Valor Friday

| January 24, 2020


Barnwell Legge

Today Mason honors the memory of Brigadier General Barnwell Legge, USA, a veteran of Pershing’s Pancho Villa Expedition, WWI and WWII. His valor in battle was displayed in both the Battle of Soissons, the first engagement with US troops and the fabled Meuse-Argonne Offensive from mid September until the Armistice on 11 November 1918. In 1940 he was the Military Attaché to Switzerland, where he ordered interred US soldiers and airmen to not attempt escapes from the Swiss camps and ill treatment. As this order was largely ignored he was accused of a game of diplomatic smoke and mirrors by the Swiss, as it quite likely was.

Enough of my rambling, here’s Mason with his usual excellent write up.

Mason
We’ve previously talked about an officer of the 26th Infantry Regiment, decorated numerous times during the First World War, to include the Distinguished Service Cross. That officer continued his service during the Second World War where he would become a major figure on the beaches of Normandy and receive the Medal of Honor. That man, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., served during the First World War with today’s subject, Barnwell Legge. Legge also was decorated numerous times in the First World War and would continue service into World War Two.

Roosevelt said that Legge “was always cool and decided. No mission was too difficult for him to undertake. His ability as a troop leader was of the highest order. In my opinion no man of his age has a better war record.” High praise indeed, so today we’ll examine why and also the key role Legge played from an unusual posting during World War Two.

Barnwell Legge was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1891. He attended the esteemed South Carolina military college The Citadel, graduating in 1911. He then studied law at the University of South Carolina.

In 1916, with the War in Europe raging and American involvement becoming more and more likely, Legge volunteered for the Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. He served with the 26th Infantry (then a part of the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One”). Seeing service along the Mexican border during the time of Pershing’s Pancho Villa Expedition Legge’s unit was then sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. They were one of only four infantry regiments deemed immediately combat capable when the US entered the war.

Arriving in France in the summer of 1917, the 26th was immediately sent to the front to relieve beleaguered allied units. The 26th would go on to receive more campaign streamers during the war than any other American regiment.

The spring of 2018 had seen the Germans succeed in advancing to within 40 miles of Paris. Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, launched an audacious counter attack on 18 July, 1918. This involved 24 French divisions, two British, and two American for a total of almost a quarter million men, facing a German line of more than 345,000 battle hardened troops.

It was here, at Soissons, that the first large scale involvement by American forces would occur. The 26th Infantry would be particularly hard hit over the course of the four day battle. The regimental commander, the executive officer, three battalion commanders, and the regimental sergeant major were all killed in action. The final two days of the battle saw many of the nominally 800 man strong battalions reduced to 100 men. Casualties at the end of the battle for the 26th saw 62 officers killed or wounded and more than 1,500 men of the 3,000 in the regiment killed or wounded.

No less than four times was Legge recognized for conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy during the Soissons battle. He was awarded four silver citation stars. Citation stars were worn on the WWI Victory Medal, but in the early 1930’s the silver star became its own award and past awards were upgraded to the Silver Star.

An interesting historical footnote here. The Battle of Soissons is where Adolf Hitler was cited for bravery with the Iron Cross First Class.

Now a major, Legge participated in the storied Meuse-Argonne Offensive from September 26, 1918 until the Armistice at 1100 hours on November 11, 1918. It was halfway through the offensive that Legge would earn the nation’s second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

On October 5, 1918, Major Legge personally led an assault on a fortified enemy position. Legge inspired his men by leading the charge, cutting his way through entanglements, and directing his men in an assault on three separate enemy strong points.

He ended the war a lieutenant colonel and 1st Division adjutant. Having commanded companies, battalions, and the regiment during the course of the war, he was awarded an Army Distinguished Service Medal for “his superior tactical judgment, manifest ability, and tireless energy, coupled with unusual leadership, he contributed in a brilliant manner to the success of the 1st Division.” He also received the French Croix de guerre with palm, indicating he was cited for combat valor at the army level.

After the war he remained in the Army, making it a career. For the next two decades he served in a variety of infantry positions and in the late 30’s was an instructor at the Command and General Staff College for three years. In 1940 he was briefly posted to France as Assistant Military Attaché before being posted as the Military Attaché to Switzerland, a post he’d remain in for the rest of World War II. While in Switzerland he would be promoted to Brigadier General.

Switzerland has for the past few hundred years had a policy of fierce neutrality. In the run up to World War II, the Swiss were preparing for the coming war, in many ways better than other central European powers. Once Germany started Blitzing its way across Europe, the Swiss feared that Germany would invade Switzerland as they had other countries with Germanic peoples.

The Swiss Army had a plan to retreat to the mountains and fight a guerrilla war should the Germans invade. They also prepared the populace to fight and they were under no circumstances to surrender. In fact, due to the decentralized nature of their federal government, the Swiss head of state doesn’t actually have the authority to surrender the country. Citizens were told any announcement of a surrender was enemy propaganda and to be ignored. While Germany displayed many of these traits late in the war, Japan is probably the closest to the Swiss in the belief that they will fight to the last man, woman, or child before giving up.

Thankfully, Switzerland was never invaded, at least on purpose. Both Axis and Allied aircraft frequently flew into Swiss territory. On occasion, these aircraft (predominantly Allied planes) bombed Swiss cities due to mistaken identity. Some of these aircraft were engaged and downed by Swiss Air Force pilots defending their sovereign airspace. Some aircraft that flew into Switzerland were seeking the country out as an emergency landing location.

Whether downed by mechanical trouble, mis-navigation, by the Swiss Air Force, or by Swiss flak, the airmen that arrived in Switzerland were generally not given a warm welcome. The Swiss authorities would actively hunt down airmen fleeing for the border. As a neutral party, all Allied airmen were interned as prisoners of war. Including Axis and Allied servicemen, the Swiss interned more than 100,000 men during the course of the war.

Prison conditions were similar to other POW camps in Europe. Conditions were harsh and bleak. Prisoners slept in hastily built barracks and were subjected to manual labor in industry and agriculture. Many prisoners sought to escape.

Legge’s position as the Attaché nominally put him in charge of all American prisoners. He was between a rock and a hard place. He needed to not alienate his hosts while at the same time was, as all soldiers are, focused on returning men to the fight.

This resulted in Legge’s official position to be that American airmen were not to attempt escape. Whether by design or not, many soldiers didn’t receive the message. Those that did often thought it was a diplomatic ruse, which perhaps it was. Debate rages on to today among historians if Legge was complicit in America’s being held unnecessarily as prisoners due to his official stances or if he aided airmen by coordinating escapes. It seems to me in my readings that it’s probably the latter.

During the war Legge pressed Swiss officials to improve prison camp conditions. When they threatened him, he threatened to release descriptions of the camps to the press, embarrassing the Swiss for failing to uphold humanitarian norms. Eventually, in 1945, this was released to the press, which virtually quoted Legge’s files on camp conditions.

Legge’s reputation for indifference was most likely a result of a lack of communication between him and his staff and the detainees. This was directly caused by the Swiss. They began limiting legation communication with the POWs when they noticed the pattern that right after legation visits, airmen would successfully escape.

It seems that during the war Legge spent considerable effort in trying to work through (or more likely around) Swiss authorities to coordinate escape attempts for the American detainees. However due to limited communications, many of the interned soldiers felt abandoned. Claims that he threatened courts martial for men who escaped were likely a misunderstanding of his direction that men should not attempt to escape without legation approval.

For his actions in Switzerland during the war Legge received the Legion of Merit, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and was made a Chevalier (knight) in the French Légion d’honneur.

After the war Legge retired in 1948 due to health issues. He passed away the following year at age 57. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Army, Guest Post, Valor

Comments (8)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. ninja says:

    BG BG Barnwell Rhett Legge.

    From Charleston, South Carolina. A 1911 Citadel Graduate.

    https://militaryhallofhonor.com/honoree-record.php?id=2752

    Thank You for sharing, Mason and to AW1Ed for posting.

    Rest In Peace, Sir. Salute.

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/49246320/barnwell-rhett-legge

    • AW1Ed says:

      Thanks ninja, the BZ’s goes to Mason. I can throw together a VF article, but not with his research skills and prose. Just like the former VF scribe who wished to remain anonymous, and shall remain so. Seems I’m pretty good at that, anyway. *grin*

      Also I apologize for the lateness of the post- I know a certain gun bunny who gets quite cranky when I’m delayed, but I think he gets as much pleasure giving me grief as he does reading my offerings. Maybe I’ll get a day or so of grace with the Festival of JMB post.

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Heeeeeeyy! He’s right here you know! And he’s a sweet puppy, smooth as Tennessee Whiskey too. And brought you grief? Why I never…well not today anyhows…yet. The day ain’t over.

        And what a day it has been! FIRST thing this morning the reading of the Gospel according to the Saintly John Moses Browning (Howitzer be his name). Followed that up with a veritable volley fire by battalion of good stories. Was so busy linky clicking I like to have forgot about the Friday TAH Weekend Open Thread. Had just finished looking over the KKK Doofus, hit the home page button and Whooomp, thar it was. Got my licks in FIRST, much to my surprise. And it wasn’t even that close.

        And now we have this hero from the Southland of the Carolacky. You don’t get much more SC old school than with a name tied to the Barnwell and Rhett Families. And a Citadel Grad in 1911 no less. The LT prolly toted one the FIRST of JMB’s creation. He for sure had the blood of American Heros flowing thru him. And his actions under fire showed that. Most folks don’t realize that the majority of the American casualties in WWI happened in that short period between June of ’18 and 11 Nov. Technology had again defeated the art of war in that whole “over the top” charging into Maxim Machine Guns and rolling Artillery Barrages from highly accurate rifled breech loading cannons.

        BZ to BG Barnwell Rhett Legge…Battery Fire…PREPARE…FIRE!

        Thanks Mason and to AW1Ed for the post.

  2. Mike Kozlowski says:

    …Now, this post inspires me to ask a question – Like General Legge, there were a LOT of men who served in both WWI and WWII, but how many made the trifecta of WWI, WWII, and Korea? It should have been at least technically possible, but I’m thinking they would have had to have been senior NCOs or officers – I know Douglas MacArthur made it (he was actually a FOUR war soldier) but was there anybody else?

  3. USAFRetired says:

    BGen Legge is known in Citadel lore as one of two fellows who dropped notes from an airplane onto the football field in 1930 to the Citadel coach following the Bulldog victory over VMI in the inaugural Citadel vs VMI football game.

    The other fellow, was Marine aviator Lewis Merritt (Citadel 1917). The airfield at MCAS Beaufort SC is named in his honor – Merritt Field.

    Unfortunately in the most recent (2019) Military Classic of the South, the Silver Shako was won by VMI and to add insult to injury it was Parents Weekend at The Citadel.

    • Mason says:

      In my brief Googling, I’m not finding many and no actual lists. They’ll probably all be high ranking officers, since they’d have to have been in the service for at least 35 years (enlisted at latest 1916 to see service in Europe for WWI until 1951 for the start of Korea).

      *Walton Walker saw combat in all three.
      *Mark Clark was a vet of all three.
      *James Van Fleet was a vet of all three.
      *Matthew Ridgway was in for all three, but didn’t make it to Europe during WWI. Was in plenty of shit for WWII and Korea though.
      *Omar Bradley was in during WWI, WWII, and Korea, but didn’t leave the US during the First World War and was CJCS during Korea.

      This is an interesting rabbit hole to go down. Might be my next article. Of course most of these men have enough exploits to feature in their own articles. Between these five men there are eight Distinguished Service Crosses and eight Silver Stars, plus a myriad of other awards and decs.

      • AW1Ed says:

        Any further questions on Mason’s research skills?

        Didn’t think so.

      • USAFRetired says:

        Harry S Truman was a Captain in France in WWI and Commander in Chief in Sodom on the Potomac during WWII and Korea.

        His successor Eisenhower might fit the bill as well.

        Chesty Puller was still in bootcamp as WWI ended after dropping out of VMI to fight. He did Haiti, Nicaraugua, WWII, and Korea.