Portrait of W. McColgan. Image kindly provided by Marlborough memorial project (2009). Image has no known copyright restrictions.

Private William McColgan MM was my great, great-uncle. His older sister Mary married John Kemp in 1900, William would have been ten years old then.

Before the War

William McColgan was born in 1890 in Old Kilpatrick. His mother was Catherine Mulholland and his father Patrick McColgan. On the 1891 census he had three older siblings, and more were to follow. Sometime before WW1 started he emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand. He worked for a Mr Lucas on Opawa Farm near Blenheim at the north end of the South Island. I couldn’t find this on the map, the current Opawa Farm is several hundred miles to the South near Christchurch. I assume that he worked on a farm near the Opawa River which passes by Blenheim.

Private William McColgan

William McColgan signed up in 1916, his medical was in the January and he attested on 7 March 1916. The medical form records that he was 5’3″ and 120lbs, about the size of an average 12-year-old today.  Nevertheless he enlisted as an infantryman in the Canterbury Regiment of the NZ Expeditionary Force. After two months training he was shipped to Europe with the 14th Reinforcement Battalion.

The Battle of Messines

Battle of Messines - 21 May to 7 June 1917.
Battle of Messines – 21 May to 7 June 1917. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Battle of Messines was a prelude to Third Ypres. The British Army wanted to capture Messines to make it easier to relieve pressure on the Ypres salient. It was perhaps the first modern combined arms battle. Messines featured tanks and air support along with a detailed artillery fire plan and mines under the German lines. The mines at Messines were the largest deliberate non-nuclear explosion until the British blew up Heligoland in 1945.

Canterbury Regiment at Messines

There were two Battalions of the Canterbury Regiment at Messines as part of the New Zealand Division in II ANZAC Corps. William McColgan was in 2 Company of the 2nd Battalion. He was in either the fifth or eighth line of men in the attack. The regimental history notes that there were 30 yards between lines, and that 2 platoons of 2 Company were in the first and fourth lines of the 2nd Battalion. Both Battalions set off from the assembly area to their start lines at 0100 on the 7th June 1917. They were on the left of the NZ Division’s front and were scheduled to take the left half of Messines village.

H-Hour was 0310, and the signal to advance was the mines detonating along the ridge. The first battalion lead until the German first line was taken. Then the Second Battalion leapfrogged. Given that William McColgan won a Military Medal it’s very likely that he was in the first line at that point. The attack went to plan and there was little resistance, two machine guns were encountered and put out of action.

The Division had captured all its objectives for the day by 5am, less than two hours after H-Hour. They spent the next 37 hours consolidating their position against the expected counter-attacks and coming under heavy artillery fire. They were relieved at 6pm on 8th June and withdrew into Battle Reserve. This latter position was still in artillery range, but slightly further back.

Wounded in Action

At some point on 8th June William McColgan was wounded. His casualty form records that he received Gunshot Wounds (GSW) to his face and hands. He was passed to 77 Field Ambulance on 9th June. Most likely he was wounded later in the evening, or perhaps the German artillery fire prevented his immediate evacuation.

The process would have been for him to be sent to the Regimental Aid Post somewhere to the rear of the battalion area. The RAP would do emergency aid and then send him to the field ambulance (which was a medical unit, not a vehicle). The field ambulances typically triaged casualties and then sent them on, they’d do emergency operations, but only when it couldn’t wait.

William McColgan was passed from 77 Field Ambulance to 53 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul, just over the border in France. Later the same day William McColgan died of wounds he’d received in action. There are no real details on the service record other than GSW to face and hands. 53 CCS was one of several at Bailleul, they collected Casualties and stabilised them before either returning them to their units or sending them to base hospitals. During the Battle of Messines over 18,000 men passed through the CCS. About 500 of them ended their war there, including William. He’s buried in the CWGC cemetery there.

Military Medal

There isn’t a citation that tells us why William McColgan was awarded the Military Medal. The earliest date on his records is 27 June 1917, almost three weeks after he died. He’s listed in the London Gazette in August 1917.

During WW1 the military medal couldn’t be awarded posthumously. However the army definition of posthumous was for an event that cost the recipient’s life.  If the soldier or officer died between the recommendation and the award being confirmed then that wasn’t posthumous.

My best guess is that William performed some act of gallantry on the 7th or 8th June 1917 during the Battle of Messines. This may or may not have been related to his wounds. Looking at the dates of when he joined the regiment and reading the Regimental history there aren’t many other opportunities where he could have won his MM.