Earlier this month Australia marked the centenary of the last action of the Great War of 1914-18 in which infantry of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) took part, before withdrawing from the front-line in France ahead of the armistice which brought fighting to an end. Historians and writers commenting on the battle on 5 October 1918 have noted how unlucky were the 30 officers and 400 other ranks of the already heavily-depleted 2nd Australian Division who became casualties while capturing the village of Montbrehain, located 75 km east of Amiens.
Peter Burness, formerly a senior curator at the Australian War Memorial, wrote: No towering monument stands at Montbrehain to announce that here the AIF fought its last battle, but nearby war cemeteries contain some of those who were killed… Their deaths seem all the more tragic because each of these men had only to survive that one last battle, just that one day, then they would be safe, they would go home. Some had been fighting for more than three years.
As Caroline Overington also observed: It is impossible, and perhaps invidious, to measure one man’s sacrifice against another’s, but those who perished so close to the war’s end inspire a special pity… It’s wretched to die so close to the end of the conflict. But all the losses of that war were terrible for Australians to bear.
Consider then the case of Private George Ferguson Legge, described as ‘a clean-limbed youth of 20’, who on 2 February 1918 walked into the recruiting depot in Melbourne Town Hall and volunteered for active service. When asked if he had any preference of unit in which he wished to serve, this ‘modest recruit’ remarked simply that ‘The infantry will do me’, before the recruiting officer suggested he go into the “Sportsmen’s Thousand” (a recruitment device created to entice specific target groups of eligible men into enlisting).
Private George Ferguson Legge
Young George had yet to finish his engineering studies at the university, and as he was under the age of 21 by six months he required the permission of his parents before signing up. This may have been what had delayed any impulse he felt to enlist sooner, because his father was none other than Major-General James Gordon Legge, the Chief of the General Staff for the military forces back in Australia, and an officer who until the beginning of 1917 had served in France as general officer commanding the Australian 2nd Infantry Division.
After formally joining the AIF on 18 February, George departed from Sydney a month later—on 21 March—as a reinforcement destined for the forces already serving overseas. His ship reached London on 24 May and, after several months of training, by 15 August he was sent to France where three days later he was taken onto the strength of the 22nd Battalion, a unit in his father’s old division. By 28 August he was sick and in hospital, with the result that he did not rejoin his battalion until 22 September.
On 4 October 1918—the AIF’s second last day in the firing-line on the Western Front—the 22nd Battalion took part in operations near the little village of Geneve, between Beaurevoir and Montbrehain, and there Private Legge was among 22 men killed by intense German machine-gun fire. According to one account he had been serving with a Lewis Gun team until he was wounded, and it was while bandaging another wounded man that he was struck through the head by a bullet. His body was later found by the 2nd Division’s bomb officer, Captain T. Miller, who arranged for it to be buried 1500 yards (1370 metres) south-east of Beaurevoir. Later, his remains were moved to a British military cemetery at Bellicourt.
It was Australia’s official war historian Charles Bean who later pointed out the relative ease with which General Legge might have taken steps to protect his eldest son from harm in the war, either by having him ‘raised to the rank of officer or employed in moderate safety on the staff’, instead of permitting him to take the same risks as every other man in the ranks of the division the general had formerly led. As I wrote in my 1988 biography of General Legge (No Australian Need Apply), if nothing else it demonstrated that the general lived up to the democratic principles he had always espoused in his various senior positions of command.