Fire-eating Legge: A Lindfield Hero

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There were very few days during the Great War that determined how future land battles across the world would be fought; a son of Lindfield played a leading role in one such day – 15th September 1916.  His heroism and sacrifice went unrecognised.

during 1915 the war on the Western Front had settled into an entrenched stalemate with neither side making and sustain any significant gain.  To help break this deadlock a new weapon was required; this resulted in Britain inventing the tank.  Two prototypes were available by December 1915 and, following trials, the Army ordered 100.  At this time the Somme offensive was being planned as a major breakthrough, and it was hoped the tanks and their crews would be available for the first day of the offensive on 1st July 1916.  However, neither the crews nor the tanks were ready in sufficient numbers.

Being a new and untried weapon, the Army had to learn not only how to drive, operate and maintain tanks, but the tactics to be deployed for their use in battle.  In spring 1916, officers and men were drafted into the newly formed Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps and commenced training.  Second Lieutenant Reginald Legge was one of those recruited to be a tank commander.

Reginald’s parents lived at ‘Greenwoods’, High Beeches Lane, Lindfield.  After leaving Brighton Grammar School, he worked for a wholesale draper in Cannon Street, London before travelling the world as a merchant. A well travelled adventurer, he was working on the Gold coast prior to the war.  Returning to Lindfield in January 1915, Reginald joined the 2/1st Bucks Yeomanry [Royal Bucks Hussars] as a Trooper and was quickly identified as officer material.

On 4th March 1916 he attended a six week officer training course and, following being commissioned on 15th April 1916, aged 34, was posed to the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps and became one of the first officers to undergo tank training at Canada Farm, Elvenden, near Thetford.

Reginald was posted to France in August 1916, together with fellow officers, tank crews, mechanics and 60 tanks.  However, due to mechanical breakdown, only 49 tanks were available for their first deployment into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

On the night of 13th September 1916, the crews fuelled the tanks, collected rations and ammunition ready for their debut.  the following day, Reginald and his fellow officers received final instructions and reconnoitred the route to their front line start points.  The terrain was extremely rough, heavily damaged by shell holes and cut by trenches making it difficult for the 28 ton monsters to traverse.  That evening the tanks moved forward in readiness to take part in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette at zero hour on 15th September 1916.  Along the battle front only 32 of the 49 tanks made it to their start points, the others had either got stuck or broken down.

Seven tanks supported the 4st Division, organised into four groups. Tank D6, commanded by Reginald, the only tank in C Group, was given the task of leading the attack on the defences around Flers, thus opening the way for the infantry assault.

From his start point Reginald’s tank supported the infantry advance and made good progress towards Flers, reaching the division’s first objective. A British soldier described the tank as ‘lumbering past on my left, belching forth yellow flames from her machine gun and making a gap where the Flers road cut through the enemy trench!’

The tanks had a maximum speed of four mph on good ground and appreciably less over rough terrain.  Interior conditions were absolutely appalling, extremely noisy with intense heat, noxious engine, violent motion and flying red hot metal splinters as bullets hit the exterior.  Severe nausea could ensue after only short distances.

Regardless of the arduous conditions, Reginald continued turning d6 east and north to move down the eastern side of Flers.  Once inside the village he helped the infantry clear out of the Germans. as the assault continued towards the third objective northeast of the village, the role played by D6 was recognised by the Commanding Officer, 26th Royal Fusiliers, recording that ‘This tank was one of the greatest material use and the party in charge of its distinguished themselves considerably’.  Leading the advance, Reginald got ahead of the British Infantry line and in danger from enemy artillery, he continued north towards his next objective.  Aware that there was a German gun battery nearby, he went on the attack destroying one field gun but was fired upon by the remaining three guns.  Receiving a direct hit, D6 burst into flames and burnt out.

One crewman died in the burning tank, two died from their wounds at the scene, three made it back to the British line and one was captured.  There is some uncertainty regarding Reginald’s precise fate.  A crew member saw him in a nearby shell hole, possibly suffering serious wounds.  Reginald was posted missing in action by the British.

He is thought to have been captured by the Germans and to have died of his wounds the next day.  However, the Germans have no record of him being taken prisoner or of a grave.  In 1917 Reginald’s identity disc and Will were sent from Germany by the Red Cross and were eventually received by his mother, confirming his death, over a year after going missing.

A review after the battle identified that, out of the 32 that started the attack, nine tanks broke down after a short distance, five bogged down on the battlefield and nine were ineffective as they failed to travel at sufficient speed to support the infantry attack.  Only nine tanks played an active role in the advance, with tank D6, commanded by Reginald, making one, if not the greatest, contribution to the advance.

The first deployment of tanks into battle could hardly be regarded as a great success but their potential was proved and tanks were used to greater effect in future British advances during the Great War.  Despite playing a manor role in the advance and demonstrating the tanks’ potential, his brave actions and sacrifice received no official recognition.  He is remembered on the Lindfield War Memorials.

After the war, a fellow tank commander at the battle commented ‘Dear old fire-eating Legge came very near to being great’.

 

Published in Lindfield Life September 2017

 

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