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James Whiteside M'Cay

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The Honorable Sir James Whiteside M'Cay (December 21 1864October 1 1930) was an Australian general of the First Australian Imperial Force during World War I. A courageous and competent commander, he was unfortunate on a number of critical occasions to be handed impossible tasks. His inevitable failures earned him the disfavour of his superiors while his efforts to succeed in the face of insurmountable obstacles earned him the antipathy of the troops under his command who, at times unfairly, blamed him for their casualties.

M'Cay was born in Ballynure, County Antrim in 1864 and the following year his family migrated to Australia. He won an academic scholarship to Scotch College in Melbourne and duxed the school in 1880. (John Monash, Australia's most successful WW1 general, duxed the school the following year.) He attended the University of Melbourne and after obtaining a law degree, practiced as a solicitor. In 1895 M'Cay was elected to the Victoria Parliament and, in March 1901 won the Federal seat of Corinella in the first Australian Parliament. He was Defense Minister from August 18 1904 to July 5 1905. M'Cay's political career ended in 1906 when his seat was abolished.

M'Cay's military career had begun in 1884 with the Victorian Rifles, commanding the 8th Regiment from 1900. He held a series of posts in the fledgling Australian military, attaining the rank of full Colonel. When, following the outbreak of war, the 1st AIF began forming in August 1914, M'Cay was given command of the Australian 2nd Infantry Brigade.

M'Cay's brigade was second ashore at the landing at Anzac Cove on April 25 1915. He became responsible for establishing the line on 400 Plateau and, despite the confusion and chaos that reigned, handled the situation as well as could be expected. It was at M'Cay's insistence that the Australian commander, Major General W.T. Bridges, committed his last reserves to hold the southern flank of the landing.

General M'Cay leading the 2nd Brigade at 2nd Krithia
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General M'Cay leading the 2nd Brigade at 2nd Krithia

On April 29 the 2nd Brigade, along with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, was sent to Helles to participate in the Second Battle of Krithia. While the British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, had requested the strongest of the Australian brigades, General Bridges chose the weaker 2nd Brigade because of his confidence in M'Cay's abilities. The Australian brigade was not called upon until the final afternoon of the battle, May 8, when at only 25 minutes notice, M'Cay was instructed to advance from the reserve line, across open ground to the front line and only then commence the attack. The attack was doomed and the brigade suffered heavily during the initial move and the final advance. M'Cay displayed great courage in leading his men from the front, driving them on despite the futility of the attack. As a result, his men regarded him as responsible for their fate.

M'Cay was wounded in the leg at Krithia. He was in line to take command of the newly-forming Australian 2nd Division in Egypt but complications from his leg wound resulted in him being invalided back to Australia. M'Cay was promoted to Major General and took charge of the Australian 3rd Division that was forming in Australia. When, following the evacuation of Gallipoli, the Australian 5th Division was formed in Egypt, M'Cay was given command, arriving on March 21, 1916. As such, he was just in time to earn further ire from his men for overseeing a forced three-day march through the desert in extreme conditions, despite the fact that he had objected to the exercise.

The 5th Division was the first Australian division involved in battle in France. Having entered the trenches in mid-July, 1916, M'Cay's division was called on a week later to participate in the ill-conceived Battle of Fromelles. Ultimate responsibility for the flawed plan lay with the commander of the neighbouring British XI Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Richard Haking, but M'Cay wore much of the blame, some deserved, some not. His refusal to permit a truce to recover wounded further damaged his popularity. Having sustained 5,533 casualties in one day, the 5th Division was rendered unserviceable for many months. M'Cay remained in command of the division until January 1 1917 when he was relieved of command on the tenuous basis of ill-health.

For the remainder of the war M'Cay was in charge of the AIF training and rehabilitation depots in the United Kingdom. He failed in bids to return to an active command at the head of either the Australian Corps or Monash's 3rd Division (when Monash was promoted to corps commander).

M'Cay was made a Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1918 and a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) in 1919. Sir James Whiteside M'Cay died on October 1, 1930.

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