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Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868–1948)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868-1948), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868-1948), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Australian War Memorial, H12187

Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868-1948), British regular soldier, was born on 24 December 1868 in Edinburgh, son of Robert Ewen Sinclair-Maclagan, banker of Glenquiech, Forfarshire, and his wife Mary Alice, née Wall. He was educated at the United Services College, Westward Ho!, North Devon, England, and served briefly in the militia before being commissioned as second lieutenant in the Border Regiment in 1889.

Maclagan served in India, including the expedition to Waziristan in 1894-95, and was promoted captain in 1898. In 1899-1901, in the South African War, he was adjutant of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment, commanded a company and was wounded. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Posted to Australia in 1901 when its army was being organized by Major General Sir Edward Hutton, he was adjutant of the New South Wales Scottish Rifles and deputy assistant adjutant general, New South Wales.

On 29 January 1902, at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney, Maclagan married Edith Kathleen, daughter of Major General (Sir) George French; they had one daughter. In this period he met Lieutenant-Colonel (Major General Sir) William Bridges, who was to have a profound influence on his career. In 1904 Maclagan resumed regimental duty in Britain. He was promoted major in 1908 and transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment.

When Bridges was recruiting staff for the (Royal) Military College, Duntroon, in 1910 he obtained Maclagan as director of drill in the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was responsible for 'the whole range of drills, exercises and minor tactics as well as administration of … discipline'. Lieutenant-General Sir Sydney Rowell, one of the first class to enter the college, remembered him as 'sturdy and robust … the ideal type of regimental soldier … His turnout and appearance were impeccable and his ringing word of command together with his striking personality made him a leader who was easy to follow'.

When Bridges raised the 1st Division, Australian Imperial Force, in August 1914, he chose Maclagan to command the 3rd Infantry Brigade; he was the only senior officer of the division, other than Bridges, who was a regular soldier. Bridges turned to Maclagan again when planning the landing on Gallipoli, choosing the 3rd Brigade to lead the assault. As an experienced infantry officer, Maclagan realized the magnitude of his task and its perils: 'too big for a brigade' he said. Both Bridges and the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, considered him pessimistic, a view convincingly rebutted by his brigade major, Charles Brand.

On 25 April 1915 Maclagan landed with the second wave of the 9th Battalion, making his way up the ridge that henceforth was to bear his name. Climbing thence onto Plugge's Plateau, he quickly made decisions which may be said to have saved the battle. Grasping the importance of the Baby 700 feature on his left, he directed troops to the help of those who were fighting there. Impressed by the distance to his objective and the dispersion of his brigade over so great and rough an area, he ordered the battalions to dig in on the nearer Second Ridge. To cover his right flank he ordered the leading battalion of the follow-up brigade to move in that direction instead of to his left as required by Bridges's plan. When the brigade commander, Colonel (Sir) James McCay met him, he persuaded McCay to deploy his whole force on the right. These early decisions gave a degree of order to a chaotic and desperate situation.

Maclagan was so exhausted by the first two days that Bridges sent Colonel H. N. MacLaurin to relieve him. After a brief rest he rejoined his brigade in the southern sector of Anzac where he remained until he was evacuated sick in August. He had shown himself to be a careful and vigorous commander, strongly opposing the ill-conceived operations demanded by higher headquarters. He did not return to his brigade in Egypt until January 1916.

In France Maclagan took part in the costly battles for Pozières and Mouquet Farm. He relinquished command of the 3rd Brigade in December 1916 and from January to July 1917 commanded the A.I.F. depots in Britain; he was also made director of training in June.

When Major General William Holmes was killed in July, Maclagan was promoted major general and appointed to command the 4th Division which had seen much heavy fighting and had received over 9000 reinforcements between April and July; it 'was probably at its lowest ebb'. Maclagan had little time to pull the division together before 3rd Ypres, but the 4th fought well at Polygon Wood in September. In March-April 1918 Maclagan helped to stem the German offensive around Dernancourt and Villers-Bretonneux and he led the assault force in the brilliant set-piece at Hamel in July. In the attack on the Hindenburg outpost line on 18 September, his division was checked short of its objective. Maclagan rested his men, sent forward a hot meal and, resuming the attack at 11 p.m., captured the objective.

In mid-September he was given command of a select mission of 83 officers and 127 non-commissioned officers from the 1st and 4th Divisions who were to coach commanders and staffs of the 2nd American Corps, which was preparing to attack the Hindenburg line with the Australian Corps. Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash acknowledged 'Maclagan's tact, industry and judgement' in controlling this mission.

Maclagan was one of five British officers who remained with the A.I.F. to the end of the war, his appointment not being terminated until 20 May 1919. When other Australian divisional commanders were receiving knighthoods, Maclagan expressed a preference for promotion to the substantive rank of major general in the British Army and this was arranged from 1 January 1919. Monash wrote of him at the time: 'In appearance and in temperament he is every inch a soldier … Although not Australian born he was whole-heartedly Australian … His characteristic attitude of mind was pessimistic … But that was not because he looked for difficulties but because he preferred squarely to recognize and face all the difficulties there were. Yet he never failed in performance and invariably contrived to do what he had urged could not be done … Both he and his Division always bettered any promise they gave'. He was appointed C.B. (1917), C.M.G. (1919), was mentioned in dispatches five times and was also awarded the Serbian White Eagle (3rd class), the French Croix de Guerre and the American Distinguished Service Medal. He was colonel of the Border Regiment, 1923-38, and honorary colonel of the 34th Battalion, Australian Military Forces, in 1933-38.

Maclagan commanded the 51st Highland Division and Area in 1919-23. He retired in 1925 and lived at Glenquiech. His wife died in 1928. Maclagan died at his daughter's home at Dundee, Scotland, on 24 November 1948. His portrait by George Bell, is in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (Lond, 1920)
  • 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)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • P. Pedersen, Monash as Military Commander (Melb, 1985)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Mar 1932, Apr 1936.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Sinclair-Maclagan, Ewen George (1868–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868-1948), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Ewen George Sinclair-Maclagan (1868-1948), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Australian War Memorial, H12187

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Maclagan, Ewen George

24 December, 1868
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


24 November, 1948 (aged 79)
Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland

Cultural Heritage

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