Jump to content

VMI Men in Foreign Service 1914-1918


Recommended Posts

I began documenting these men years ago and wrote their stories as a commemoration of their service for the 100th anniversary of WWI. Because VMI had omitted these eight from their Hall of Valor (only US-decorated veterans are commemorated), I sought to have them included. The culmination of my project was to acquire (replica) medals and have them framed for donation to VMI in the hopes of having them remembered alongside their contemporaries.


[As 2018 arrived, I included all VMI men who were decorated with the DSC or NC and the result was an 84-page e-book with all their stories (as well as a few others who were notable). The book is available through a GFM campaign that seeks to fund the cost of medals and framing. If you'd like a copy, please consider a donation of any amount - $5, $10, or even more if you can. With your donation, please include your email and I'll send you the pdf e-book that can be downloaded to e-readers or other devices.]




Here are their stories.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

James McKenzie Brown

Mount Vernon, Kentucky

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1907

Colonel, British Expeditionary Forces (Mesopotamia)

Distinguished Service Order, 11 May 1917; Order of the British Empire


James McKenzie Brown was born in Mount Vernon, Kentucky to a prominent family. “His father was the youngest county attorney ever elected in the State, chosen by the voters at the age of 21, and his uncle, Judge R. G. Williams, was the youngest County Judge ever elected in Kentucky. He [was] a cousin of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner”, nephew of the fifth generation of Jack McKenzie, who fought in the Battle of New Orleans, and a cousin of the late Robert B. Crow, who fought in the Spanish-American War.


Brown matriculated at VMI in 1904 and attended for a year as a Private in D Company. He returned to Kentucky to attend Centre College under the sponsorship of his Uncle who was the valedictorian of his law school class there. Brown’s father had died when James was young, and I suspect the Uncle was a surrogate father to him.


It is yet unclear what Brown did before 1914, but it seems he spent time in Texas as a cowboy, California (where he earned a fortune in shipping – and lost it), and London.


Early in the War, Brown enlisted in the British Navy and was appointed Honorary Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve). Deployed to Mesopotamia, he was assigned to a steamer on the Tigris River. He was first mentioned in dispatches for his services during the advance on Kut-el-Amara in 1915 and again in 1916.


In 1917, Brown earned the Distinguished Service Order. “His Majesty The KING (is) pleased to approve of the appointments of the undermentioned Officers to be Companions of the Distinguished Service Order in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the Field: “Temp. Sub-Lt. James [Harvey] Brown, R.N.V.R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty throughout the campaign. He has navigated his ship at high speed, night and day, in all weathers, with marked zeal and determination. He has at all times set a magnificent example of courage and initiative”.


Later that year, Brown was unusually transferred to the Army and assigned to the Inland Water Transport as a temporary Captain. Promotions came quickly and he was eventually a Lieutenant Colonel managing all shipping on the Caspian Sea, stationed in Baku. He remained in service through the Armistice, but fell ill with influenza and was nursed back to health by a Russian nurse who he later married.


James Brown eventually returned to England, worked in banking and became involved in questionable securities trading. When the Second World War began, he tried to re-enter the British Army, but was denied because of his age. He volunteered for the ambulance service instead. Brown died of alcoholism in 1945.






Link to comment
Share on other sites

Russell A. Kelly

Cedarhurst, New York

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1914

Soldat de 2e Classe, French Foreign Legion

Croix de Guerre

Killed in Action 16 June 1915




Three brothers of the Kelly family served in the First World War, Warren (VMI ’13), Russell (VMI ’14), and Howard. Their grandfather, Colonel Patrick Kelly of the Irish Brigade, died in the Civil War. Warren graduated from VMI and wore his VMI ring until his death in 1976. Howard enlisted in the New York "Old 7th" and was wounded near Souchez. He lost a leg near the hip but lived until 1983. Howard was one of the first presidents of the US Amputees Association after the war. Warren and Russell attended VMI less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, causing their current family to wonder how 2 Irish Catholic grandsons of a Yankee Colonel ended up at VMI.


When the guns of August sounded, Russell heard the call to arms and set off for France, sailing from Brooklyn aboard the Orcadian and arriving at Bordeaux on 21 November 1914.


“At five o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, November 24th, 1914, we signed articles which made us soldiers in the Army of the Republic of France, in the division la Légion étrangère, for service during the war.”


Assigned to the “2e Régiment de Marche du 1er Régiment Étranger (2e RM du 1er RE)”, Kelly and his diverse group of comrades began training in Lyon. “The manual of arms is very different from that of the Virginia Military Institute, but the training I received there comes in handy. I cannot understand the commands but generally know what to expect.”


On 6 February 1915, the Régiment shipped out to the front. “I am carrying a talisman in the form of a Yale key which belongs to the front door of our apartment. I have become attached to it and would feel its loss keenly. On the brace supporting the teeth is the word ‘Security’. A person with a lively imagination might find some hidden meaning in this.” On the 10th of March they entered the trenches.


“We were scheduled to leave town one night for the third line of defence and had our packs made up when in came a fellow who wanted to see the Americans. He was an American from the Second Régiment étrangère, and had been transferred at his own request, and as the authorities are following a plan of segregation by nations, he was sent to our squad. I was agreeably surprised to learn that he had been at Virginia Military Institute; he is Kniffin Y. Rockwell. His arrival brought our number [Americans] up to five.”


Kelly wrote home regularly (and his letters were published after the War in a volume titled, “Kelly of the Foreign Legion”.) His last letter home was written just prior to the Battle of Artois – Souchez - Hill No. 119.

“In spite of the German artillery and machine gun fire [the Régiment] continued to advance, driving the enemy before them, capturing many, and taking Hill No. 119 to the southeast of Souchez. Pavelka and Scanlan, [two American Legionnaires] who lay wounded at the second line of trenches, could plainly see their comrades, distinguished by the pieces of white muslin on their backs, fighting their way, step by step, up Hill 119.” [White muslin was used to identify the forward line of troops so that artillery could be walked in front of them as they advanced.]


After the successful attack Kelly was amongst the missing. There were credible reports that he had gotten behind German lines, that he had been captured, and that he had been severely wounded. Red Cross attempts at verification proved inconclusive and German authorities denied that he had been taken prisoner.


Since Russell was only marked "disparu" in the official records, his father, James E. Kelly went to France and Germany after the war to look for his son, without success. During this trip, James met with the German general who commanded the sector around the Souchez salient. The general said that they did not take any of the Legionnaires prisoner since they were “only mercenaries”.

On 11 January 1922 a Tribunal at Arras determined that Kelly had been killed in action on 16 June 1915 at Souchez near Pas de Calais. Russell Kelly was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre.






Link to comment
Share on other sites

George A. Speer

La Grange Georgia

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1912

Captain, Canadian Expeditionary Force

Military Cross


From the 1912 Bomb: “As a Rat he was the meekest and most timid rodent in seven states; as a third class-man he was a terror; as a second classman and first sergeant he could fill a delinquency sheet like unto the water that swelleth the sponge. Nothing interested him save things military till the fateful first class season when his heart was seized and held by the fairest of the fair.”


Upon graduation, Speer was commissioned in the United States Army, but presumably frustrated by his country’s reluctance to enter the war he resigned his commission in March 1915 and enlisted in the Canadian Army. When it was learned of his attendance at VMI and three years’ service as an officer, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario), Canadian Expeditionary Force.


From 2 to 14 June 1916, the 21st Battalion CEF took part in the Battle of Mont Sorrel in the Ypres Salient in Belgium.


London Gazette, June 24, 1916: “His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Warrant Officers, in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the field: “Lt. George Alexander Speer, 21st Canadian Infy. Bn. For conspicuous gallantry. He led a bombing party with great dash and drove the enemy out of a trench from which another unit had been driven, capturing important points and securing the trench.”


While on leave in London in early 1917 he married Marjorie Anne Jones and after subsequent assignments and actions as well as a promotion to Captain, was demobilized in early 1919. George and Anne settled in Niagara Falls where he became the Superintendent of the Niagara Falls Power Company. They had four children. Speer died in 1924 at the young age of 31.






Link to comment
Share on other sites

Kiffin Yates Rockwell

Asheville, North Carolina

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1912

Lieutenant, French Foreign Legion; Lafayete Escadrille

Legion d’Honneur, Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre with Four Palms




Kiffin Rockwell enrolled in Virginia Military Institute in 1908 but in the following year earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Deeming the Navy as unlikely to satisfy his thirst for action, he instead joined his brother Paul at Washington and Lee to pursue an interest in journalism. Upon graduation, he worked at an advertising firm in Atlanta.


When Europe erupted into war on 28 July 1914, Kiffin and Paul immediately offered their services to France in a letter to the French Consul-General in New Orleans. Without waiting for a reply, they sailed for Europe on 7 August 1914. They were among the very first Americans to volunteer their services to France.


Upon arriving in France, the brothers enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and were soon sent into action with the 1er Regiment Étranger. One of their close friends and fellow Legionnaires was Russell Kelly, VMI ’14.


On 9 May 1915 when his regiment charged La Targette north of Arras, Kiffin was shot through the leg and medically evacuated, spending the next six weeks in a field hospital. (Rockwell’sh Foreign Legion kepi is in the VMI Museum collection.) Paul had been severely wounded in an earlier engagement, mustered out of the Legion, and began work as a war correspondent in Paris. Kiffin joined him there on convalescent leave and because his wounded leg prevented him from rejoining the infantry he began the study and practice of flying.


On completion of his training as a pilot in May 1916, Kiffin became a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron comprised mostly of American volunteers. In less than a month, Rockwell had downed a German aircraft over the Alsace battlefield, becoming the first American to shoot down an enemy plane. “General Joffre, in person, pinned upon him the Médaille Militaire with its yellow ribbon, for bringing down a Prussian two-seat aeroplane near Hartmannsweillerkopf.”


On September 9th, 1916, he was officially credited with having brought down four Prussian aeroplanes. He was promoted to a lieutenancy and awarded the Croix de Guerre.


Rockwell was wounded a second time, this instance in aerial combat over Verdun, but he kept flying missions and was ultimately credited with four victories (and seven more unconfirmed) before his final action on 23 September 1916. (His commander, Capt. Georges Thenault, said he could confirm ten kills by Kiffin in aerial combat.)


During that final engagement (also over Verdun), Rockwell dove on a heavily armed two-seat observation plane. He was killed instantly by gunfire from the German plane, crashing between the French first and second line of trenches.


“His funeral was notable, attended by his squadron comrades, fifty British pilots, and numerous French pilots and mechanics; the cortege included a regiment of French territorials and a battalion of colonials. The French government awarded him numerous citations and medals, made his grave a shrine, marked the place where he fell, and placed exhibits in its aviation museum. He also was honored in numerous ways in the United States—by North Carolina and his colleges; in poetry, including memorial poems by Edgar Lee Masters and Paul Scott Mowrer; and in a substantial literature on the Lafayette Escadrille. But perhaps the greatest tribute was that spoken at his grave-side service by the French aviator, Captain Georges Thenault, commandant of the squadron: "His courage was sublime. . . . The best and bravest of us is no longer here."


His colleague, James McConnell (UVA), wrote: "No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille. Kiffin was its soul. He was loved and looked up to by not only every man in our flying corps, but by every one who knew him. Kiffin was imbued with the spirit of the cause for which he fought, and gave his heart and soul to the performance of his duty. He said: 'I pay my part for Lafayette and Rochambeau,' and he gave the fullest measure. The old flame of chivalry burned brightly in this boy's fine and sensitive being. With his death France lost one of her most valuable pilots."


The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Newport, Tenn., and an American Legion post in Asheville, N.C. are named in his honor.








Link to comment
Share on other sites

Alexander McClintock

Lexington, Kentucky

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1913

Sergeant, Canadian Expeditionary Force

Distinguished Conduct Medal, 13 February 1917




Matriculating from Lexington Kentucky and spending just a short period of time at VMI (some reports claim that he was forced to leave), McClintock returned to Kentucky to attend KSU. In November 1915 he was living in Montreal and enlisted in the Canadian Grenadier Guards (87th Overseas Battalion). He sailed for England seven months later and shortly after arriving there was promoted to Sergeant.


Entering battle during the Somme in 1916, the action for which he was decorated occurred during a raid near the Vormeezle Trench where he was wounded while also rescuing several men while under fire. In October he led an attack on the Regina Trench in which 43 of 60 men were wounded in action. In November he led yet another 25-man raid on the Desire Trench and was severely wounded. The machine gun they attacked was “in a concrete emplacement walled & roofed”. (Overall, his medical records show 22 wounds.) That wound was in the middle thigh and led to a long period of hospitalization: in December 1916 alone, he underwent six operations.


The mother of Herbert Hordern (VMI ’14) visited McClintock in King’s General Hospital for enlisted men. McClintock recounted to her that they “had gone in with a Canadian regiment, and, after they were so badly cut up, was sent to fill in the Coldstream Guards, and was very badly wounded in a charge they made”. She also wrote “he was then getting on well, and Mrs. Page, our Ambassador’s wife, promised to look after him”. When Hordern’s mother returned to New York she “was surprised to see an account of his [McClintock] being decorated by the King”. This was incorrectly reported, but King George V did visit him in the hospital. Knowing of his bravery and sitting beside him on the hospital bed, the King said “I thank you for myself and my people for your services. Our gratitude cannot be great enough toward men who have served us as you have.”


A few days later on 13 February 1917, the London Gazette published his citation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He displayed great courage and determination during a raid against the enemy’s trenches. Later, he rescued several wounded men at great personal risk.”


Sergeant McClintock returned to Canada in March 1917 and was discharged as medically unfit for duty in June. The press published several articles about him and McClintock was inspired to write a book recounting his service, “Best O’Luck” (the title being the words said to him by his Major before a big trench raid). His fame led to a commission as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and that reputation as a decorated war veteran helped in his duties as a recruiter as America entered the war.

Despite his fame and success, he continued suffering greatly from his wounds and records indicate that he may have been losing the use of his leg. In June 1918 Lieutenant McClintock shot himself in a New York City hotel. He was 24 years old.






Link to comment
Share on other sites

Donald Marion McRae

Washington, DC

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1912

Lieutenant, Canadian Expeditionary Force;

Lieutenant Colonel, American Expeditionary Force

Military Cross, 15 April 1917




Donald M. McRae was awarded the Military Cross “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Vimy Ridge on third, fourth, and fifteenth of April, 1917. He was untiring in leading his patrols, both day and night, and the information he gained was of the utmost value to his battalion.” Another citation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He handled his party with great skill, and succeeded in inflicting many casualties on the enemy.” (London Gazette, 25 May 1917)


The son of a general officer and matriculating from Washington, DC, McRae attended VMI for one year, transferred to the US Military Academy from which he was discharged in 1913 (see below for that story), and then became a member of the MIT Class of ’16. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in December 1915. He was quickly promoted to Major in the Canadian Militia (13th Royal Regiment), but it was unlikely that he would be deployed to France so he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and reverted to the rank of Lieutenant for overseas duty. He fought at the Somme and Arras as a member of the 14th Battalion C.E.F. and was wounded in action at Vimy Ridge. For his actions there, King George V personally decorated him with the Military Cross.


McRae wrote extensively about his experiences in order to help prepare fellow Americans for inevitable combat overseas. While recovering from his wounds, America entered the war and McRae resigned from the C.E.F., returning to the United States to accept a commission as a Captain in the US Army. After serving as a trainer of deploying Soldiers, he served again in France as the G-2 of the 78th Division participating in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives, ending the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. For his service in the AEF, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1919 McRae became engaged to the daughter of Senator Howard Sutherland of West Virginia. Donald McRae died in Santa Clara, California in 1957.


[Here’s the story on his discharge from USMA as described by the Superintendent: “…I would say that his is one of the most aggravated cases of continuous violation and disregard of academic regulations that has occurred within the recollection of the oldest members of the academic board. For over two years, this cadet has constantly exceeded the demerits allowed in each of the demerit periods (six months each). In 20 of 24 months he has exceeded the monthly proportional part of allowed demerits. Four times his excess demerits have been removed by the superintendent so as to allow him to continue at the academy, hoping that he would show by his conduct that respect and attention to discipline that is required; and he has been called up, cautioned, and advised some 20 times about his conduct, excess demerits, etc. These efforts in his behalf have turned out to be acts of mistaken and undeserved kindness, wholly unappreciated by Cadet McRae, and that he still shows no disposition to comply with the regulations is evident from the 23 demerits he has already received since the first of the current month, and after he knew he was deficient in conduct for the preceding six months. It is now quite evident to the academic board that too much leniency has been shown to this cadet in the past, and that instead of removing his demerits and bringing him within the limits he should have been discharged a year or more ago.”]






Link to comment
Share on other sites

B. Bertram Owens

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Virginia Military Institute Class of 1914

Corporal, British Expeditionary Force

Military Medal, 1 January 1918



Born in Salem, North Carolina, Owens had only attended VMI for six months before he was dropped from the rolls in March 1911 for stealing. Though he is listed in the VMI Register, his service in the war is documented in the VMI Archives, and he is included in the book “Record of Service in the World War of V.M.I. Alumni” (1920), his name is omitted from the 1914 Bomb as an ex-classmate (of 123 listed). The assumption is that he was drummed out and thus not included by his Brother Rats.


Nevertheless, his VMI experience likely led to his desire to serve and he enlisted in the British Army on November 14, 1914. Owens is believed to be the first North Carolinian to serve in the war. He joined the Second Dragoon Guards then was transferred to Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers and finally to the Machine Gun Corps. Twice severely wounded in action, gassed at Ypres, decorated, and promoted to Lance Corporal, he remained in the British Army until March 1923.


On 1 January 1918, Corporal Owens of the 79th Machine Gun Battalion, British Expeditionary Force, was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.


“His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Military Medal for bravery in the Field to the undermentioned Non-Commissioned Officers and Men.” “16505 Pte. B. Owens, M.G. Corps (North Carolina, U.S.A.)”









Link to comment
Share on other sites

Very well done, it always amazes me how many Americans have served in a foreign capacity when they felt their nation was not doing enough! Arguably their sacrifice was one of extreme bravery, it is one thing to fight for ones country but a totally different thing to travel half way across the world and fight for someone else's simply because it is right! Thank you for sharing these stories!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...