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Friday, 28 August 2015

Private John Angus McNeil - A Gallipoli Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: October 15, 1877*

Place of Birth: Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS

Mother: Sarah Grant

Father: Donald “Brown” McNeil

Occupation: Sawmill Hand

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: October 20, 1914 at Wellington, North Island, New Zealand

Regimental #: 8/1304

Rank: Private

Force: Australia & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC)

Unit: Otago Regiment, 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Service: Egypt & Turkey

Next of Kin: Sarah McNeil, Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS (mother)

* John Angus’s birth date is based upon 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Canadian census data. His New Zealand service file lists his date of birth as October 20, 1880.

Author's Note: While John Angus McNeil has no connection to Guysborough County, I am posting his story on this blog for two reasons. No Canadian Expeditionary Force units served at Gallipoli, making John Angus's military experience quite unique. John Angus was also the first Antigonish County native to die from injuries sustained in combat during the First World War.

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John Angus McNeil was the second of six children—four sons and two daughters— born to Donald “Brown” and Sarah (Grant) McNeil of Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS. Donald passed away around 1886 and the couple’s two youngest children—daughters Catherine and Isabelle—died before 1891, leaving Sarah to care for four young boys.

The McNeil family home, Malignant Cove, NS.
While Sarah’s eldest son, John Joseph, remained at Malignant Cove, the three others ventured westward sometime before 1911. John Angus worked as a foreman in a Vancouver Island logging camp, while his youngest brother, William Bernard—known to family as “Willie B.”—was employed as a labourer in the same camp. Alexander, the third sibling, toiled as a logger on nearby Thurlow Island.

Sometime after 1911, John Angus made his way to New Zealand, where he hoped to establish a sheep farm. In the meantime, he worked as a sawmill hand for a Mr. H. Moss at Hekein, Otago Province, South Island.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, two brothers enlisted for military service. Willie B. led the way, attesting with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) at Camp Valcartier, QC on September 23, 1914. Two days later, in distant New Zealand, John Angus completed his military medical examination. On October 20, he formally attested for overseas service with the Otago Infantry Reinforcements at Trentham, Upper Hut, Wellington Region, North Island, New Zealand.

Alexander eventually followed his brothers into uniform, joining the 102nd (Comox-Atlin) Battalion at Vancouver, BC on March 13, 1916. None of the McNeil boys had prior military experience. In the months subsequent to their enlistment, they participated in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. At war’s end, only two returned home to Canada.

*****

On August 7, 1914—three days after Great Britain declared war on Germany—the government of New Zealand offered to raise and equip an Expeditionary Force. Military personnel immediately set about recruiting an Infantry Brigade, consisting of four 1000-soldier battalions.

In keeping with the country’s political structure, authorities raised one battalion from each of the country’s four provinces—Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington. Each unit, in turn, consisted of four Companies, named after territorial regiments in existence at the time.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) mobilized at Tahuna Park, Dunedin, South Island. More than 60 % of its recruits had no prior military experience and the time frame for departure did not allow for a comprehensive training program. Ships transporting the first group of recruits—360 Officers and 8067 “other ranks” (OR)— departed New Zealand on October 16, arriving at Hobart, Australia five days later.

The vessels moved onto Albany, Western Australia, where they connected with the Australian Expeditionary Force (AEF) on October 28. The two Forces departed for Europe on November 1, stopping for supplies at Colombo, Sri Lanka after two weeks at sea. The convoy departed on November 17, arriving at Aden, Yemen eight days later and proceeding through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.

While British authorities initially intended to have the soldiers train and winter in England, climate considerations resulted in an alternative plan, which was conveyed to the convoy on November 28. The two Expeditionary Forces received orders to disembark in Egypt, where they would train until called to service on Europe’s Western Front. The convoy sailed into Alexandria, Egypt’s harbour on December 2, its passengers disembarking and establishing camps on the outskirts of Cairo.

Meanwhile, military authorities in New Zealand set about recruiting reinforcements for the units already on their way to Europe. John Angus McNeil was amongst the men who volunteered for service with this second group, which trained at Trentham, Upper Hut, for almost three months.
The second New Zealand contingent departed on December 14 aboard HM New Zealand Transport No. 14 and made its way to the Middle East. Its 34 Officers and 1189 OR—a group that included Private John Angus McNeil—disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt on January 29, 1915 and marched to the New Zealand camp at Zeitoun, on the outskirts of Cairo.

Several significant developments took place during John Angus’s voyage to Egypt. On December 18, 1914—two weeks after the arrival of the initial New Zealand and Australian Expeditionary Forces—Great Britain formally proclaimed Egypt a British Protectorate, creating the likelihood of a Turkish military response. Meanwhile, the inexperienced soldiers feverishly prepared for combat on the Western Front, struggling to cope with desert conditions that were “warm by day and cold by night.”

In January 1915, British military authorities formally announced the formation of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), consisting of two divisions. The 1st Division was entirely Australian in composition, containing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Infantry Brigades. The 2nd Division was a combination of New Zealand and Australian units, consisting of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade—including John Angus’ Otago Regiment—the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade and the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade.

Before month’s end, ANZAC received its first assignment, relocating several units to the Suez Canal in support of Indian troops defending the strategic waterway. Turkish forces launched a series of attacks along the canal on February 3 and 4, but were forced to retreat after the defenders held the line. Otago Regiment was amongst the soldiers assigned to reserve positions, but none of its personnel were involved in the fighting.

A third group of New Zealand reinforcements—62 Officers and 2147 OR—arrived at Suez on March 26. The following day, the entire New Zealand & Australian Division paraded for inspection, a force of almost 12,000 men (approximately 450 Officers and 11,400 OR). John Angus and his comrades continued to train in the intense heat, completing route marches while carrying their 70-pound packs while awaiting orders to move out.

Meanwhile, British military officials formulated plans for ANZAC’s deployment. Rather than assigning its units to the European theatre’s Western Front, authorities decided to strike a blow against the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government controlled the Dardanelle and Bosporus Straits, a strategic water passage connecting the Aegean and Black Seas and a vital route for shipping supplies to Russia, Britain and France’s ally on the Eastern Front.

The Ottoman Turks entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary on October 31, 1914. Their considerable military forces represented another foe for the Russians, already struggling to cope with Austro-Hungarian and German units. Turkish involvement also denied Britain and France access to the Black Sea.

In late March 1915, ANZAC commanders received orders to prepare for departure as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), a 50,000-strong contingent created to undertake “operations against Turkey.” Its ranks also included the 29th British Division, British and French naval forces.

The MEF’s target was the Gallipoli Peninsula, located on the northern side of the Dardanelles’ western entrance. Allied control of the area would provide a base from which to seize control of the entire water passage and possibly end Turkey’s involvement in the war. In the short term, the action would force Turkey to defend its own territory, reducing the number of troops available for deployment on the Eastern Front.

ANZAC troops entrained for Alexandria on April 9, the first vessels departing the following day for the MEF’s designated assembly point at Mudros, on the island of Lemnos, Greece. John Angus and his Otago Regiment comrades made the journey aboard the Annaberg, one of several Turkish vessels anchored in Alexandria Harbour and seized by Britain when ANZAC units landed in Egypt.

Otago’s officers described the Annaberg’s condition as “filthy beyond description, and abominably louse-ridden.” The soldiers endured three days on board before anchoring in Mudros Harbour, where military commanders laid out their plan—several “simultaneous attacks” on the Gallipoli Peninsula, design to “mislead” Turkish forces.

The peninsula contains three major geographic features. Sari Bair, a mountain 970 feet in height, overlooked Suvla Bay, while 600-foot Achi Baba dominates Cape Helles, the peninsula’s southern tip. The Kilid Bahr plateau, 700 feet above sea level, stretches between the two points.

ANZAC forces received instructions to land at Suvla Bay, approximately nine miles from the peninsula’s southern tip, with the goal of capturing Sari Bair. The action was designed to distract Turkish forces on the peninsula’s tip by “threatening their rear and their communications.” The Australian Division would lead the way ashore, followed by the Australia-New Zealand Division.

Meanwhile, British and French forces would simultaneously attack Achi Baba. Once each secured its objective, the groups would advance toward one other, securing the Kilid Bahr Plateau. An Anglo-French naval bombardment would support the entire operation. If successful, Allied forces would control the peninsula’s entire tip and with it a significant portion of the Dardanelles.

Given the scale of the operation, Turkish forces had “sufficient warning” and “ample time” to implement an “elaborate and effective system of defence.” In fact, an Anglo-French naval squadron shelled the entrance to the Straits in late February and early March, destroying several fortifications. The Turks successfully blocked a March 18 attempt to “force the Narrows”, destroying five French and British vessels in the process.

The Gallipoli Peninsula’s geography also posed considerable challenges for an invading force. Steep cliffs with little beach frontage dominate its shoreline, making the task of landing troops very difficult.

Upon arriving at Mudros, MEF soldiers rehearsed disembarkation over the vessels’ sides and conducted regular training and route marches ashore, while living on board ship. After almost two weeks of preparations, the MEF departed Mudros on April 24. In the early hours of April 25, Australian forces came ashore at Gabe Tepe, south of Suvla Bay, a location known today as Anzac Cove.

As daylight broke, transports carried the New Zealanders past the peninsula’s extremities to the waters off Gaba Tepe. John Angus and his mates clambered over the side onto destroyers that conveyed them closer to shore, where barges towed by steam picket boats carried them into shallow waters. The smaller vessels maneuvered to within 300 yards of the landing point, the soldiers jumping into the sea and scrambling ashore as the barges ran aground.

The first New Zealand soldiers landed at 9:30 a.m. April 25, the Otago Battalion coming ashore at 2:30 p.m. amidst artillery fire that was “continuous[,]… becoming increasingly heavy” throughout the afternoon. All personnel—25 Officers and 912 OR—were ashore within 90 minutes, the unit’s companies forming up “under the shelter of the steep ledges which overhung the beach.” The precarious situation required the deployment of all available reinforcements in the firing line immediately upon landing.

Map displaying April 25, 1915 MEF landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Despite suffering considerable casualties, Otago Regiment assumed positions on nearby Plugge’s Plateau. Wounded soldiers were evacuated no further than the beach, as Turkish fire prevented access to offshore vessels. Personnel held the line into the following day, despite ferocious enemy fire and lack of artillery support. Meanwhile, artillery units landed the New Zealanders’ howitzers—the only guns deployable ashore—only with considerable effort.

On April 27, Turkish forces launched repeated attacks on the invading forces, in an effort to push them into the sea. ANZAC units successfully repelled all assaults, while working parties behind the line established field dressing stations, supply and ammunition dumps and constructed communication trenches and dugouts along the ridge’s steep slopes. By month’s end, the invading force was well established, but limited manpower prevented further progress inland.

While Otago Regiment played a minimal role in the early days’ fighting, the unit nevertheless reported 18 killed and 60 wounded by month’s end. Its soldiers participated in their first offensive action on the evening of May 2, spearheading an attempt to push further inland. The action resulted only in “exceedingly heavy” losses, the Corps reporting 800 casualties. Otago Regiment “suffered badly, losing practically half its strength in both Officers and men.” Its 4th Company was particularly hard hit, reporting 155 casualties amongst its 200 soldiers.

The Regiment’s personnel retired to general reserve on the beach to recover. Three days later, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade—including Otago Regiment—relocated to Cape Helles, at the peninsula’s southern tip. A total of 88 Officers and 2724 New Zealanders disembarked in the early hours of May 6, occupying reserve positions as British and French forces attacked the Turkish line in the afternoon.

The Brigade’s soldiers moved into support trenches the following day, making last-minute preparations to enter the fray. Commanders held Otago Regiment in reserve, due to the significant losses sustained earlier in the month. When the remaining New Zealand Brigade units moved forward in attack on May 8, heavy Turkish machine gun fire checked their progress and caused numerous casualties. When a second advance later in the day also failed, Otago Regiment moved forward in support of the Auckland Battalion, holding the line into the early hours of May 12.

The fighting at Cape Helles inflicted 800 New Zealand casualties, 102 of whom were Otago soldiers. Fortunately, a much-needed reinforcement draft of 900 “all ranks” had arrived on May 8, providing working parties for road construction, unloading ammunition and supplies while preparing for service in the line.

News of a May 19 Turkish attack on ANZAC’s positions forced the New Zealand Brigade to hastily return to Gaba Tepe. Upon reaching their comrades in the early morning hours of May 20, the New Zealanders discovered that Australian forces had successfully repelled the assault, allowing their units to retire to General Reserve for rest and reorganization.

On May 24, at Turkish initiative, both sides observed a ceasefire from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., allowing each to bury its dead and remove wounded soldiers between the opposing trenches. An estimated 3,000 Turkish soldiers had been killed in the earlier attack, their remains decaying in the heat.

After one month on the peninsula, ANZAC forces found themselves in a precarious position, occupying a “pronounced salient” protruding into Turkish-held territory and clinging to a narrow strip of land approximately one mile across at its widest point. Their backs to the sea, the soldiers endured constant Turkish fire. Significantly outmanned and outgunned, they faced the daunting prospect of dislodging the enemy from well-fortified positions on higher ground.

In subsequent days, both sides feverishly tunnelled toward their opponents’ trenches, seeking to eavesdrop on enemy activities. On May 29, Turkish forces detonated an underground mine and seized a portion of the ANZAC line before being driven back.

At month’s end, the New Zealand Brigade returned to action, relieving the 4th Australian Brigade in a section of the front line. Otago Regiment initially occupied reserve positions, the Brigade’s battalions interchanging locations weekly during a month-long deployment.

On June 4, Otago welcomed a reinforcement draft of four Officers and 239 OR, its soldiers remaining in the trenches until the Brigade was relieved on June 26. Four days later, Turkish forces launched a massive, early morning attack on the Australian section of the line. Fighting continued until dawn, the Aussies managing to hold hold their positions despite the all-out assault.

ANZAC forces faced considerable challenges as the beginning of their third month at Gaba Tepe. The soldiers endured searing daytime heat, followed by cold nighttime temperatures. As the Corps possessed no “Pioneer” units, infantrymen in reserve carried out all construction and labour tasks, leaving no time for rest when not in the line. Dysentery became a common affliction as the summer heat bred massive numbers of flies in the latrines.

Their situation becoming increasingly untenable, MEF officials recognized the need for decisive action leading to a final outcome. Such a plan, however, required additional manpower. The Expedition had requested two fresh Divisions in May, receiving a British commitment to send three Divisions as soon as possible, the first expected to reach Mudros on July 10.

In the meantime, MEF’s commanders set about devising a plan of attack involving an offensive along the ANZAC front, combined with a second landing at Suvla Bay, north of Gaba Tepe. “One strong thrust forward”, it was hoped, would result in Allied control of the peninsula and create a more manageable situation.

ANZAC forces immediately prepared to accommodate the required troops, concealed from enemy observation under terraced bivouacs in gullies along the slopes. Personnel also constructed hidden artillery positions, completing all work under cover of darkness throughout the month of July.

On the night of August 5/6, John Angus and his Otago Regiment comrades were amongst the ANZAC forces making final preparations for an attack, scheduled for the following night. The objective was to secure a line along the Sari Bair Ridge, allowing for a subsequent advance on the city of Maydos—known today as Eceabat—and the Narrows below. Three strategic ravines provided access for the attack, commanders planning to seize control of the summit before daylight.

The attacking force consisted of 37,000 soldiers and 72 artillery guns, supported by two naval cruisers, four monitors and two destroyers. Commanders divided their troops into two groups. The first, consisting of the Australia-New Zealand and 13th British (Imperial) Divisions, 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, would carry out the assault on Sari Bair. The second group, consisting of the 1st Australian Division, two Australian Light Horse Brigades and two British Imperial battalions, would hold existing ANZAC positions and deliver a frontal assault from that line.
Territory Captured in August 7, 1915 Offensive
(Source: Strategic Maps of Gallipoli, Gallipoli and the Anzacs)

The Otago Regiment was assigned the task of spearheading the advance up Chailak Dere, one of the three ravines leading to the ridge. While its soldiers and the column on its right made significant progress, the advance to its left was “seriously retarded”, thus preventing a final assault on Sari Bair before daybreak. Throughout the day, the two advanced columns held onto their gains, their soldiers increasingly exhausted and fighting sleep depravation as they prepared to resume the attack at nightfall.

Following a one-hour artillery bombardment of the ridge, the assault resumed at 4:15 a.m. August 8. On this occasion, Otago Regiment remained in reserve as advancing units succeeded in gaining a foothold on Chunuk Bair to the right. The center and left columns, however, made little progress.

Throughout the second day, Wellington Battalion—one of Otago’s Brigade mates—held the line with no food or water, nor means to evacuate its wounded. Its soldiers struggling to deepen their makeshift trenches, the unit was reduced to “almost negligible” strength by the time Otago relieved its personnel in Chunuk Bair’s forward trenches after nightfall.

Military commanders planned to attack on the main section of Sari Bair Ridge from Otago’s trenches the following day. While Turkish forces assaulted a portion of the unit’s line during the night, its soldiers held firm. As daylight broke on August 9, Turkish forces massed to the right of the New Zealand line as the enemy launched a second assault on Otago’s position. Once again, the New Zealanders held their ground, sustaining heavy casualties in the fighting.

While Otago’s remaining personnel launched the third attack on Chunuk Bair later that morning, the 6th Ghurka Battalion captured an adjacent portion of the ridge, only to be driven back by a desperate Turkish counter-attack. A second advancing column also failed to make progress, resulting in a loss of momentum. As Otago and the Wellington Mounted Rifles struggled to hold onto their gains, the collapse of the advance to their left meant that they were on their own, lacking both support and reinforcements.

By this time, ANZAC units had been fighting almost continuously for more than 48 hours. Commanders issued orders for their relief at 8:00 p.m. August 9, replacing all personnel with reinforcements by 2:00 a.m. August 10. Otago Regiment retired to reserve positions “a mere fraction of its original strength” as the battle raged into its fourth day.

At daybreak August 10, a massive Turkish counter-attack, supported by all available reserve units, recaptured the forward positions lost in the previous day’s fighting. The assault reached its peak at 10:00 a.m., waning as ANZAC units in turn resisted with all available manpower, thus avoiding a complete defeat.

The loss of the captured Chunuk Bair section sealed the assault’s fate. Attacking units sustained an estimated 12,000 casualties and, while they had advanced the line considerably, failed to achieve their objective, effectively sealing the fate of the entire Gallipoli campaign.

The Otago Regiment sustained 17 Officer and 300 OR casualties during the attack. Only four of its Officers emerged from battle unscathed, the unit reporting its August 16 strength at 360 “all ranks”. Private John Angus McNeil was amongst the fortunate soldiers who emerged from the battle without injury. He had survived almost four months on the slopes of Gallipoli, but would not live to complete another.

The much-desired “definitive victory” now apparently unattainable, ANZAC forces faced several challenges in the days following the August attack. Having advanced considerably up the slopes toward the ridge, personnel now faced the task of transporting water and supplies to troops in the line, a journey so arduous that the soldiers carrying the valuable liquid consumed significant quantities along the way.

Evacuating wounded soldiers posed a second major problem. Medical facilities and resources struggled to keep pace with the mounting casualties. Many wounded lay stranded on the slopes gained in the attack, unable to retreat for treatment and awaiting the arrival of stretcher-bearers increasingly overwhelmed by the arduous journey.

In the attack’s aftermath, units reported a dramatic increase in the number of sick and diseased personnel, due to physical and mental exhaustion. Poor living conditions and lack of proper nourishment also contributed to the soldiers’ declining health.

After August 10, ANZAC units assumed a defensive position, defining and consolidating the newly established line, reorganizing and burying their dead. On August 20, Otago’s soldiers returned to the “Apex”—the furthest point of permanent penetration into Turkish territory in the August 7 attack—the position now a pronounced “salient” jutting into the Turkish line.

Over the next several days, ANZAC units attacked three positions in succession—Kaiajiki Dere, Hill 60 and Susuk Kuyu—in an effort to gain ground east of Suvla Bay. Otago’s soldiers took part in the first two assaults, while the New Zealand Mounted Rifles continued the attack on Hill 60 on August 27. By month’s end, casualties sustained in the fighting forced military commanders to reduce the severely depleted Otago Regiment from four to two companies.

By that time, John Angus was no longer amongst its ranks. Wounded during the one of the tour’s attacks, he was evacuated for military treatment, arriving at 5th Indian General Hospital, Alexandria, Egypt on August 30.

Documents describe John Angus’s condition as “dangerously ill” at the time of arrival, as he was suffering from a “GSW [gunshot wound to his] Right Thigh with Fracture.” Despite medical intervention, Private John Angus McNeil “died of wounds received in action in 5th Indian Hospital” on September 2, 1915.

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John Angus’s Otago comrades remained at Gaba Tepe in the weeks following his death. Finally, on September 14, the exhausted New Zealand Infantry Brigade withdrew to Mudros for a much-needed rest. At the time of departure, Otago Regiment’s ranks consisted of 130 soldiers. The Brigade subsequently returned to “Anzac Bay” on November 9, holding the line for one month as authorities pondered the expedition’s future.

Private John Angus McNeil's grave, Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria, Egypt.
(Photograph courtesy of the War Graves Photographic Project)
 
On December 8, MEF commanders received orders to evacuate all forces from the Gallipoli Peninsula. The circumstances dictated that the operation be carried out in complete secrecy and with considerable deception, as Turkish detection would have produced a devastating counter-attack.

The final MEF soldiers departed Gallipoli’s shores on the night of December 19/20, 1915, retreating to Egypt. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade spent several months reorganizing before travelling to France with ANZAC and entering the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient in April 1916.

Private John Angus McNeil was laid to rest in Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria. In the years following the war, his mother, Sarah, received a Memorial Plaque engraved with his name and a war pension payment of 39 pounds per annum. While there is no record of their issue, his mother, Sarah—designated his next of kin—was entitled to receive the British War, Victory and 1914-15 Star service medals awarded to Imperial soldiers who served at Gallipoli.

John Angus’s brothers saw action on the Western Front during some of the war’s fiercest fighting. Willie B. was gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres (April - May 1915), recovered and returned to the front line. Before war’s end, he advanced to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, the Canadian army’s highest non-commissioned rank. Both Willie and Alexander subsequently returned home, although not without further drama for their mother.

Sometime in 1918, Sarah received a letter from Canadian military officials, notifying her that Willie B. had been killed in combat. Having experienced her share of grief through the loss of four family members, Sarah refused to accept the news. In her heart, she believed that Willie was alive. Several weeks later, her faith was confirmed when she received a letter from her youngest son. A subsequent investigation determined that the erroneous report was a case of mistaken identity.

After the war, Alexander once again ventured west, this time accompanied by his older brother, John Joseph. Alexander settled in Seattle, Washington, while John Joseph established residence in Ladysmith, BC. Only Willie B. remained home, marrying into a local family and spending his remaining years on his Malignant Cove farm.

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Sources:

Byrne, A.  E.. Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918. 1921: J. Wilkie & Co., Ltd., Princes Street, Dunedin, NZ. Electronic copy available online.

Service file of Private John Angus McNeil, number 8/1304. Archives NewZealand, Wellington, NZ.

A special thank you to Catherine MacGillivray, Maryvale, NS, who contributed newspaper clippings and genealogical information on the McNeil family.