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John Gordon McCallum, 1890 - 1917

John Gordon McCallum died on 11 January 1917 of wounds received during an attack by the 15th New Zealand Camel Company on Turkish positions at Rafa in the Sinai Peninsula. He was aged 26. He is buried at the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt.

Gordon, as he was known, was born at Halkett, Canterbury on 24 February 1890, the son of Presbyterian minister Reverend Neil McCallum and his second wife, Janet Anderson. He had two brothers and a sister. He attended Addington School and then Christchurch Boy's High School, where he was involved in sport, theatricals and the school's cadet corps, holding the rank of captain in his last year.

On leaving school he enrolled at Canterbury University College and began to study law. McCallum continued his military connections, joining the Christchurch City Rifles, where he attained the rank of Lieutenant. He continued to play rugby and was a member of the High School Old Boys' Rugby Club. McCallum is described as being of "unusually fine physique", 6 foot 5 inches in height (1.96 metres) and well built.

In 1913 McCallum moved to Motueka, where he was employed as a law clerk at Easton and Nicholson. He remained involved in the territorials and was a lieutenant in the Motueka Mounted Rifles.

When war broke out McCallum still had to sit some subjects in his final examination to qualify as a solicitor. He decided not to enlist in the Main Expeditionary Force, completing his law examinations and enlisting in the 3rd Reinforcement as soon as he had passed, on 11 December 1914. His new status is shown on the header card in his military file, with "Soldier" crossed out on the occupation line and "Solicitor" written alongside.

McCallum followed up on his decision to remain and complete his studies with a letter to Auckland University College Council in November 1914. He advised the Council that "a movement was afoot among the university students of the Dominion to send, if it could be arranged, a reinforcement of those now in the field representative of the universities as a whole". McCallum advised the Council that while a considerable number of students were with the Main Expeditionary Force, many had not enlisted on account of the examinations.

"It was proposed to recruit as many as possible in the four centres, the men to be brought together for training purposes, none to be called on until the examinations were over," the New Zealand Herald reported.

"The Defence authorities had sanctioned the scheme. The writer suggested that the council extend the same privileges wherever necessary as had been granted to those already on service."

The Auckland Council approved the proposal.

In February 1915 McCallum, who had been given the rank of Lieutenant on 11 December 1914, was posted to the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Battalion. He had one more important matter to attend to before he left for the war. On 11 February 1915, McCallum was married to Laura Maud Batchelor of Motueka. The ceremony was performed by the Rev Dr Kennedy Elliot in the Kent Terrace Presbyterian Church in Wellington.

McCallum embarked from Wellington on 14 February shortly after his wedding, arriving in Suez on 26 March 1915. As part of the Canterbury Machine Gun Section, he was sent to Turkey and landed at Anzac Cove on 12 May 1915. He was wounded on 21 August and evacuated to England, arriving at the Royal Free Hospital in London in mid-September. He was granted leave while he recovered, and travelled extensively in the British Isles until December 1915 when he returned to service.

While he was recovering from his wounds, many New Zealand newspapers published a letter from McCallum to his wife which gave an account of how another lawyer soldier, Major George Mayne, had been killed at Gallipoli.

From England McCallum was posted to Egypt, to the Anzac Camel Corps. He was appointed Temporary Captain in command of 15 Camel Company on 15 July 1916, and posted to the Australia and New Zealand Imperial Camel Corps on 1 August 1916. His appointment as Captain was confirmed on 1 November 1916. 

The 15th Camel Company was the first of two New Zealand companies which were formed as part of the Imperial Camel Corps. After completing training at Abbassia, McCallum's 15th Company trekked across country to Kantara and then across the Sinai Desert to join up with the main body of the Camel Corps at Mazar in December 1916. The company then fought its first engagement, at Maghdaba.

In a letter back to New Zealand, McCallum gave an extensive account of the fighting at Maghdaba and the capture of El Arish. This was published by the Sun under the heading "Looking for Abdul" on 6 March 1917.

"Altogether, I believe, it was a most satisfactory little affair, and our casualties were very light. My own company only lost five wounded," McCallum wrote.

"The worst part of the show was trying to find our camels in the dark, as some one had moved them without telling us," he said. "We were in our shirtsleeves, and it was a bitterly cold night, and nearly midnight before we found them. I got a fearful cold out of it. We slept until 4am, and then trekked back to El Arish, arriving there on Christmas Eve, mighty tired out, but very pleased with ourselves. It is wonderful what a little sleep one can do with when one has to."

Another letter from McCallum to his wife was published in New Zealand early in 1917. The extract contained praise for New Zealand social reformer Ettie Rout. All mention of Ms Rout in New Zealand newspapers was later banned by the New Zealand government, so McCallum's letter was probably one of the last public statements of the soldiers' views and appreciation of her work:

"You are right about Ms Rout. What she has done for the troops in Egypt cannot be exaggerated. In the hottest weather last summer she worked like a Trojan, making them fruit salad, tea, cocoa, cakes, and other delicacies, although the military authorities did nothing to help her. This last trek from Abbassia we paused through Tel-el-Kebir, and as we passed the station she was there, just going away; but, hearing we were going to stay there a few hours, she immediately cancelled her arrangements and made a huge boil of cocoa, enough for both the Australian Company with us and our own fellows. Then she went round by rail to Kantara, and was there to meet us when we arrived two days later. She made ever so much cocoa, chutney, and buns for us then, and also produced some excellent cake that had been sent by school children in Dunedin. She is a wonder." (Sun, 24 January 1917, page 4).

By the time his comments were published McCallum was dead. After the action at Mazar, the 15th Camel Company was transfered to the First Battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps. On 8 January the Corps left El Arish to mount an attack on Turkish positions at Rafa, 50 kilometres away. After trekking all night the force arrived at Rafa at daylight on 9 January. The Turks were well entrenched and during the day the attack made little impression. McCallum's company dismounted under shell fire and advanced as the first wave of the attack.

"By 2pm the advance was held up by severe rifle and machine-gun fire, and the position was being enfiladed from concealed positions on the right," the main account of the battle states. "During this advance the 15th Company lost its popular OC, Captain JG McCallum, who had been in command of the Company since its formation."

McCallum died of his wounds on 11 January 1917.

An account by a soldier serving with an Australian company of the Camel Corps emphasises the regard in which he was held:

"We passed questions along the line to find out how other companies were faring. We were told that Captain McCallum of No 15 (New Zealand) Company had been wounded some hours earlier while leading his men forward. There were many willing hands prepared to risk the whining bullets to get him back to the rear where the Red Cross men could attend to him. Tenderly he was placed on a stretcher; but the Angel of Death hovered over it. He lingered for two days. There were tear-dimmed eyes in No 15 Company when the New Zealanders heard he was dead."

Captain McCallum is remembered on the Motueka War Memorial, the Imperial Camel Corps Memorial in London, England, and the Christchurch Boys' High School World War I Roll of Honour.

Sources: Press, 15 August 1908, page 10; Press, 5 June 1911, page 8; Colonist, 2 July 1914, page 2; New Zealand Herald, 17 November 1914, page 8; Nelson Evening Mail, 15 February 1915, page 5; Sun, 17 February 1915, page 4; Colonist, 2 September 1915, page 2; New Zealand Herald, 16 September 1915, page 9; Press, 23 October 1915, page 11; Press, 9 September 1916, page 10; Colonist, 19 January 1917, page 4; Nelson Evening Mail, 22 January 1917, page 4; Sun, 22 January 1917, page 6; Sun, 24 January 1917, page 4; Sun, 6 March 1917, page 9; Press, 22 March 1917, page 8; C Guy Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine (Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland 1922); John Robertson, With the Cameliers in Palestine (Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1938), pages 47-48, 65, 74-75; Frank Reid, The Fighting Cameliers, page 69; Anne McFadgen, Rustlings in the Wind, Blog (2015).

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph soldier profile.

This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.

Roll of Honour.

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: geoff.adlam@lawsociety.org.nz.

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Last updated on the 12th January 2016