Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Francis James McCann (1892–1957)

by H. J. Zwillenberg

This article was published:

William Francis James McCann (1892-1957), soldier and lawyer, was born on 19 April 1892 at Glanville, Adelaide, son of John Francis McCann, engine driver, and his wife Eliza, née Francis. Educated at Adelaide High School, he qualified in 1913 as a teacher with the Education Department and was appointed to Ethelton Public School; he later taught at Malvern and Glanville.

McCann enlisted as a private in the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 24 August 1914 and, already a sergeant, embarked in October. On 25 April 1915 he landed at Gallipoli as a company sergeant major and because of outstanding service between 6 May and 28 June was mentioned several times in routine orders. On 4 August he was commissioned second lieutenant and was promoted lieutenant on 14 November. His early postings were in signals and intelligence.

As scouting, sniping and intelligence officer McCann accompanied the 10th Battalion to France and was promoted captain on 16 April 1916. He distinguished himself at Pozières on 23 July when commanding the battalion's leading company in the first stage of the attack; for his gallantry and leadership he was awarded the Military Cross. He was severely wounded in the head at Pozières and after convalescence in England rejoined his unit in mid-November. On 8 April 1917 he was wounded in the neck during a night attack on Louverval Wood; refusing for several hours to leave the line he was an inspiration to his men. He resumed duty at Ribemont in late May and from September had several postings which kept him away from the unit until June 1918. He was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross after action at Mont de Merris on the night of 29 July when he led one of the attacking companies with great dash in a daring operation. He received the Distinguished Service Order after, on 10 August at Crépey Wood, 'his courage and fine leadership prevented an important position falling into the hands of the enemy'. Crépey was 'under an inferno of enemy fire', but he directed his men with 'the greatest coolness and resource'.

On 23 September McCann was promoted temporary major and was confirmed in rank on 21 October; that day he was seconded to the School of Tactics, Camberley, England, and returned to the battalion as second-in-command on 7 December. From early January 1919 until the unit was disbanded in March, he was commanding officer. He was mentioned in Earl Haig's final dispatch that month and led the 3rd Brigade in the victory march through London on Anzac Day 1919. Returning to Australia in June he spent three months in Keswick Hospital, Adelaide, before his A.I.F. appointment ended on 8 September. Few members of the A.I.F. had risen from private to battalion commander. Two of McCann's brothers, one of whom was killed in action, had also served in the A.I.F.

McCann took up farming in the Truro and Manoora areas, but his war injuries proved too great a handicap. On 20 August 1921, giving his occupation as 'clerk', he married Mildred Southcott (d.1948) at St John's Church, Adelaide. He became an articled clerk and entered the law school of the University of Adelaide in March 1922. Admitted to the Bar in 1925, he formed a partnership with A. S. Blackburn, V.C. McCann began soldiering again in 1927 as company commander in the 10th Battalion, Australian Military Forces, transferred to the 43rd Battalion that year and became its commanding officer in December with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1930 he was placed on the unattached list and in 1935 on the reserve of officers. In 1939 he briefly became officer commanding the special constabulary of men over 45, South Australian Emergency National Defence League. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1935 and C.M.G. in 1956 for his activities on behalf of ex-servicemen. In 1938-54 he was State and deputy Commonwealth prices commissioner. He was State vice-president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia in 1921-23 and president in 1924-29, resigning to unsuccessfully contest as a Nationalist the seat of Boothby in the House of Representatives.

'Bill' McCann was an able speaker and a keen debater with a pleasant and tenacious personality. Survived by two sons and a daughter he died of coronary vascular disease at his Tusmore home on 14 December 1957 and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • C. B. Lock, The Fighting 10th (Adel, 1936)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Oct 1931
  • News (Adelaide), 19 Sept 1924
  • Examiner (Adelaide), 15 Sept 1928
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 1 Jan 1958
  • war diary, 10th Battalion A.I.F., and records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

H. J. Zwillenberg, 'McCann, William Francis James (1892–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024