The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Captain (later Lieutenant General) James Legge

James Gordon Legge was born on 15 August 1863 in Hackney, London, England, the eldest of eight sons and a daughter of James Henry Legge, a banker. The family migrated to Australia in 1878. He was educated at Cranleigh School in Surrey, England, Sydney Grammar and the University of Sydney, which awarded him a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1884, Master of Arts (MA) in 1887 and a Bachelor of Law (LLB) in 1890.

He taught at Sydney Boy's High School from 1886 to 1890 when he resigned to practice law, being admitted to the bar in New South Wales on 6 March 1891. As a barrister, he compiled a 1,600 page work, A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales from 1825 to 1862.

Legge was commissioned as a lieutenant into the 3rd New South Wales Infantry in 1885 during the Russian war scare but resigned the next year. In October 1887 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 1st New South Wales Regiment. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1892. In 1894 he was commissioned as a captain in the permanent forces of New South Wales. He immediately departed for a tour of duty with the British Army in India, serving a month with the 5th Dragoon Guards and three months with the 50th Foot (Royal West Kent Regiment).

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Legge was appointed to command an infantry company, with Lieutenant William Holmes as one of his subalterns. Holmes was actually his senior as a captain, but had dropped down to lieutenant in order to serve with the contingent. The company left for South Africa in November 1899, and on arrival was incorporated in the Australian Regiment. Originally an infantry unit, this became mounted in February. Legge agitated for a separate identity for the New South Wales contingent, with the result that on 7 April 1900, the Australian Regiment was disbanded, and colonial contingents formed into a new mounted division under Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton. Legge's company was incorporated into the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles and he became adjutant. He saw action at Vet River, Zand River, Diamond Hill and Eland's River. In December 1900, his company had completed its twelve month enlistment and returned to Australia. Legge remained, serving as intelligence officer to Lieutenant Colonel H. de B. De Lisle.

On return to Australia, Legge was granted the brevet rank of major. In 1904 he published a handbook on military law. Then on 1 September 1904, he was promoted to major and given the post of Deputy Assistant Adjutant General at Second Military District Headquarters in Sydney, and then Assistant Adjutant General from December 1905. In 1907 he began working with Colonel W. T. Bridges at Army Headquarters in Melbourne on a Universal service scheme, which eventually became a reality in 1909. With the rank of temporary lieutenant colonel, Legge became Quartermaster General and a member of the Military Board in January 1909. He was promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel on 17 December 1909, his name being added to a promotion list that included Majors H. G. Chauvel, G. G. H. Irving and V. C. M. Sellheim by the Minister of Defence, Senator G. F. Pearce, himself, despite the military Board's failure to endorse his promotion.

When Field Marshal Lord Kitchener visited Australia in December 1909, Legge worked closely with him. The Kitchener's Defence Scheme was largely Legge's scheme. From March 1910 to June 1911, Legge served as Director of Operations as well as Quartermaster General. Because of the political nature of the Universal Service Scheme, Legge established close ties with various politicians.

In January 1912, Legge was designated Australian Representative on the Imperial General Staff in London. Legge sent information back to Australia regarding Japanese capabilities. He observed the British Army, and was particularly impressed with the Royal Flying Corps, and helped speed up the arrangements for the establishment of an Australian Flying Corps.

On 1 May 1914, Legge was appointed Chief of the General Staff, with the rank of full colonel, but he did not sail for home until 3 July 1914. When he reached Fremantle on 4 August 1914, he confirmed the steps that the acting CGS, Major C. B. B. White, had taken. By the time Legge reached Adelaide, war had broken out. With Bridges occupied in organising the AIF, it fell to Legge to organise an Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force for service in New Guinea. When Bridges departed for overseas, Legge took over responsibility for the training of AIF reinforcements, and later the brigades which eventually became part of the 2nd Division.

When Bridges was fatally wounded by a Turkish sniper in Monash Valley in May 1915, Legge was the natural choice of the Australian government to succeed him as both commander of the 1st Division and of the AIF. The Australian commanders at the front, Colonels H. G. Chauvel, J. W. McCay and J. Monash, were understandably disappointed at being passed over by an officer who was their junior, with no experience in the campaign at hand, and protested to Generals W. R. Birdwood and Hamilton, who in turn conveyed their opinions to the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, who asserted his vice-regal prerogative to query the government's decision. But Prime Minister Fisher stood firm on Legge's appointment, attributing Legge's unpopularity to his rise over the heads of other officers through ability, and duly promoted Legge to Major General on 22 June 1915.

Legge reached Mudros on 24 June 1915, and began working on winning over his new subordinates. He arranged for the colonels to be promoted to brigadier general in line with their British counterparts, with seniority back dated to their assumption of brigade command, and he fought suggestions by the British to place Australian officers junior to British officers of the same rank. At Birdwood's suggestion, Legge inspected the Australian Base in Egypt and cabled recommendations back to the government in Melbourne. This upset the British commander in Egypt, who felt that such communications should go through him, although this would have been absurd.

Legge clashed with Birdwood over the latter's plan for the August Offensive at Anzac. Like his predecessor, Brigadier General H. B. Walker, Legge felt that the proposed assault on Lone Pine would be costly and probably futile unless the high ground above it was first seized. Of course, if it was, then the Lone Pine attack would not be necessary. Birdwood held that only an attack on a key position like Lone Pine would cause the Turks to divert troops from opposing the main effort. Events would prove both men correct.

Birdwood seized on an opportunity to remove Legge from the scene when McCay, designated to command the 2nd Division, which had begun forming in Egypt, broke his leg and was evacuated on 11 July 1915, the day before he was due to leave to take up his new post. Birdwood sent Legge to Egypt to take over the 2nd Division instead. On appointment to this post, Legge's command of the AIF lapsed.

Legge had no illusions about how difficult getting the 2nd Division ready for action as soon as possible would be, for he knew that many crucial elements of the division were either non-existent or still in Australia. Finding experienced officers for his headquarters staff was no less difficult. Melbourne turned down Legge's request for Lieutenant Colonel T. H. Dodds. This forced Legge to employ Major T. A. Blamey on his administrative staff as AA & QMG, with Major J. Gellibrand as DAA & QMG. For his general staff, Legge selected Colonel C. W. Gwynn, a British officer who was on exchange as Directory of Military Art at the Royal Military College at Duntroon, and Captain E. ff. W. Lascelles, a New Zealand Staff Corps officer similarly on exchange. Legge confided to Gellibrand that he had nothing against British officers, but felt that they did not share the same concern for the personal welfare of the troops as Australian officers.

Legge's work was still incomplete when Hamilton called the division forward in August for piecemeal commitment at Gallipoli. Legge travelled back to Gallipoli with the 6th Brigade on the transport Southland. On 2 September 1915, some 60 km south of Lemnos, the Southland was torpedoed by a German submarine. Legge won the admiration of many for the quiet and good humoured way he handled the situation, remaining on board with the last 400 men, who were transferred the hospital ship Neuralia. Some 32 Australians died, including the commander of the 6th Brigade, Colonel R. Linton.

The 2nd Division relieved the 1st in the line, enabling the veterans to be rested on Lemnos. From mid-October, Legge occasionally acted as corps commander whenever Major General A. J. Godley was absent. He was thus the first Australian to have temporary command of a corps. Legge embarked on a number of schemes to improve the defences at Anzac, which some thought impractical and others thought showed signs of sheer genius. On 23 November 1915, Legge was evacuated to Egypt sick.

Legge resumed command of the 2nd Division in Egypt in January 1916. On 13 March 1916, the 2nd Division began to entrain for Alexandria on the first leg of its journey to the Western Front. On the night of 7 April 1916, the 2nd Division entered the line for the first time, in the "nursery" sector near Armentieres. A quiet section of the line, this sector was used by both sides to acclimatise new units to conditions on the Western Front. The division soon became caught up in raids, and casualties were high because of Birdwood's insistence on manning the front line more densely that recommended by GHQ.

Legge's time in command of the 1st and 2nd Divisions at Gallipoli had been uneventful; command of the 2nd Division on the Western Front would be anything but. Moving into the line at Pozieres on 27 July 1916, the commander of the British Reserve Army, General Sir Hubert Gough, ordered Legge to take the Pozieres Heights at once. The attack, delivered on 28-29 July 1916, was a complete failure due to poor preparation, and cost the division 3,500 casualties. Although responsibility lay with everyone from Gough to the platoon commanders, Legge took the blame,

In the next few days, Legge strove to get another attack ready, all the while under tremendous pressure from the enemy, who shelled the 2nd Division's positions mercilessly, compelling postponement first to the 2nd and then to the 4th of August. Gough and the GOC-in-C BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig were both displeased with the postponements, which they also blamed on Legge. When the attack was finally delivered, it was a complete success, and the Pozieres Heights were under Australian control. Its twelve day tour at Pozieres cost the 2nd Division 6,848 men, almost a third of its strength.

On 28 January 1917, Legge fell ill with the flu and Birdwood took the opportunity to relieve him of his command. When he recovered, he returned to Australia, where he was appointed Inspector General on 30 April 1917. On 1 August 1917, he became Chief of the General Staff again, reverting to his permanent rank of colonel, but retaining his rank of major general as an honorary rank. As Chief of the General Staff, Legge's role was dealing with politicians in Australia, and providing reinforcements for the AIF overseas, a task which by this time had become one of scraping the manpower barrel.

In 1918, Legge began considering the problem of how to defend Australia against the Japanese if the Allies lost the war. In considering the makeup of the postwar forces, Legge became a strong advocate of an independent RAAF and a major role for air power, and he was appointed to a committee to look into the matter in January 1919. In January 1920, Legge, along with J. Monash, J. W. McCay, J. J. T. Hobbs and C. B. B. White, was appointed to a committee chaired by Chauvel, to examine the future structure of the army.

On 2 January 1920, Legge was substantially promoted to major general. He became Commandant of the Royal Military College at Duntroon on 1 June 1920. In the defence cuts of 1922, Legge, along with most of his staff, was retrenched. He was placed on the unattached list on 1 August 1922, and on the retired list on 14 January 1924, with the honorary rank of lieutenant general. Unlike other generals, he was never awarded any Imperial honours. He may have refused them.

Due to his early retirement, Legge was denied a pension, but he was able to obtain money from the Soldier Settlement Scheme to buy a lease on a farm in the ACT, which he called "Cranleigh", where he raised pigs and horses, and grew potatoes. In this many thought him eccentric, as the area is best known as sheep country.

Legge was a good trainer of troops and an able division commander. He was a extremely intelligent and an original thinker who worker hard to reduce casualties, and whose misfortune was to be in command at an extremely trying time. It was his pro Australian stance that made him disliked by his British superiors. Those who knew him respected his abilities.

Legge died at Oakleigh, Victoria on 18 September 1947 and was buried at Cheltenham Cemetery. In accordance with his wishes, no monument or headstone marks his grave.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 10, pp. 442-443; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume III: The AIF In France 1916, pp. 147-148, 288-291; Coultard-Clark, No Australian Need Apply
Image of General Legge courtesy the Australian War Memorial

Ross Mallett - August 2002


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