McCAY, Sir James Whiteside (1864-1930)


McCAY, Sir James Whiteside (1864-1930)
politician and soldier
son of the Rev. A. R. Boyd McCay, was born at Ballynure, Ireland, on 21 December 1864. His mother was a woman of remarkable ability. He was brought to Victoria by his father, who became the Presbyterian minister at Castlemaine, and was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was dux of the school in 1881. At the matriculation examination he won the classical exhibition and divided the mathematical exhibition with J. H. Michell (q.v.). He graduated M.A. at the university of Melbourne and for some years was a teacher at the Castlemaine grammar school. He took up the study of law, graduated LL.M. and in 1895 was called to the bar. In the same year he was elected a member of the legislative assembly for Castlemaine. In December 1899 he became minister for education and commissioner of trade and customs in the McLean (q.v.) ministry, but on going before the electors was defeated. He was elected a member of the house of representatives for Corinella, Victoria, at the first federal election in 1901, and was minister for defence from August 1904 to July 1905 in the Reid-McLean ministry. He contested the new division of Corio at the 1906 election and was defeated. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the senate in 1910, and did not again attempt to enter politics.
McCay had always been interested in the volunteer, and later, militia, forces. He obtained a commission as a lieutenant in 1886. He reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1903, joined the intelligence corps in 1907, and was director of intelligence from 1909 to 1913. He was an early volunteer in the 1914-18 war, and left with the first expeditionary force in command of the second infantry brigade. In Egypt he showed ability in training his men, but the heavy work he gave them did not make him popular. He led his men at the landing at Gallipoli and was in much heavy subsequent fighting. Early in May during the struggle for Krithia he was wounded in the leg by a bullet while he was in a forward position, and two months later while descending a steep communication trench his leg snapped where the bone had previously been injured, and he was invalided to Australia. In March 1916 he returned to Egypt, took over command of the fifth division with the rank of major-general, and in July 1916 went to France with his men. At the battle of Fromelles very heavy losses were incurred, and McCay was severely blamed on this account. The Australian official historian, C. E. W. Bean, however, entirely exonerates McCay. "The case of McCay may stand as a classic example of the gross injustice of such popular verdicts, he having been loaded with the blame for three costly undertakings—the charge of the 2nd brigade at Cape Helles, the desert march of the 5th division, and the attack at Fromelles—for none of which was he in fact any more responsible than the humblest private in his force, while in the case of the desert march he had actually protested against the order" (Official History of Australia in the War, Vol. III, p. 447.) In December McCay was invalided to England and was appointed general officer commanding the Australian forces in Great Britain. On his return to Australia he retired from the legal firm of McCay and Thwaites, and until 1922 was business adviser to the Commonwealth. He was also a commissioner of the States savings bank. During his last years he contributed many able leading articles upon political and economic subjects to the Argus newspaper. He died at Melbourne on 1 October, 1930. He married in 1896 Julia Mary O'Meara who died in 1915. He was survived by two daughters. He was created C.B. in 1915, K.C.M.G. in 1918, and K.B.E. in 1919.
McCay was a man of great ability, widely read, and a good man of business. In parliament, he had a high reputation as a speaker and administrator, as a soldier he was a good disciplinarian, a capable officer, and a thoroughly brave man. But though he was unfortunate in the reputation he obtained, he does not appear to have had the qualities which make a great army leader.
The Argus and The Age, Melbourne, 2 October 1930; The Official History of Australia in the War, 1914-1918, vols. I to V; Burke's Peerage, etc., 1929; Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook, 1901-1930; History of Scotch College.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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