AWM Negative Number: 107663 Caption: 1944-11. Portrait of VX89075 Major General J. H. Cannan CB CMG DSO VD, Quartermaster-General, Land Headquarters. Photographer: Lawrence, J R
James Harold Cannan was born in Townsville, Queensland on 29 August 1882, the sixth child of a bank manager. He was educated at Brisbane central Boys' and Brisbane Grammar. James worked for a firm of hardware merchants and for seven years with New Zealand Insurance. He became chief agent at the Queensland Branch of Patriotic Assurance Co. From 1910 he was state manager of the Insurance Office of Australia Ltd.
Cannan was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 1st Queensland (Moreton) (later the 9th Infantry) on 27 March 1903. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on 27 November 1903, captain on 24 September 1907 and major on 14 August 1911. On 1 July 1912 he transferred to the 8th Infantry (Oxley Battalion). He took command of the battalion and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 9 May 1914.
When war broke out Cannan was appointed to command the Lytton Defences, holding this post from 5 to 31 August 1914. He was appointed to the AIF on 23 September 1914 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, commanding the 15th Infantry Battalion, the Queensland battalion of Colonel J. Monash's 4th Infantry Brigade.
Arriving at Anzac on the evening of 25 April 1915, Cannan was sent with half of his battalion to fill the gap between the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades. Moving in the dark through the thick scrub of the Razorback, the 15th found in the scrub the empty positions that it was sent to fill. The 15th Battalion was soon switched to Quinn's Post, with Cannan becoming post commander.In the attack on the Sari Bair Range on 8 August 1915, Cannan's battalion suffered heavily, having seven officers killed, including his brother, Major D. H. Cannan, and most of the rest wounded. Cannan's decision to withdraw probably saved the 15th from destruction. Cannan was evacuated sick in October, only rejoining the 15th Battalion in Egypt after the evacuation of Anzac. For his part in the campaign, he was made a Companion of the Bath (CB).
In June 1916, the 15th Battalion left Egypt for France where Cannan led his battalion into action again at Pozieres and Mouquet farm. On 30 August 1916, he was appointed to command the 11th Infantry Brigade by Major General J. Monash, now commander of the 3rd Division, who specifically requested Cannan for the job. Cannan's energetic leadership and his direct experience of conditions on the Western Front was exactly what his new command needed. The result was evident at Messines in June 1917 and Broodeseinde in October 1917, when the brigade performed superbly. The 11th Brigade was the first to check the German advance towards Amiens in April 1918 and in July it was selected from the brigades of the 3rd Division to participate in the Battle of Hamel. The 11th Brigade went on to fight through the Battle of Amiens and the campaigns of the final 100 days. For the battles of August and September, Cannan was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
After the Armistice, Cannan studied insurance practice in London under the Army Education Scheme devised by Brigadier General G. M. Long. On termination of his appointment to the AIF in Brisbane on 13 December 1919, he returned to his former job. He became manger of his company's Sydney office in 1932 and presided over the Insurance Institute of New South Wales from 1936 to 1937. He was also president of the Queensland branch of the Returned Soldiers' and Sailors' Imperial League of Australia from 1920 to 1921, and of Brisbane Legacy in 1928.
Cannan commanded the 2/15th Infantry from 1 October 1918 to 30 June 1920, although he did not take up command until 14 December 1919. He had already been made a brevet colonel on 24 September 1917. On 1 July 1920 he became a substantive colonel and honorary brigadier general on 1 July 1920 when he took over command of the 2nd Infantry Brigade from 1 July 1920 to 30 April 1921. He then commanded the 11th Mixed Brigade from 1 May 1921 to 30 April 1925, when he was transferred to the unattached list. Cannan was also aide de camp to the Governor General from 1 April 1920 to 21 March 1923 and honorary colonel of the 47th Infantry Battalion from 19 June 1930.
On 27 May 1940, Cannan was appointed Inspector General of Administration at the Department of Defence Coordination. Although his tenure was brief, Cannan gained valuable experience working with the Department of Defence. On 7 July 1940, Cannan was promoted to temporary major general and took over command of the 2nd Division. On 24 October 1940, he became Quartermaster General and a member of the Military Board. The appointment of a militia officer the board was opposed by the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General V. A. H. Sturdee, but when he was overruled by Prime Minister R. G. Menzies, Sturdee offered the post to Cannan. Cannan offered to resign in 1942 so that his post could be given to a regular officer, but General T. A. Blamey refused his offer.
As Quartermaster General, Cannan was responsible for supply, transport and engineering services throughout Australia and the South West Pacific Area. It was the most important logistical command in Australian history. In carrying it out, he clashed with the Department of Defence in its attempt to maintain financial controls. Cannan had to work long hours and use all of his skills both as a soldier and a business. He had to attempt to keep ahead of the plans at General Headquarters in order to ensure that the required logistical support would be there on time. Cannan travelled widely in the combat areas to see conditions at first hand. In October 1944, Cannan travelled with General T. A. Blamey to visit General D. MacArthur in Hollandia in order to prepare for the employment of Australians in the Philippines, only to discover that MacArthur had decided not to employ them if he could avoid it.
Blamey nominated Cannan for a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) in September 1943, but it was refused, it not being the Labor government's policy to award knighthoods at this time. In November 1945, Blamey was abruptly dismissed by the government. Asked if he wanted any honours for himself, Blamey declined, instead requesting knighthoods for his generals, including Cannan. His request was refused. In December 1949, the government changed and Blamey wrote to the new Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, once again recommending knighthoods a number of his generals, including Cannan. All were accepted except Cannan. Of Cannan, it was said that his contribution was immense, his responsibility gigantic and his acknowledgement nil.
Cannan retired as a major general in 1946. His abilities as an administrator were still in demand. He was Director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in the South West Pacific from 1946 to 1947, of the Queensland division of the Australian Red Cross Society from 1950 to 1951, and of the Services Canteens Trust from 1948 to 1957. He was director of several companies.
He died on 23 May 1976, the last of Australia's Great War generals to pass away. He was cremated with full military honours.
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1940-1980, pp. 362-363; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume I: The Story of Anzac pp. 467-468; Volume II: The Story of Anzac pp. 657-661
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Last update 15 September 2001