Brees was born in Laramie, Wyoming on June 12, 1877. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a BS in 1897 and earned his L.L.D in 1939.
He was appointed a First Lieutenant, 2nd United States Volunteer Cavalry, on 27 May 1898, served at Fort D.A. Russed (later Fort Francis E. Warren, later Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. On 22 June 1898, he was transferred with his regiment to Panama Park, Florida. He was discharged from the United States Volunteers on 28 July 1898 in order to accept an appointment as a Second Lieutenant in the Regular Army.
He served with the 2nd Artillery at Tampa, Florida until 4 August 1898, when he accompanied Battery K of that regiment to Fort Constitution, New Hampshire, commanding it until 24 November 1898. He was transferred to the 4th Artillery at that same station and commanded Battery M.
On 14 April 1899, he joined Troop G, 9th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Apache, Arizona until he and the 9th Cavalry was ordered to the Philippine Islands during the Spanish–American War.
Lieutenant Brees returned to the United States on 1 October 1901 where he joined the 12th Cavalry at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
On 5 June 1902 he departed for the General Service and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He graduated as an honor graduate on 24 June 1903.
After the war Brees attended the Infantry and Cavalry School, completing the course in 1903 as its Honor Graduate. He went on to complete the Staff Officer College in 1905 and the War College in 1907.
First Lieutenant Brees then served with the Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia, until 18 December 1903. His next assignment was in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington, D.C.
On 24 February 1904 he was assigned to Company G, Signal Corps, at Fort Hood, New York. He was promoted to Captain on 30 November 1904, and attended the Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth until 1 July 1905.
Captain Brees next commanded Troop M, 1st Cavalry, at Fort Sam Houston and Fort Clark, Texas, until 2 July 1906.
He was Chief Signal Officer, Maneuver Camp of Instruction, Austin, Texas, until 6 September 1906. Then he returned to duty with Troop M, 1st Cavalry, at Fort Clark.
He attended the Army War College, Washington, D.C., from October 1906 until November 1907. After graduation, he rejoined Troop M, 1st Cavalry, in San Francisco and sailed with it to the Philippine Islands on December 5, 1907.
Arriving in the Philippines on 7 January 1908, Captain Brees served at Camp Stotsenburg. He returned to the United States by way of Europe on 5 June 1910, and served at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, in connection with the selection of a cavalry rifle team, until 19 July 1910.
Captain Brees then rejoined Troop M, 1st Cavalry, at the Presidio of San Francisco, and served with it at that station until 27 September 1910, and at Fort Duchesne, Utah, until 3 December 1911. Part of the time, from 5 November 1910 until 3 December 1911, he was Acting Indian Agent, Uintah and Omay Agencies.
From December 1911 until September 1914, Captain Brees served as Aide to Major General Arthur Murray, Headquarters Western Division, San Francisco, California.
Captain Brees was again ordered to the Philippine Islands in October, 1914, and served with the 7th and 9th Cavalry at Camp Stotsenburg. Returning to the United States in October 1916, he served on border duty at Glenn Springs, Texas, until 16 April 1917.
On 26 August 1917, Lieutenant Colonel Brees became Chief of Staff of the 91st Division at Camp Lewis, Washington. While serving in this assignment he was promoted to the temporary rank of Colonel on 16 February 1918. It was during this time that he went to France on a tour of observation and later accompanied the division to Camp Merritt, New Jersey.
Colonel Brees and the 91st Division sailed for France on 28 June 1918. From 22 October 1918 until 14 June 1919, he served as Chief of Staff, VII Army Corps, AEF, and American Forces in Germany. During part of that time, from 27 October 1918 to 20 November 1918, he was Acting Commander of the VII Army Corps.
His decorations during World War I Included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star Medal, and the French Legion of Honor. His Distinguished Service Medal citation read:
Citation for Distinguished Service Medal:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Army Distinguished Service Medal to Colonel (General Staff) Herbert J. Brees, United States Army, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility during World War I. General Brees served with distinction as Chief of Staff of the 91st Division throughout its training period and during the greater part of its active operations. His marked administrative ability was reflected in the successes of this division during the first phases of the Meuse-Argonne operations. Later, as Chief of Staff of the VII Army Corps, he rendered invaluable services in perfecting the necessary organization for the march into the German territory, overcoming grave difficulties in securing supplies and equipment.
Service: Army; Rank: Colonel; War Department, General Orders No. 87 (1919)
After a brief stint as Range Officer, Inter-Allied Rifle and Pistol Competition, Belgian Camp, Le Mans, France, Colonel Brees returned to the United States on 6 July 1919.
He next served as an instructor in the Army Service Schools at Fort Leavenworth. While there, he reverted to his permanent grade of Lieutenant Colonel on 13 August 1919.
On 31 December 1919 he became Director of the School of the Line and was promoted to Colonel in the Regular Army on 1 July 1920. On 30 June 1922, he became Director of the Command and General Staff School, and served in that capacity until 24 July 1923.
Colonel Brees took command of the 11th Cavalry and post, Presidio of Monterey, California, on 12 September 1923, on which duty he served until 10 June 1925. He was then assigned to duty as Assistant Commandant, General Service Schools, Fort Leavenworth, until 29 June 1929.
He was Corps Area Inspector, Ninth Corps Area, with headquarters at San Francisco, to 24 February 1930, when he was assigned to duty as Assistant Commandant, Army War College, serving in that capacity until 29 October 1930.
On 1 November 1930, he was promoted to Brigadier General. After taking short courses at the Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and at the Air Corps Tactical School, Langley Field, Virginia, he took command of the 13th Field Artillery Brigade Post and 87th Division Organization Reserves at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Brigadier General Brees was ordered to the Philippines in May 1931, where he commanded Fort Stotsenburg until 15 June 1934. Upon his return to the United States he took command of the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
On 4 February 1934, he became Commandant of the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth and also was in charge of the Missouri District of the CCC. He was promoted to Major General on 1 June 1936.
Major General Brees assumed command of the 2nd Division at Fort Sam Houston on 2 July 1936, and on October 1, he became Commanding General, Eighth Corps Area.
From June to October, 1936 he commanded the 2nd Infantry Division. He was succeeded by James K. Parsons, and served until 1938 as commander of VIII Corps. During Brees' tenure at VIII Corps, the family of General John J. Pershing asked him to be present during Pershing's final illness in Tucson, Arizona, so that he could plan for the transportation of Pershing's remains to Washington, D.C. for his funeral. (Pershing recovered, however, and did not die until July 15, 1948, in Washington, D.C.)
Brees commanded the Third United States Army as a Lieutenant General from October, 1940 until he reached mandatory retirement age in May, 1941. In 1940, Brees served as Chief Controller for the U.S. military's large-scale training maneuvers in Louisiana, and played an important role in the changing the tactics and strategy used in Europe during World War II by showing that the tendency of mechanized units to use road networks during maneuver made them vulnerable to blitzkrieg style attacks by an enemy that left the roads and used the terrain to its advantage.
After the war Brees served as President of the National Bank of Fort Sam Houston.
Brees died in San Antonio, Texas, on December 22, 1958. He was buried in Section B, Site 241-A at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Laramie, Wyoming's Regional Airport was built in 1934 and originally named Brees Field in his honor. During World War II Brees Field was the destination for B-24 bombers that brought crews to the University of Wyoming recreation camp in the Snowy Range for rest and recuperation.