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

Duncan McLeish (1851?-1920), pastoralist and soldier, was born probably on 20 July 1851 at Yea, Victoria, son of Duncan McLeish, grazier, and his wife Catherine, née Cameron. Educated privately, he followed grazing pursuits, becoming part-proprietor of Glenmore station, Yea. He was one of the original officers of the Victorian Mounted Rifles, being commissioned lieutenant on 1 April 1887 and promoted captain in 1889.

On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 McLeish was depicted as a fit, mature officer with a full moustache. He was appointed captain in command of the 1st Company of Victorian Mounted Rifles which, with an infantry company specially recruited, constituted Victoria's first military contingent dispatched on overseas service. The partly trained men were enrolled quickly from existing forces and embarked on 28 October for Cape Town. The Victorians were attached to the force on the Modder River front and, when the Australian Regiment was formed, served in the Colesberg district. Captain McLeish's company took part in the first major invasion of enemy country when, under Major General J. M. Babington, it reconnoitred into the Orange Free State towards Jacobsdal from 9 January 1900. McLeish found the seizing and burning of civilian property distasteful.

Impressed with the V.M.R., Babington suggested that all the Australians be mounted: McLeish and Colonel J. C. Hoad offered to mount the Australian Regiment which was fully horsed by 6 February. A week later the Victorians suffered severe casualties as the Boers advanced at Bastard's Nek and Pink Hill, the V.M.R. carrying out of danger men of the dismounted Wiltshire Regiment. The Australian Regiment then crossed into the Orange Free State and pushed northwards to Bloemfontein by 4 April. There the regiment was disbanded, the Victorians becoming part of the 4th Mounted Infantry Corps, participating in actions leading to the capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria in the Transvaal and thereafter advancing to the Portuguese East African border by September. On 30 April, at Karee Kloof, McLeish was pulled from the saddle while rescuing a man of the Cornwall Regiment. General Clements admired him as a good officer. Major W. T. Reay, war correspondent, indicated that other commanding officers could have learned from him the art of managing horses and caring for men. McLeish was promoted major on 25 October 1900. The V.M.R. embarked for home from Cape Town on 5 November.

On 22 January 1902 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel commanding the 2nd Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, and returned to South Africa for operations in Natal and the last drives in the Transvaal. Hostilities ended on 31 May and by August the A.C.H. had returned to Australia. For his war service McLeish was mentioned in dispatches, appointed C.M.G., and awarded the Queen's South Africa medal with six clasps and the King's medal with one clasp. He resumed grazing activities at Glenmore and from July 1903 also commanded the 7th Light Horse Regiment, Australian Military Forces; in 1906 he was commander of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, A.M.F., and was promoted colonel in December 1907. In World War I, despite his age, he served as a colonel with the Australian Imperial Force in command of remount units in Egypt in 1915-19 and was appointed C.B.E. and twice mentioned in dispatches. His A.I.F. appointment ended on 16 February 1920.

McLeish died unmarried on 18 April 1920 at Brighton, Melbourne, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate of £22,610 was distributed among numerous relatives and charities. A Presbyterian, McLeish was described by Donald MacDonald as 'a typical Australian rider, bronzed, lean and sinewy, a man of strong character and few words, a crack rifle shot, well versed in bushcraft, and caring nothing for the pleasures of town life'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Harding and D. MacDonald (eds), War in South Africa (Melb, 1899)
  • W. T. Reay, Australians in War (Melb, 1900)
  • G. B. Barton and J. C. Ridpath, The Story of South Africa, vol 2 (Syd, 1901)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • London Gazette, 16 Apr 1901, p 18, 6 July 1917 'supplement', p 6773, 31 Dec 1918, p 4, 1 Jan 1919, 'supplement', p 54, 22 Jan 1919, 'supplement', p 1165.

Citation details

W. M. Chamberlain, 'McLeish, Duncan (1851–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcleish-duncan-7415/text12899, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 February 2019.

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

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