Tuesday, 18 January 2011
Who's Who in Scottish Military History - Admiral John McClure
You have probably never heard of Admiral John McClure but he's one of hundreds of Victorian Scotsmen who spent a life at sea and became ships’ masters across the globe. Before the First World War British ships made up over 40% of the world's merchant shipping but there were also many more British captains and officers in crews of the ships of other countries. You'll find references to them in charge of ships of many nations in many places and a good many of them were Scots.
It was in the waters of the South China Sea where young John McClure learnt his trade. Born in 1837 in Kirkcudbright; he was the son of an architect but he wasn't interested in following in his father's footsteps. He was taken on by the Taku Tug & Lighter Company (later part of the Hong Kong firm Jardine Matheson) and steadily rose through the ranks and in 1883 he returned home to take command of the Barrow-in-Furness built ship the 'Kow Shing' and sailed her to her home port. By the 1890’s he was one of the most experienced and respected mariners in China.
Late Nineteenth Century China was in a terrible state. The British had taken Hong Kong by force in 1842, and in 1860 the British and French ransacked Peking. Imperial power had declined within China and there was civil war between warlords and the Emperor. Any strong invader could pretty much help themselves to a piece of China. The Russians had occupied the north of the country, France and Britain had the run of the Eastern Seaboard and Japan had her eyes on the Chinese province of Korea.
By 1894 things came to a head with Japan. Japan landed troops in Korea. China responded by sending troops to the north of Korea. To do this they hired the best man in the area - John McClure, to organise a fleet of transport ships.
For his new role McClure was appointed Assistant Admiral of the Pei-Yang squadron in the Imperial Chinese Navy and a Mandarin of the highest class; not bad for a man from Kirkcudbright. Unfortunately the Chinese admirals and generals were no match for the Japanese and by late 1894 they were besieged in their home port of Wei-hai-wei. In February 1895 the Chinese attempted to break the siege with a combined attack from land and sea but it failed miserably.
The Chinese realised they had to surrender but rather than lose face all the senior officers committed suicide. That left poor old Admiral McClure as the most senior officer present and it was up to him to sign the surrender on behalf of the Chinese.
That was the end of John McClure's years in China. Taken to Japan as a prisoner of war he was then shipped back to the UK with other British nationals who had been caught up in the short war.
He retired to his home town and spent the next 23 years there. Illness forced him to move to Garlieston for the last two years of his life but he lived to the ripe old age of 83 and died on this day in 1920.