General Sir Harry Chauvel, GCMG, KCB in the Boer War
by Miles Farmer OAM
To appreciate the role of Sir Harry in the Boer War it is necessary to understand something of his early life and his military heritage. His Grandfather, Captain Charles George Temple Chauvel, an officer in the Madras Native Infantry migrated to NSW in 1839, and was joined by his wife Marianna and family, including Charles Henry Edward, his father, the following year. After a few years in the Mudgee district they moved north and settled at Tabulam on the Clarence River in 1848. In 1860 Captain Chauvel and Marianna retired to Sydney where he died in 1865.
1865 was the year in which Henry George (Harry) was born to Charles Henry Edward Chauvel and his wife Fanny. The property at Tabulam comprised excellent pasturage for a large flock of sheep, but more importantly large mobs of cattle. Over three hundred horses of all types were needed to manage the herds and flocks. All the children virtually grew up in the saddle and became very competent riders.
In 1874 Harry and his older brother Arthur were sent to Sydney to attend Sydney Grammar School. It was quite a difficult journey in those days, including a two-day sea trip on a coastal trader, which they boarded at the mouth of the Clarence. It would seem he enjoyed a friendship with A.B. (Banjo) Paterson at school—a friendship they renewed in South Africa during the Boer War and again in World War 1 when Banjo ran a Remount Depot in Palestine. At School Harry enjoyed Cadets becoming a Lance Corporal and winning a trophy for rifle shooting.
After about six years at Sydney Grammar the boys returned to Tabulam before riding North to attend Toowoomba Grammar School—quite a ride for young lads. It was not known then that these experiences would be reflected in his later career as a Light Horseman.
In 1886 Harry’s father Charles Henry Chauvel raised the Upper Clarence Light Horse, which he commanded, with his sons Arthur and Harry commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants. The troops looked resplendent, dressed in scarlet and blue uniforms and wearing white helmets, when they escorted Lord Carrington to open the railway at Tenterfield in 1886. They were also skilled in mounted drill, musketry and tentpegging.
In 1888 Charles Henry sold at Tabulam and moved to Canning Downs not far from Warwick on the Darling Downs. Here Harry honed his riding skills winning races as an amateur rider. He also exhibited his livestock with success
Captain Charles E. Chauvel of the Upper Clarence Light Horse
In 1890 he resigned his commission in the NSW Forces, and was gazetted Second Lieutenant in No 1 Company Darling Downs Mounted Infantry. In the same year there was trouble brewing between shearers and station owners which led to the shearers going out on strike early in 1891.
Strike breakers from NSW and Victoria were brought in and trouble flared up with shearing sheds and wool stores being burned to the ground. Special constables were enrolled, and the Government called out the Defence Force in aid of the Civil Power. In March, Chauvel was ordered to have twenty men of the Darling Downs Mounted Infantry, each with their horse and 50 rounds of ammunition, to deploy north to Charleville - part of their travel by rail.
He was accompanied by a few police officers and was just short of Charleville when accosted by some two hundred striking shearers. It was a threatening situation and so Chauvel ordered his men to load and raise their rifles. The police took several prisoners and with Chauvel’s escort reached Charleville without further trouble.
This experience impressed on Chauvel the power of discipline and a cool head in a crisis, which stood him in good stead in future years.
At this stage of the story it is appropriate to tell the story of the emu plumes which are proudly worn to this day by officers and men of all units of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. To relieve boredom when not on duty, the troopers used to ride after emus and pluck feathers from the tails. These they stuck in their hats as adornments, a practice which was approved by the Queensland Government. In 1903 this privilege was extended to regiments in Tasmania and South Australia, and finally, in 1915, to all regiments of the Light Horse in Egypt.
In 1894 the Shearers went out on strike again, but this time the Queensland Government proclaimed the Peace Preservation Act and enrolled special constables rather than calling out the troops. Chauvel was appointed a temporary sub-inspector of police and posted to Claremont, where he again did well riding in picnic race meetings.
In the spring of 1896 he was commissioned an officer in the Defence Force of Queensland (QDF), and stationed at Victoria Barracks in Brisbane. Federation of the colonies was five years away, as was the raising of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).