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Lieutenant John McCauley

Title: Lieutenant

Epithet: Author of 'A Manx Soldier's Diary' (1895-1980)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

'Serbia, Montenegro, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, were looming up in the distance. The Balkan War, we were told, what matter, it was insignificant to Great Britain, just a tiff between small nations.'

These words are part of the opening passage of the diary of John McCauley, at the time a worker at Gelling's Foundry in Douglas. Feeling that 'the fight goes on to capture world markets at the expense of humanity', McCauley had decided in the early 1930s to record his own experiences of World War I; his words give an intimate glimpse into the mind of the ordinary soldier.

A member of the Special Reserve, he had been an immediate volunteer. On 30th August 1914 his papers arrived, with tickets to Carlisle where he was drafted into the Border Regiment. Conditions were chaotic as these first soldiers arrived, sleeping on blankets on the barrack-room floor and struggling to be fed. John felt fortunate to possess a jam-jar in which to collect his meals. Clothes and boots arrived in huge wagons to be distributed on the barrack square. John remembered one recruit whose feet were so big that he had to wear one pair of toes tied onto another pair of heels.

He was posted to Shoeburyness, and showed acute disappointment when he just missed going out with the first detachment; he was promoted to lance-corporal, but threw away his opportunity by going on a spree with friends one night when he was responsible for guard duty. He spent Christmas and New Year behind wire.

His company was shipped from Southampton to Le Havre and then by small boats up the Seine to Rouen. From here, the men were marched to a village near Murville, their home a barn with a straw-covered floor, the rumble of the guns a constant reminder of what was to come. A final march of seven miles, carrying rifles, ammunition and shovels, took them to within 60 yards of the German trenches. They were to take turns with a company of Gordon Highlanders, one group occupying the front trenches while the other dug further redoubts and trenches behind.

McCauley describes his first time on the Western Front line with stark reality:

'I raised my head above the trench where I thought I was safe. I could see dead cattle strewn about the fields, yes, and German, French and British soldiers lying about. God knows how long they had been there. Yes friend, from that morning a veil of fear came over me and stayed with me until the end of the war.'

A London pal was shot at his side. The company tried to hide the acute shortage of machine guns by carrying them between different parts of the line. During odd moments of silence, shouts from no man's land could be clearly heard, 'Tommy, we come to London soon!' - to which there were ribald replies. A blessed silence took place between eight and half-past each morning, 'when smoke arose from the trenches, not from the guns, but from the cooking of breakfast. For half an hour we were safe'.

There was a summons for a group to retire from the trenches as a firing party and as witnesses to the shooting of a deserter. McCauley was not chosen to use his gun, but he describes vividly the final terrible scene. His greatest shock came when he recognised 'Private X' as a fellow-prisoner back at the guardhouse in England. ' ... he was one of us ... it shall be stamped on my memory for ever.'

The night before one of the first great pushes of the war, at Murville, there was a message from Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief, and the men were given plenty to drink. 'I suppose a man is ready for killing when drunk, especially in war', wrote John. At dawn, with gun in hand and shovel tied to his back, each man climbed over onto no man's land, 'one mass of perspiration and fear, the shrieking of shells, the agonising calls for stretcher-bearers - but ever forward - to stay behind was to risk cowardice'. The first day took them as far as the German trenches and a night in the company of corpses. Preparing for the next push, John was shot through the left knee, and had to drag himself back behind the lines. He was eventually helped by two other wounded men to a farmhouse to be tended by two brave Frenchwomen, until he was fit to be returned to Calais and St Thomas's Hospital, London, 'like a punctured inner tube of a bicycle to be got ready for the road again'.

After sick leave, he was on his way to a telephone exchange and light duties as an operator when he was diverted to a troopship en route for the Dardanelles campaign. In fact the troops were withdrawn before the ship arrived, and he found himself guarding the Suez Canal instead. The human enemy there (the Turks and rebel Egyptians) had to be searched for, but the real battle was 'not with the Turks, but sand, lizards, scorpions and small snakes - the very desert itself'.

Yet it was preferable to France, and there was often the 'joyful sight' of British soldiers trying to mount camels. 'There would be some with one leg round the camel's neck and his head hanging on the ground, others with two arms round the camel's neck, another given a gentle reminder with the camel's front feet which sent him rolling ... After nine months around the desert you feel as if you were just learning to walk when you come back to hard roads again.' Return came sooner than he would have wished, when he was recalled to the front at Arras where 'crawling about in the inky blackness of no man's land' was fraught with danger.

Moved to the Somme, John took part in the attempt to take a stretch of land called the 'Devil's Trench'. For once they encountered little opposition. He describes one emotional meeting, 'My heart ached for this wounded German schoolboy. I liked him, I pitied him, I could have stayed with him to see him safely behind the lines, it seemed as though he didn't want me to go'.

He made a will in his paybook, so that his mother should read his final words should he not come back. He also wrote 'Don't forget, patriotism in the front line and patriotism behind the lines are two different kinds. If ever a man suffered for his country, then by God it was the infantryman'.

At St Thomas's he had met his future wife, Edith, visiting a patient in the next bed, and in 1917 he had managed a short leave to be married. After the war they stayed for nine years in London, where John was a railway worker, before he brought his wife and two small daughters back to the Island. He wasworking for Gelling's Foundry when friends persuaded him to send his writings to the Isle of Man Examiner.

With limited formal education, John McCauley had tremendous enthusiasm and ambition and learned several pages from the dictionary every day, also becoming an exceptionally descriptive storyteller. But for the hundreds of war memoirs written at the time, his personal saga would doubtless have created an even wider stir.

After his time with Gelling's, he and Edith worked as caretakers at the White Hoe Hospital before John worked for 30 years in the carpet department at R.C. Cain's.

He served as both chairman and secretary for the Isle of Man Branch of the Royal British Legion, attending Armistice ceremonies in London. He took an interest in Labour politics, and at a national party conference met Ernest Sevin when the latter was a trade union leader. Sevin offered John a move back to London for full political training, but he refused to leave his beloved Island again.

He survived until he was 84, dying of gangrene in his leg, the result of a shrapnel injury from World War I. His family remember him with deep fondness, a big man with a big heart, friendly and jovial, a man who loved to stand and gaze at the sea, the horizon and the infinite.

Biography written by Henley Crowe.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.300-2.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 10 April 1895

Date of death: 23 February 1980


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