Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 37
Christopher Wray, Sir James Whiteside McCay: a turbulent life, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2002, viii + 280 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, hard cover, rrp $55.00.
Reviewed by: JOHN CONNOR, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra
During the First World War, James Whiteside McCay became the most unpopular commander in the AIF. In this biography, Christopher Wray cuts through the controversy in an attempt to come to a fair assessment of the man. In his civilian life, McCay was an independent thinker, not afraid to hold views that went against the majority. Although the son of an Ulster Presbyterian minister, McCay would not take part in the Protestant-Catholic sectarianism that split Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the Victorian Parliament voted against giving women the vote in 1895, McCay was one of the minority supporting the proposal. He told the House: "I do not see why women should have to stay always at home and be regarded as household drudges". After 1901, McCay continued his political career in the new Federal Parliament, culminating in a short term as Defence Minister in 1904-05. At the same time he continued his part-time military career, begun in 1885 in the Victorian militia, in the new Australian Commonwealth Military Forces and became the first commander of the Australian Intelligence Corps.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, McCay first took charge of censorship in Australia before being appointed to command a brigade of the newly formed Australian Imperial Force. However, while the AIF was still training in Egypt, McCay managed to annoy both his superior officer and his men. Major General Bridges, the commander of the 1st Australian Division, tried to get McCay replaced because he continually questioned orders. McCay's sarcastic manner did not endear him to his men in the 2nd Brigade. At Gallipoli, McCay's Brigade lost about half its men killed or wounded in a failed attack during the Second Battle of Krithia. The survivors blamed McCay for the losses. Wray points out that McCay was not at fault, but adds that Krithia "lost him the respect of the men under his command, and he would never regain it".
After Gallipoli, McCay was appointed to command the newly formed 5th Division. Following training in Egypt, the unit went to France, arriving on the Western Front in July 1916. Here, McCay and 5th Division found themselves in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles, where 5500 men were killed or wounded in twenty-four hours. The best part of Wray's book is his forensic examination of the lead-up and execution of this disaster. He points out McCay's limitations in training the 5th Division for warfare on the Western Front, and errors McCay made during the Fromelles attack, but argues that the "ultimate responsibility for the failed attack lay with the British High Command". In late 1916 McCay was forced to give up his command on medical grounds and spent the rest of the war as Commandant AIF Depots in the UK.
Wray has produced a good biography, but, as with any book, there are weaknesses. The first is unavoidable: McCay destroyed his papers shortly before his death in 1930. Wray therefore lacked the material that would have enabled him to explore his subject's interior life, most importantly McCay's own thoughts on the failed attacks at Krithia and Fromelles. The biography could also have been improved by connecting it more to the wider historical literature on this period. Wray mentions McCay's argument when he was Defence Minister with his Director of Naval Forces, Captain William Creswell, over whether Australian defence policy should be based on land or naval forces, but he does not bring out the importance of this confrontation. As Michael Evans has written, the McCay-Creswell dispute "inaugurated the continentalist-navalist division" which continued in Australian strategic thought throughout the twentieth century. While discussing McCay's period as head of the Intelligence Corps, Wray uses the division of the pre-1914 Australian Army into "nationalists" and "imperialists" employed by John Mordike in An Army for a Nation (1992). While Wray should use Mordike's model if he agrees with it, he owes it to his readers to mention that other historians - most notably Craig Wilcox in a 1994 article in the Australian Journal of Politics and History - dispute this model.
Wray could have strengthened his arguments regarding McCay's actions at Gallipoli and on the Western Front if he had looked more at McCay's British Army superiors. For example, Wray's argument that the Second Battle of Krithia showed poor British planning would have been amplified if he added the point John Lee makes in his recent biography of Sir Ian Hamilton that the Krithia attack was supported with only 25 per cent of the number of artillery rounds fired in support of a similar British attack at the same time on the Western Front. As part of Wray's argument that McCay was not to blame for the Fromelles disaster, he quotes General A.J. Godley's praise of McCay. This praise would be seen to be even more noteworthy if Wray pointed out that Godley, a British regular officer, was normally critical of his Australian and New Zealand citizen soldier commanders.
Despite these minor criticisms, Wray's biography is a welcome addition to Australian military history. The book has the high design standards one has come to expect from Oxford University Press' Australian Army History Series. Wray suggests in his introduction that McCay, unlike John Monash, has been forgotten by Australians. However, even if he has been forgotten in his adopted land, McCay has not been forgotten in the land of his birth. McCay has been included among the 9000 Irish men and women featured in the six-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography, to be published in 2004. For more information on this project, see www.ria.ie/projects/dib.html.