General Sir Harry Chauvel’s Beersheba

by Honor Auchinleck

Based on two talks on 27th October 2017 to members of the Light Horse Memorial Park Inc (Seymour) & the second on 30th October 2017 to members of the Seymour Rotary Club.

Background: The Light Horse and General Sir Harry

 

General Sir Harry Chauvel wrote in the Preface to Australia in Palestine (1919), that the Australian Light Horseman ‘is a type peculiarly his own and has no counterpart that I know of except in his New Zealand brother.  His fearless initiative and endurance, and his adaptability to almost any task, are due to the adventurous life he leads in his own country, where he has been accustomed to long hours in the saddle, day and night, and facing danger of all sorts from his earliest youth.  Perhaps these qualities are inherited from his pioneer parents.  This invariable good humour under the most adverse conditions comes from the good-fellowship and camaraderie which exists in the free and open life of the Australian Bush. His chivalry comes from the same source, and it is one of his strongest points.  In other words, the life he has been accustomed to lead has fitted him to become, with training and discipline, second to no cavalry soldier in the world.’ [1]

 

I wonder how many Light Horsemen trained here where the Light Horse Memorial Park [2] stands today and how many went on to serve with Chauvel?  How many of those Light Horsemen came from the Seymour district and rode their horses into town to enlist?  Undoubtedly someone knows the answers – the pattern would have been much the same across country Australia.  While I’m not a military historian, having been an Army wife for 27 years must have something to do with it. It is easy to understand how military history begins to grip those with military links.  From a distance, I have watched with interest Seymour’s Light Horse Memorial Park develop from its inception into becoming a place of evocative, peaceful beauty and reflection.


Just like the Light Horsemen Chauvel described in his preface to Australia in Palestine, he too was accustomed to long hours in the saddle, day and night, and facing danger of all sorts from his earliest youth.  He was born on 16th April 1865 at Tabulam on the banks of the Upper Clarence River in Northern New South Wales. Aged six in 1871, he rode with his older brother Arthur 102km to Grafton to catch the ship to Sydney from where they travelled on to Belcher’s school just outside Goulburn in New South Wales.  The fact that Harry Chauvel achieved zero for mathematics in 1871 might only be attributed to his youth and that he was a long way from home.  His early school results certainly didn’t impede his progress in later life.  Later Harry went on to Sydney Grammar and then in 1880 to Toowoomba Grammar School to finish his schooling.  His ride with his younger brother Allan to Toowoomba Grammar of some 270km was longer and more arduous than the ride from Tabulam to Grafton. But those boys were made of tough stuff and Chauvel brought up my mother Elyne on stories of mustering cattle, of brumbies in the ranges and of floods on the Clarence River.  Chauvel’s early years would have been very similar to stories told by other Light Horsemen.  It didn’t matter where they came from – Victoria, Queensland or New South Wales, South Australia, West Australia and Tasmania - those days fitted them well to meet the challenges that they met on the Boer War battlefields and later in the First World War.  During the Boer War, for instance, it didn’t take long for them to show that they were not to be written off as  ‘ a damned fat, round-shouldered, useless crowd of wasters’ [3] as   Major-General Sir Stuart Brownlow Beatson, (K.C.B., K.C.S.I., K.C.V.O. (1854–1914)) suggested.   Their Boer War experience set in good stead many a Light Horseman, including Chauvel and Leslie Maygar, for the First World War.  I have a locket in which there is a photograph of my grandfather.  The energy in the slim figure in the photograph is palpable. On the back of the locket, there is a date - 19th May 1902.

By 1902 Chauvel had served in South Africa, attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, had been mentioned in despatches and appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.  It was a great achievement for a young officer in the newly established Commonwealth Mounted Infantry.   The Light Horsemen were to go on (and continue) to show the likes of Major General Sir Brownlow Beatson, that they were most certainly not a ‘useless crowd of wasters.’  Yet for all that, they had to keep proving themselves.

 

Service in one war doesn’t necessarily fit soldiers for service in another. No two wars are ever the same and when the First World War broke out, never before had such widespread conflict been seen.  It was to become warfare on an industrial scale. Initially, from the British point of view, the emphasis was on the Western Front due to the immediate threat to the British homeland.  Perhaps it was this emphasis that led to the pressure on the training facilities on Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain ensuring that there were inadequate facilities to accommodate the Light Horse. 


My grandmother Sibyl Chauvel wrote about her husband Harry (who in 1914 had been posted to London as the Australian Representative on the Imperial General Staff) in her preface to the Chauvel War Books, ‘He was at this time very anxious about the housing of the Australian troops, which were expected to arrive in England early in November (1914), & were to be trained during the winter on Salisbury Plain, about the coldest & bleakest spot in England. 

Harry Chauvel photographed on his mount, as a Lieutenant in the Upper Clarence Light Horse (Australian War Memorial).

It was intended to build huts for the men & stables for the horses, & a contract had been let by the War Office for the erection of these.  However, Harry soon ascertained that there was no likelihood of them being completed by the time they were required, & he suggested to the General Staff that the Australian troops should be trained in Egypt instead, as the majority of these men, & their horses, had never experienced real cold before, & would suffer accordingly if put under canvas during an English winter.  No decision was arrived at by the War Office on this matter, & eventually [Chauvel] went to Sir George Reid, High Commissioner for Australia [in London], & put the whole thing before him.  Sir George thereupon secured an appointment with Lord Kitchener[4], who, when he heard the facts, determined to stop the Australian and New Zealand troops in Egypt, instead of bringing them to England.  Consequent on this decision, my husband left England for Port Said on Nov 28th in the P & O Ship Mooltan, to meet his Brigade and take up his command.’ [5] I wonder what the young men who did their training here in Seymour thought about training in the Egypt with its sand, heat and flies. Of course, there were the sin bins and flesh pots in Cairo, but that is another story.

 

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[1] Chauvel, Lieutenant General Sir H. G., ‘Preface’, in Gullet, H.S., Barrett, Chas., (Eds.), Barker, David, (Art Ed.) Australians in Palestine (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1919) xiii.

[2] The Light Horse Memorial Park has been created on the site of the old Seymour training area.

[3] En.wikipedia.org (5th Victorian Mounted Rifles)

[4] Lord Kitchener was Secretary of State for War

[5] Chauvel War Books (Volume I) p.2