Luke Lea in the Great War

by Doris Boyce.

Luke Lea of Nashville, Tennessee, believed in doing the right thing. Having been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1911, at age 32, he voted to punish espionage acts and to arm merchant ships. When Congress declared war in April 1917, Lea organized a group of Tennessee volunteers to take up arms against Germany, the aggressor.

Col. Luke Lea

Within three months after completing their final training in Brittany, Colonel Lea and the 114th Field Artillery he commanded were transported to the front lines. They were in battle continuously until the cease-fire on November 11, 1918.  

Following the armistice, peace talks got underway in Paris, with tensions running high and accusations rampant. Luke Lea was determined that Kaiser Wilhelm II should be held accountable for the death and destruction he had caused, even though, having lost the confidence of the German civilian government and military leaders, the Kaiser had abdicated on November 9, two days before the Armistice. Luke Lea believed that Kaiser Wilhelm should still be forced to stand trial for his war crimes, fearing that, otherwise, harsh terms levied against the German people would sow the seeds for yet another war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Deciding upon a course of action, Lea took a five-day leave and brought along several of his officers and men, who had no idea what he had in mind. He confided in no one as he quietly arranged passports and transportation. The group travelled in two cars, driving from Luxembourg through Belgium to Amerongen Castle in the neutral Netherlands, where the Kaiser had fled.

As the castle came within sight, Lea said, “Men, I have come to convince the Kaiser that he must come forward before the peace conference and take responsibility for his actions.”

“But,” Luke went on, “if he won’t come willingly, then we will take him unwillingly.” Cheers went up as the men agreed.

Amerongen Castle

Driving up to the castle, the men got out of their cars and knocked on the door. They were admitted and asked to state their business. Lea and his men gave their names. “We are here on a journalistic investigation and request an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern,” they said. They heard their words repeated in the next room, followed by a response from a man who was almost certainly the Kaiser.

Surmising that the Kaiser was guarded and surrounded by German military personnel, Lea quickly realized that his mission would have to be aborted. There was no chance of success.

Although the visitors were treated politely and served water and cigars, the Germans reminded them that they were uninvited guests and soon asked them to leave. By this time, their cars were completely surrounded by armed Dutch civilians. Luke and his men calmly returned to their cars and drove away. The civilians fell back on either side as the Americans sped through the village.

Amerongen Castle from the air

Immediately upon returning to his regiment, Lea was faced with charges of military misconduct. He defended his actions by insisting that he had acted purely as a private citizen. “Never once,” he said, “did I state that I represented the U.S. Military.”

As a Colonel he took full responsibility and received a stern reprimand from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. He would have accepted further punishment, but the charges were dropped.  (1997)