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James Harold Cannan (1882–1976)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

James Harold Cannan (1882-1976), by J. R. Lawrence

James Harold Cannan (1882-1976), by J. R. Lawrence

Australian War Memorial, 107661

James Harold Cannan (1882-1976), company manager and soldier, was born on 29 August 1882 at Townsville, Queensland, sixth child of John Kearsey Cannan, a bank manager from Brisbane, and his wife Elizabeth Christian, née Hodgson, who was born on the Isle of Man. Kearsey Cannan was James's grandfather. Educated at Brisbane Central Boys' and Brisbane Grammar schools, James worked for a firm of hardware merchants and for seven years with the New Zealand Insurance Co. before becoming chief agent at the Queensland branch of the Patriotic Assurance Co. From 1910 he was State manager of the Insurance Office of Australia Ltd. He married Eileen Clair Ranken on 12 December 1911 at St Matthew's Anglican Church, Sherwood; they were to remain childless.

Combining an active sporting life—he rowed, sailed and played lacrosse—with service as a citizen-soldier, on 27 March 1903 Cannan had been commissioned in the 1st Queensland (Moreton) (later 9th Infantry) Regiment. In 1912 he transferred to the 8th Infantry (Oxley Battalion) and in May 1914 took command as lieutenant colonel. On 23 September he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force, in command of the 15th Battalion in (Sir) John Monash's 4th Brigade. Tall, dark and strongly built, Cannan was an exacting leader: 'a reserved and silent man and extremely hard working', he demanded the utmost of his troops. At the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915 and its aftermath, he was a familiar figure in the foremost positions. In the battle of Sari Bair, his decision on 8 August to withdraw saved the remnants of the battalion from destruction; his elder brother Major D. H. Cannan, serving under him, was killed that day.

Invalided to London in October, Cannan was appointed C.B. (1915) and rejoined his unit in Egypt. He went to France in June 1916 and was soon engaged in the fighting for Pozières and Mouquet Farm. Recalled to England, he was promoted temporary brigadier in August and given the 11th Brigade. His hard training and energetic leadership prepared his soldiers for Messines and Broodseinde, Belgium, in 1917; following these battles he was appointed C.M.G. (1918). In March 1918 Cannan's was the first Australian brigade to check the German thrust towards Amiens, France, and the 11th was specially requested by Major General E. G. Sinclair-Maclagan to help the 4th Division at Hamel (July). For his performance in the victorious battles of August-September, Cannan was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Belgian Croix de Guerre (1919). He was mentioned in dispatches six times.

Cannan saw himself as the guardian of his troops. He taught his staff that, while they were to 'obey always', they must fight against injustice. At a divisional conference he had publicly accused Monash of favouring the 10th Brigade and 'told him why'. Monash subsequently sent for him to warn him against impulsive speech and declared that, were it not for his high opinion of him, he would have sent him back to Australia. Before embarking for home, Cannan studied insurance practice in London. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 13 December 1919 in Brisbane, where he resumed his former job. He was Queensland president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (1920-21), and Brisbane Legacy's first president (1928). In 1932 he became manager of his company's Sydney office. Among numerous professional appointments, he presided over the Insurance Institute of New South Wales in 1936-37.

From 1920 Cannan had commanded the 2nd, then the 11th (Mixed) brigades. He transferred to the Unattached List in May 1925. Having been inspector-general to the Commonwealth Board of Business Administration for two months, in July 1940 he was promoted temporary major general and posted in command of the 2nd Division. On 24 October he was made quartermaster general and third member of the Military Board. The appointment of a militia officer to the board had been opposed by the chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General (Sir) Vernon Sturdee, but, when Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies insisted, Sturdee offered the post to Cannan.

At 58, in a new war, Cannan was responsible for supply, transport and engineering services in Australia and later in New Guinea, the Solomons and Borneo. To his task he brought the skills of a businessman, capacity for command, personality, charm and 'tremendous drive'. Often working late, he co-operated closely with and kept 'a jump ahead' of the General Staff. Much of his time was spent visiting formations in Darwin, New Guinea ('about every month'), New Britain, Bougainville, Morotai and Borneo. He accompanied General Sir Thomas Blamey to Hollandia in October 1944 to plan the movement of I Corps to the Philippines, only to learn that General Douglas MacArthur had decided not to employ the Australians.

Cannan had offered to resign in 1942 so that his post could go to a regular officer. Blamey refused the offer. He nominated him for appointment as K.B.E. in September 1943 and again in October 1945, mentioning Cannan's 'exacting and difficult duties' and the 'great diligence and outstanding success' with which he had carried them out. The government remained unmoved. Cannan relinquished his appointment on 31 December. His 'contribution to the defence of Australia [was] immense, his responsibility . . . a giant-sized burden; his acknowledgement—nil'.

In 1946 Cannan resigned from the Insurance Office of Australia Ltd and retired as honorary major general. He stayed in Sydney as director (1946-47), South-West Pacific Area, of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Moved by the plight of European refugees, he called on the government to act promptly to obtain the best migrants available. Back in Brisbane, Cannan was chairman of the Queensland division of the Australian Red Cross Society (1950-51) and of the Queensland regional committee of the Services Canteens Trust (1948-57); he was also a director of several companies, including Lennons Hotel Ltd. Survived by his wife, he died on 23 May 1976 in his Wickham Terrace apartment and, after a military funeral, was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $294,820.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • T. P. Chataway, History of the 15th Battalion A.I.F. (Brisb, 1948)
  • G. Drake-Brockman, The Turning Wheel (Perth, 1960)
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 May 1933, p 8
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 31 May 1976
  • Blamey papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • letters from Cannan (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Cannan, James Harold (1882–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Harold Cannan (1882-1976), by J. R. Lawrence

James Harold Cannan (1882-1976), by J. R. Lawrence

Australian War Memorial, 107661

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1882
Townsville, Queensland, Australia


23 May, 1976 (aged 93)
Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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