General Sir Harry Chauvel’s Beersheba

Continued...

Sir Harry’s Beersheba

 

1st Nov 1917. 'I am writing in the Turkish Commander's room in a fine comfortable stone house, in a Biblical town which, in accordance with censorship regulations, must be nameless.  We had a great battle yesterday, & an entirely successful one, but it was a long business & a hard fight.  Mine was the usual wide turning movement, with a long night march, & more than all day battle, as we really did not take this place until about seven o'clock last night, when Grant's Brigade (formerly Meredith's), which I put in as a final effort, carried the last defences & the town, at the gallop in the dusk.  It was a very brilliant performance, & the C-in-C who motored out  this morning to see us, personally decorated Grant with a bar to his DSO. I don't know whether you will remember General Grant.  You did meet him in Brisbane once, when he was (I think) in the Toowoomba or Dalby squadron of Light Horse.  He was one of those who always attended my staff rides.’  Describing the town of Beersheba Chauvel commented, ‘I was rather disappointed with this place.  It is merely an Arab town with about four decent, almost European houses, in it, obviously new, a rather fine hospital (quite new) and a better mosque than one would expect. The house I am in is the best in the place & has a nice little garden in front, with a fountain in it, not in working order.  All around, the country is to all intents and purposes, desert, though there are signs of it having been cultivated in places. It is blowing a gale today & the dust is appalling.'[8]

 

Later in the letter Chauvel goes on to write: 'I am sorry to say young Markwell of Beaudesert, one of my very best officers, was killed.  Colonel Maygar VC Commanding one of the Victorian regiments has lost an arm, poor chap, & will have a hard job to pull through.’ At the time of writing, Chauvel could not have heard news of Maygar who died on 1st November 1917.

The mosque at Beersheba. Described by Sir Harry as 'better ... than one would expect'.  Image: Australian War memorial.

Lieutenant Colonel L. C. Maygar VC, DSO.  The first Victorian to win the Victoria Cross. He won this at Geelhoutboom in South Africa on 23 November 1901, serving with the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in October 1917 whilst commanding the 8th Light Horse Regiment.  Maygar was killed in action during the battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917 (Australian War Memorial).

Who but Sir Harry Chauvel could write in such an understated way about a battle that helped turn the course of the First World War in the Middle East?  Success at Beersheba helped open the way to the Allies taking of Jerusalem – a welcome and much needed Christmas present for the Allied governments. Who but Sir Harry could talk about the town and the domestic details such as the garden and the fountain that unsurprisingly wasn't in working order?

 

Chauvel was cool, decisive, determined and had an uncanny ability to keep things in perspective.  I don't think he ever forgot the world beyond his immediate battlefield and nor did he ever forget his men or the horses.  Those killed in action brought him grief that was understood by those who were closest to him and of course by his wife Sibyl.

 

So where was Chauvel on the eve of the battle a hundred years ago?  In February 1922 when my grandmother Sibyl Chauvel began transcribing his letters into large scrapbooks, Chauvel wrote an explanatory note:

 

'The Desert Mounted Corps Headquarters & the Anzac Mounted Division which was to lead, were concentrated in Asluj by the evening of October 30, & the Australian Mounted Division at Khalasa, with the 7th Mounted Brigade at Bir Esani.  We rested only a few hours, & then marched through the night to Khanshm Zanna, about five miles east of Beersheba.  At eight o'clock on the morning of 31st October, [Major General Edward] Chaytor [9] attacked from the east, swinging the 2nd Brigade well round to the north, to get astride the Beersheba-Hebron Road.  The Australian Mounted Division was kept in reserve, while the 7th Mounted Brigade masked the Turkish works at Ras Ghannam, & made a link between us & the 20th Corps.  Although absolutely taken by surprise, the Turks put up a very stiff fight, having unexpectedly strong works on Tel el Saba (the site of ancient Beersheba), & also on Tel el Sakrati, which later was taken by at one p.m. by Ryrie's Brigade in its enveloping movement.  At three o'clock I got word from Chetwode [10] that he had taken the works to the south-west, & that the enemy in front of him had retired on the town. Tel el Saba was proving a hard nut to crack. Chaytor had put in all his reserves, & I had to reinforce him with the 3rd Brigade from the Australian Mounted Division.  I still had two brigades in reserve, & the 7th Mounted Brigade should also soon be available but it was unsound to advance against the trenches immediately east of the town until Tel el Saba, which commanded all the approaches to them was in our hands. Chaytor reported Tel el Saba captured at 3.15, & I then decided to put Grant’s 4th Brigade straight at the remaining trenches, supported by the 5th Mounted Brigade under Fitzgerald [11].  These brigades being very much scattered owing to the constant attacks from aeroplanes, which had also devoted a good deal of attention to my own Headquarters, it took some little time to assemble them & push them off.  The 4th Brigade got off about half past four, trotted onto the plain, & then rode at the trenches, charging them mounted, & galloping straight on into the town which was in our possession by dark.  By this mounted action, Grant had done in a few minutes, with two regiments & fewer casualties, what it would probably have taken two Brigades, dismounted, a couple of hours to do. So far as I know, such a charge by mounted men against entrenched infantry is unique in the annals of cavalry.’[12]

Chauvel’s factual yet reflective account of the battle gives credit where credit is due.  Those Light Horsemen did what the enemy believed to have been impossible. Surprise was the essence of their successful entry to the town of Beersheba and its wells with the water they needed for horses that had gone without water for over 30 hours.

 

Success at Beersheba certainly didn’t bring any reprieve.  The Allies entered Jerusalem just over a month after the Battle at Beersheba, on 11th December 1917.  It was a plan that worked due to subterfuge, surprise and speed.  The 4th and 12th Light Horse were part of an international force that achieved victory at Beersheba.  Due to the lack of water, victory was uncertain; nothing could be taken for granted and there were hard battles ahead. Beersheba was but one battle in a campaign – the difference was its success and boost to morale. Securing the Gaza – Beersheba line was a tough fight and the hardship continued as the Allies battled on through rugged terrain and in appalling weather to Jerusalem.  Chauvel and his Desert Mounted Corps knew from experience that winning a battle, or even a number of battles doesn’t guarantee against setbacks and hardship.  After the Allied entry into Jerusalem, it was another ten months before the end of the war.  During that time there were the two battles of Es Salt from 27th March – 2nd April and 30th April – 3rd May 1918, and the ghastly hot summer in the Jordan valley before the battle of Megiddo on 18th September 1918 and the eventual entry to Damascus on 1st October 1918. Those months were not only marked by tough fighting but also the increase of disease.  Malaria and even more seriously the onset of Spanish influenza hit the Allies as much as it did the enemy and those whom the Allies had taken prisoner.  The Treaty of Mudros on 30th October 1918 brought the war in the Middle East to a close.

 

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[8] Chauvel War Books, (Volume II) p. 36

[9] (1868 – 1939) In 1917, he commanded the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division.  He commanded New Zealand Military Forces 1919 -1924 when he retired.

[10] After General Allenby took command of the Allied forces in Palestine, Chetwode took over command of XX Corps

[11] (1873 – 1933) Brigadier Percy Fitzgerald, commanded 5th Mounted Brigade in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

[12] Chauvel War Books (Volume II), p.36 - 38