Major General Ewen Sinclair-MacLagan

24 December 1868 - 24 November 1948

ART00102 Bell, George, Major General Ewen Sinclair-MacLagan (1919), oil on canvas, 61.6 x 51.4 cm, AWM copyright

Ewen George Sinclair-MacLagan was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 24 December 1868, the son of a banker. He was educated at United Services College, Westward Ho!, North Devon, England.

MacLagan served in the militia before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Border Regiment in 1889, He served in India, participating in the expedition to Waziristan in 1894-95. He was promoted to captain in 1898. He served in the South African War from 1899 to 1901 where he was adjutant of the 1st Battalion and a company commander. He was wounded, mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

In 1901, MacLagan was posted to Australia on secondment as adjutant of the New South Wales Scottish Rifles and Deputy assistant Adjutant General of the 1st Military District (New South Wales). There he married the daughter of Major General G. A. French, Commandant of the 1st Military District. He also met Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Bridges.

MacLagan returned to regimental duty with the Border Regiment in England in 1904. He was promoted to major in 1908 and transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. In 1910 he returned to Australia at the request of Bridges as director of drill at the new Royal Military College of Duntroon. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 20 January 1911.

MacLagan was still at Duntroon when the war broke out in August 1914. He was appointed to the AIF on 15 August 1914 with the rank of colonel commanding the 3rd Infantry Brigade. He embarked for Egypt on 21 October 1914 on HMAT Orvieto. As the next most senior regular officer in the division after Bridges himself, it was natural that Bridges should turn to MacLagan to lead the assault on Gallipoli. MacLagan regarded this as a dubious honour and was dubious about the prospects of the operation. Both Bridges and Lieutenant General W. R. Birdwood considered MacLagan pessimistic, a view shared by many historians.

Landing with the second wave of the 9th Battalion on the morning of 25 April 1915, MacLagan was thrust into one of the most chaotic situations imaginable: a major landing on a wrong beach. MacLagan grasped the importance of the ground and began changing the plan accordingly, but perhaps influenced by his belief in the impossibility of the operation, failed to press vigorously and gave orders to dig in on the second ridge. For his decisive action on the first day, MacLagan was mentioned in dispatches.

Bridges felt that MacLagan was so exhausted by the second day that he sent Colonel H. N. MacLaurin to relieve him. After a brief rest, MacLagan rejoined his brigade in the southern sector of Anzac. On 25 May 1915, MacLagan was hospitalised, returning on 4 June 1915. He was evacuated again, this time with dysentery. He was evacuated to England and only rejoined his brigade at Tel el Kebir, Egypt on 1 January 1916 after the evacuation of Anzac.

MacLagan embarked at Alexandria for France on 27 March 1916, arriving at Marseilles on 3 April 1916. He commanded the 3rd Brigade at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, where it suffered heavy casualties. On 20 November 1916, he came down with a severe case of the flu and was evacuated to England. Owing to complications, he was not cleared by the medical authorities. On 22 January 1917, MacLagan took over command of the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom from Major General Sir N. Moore, who was ill. MacLagan was mentioned in dispatches and on 2 February 1917, he was made a Companion of the Bath (CB). In June he was superseded as commander of the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom by Major General J. W. McCay, who was appointed by the Australian government. MacLagan then became Director of Military Training on 22 June 1917.

On 16 July 1917, MacLagan was promoted to major general and appointed to command the 4th Division, vice Major General W. Holmes, who had been killed in action. The division was at a low ebb at the time, having taken heavy casualties at Bullecourt and Messines, and missing out on the rest given to other divisions. It was now alerted for participation in in the new campaign in Flanders, Third Ypres. MacLagan had little time to do anything, but his division fought well at Polygon Wood in September. At the end of the year, the division's casualties for the years were reckoned at 116% of the division's strength; a loss exceeded by only six other divisions on the British Front, including the 3rd Division (135%). The 4th Division was withdrawn to become a depot division but although denied reinforcements except for its own returning wounded, it was gradually built back up to strength.

Strangely, it was the 4th Division that was first committed to the battle in March 1918 when the German Offensive struck the British Armies on the Somme sector. It was the 4th Division met and defeated the Germans at Hebuterne, Dernancourt and Second Villers-Bretonneux. On 4 July 1918, MacLagan directed the brilliant Australian and American attack on Hamel. In the attack on the Hindenburg Line on 18 september 1918, the 4th Division was halted short of its objective. MacLagan rested his men, sent forward a hot meal and then resumed the attack, capturing the objective. In late September, MacLagan was sent to the US II Corps as head of a group of 217 Australian advisors to the Americans, coaching the Americans through an attack on the Hindenburg Line. For his services in 1918, MacLagan was mentioned in dispatches three more times, bringing his total to five.

One of only five seconded British officers to remain with the Australian Army throughout the war, MacLagan was discharged from the AIF on 20 May 1919. He was promoted to major general on 1 January 1919 and was made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG). MacLagan commanded the British 51st (Highland) Division from 1919 to 1923. He retired in 1925 and died in Dundee, Scotland in on 24 November 1948.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 11, pp. 616-617; Personnel File, NAA; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume IV: The AIF In France 1917, p. 948

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Last update 09 September 2001