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James Gordon Legge (1863–1947)

by Chris Clark

This article was published:

James Gordon Legge (1863-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920-29

James Gordon Legge (1863-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920-29

Australian War Memorial, 100140

James Gordon Legge (1863-1947), army officer, was born on 15 August 1863 at Hackney, London, eldest of eight sons and a daughter of James Henry Legge, banker, and his wife Ada Jane, née Way. He was educated at Cranleigh School, Surrey, and, after the family's arrival in Sydney in December 1878, at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney from 1881 (B.A., 1884; M.A., 1887; LL.B., 1890). He was admitted to the Bar in New South Wales on 6 March 1891.

From May 1886 Legge taught at Sydney Boys' High School until September 1890 when he resigned to practise law. During the Russian scare of 1885 he had been commissioned as a lieutenant in the 3rd New South Wales Infantry Regiment but resigned next year. In October 1887 he was appointed second lieutenant in the 1st New South Wales Infantry Regiment, being promoted lieutenant in June 1892. An inaugural member of the United Service Institution in 1889, he was elected to its council in 1892, 1896 and 1903.

After three years in chambers Gordon Legge joined the permanent staff of the New South Wales Military Forces with the rank of captain, an appointment which was questioned in the Legislative Assembly. He completed A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales from 1825 to 1862 (Sydney, 1896) before taking up the appointment on 1 October 1894 and embarking on four months training with the British Army in India. On returning he became adjutant of the 2nd Infantry Regiment and applied himself to critically examining Australian defence arrangements. On 14 October 1896 he married Annie Frances Ferguson at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

On the outbreak of the South African War Legge was appointed to command an infantry company which left Sydney in November 1899. On arrival he discovered that British authorities had allotted his corps to the 'Australian Regiment', comprised of contingents from several colonies and under Victorian command. His attempts to extract the New South Wales troops helped to bring about disbandment of the regiment after four months. In April 1900 Legge's company, by now a horsed squadron, was incorporated in the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles; until November he was adjutant of the regiment which was in action at Diamond Hill and Eland's River. He was an intelligence officer in Colonel De Lisle's force in Cape Colony in 1901-02.

Returning to Sydney via England in October 1902, Legge took up duty as staff officer to the 3rd and 4th Infantry Regiments centred on Richmond and Newcastle, and was granted brevet rank of major. He was simultaneously appointed chief instructor of district schools on infantry training and topography and retained this responsibility until 1907. In September 1903 he became secretary to a committee charged with drafting Commonwealth military regulations and was occasionally employed at Army Headquarters in Melbourne until February 1904. When the 1903 Defence Act was proclaimed in March 1904 he published a handbook on Australian military law, the Act and its regulations. That year he also published a booklet outlining rules for framing operation orders in the field.

On 1 September 1904 Legge was appointed deputy assistant adjutant general at district headquarters in Sydney with substantive rank of major; from December 1905 until May 1906 he acted as assistant adjutant general and chief staff officer. In October 1905 he had also become associated with moves to establish a department of military science at the University of Sydney; a lectureship was offered to him in November 1906 but next June he was assigned for duty at Army Headquarters. For three months he worked with the chief of intelligence, Colonel (Sir) W. T. Bridges, and from September directly under the minister for defence. His duties involved working on a scheme to create a national guard of 80,000 men based on universal service, which he had publicly advocated from 1899. His proposals regarding organization and training of the forces were taken up in parliament by Prime Minister Deakin on 13 December, although Legge's senior officers did not completely accept them.

In June 1908 he was appointed military secretary on the Military Board with temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel and he became quartermaster general and third military member on the board in January 1909. He continued preparations for universal training, provided for under the 1909 Defence Act, and frequently lectured on the scheme. The political importance of his work guaranteed him prominence among his fellow staff officers. The future official war historian Charles Bean remarked: 'Rumour had it that he was the coming man'. He was promoted substantively to lieutenant-colonel on 17 December 1909 and when Field Marshal Lord Kitchener arrived that month to advise the government on a system of defence for Australia Legge was closely involved in assisting him. Because Kitchener adopted Legge's work for the 1909 Act as the basis for his own recommendations it was later claimed by Bean that what came to be popularly known as Kitchener's scheme could have been more appropriately called Legge's scheme.

In March 1910 Legge was appointed director of operations in addition to his post as quartermaster general, the intention being to bring his work on drafting universal training regulations under the chief of the general staff. Dissatisfaction with the requirement to explain and justify his proposals to the inspector general, Kitchener's staff officer Colonel (Sir) G. M. Kirkpatrick, precipitated an attempt by Legge to resign as director of operations in November. He also felt personally aggrieved, claiming that 'my grade and pay are not commensurate with the duties I am called on to perform ... I have not received the consideration promised by the late Minister'. The minister for defence, (Sir) George Pearce, directed Legge to withdraw his resignation, but he retired as director of operations on 17 June 1911, continuing to be quartermaster general.

Legge was nominated to be Australia's representative on the Imperial General Staff in January 1912; in practice he was to be little more than a junior observer at the War Office. He sailed from Melbourne on 12 June and two days later was appointed C.M.G. He published an account of Australia's universal training system in the Army Review in January 1913. On 1 May 1914 he was promoted colonel and appointed chief of the general staff with effect from August. He was returning home when war was declared and arrived in Melbourne after preparations had begun under Bridges for the dispatch of a force for active service in Europe. He immediately assumed responsibility for raising a smaller contingent, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, and a second Australian Imperial Force contingent and reinforcements.

In May 1915, Bridges, the commander of the A.I.F., was fatally wounded in action with the 1st Australian Division. Legge was appointed to succeed him on 20 May and sailed from Melbourne that day. Protests by senior A.I.F. officers led to representations to Kitchener against his selection by Generals Hamilton and Birdwood, the former writing that though Legge was 'a man of brilliant mentality' and 'probably the cleverest soldier in Australia' he was regarded as a 'political and self-seeker … with a knack of quarrelling and writing'. Arriving in Cairo in mid-June Legge immediately gave offence to the general commanding in Egypt by reporting to Melbourne, without reference to his British senior, that the place was 'a totally unsuitable centre for the training of Australian troops', though as commander of the A.I.F. Legge was quite entitled to give independent advice to his government. On reaching Gallipoli he was promoted major general on 22 June and assumed command of the 1st Division. He remained with the division little more than a month before returning to Egypt to form the 2nd Division, surrendering to Birdwood the administrative command of the A.I.F.

In late August Legge embarked on the Southland to follow the bulk of his formation to Gallipoli. The vessel was torpedoed south of Lemnos on 2 September, but he arrived at Anzac four days later and his division was allocated responsibility for the front line from Russell's Top to Lone Pine. Next month, however, he was evacuated because of illness and did not rejoin the division until it was back in Egypt. His periods in command of the two divisions had, militarily, been relatively quiet.

In France Legge's division went into the trenches at Fleurbaix in April 1916, becoming the first Australians responsible for a sector on the Western Front. During the 1st battle of the Somme, 2nd Division was assigned the task of capturing Pozières Heights, but Legge's attack on 28-29 July failed with 3500 casualties. The British commander-in-chief attributed this defeat to inadequate preparation and omissions caused by Legge's over-confidence. A second attempt was arranged for 30 July, but delays caused deferral, for which Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig blamed 'the ignorance of the 2nd Australian Division'—Legge 'was not much good'. Legge pointed out the serious enemy interference to which his division's preparations had been subjected, which Bean noted included 'such bombardments as never before or afterwards were faced by the A.I.F. except in the height of action'. When finally delivered on 4-5 August, 2nd Division's attack, after heavy fighting, was overwhelmingly successful. The division was again engaged at Mouquet Farm later that month before being moved to Ypres in September; it returned to the Somme for two minor but difficult attacks at Flers in November. Legge was appointed C.B. at the New Year and mentioned in dispatches in January. At the end of January, however, he was evacuated to England, ostensibly for health reasons although he protested to his corps commander, Birdwood, that he had never 'been sick for one day in France from arrival'. Having informed Birdwood that if he was not to be again given an operational command he would prefer to return to duty in Australia, Legge reached Melbourne in mid-April 1917; his A.I.F. appointment ended on 29 April.

On 30 April he was appointed inspector general, Australian Military Forces, and investigated conditions at training camps and schools of instruction. He resumed the appointment of C.G.S. on 1 October. He immediately became involved in the second conscription referendum, and was called upon to give evidence in the unsuccessful prosecution of Queensland premier T. J. Ryan in December for anti-conscription statements. In March 1918 Legge was placed at the disposal of Sir Samuel Griffith in his capacity as royal commissioner enquiring into reinforcing the A.I.F. In a reversal of his pre-war position Legge revealed himself in 1918 to be a strong advocate of air power for the Australian forces and was appointed to a committee which put forward a plan in January 1919. Next year he was appointed to a committee to consider a scheme for Australia's post-war citizen forces.

Substantively promoted major general on 2 January 1920, Legge relinquished the post of C.G.S. to become commandant of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, on 1 June. He found the college in a crisis because of the scarcity of applicants for a military career and severe reductions in funds. A decision in 1922 to alter the commandant's direct accountability to the minister for defence and make him answerable through the Military Board was strongly opposed by Legge but without success. On 28 June the minister announced that Legge was among officers to be retrenched for reasons of economy. He was placed on the unattached list on 1 August and transferred to the retired list with honorary rank of lieutenant-general in January 1924; he was awarded the Légion d'honneur in February. His enforced return to civil life before reaching the prescribed retiring age deprived Legge of a military pension. He accordingly turned to pig-farming at Weetangera near Canberra.

Legge died at Oakleigh, Melbourne, on 18 September 1947, predeceased by his wife sixteen days earlier, and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. He was survived by two sons, the elder of whom, Stanley Ferguson Legge, became a major general. His eldest son George Ferguson Legge was killed in action in France as a private.

Legge was a commander about whom opinions widely differed. Bean stated that 'defects in judgement and experience prevented Legge, despite his high ability, from being a good leader in battle', while Major General Sir John Gellibrand considered that 'his strongly held and strongly-expressed views failed to make him persona grata with higher authorities'. Major General Sir Brudenell White stated that: 'beyond doubt he was an outstanding character … Perhaps he has never been given his full due. A very human and good trainer of troops, he made an able divisional commander and successfully handled the 2nd Division through some difficult periods. But organisation and administration were his forte'. His portrait by Harry Bromilow Harrison hangs on loan from the Australian War Memorial at Duntroon.

Select Bibliography

  • Aust Defence Dept, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942), and Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • D. N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-42 (Canb, 1962)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, A Heritage of Spirit (Melb, 1979), and for bibliography
  • L. M. Field, The Forgotten War (Melb, 1979)
  • Journal and Proceedings of the United Service Institution of New South Wales, 1897-99, 1903-05
  • London Gazette, 29 Dec 1916, 4 Jan, 9 Mar 1917
  • ANZAAS, Report of meeting, 23, Jan 1937
  • Reveille (Sydney), June 1938
  • W. Perry, ‘Lieutenant-General James Gordon Legge’, Victorian Historical Journal, 48 (Aug 1977), no 3
  • Sydney Mail, 17 Feb 1900
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 June 1909, 26 Jan 1911, 28 Aug 1913, 17 June 1915
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Aug 1922, 16 Feb 1924, 19, 20 Sept 1947
  • Canberra Times, 4, 19 Sept 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 19, 20, 26 Sept 1947
  • Canberra News, 2 Apr 1971
  • file 419/10/7 (Australian War Memorial)
  • CRS A2653 item 1914, A2657/T1, B197 item 1804/1/7 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Legge, James Gordon (1863–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Gordon Legge (1863-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920-29

James Gordon Legge (1863-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920-29

Australian War Memorial, 100140

Life Summary [details]


15 August, 1863
London, Middlesex, England


18 September, 1947 (aged 84)
Oakleigh, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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