Eric Archibald McNair, Lieutenant, Royal Sussex Regiment.
by Gerald Gliddon
This account is based upon the entry for McNair in VCs of the First World War: Cambrai 1917 published by The History Press.
No fewer than thirteen Victoria Crosses were won in Belgium and France in the first six months of 1916.
On 14, February Eric Archibald McNair was the first Allied soldier to win a VC on the Western Front since William Young had won his to the east of Foncquevillers just before Christmas in 1915.
McNair was a temporary lieutenant with the 9th (Service) Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (73rd Brigade) 24th Division and won the award close to the Menin Road at Hooge in Belgium.
Before the commencement of the German offensive against Verdun, the German Army carried out a series of operations against different sections of the Ypres Salient. On the night of 13, February trenches at Hooge and Sanctuary Wood were bombarded. According to the 73rd Brigade Diary, on the 14th activity began with British Artillery firing on a section of the German line of trenches that was later reported as being ‘knocked in’. The enemy duly retaliated during the early afternoon and heavily shelled Hooge. They then carried out a bombardment against an important observation post called the ‘The Bluff’ close to the Ypres–Comines canal 2 miles south of Ypres. At 5.30 p.m. an order to stand-to was given, and an SOS signal was sent up at Hooge when it was being shelled. An hour later the enemy blew a mine near a map position called H.16, and the inner edge of the crater was soon occupied by members of the 9th Royal Sussex Battalion.
The brigade diary played down the story of what happened, failing to tell the full story or even mention that the enemy mine caused a great deal of damage and many casualties. The account even described the enemy as making a ‘very feeble effort’ after they had blown the mine. However, a later issue of the Sussex Daily News described what had happened to the battalion as a ‘terrible ordeal’.
The 24th Divisional War Diary stated that the ‘enemy blew two mines in front of our trench H.16-H.18’. In an Intelligence Summary it stated that the enemy had been prevented from an attack at Hooge on the 14th ‘by one of our Lewis guns’ that opened fire on a German machine-gun when it was being brought forward. A company of the 9th Royal Sussex repulsed the enemy at position H.18.
Later, a member of the machine-gun section of the battalion who came from Brighton wrote an account of the events to a friend at the end of February:
“We took over trenches last Thursday week, and on the following two days, we suffered one of the worst bombardments of the war. Day and night, continually, our front line trenches and support trenches were shelled with high explosives. On Monday, that bombardment reached its height. The gun team I was in went on duty at 2 o’clock and by 3 o’clock the full fury of the German bombardment commenced.
I cannot describe what it was like in words. At 4 o’clock only myself and another fellow were left with the gun . . . We were thrown to the bottom of the trench five times . . . About 6 o’clock, when the whole trench rocked like a boat. It first seemed to go up at one end, throwing me on my chum, and then throwing us back again. It took me a few minutes to realise that the Germans had exploded a mine.”
The two men were probably saved from being buried alive by a section of corrugated iron, but they had great trouble with clearing a large quantity of earth that had poured down over their shelter. After they had got over their initial shock, they found that what had a few minutes ago been trenches was now ‘simply flat ground’. Supports then arrived, and they were able to lay their gun, aiming at a gap in the British line 300 yards away, while their colleagues charged for first occupation of the crater.
The above letter gives the background of the winning of three DCMs, together with T/Lt McNair’s VC. The official citation of his deed was published in the London Gazette of 30 March as follows:
Eric Archibald McNair, Lieutenant, Royal Sussex Regiment.
When the enemy exploded a mine, Lieutenant McNair and many men of two platoons were hoisted into the air, and many were buried. But, though much shaken, he at once organised a party with a machine-gun to man the near edge of the crater, and opened rapid fire on a large party of the enemy who were advancing. The enemy was driven back, leaving many dead. Lieutenant McNair then ran back for reinforcements and sent to another unit for bombs, ammunition and tools to replace those buried. The communication trench being blocked, he went across the open under heavy fire and led up the reinforcements the same way. His prompt and heroic action undoubtedly saved the situation.
McNair received his VC at Buckingham Palace from the King at an investiture on 20 May 1916
He soon returned to the front, only to be severely wounded by gunshot wounds to his shoulder and back at Guillemont on 18 August 1916 when the 9th Royal Sussex were in support to the 7th ( S) Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment. He was subsequently invalided home and not passed fit for service until the end of January 1917. He was never to be fit enough for front line duty again and could therefore only work as a member of the staff.
At some point, McNair had managed to get home to India for a short leave, but while there he became ill. He was passed fit for service again and put on probation for staff work, attending a special staff course. After being in service at home for several months, he was attached to the staff and in 1918 left for the Italian Front, where he was attached to the General Staff, GHQ, Italian Expeditionary Force. It was possible that the Prince of Wales, a friend from his Oxford University days at Magdalen College, assisted in getting him the position.
However, it appears that he was not really at all fit for active service again at this time and on 27 June his family were alerted that he was gravely ill, and six days later ‘dangerously ill’. He was invalided back to 11 General Hospital in Genoa in Northern Italy, where he died of amoebic dysentery on 12 August. He was twenty-four years old.
At this time, Genoa was a base for Dominion Forces, and McNair was buried as late as 8 November at Campo Santo Cemetery in the British section. The name of the cemetery was later changed to Staglieno Cemetery, and his grave reference, Plot I, B, 32, carried the inscription ‘And I Know That His Commandment Is Life Eternal’. The CWG Register describes the cemetery as ‘steeply terraced with numerous steps’.
After his death, McNair’s VC remained in his family and at one point was the property of Sir George Douglas McNair, one of Eric’s brothers, who died in Torquay in 1967. The decoration was at some point bequeathed to the Royal Sussex Regimental Museum.
Eric McNair’s name is commemorated in the Regimental Memorial in Chichester Cathedral, and his VC is on display at the Royal Sussex Regimental Museum at the Redoubt Fortress, Eastbourne, Sussex. His other medals included the 1914-15 Star; British War Medal ( 1914-20) and Victory Medal ( 1914-19). McNair's deeds of February 1916 were written up twice in comic form, in The Victor on 1 May 1965 and 25 June 1977.
Eric McNair's early years, growing up and education
Eric Archibald McNair was born in Calcutta on 16 June 1894, second son of George McNair, a senior partner in Morgan & Co., solicitors, and his wife Isabella Frederica, née Gow. The family lived at 5 Harrington Street, Calcutta.
Eric left for England to attend Branksome College in Godalming, Surrey, where he was a pupil in Mr Sylvester’s House. In 1907, he moved onto Charterhouse in Godalming where he remained for nearly six years until 1913. He became a successful sportsman and member of Lockites House. Known as “ Fuzzy” he was appointed Head Monitor during his final year and joined the OTC. His older brother, George had been a member of the same house from 1901-1904. Eric was a classical scholar; a good athlete and an excellent disciplinarian. In midsummer 1913 he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he had a Demyship (scholarship). It is possible that at this time he met the Prince of Wales, who was at the same college for a brief time, just before the outbreak of war. Their friendship was to be renewed five years later in 1918 on the Italian Front.
As a student in residence McNair was working for the Indian Civil Service examinations and was considered to be ‘very clever’, but the outbreak of the war in August 1914 put paid to his ambitions. He decided to join the Army and enlisted on 14 October as a second lieutenant in the 10th Royal Sussex Regiment. He was made a full lieutenant on 22 December and in August 1915 was transferred to the 9th Battalion and left for the front the following month. In October, he was promoted to captain and company commander and he took part in the Loos battle when the 9th Royal Sussex, were involved in a failed 73rd Brigade attempt to hold onto Fosse 8 and McNair became one of 18 officer casualties.
As Eric McNair was born in India, his commemorative paving stone, one of 145 for men born outside the British Isles, who won the VC, was unveiled in the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire on 5 March 2015.
To mark the centenary, The History Press have released an updated and reprinted version of 'Somme 1916: A Battlefield Companion' (The History Press) by Gerald Gliddon.
Gerald Gliddon, February 2016.
West Sussex County Council Archives
Eastbourne Gazette, 13 September 1916
Redoubt Fortress, Military Museum of Sussex, Eastbourne
Buckman, D., Royal Sussex Regiment Military Honours & Awards 1864–1920, J & K.H. Publisher, 2001
TNA WO95/2189 24th Division
TNA WO95/2216 73rd Inf. Brigade
TNA WO95/2219 9th Royal Sussex Regiment
Gerald Gliddon has contributed many articles to The Western Front Association website, including those on memorials and several others on those awarded the VC. Readers may therefore be interested in the following:
Gerald Gliddon, February 2016.