General Sir Harry Chauvel’s Beersheba

Continued...

Sir Harry’s Home Front

 

Sir Harry returned to Melbourne on 14th September 1919.  On 10th December he became Inspector General of the Australian Military Forces.  As a member of the Council of Defence, Sir Harry devoted his energies to trying to preserve the Australian Defence forces in the face of Scullin’s Labour government’s cuts. The perceptive man he was saw only too well Australia’s vulnerabilities, knowing that the nation couldn’t rely on the British Navy for its defence.

 

On 16th April 1930, Sir Harry Chauvel relinquished his appointments of Inspector-General of the Forces and Chief of the Australian General Staff and was placed on the retired list.  For nearly the last fifteen years of his life, Chauvel was to remain busy.  As well as the involvements I mentioned earlier, he had three directorships.  He was Chairman of Shrine of Remembrance Trustees and until his death Chairman of the War Memorial.    He was involved in various welfare organisations set up for returned servicemen as well as the Red Cross and Toc H [13].  He was a Church Warden at Christ Church South Yarra for twenty-five years and in 1930 he was made a Lay Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Perhaps his appointment to lead the Australian contingent at the Coronation of George VI in 1937 was the highlight of his retirement years.  It was his first overseas trip since he returned from the First World War.  During World War Two he was Inspector in Chief, Volunteer Defence Corps and in this capacity he served until he died on 4th March 1945.

 

Reflections

 

In her book Chauvel Country (1983) my mother Elyne remarked ‘Though he was self-effacing, he would stand out for the recognition of his Anzac’s great effort.’ [14] Before she died my aunt Eve in Harare mentioned his quiet sense of humour.  Every family member who remembers him speaks of his love of horses and of the bush.  Ex-serviceman and journalist Crayton Burns writing in the Argus described Chauvel as ‘a shrewd and safe leader with a sound touch and an uncanny coolness in all times of crisis and danger’ [15]. He was a perfectionist who at all times expected the highest standards of himself.  He was a resourceful, independent thinker with a strong sense of moral conviction and determination to carry out his duty to his men and to his country to the best of his ability.  I believe it was the development of these personal qualities throughout his military career that inspired confidence in others who served with him and made him into a quietly charismatic leader, the sort of leader who might serve us all well today. 

 

On the eve of the battle of Beersheba, it is fitting that we pay tribute to our local Colonel Leslie Maygar who lost his life, and to the thirty other Australians who lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Beersheba. The Sinai and Palestine campaigns claimed the lives of almost 1,000 Australians – they did their bit too. We pay tribute also to those who returned to Australia and their efforts to continue service in various ways in their communities.  For many survivors, the end of the war only meant the beginning of a battle of another kind - that of making a life in the post-war world. While the Kohima Prayer ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today, ’ written by John Maxwell Edmunds in 1918 became better known after the Second World War, it was part of a collection of 12 epitaphs for the First World War. 

 

Unfortunately, Sir Harry died before I was born so the only way I have come to know him is through hearsay and archives.  One of the problems with my parents’ generation, many of whom lived through two world wars, is that they didn’t say, ‘For their tomorrow, we gave our today’. I suppose that in our younger years, many of us mightn’t have listened and by the time we had learned to listen our parents had passed on.


For me as one of Sir Harry’s granddaughters commemorating the Battle of Beersheba means not only the marking and thanksgiving for a success that helped turn the fortunes of war, but it is a time of deep reflection.  Perhaps due to my years as a British Army wife beginning a decade before the end of the Cold War, I have seen at closer hand than many, some of the emotional challenges and the discipline required of those about to embark on operational tours of duty. 

Presentation of Colours to a Footscray Volunteer Defence Unit during World War 2 by Sir Harry (Image: State Library of Victoria, appearing in The Argus, 1941).

For all that I can’t imagine the level of self-discipline, bravery, courageous determination and excellence of horsemanship with which the 800 who charged at Beersheba required to achieve the taking of the town with its wells intact. I can’t imagine how my grandfather must have felt about the men of the 4th Brigade who he decided to put ‘straight at the remaining trenches’ [16]. Concern for the well-being of his soldiers and their horses must have vied for first place together with ensuring the success of the operation.  Peacetime seldom requires us to plumb the depths of these attributes and feelings, but in commemoration, we have the opportunity to do so.  It is these opportunities that challenge our mental boundaries and perhaps ensure through the examples set by our forefathers that we prepare ourselves for the unexpected in our own lives and strengthen us in possible adversity. 

 

Thankfully my grandmother transcribed my grandfather’s letters home and this has given me some insight into Chauvel as a person. During my journey to find my own history, my husband Mark and I visited Beersheba for the 90th anniversary so we could see for ourselves and the town and surrounding countryside with its major landmarks. It provided us with the opportunity to meet and experience commemoration with other like-minded people from different walks of life. For the centenary commemorations of the Battle at Beersheba having lived overseas for many years, it was time to experience commemoration with all its rich variety on the home front. After the First World War, few had the money or opportunity to travel overseas to visit the battlefields and graves of their loved ones.  Their mourning found their expression in their memorials and commemorations at home.

 

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[13] Toc H is an international Christian movement that found its origins in Talbot House, an all ranks rest and recreation centre opened in 1915 at Poperinghe in Belgium

[14] Mitchell, Elyne, Chauvel Country (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1983) p. 48

[15] Burns, Crayton, ‘Chauvel, his place among the Greats’ Argus (Monday, March 5th, 1945) p.2

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

 

References

 

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)

 

Gullet, H.S. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (Volume VII): The A.I.F in Sinai and Palestine (The Australian War Memorial in Association with the Queensland University Press, 1984)

 

Hill, A. J., Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melbourne University Press, 1978)

 

Mitchell, Elyne, Chauvel Country (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1983)

 

Wavell, Sir Archibald, G.C.B. C.M.G., M.C., Allenby A Study in Greatness: The Biography of Field-Marshall Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe G.C.B.,

C.M.G. (London:  George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1940)

 

Unpublished Monographs:

 

Chauvel War Books (Volumes I and II)

 

Newspaper Articles

 

Burns, Crayton, ‘Chauvel, his place among the Greats’ Argus (Monday, March 5th, 1945) p.2

 

En.wikipedia.org (5th Victorian Mounted Rifles)