General Sir Harry Chauvel, GCMG, KCB (1865–1945)
from a talk by James Maberly given to the Framlingham Society on 17th October 2018 at Framlingham College, Framlingham, Suffolk , UK
Image: Australian War Memorial
Chauvel was a fascinating character who achieved a huge amount over his lifetime with an extraordinary humility. He shunned publicity and accolade and remained a quiet but effective operator right till the day he died. In Australia, along with General Sir John Monash who fought on the Western Front, he is revered for his leadership and successes during the First World War.
Chauvel Family History
The Chauvel family came originally from France. For centuries, the Chauvels lived in the Chateau de la Pigeonnaire (below, left), not far from Blois on the River Loire.
In 1685, Simon and Margaret Chauvel, who were Huguenots, left for England after Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which deprived Protestants of the freedom of worship and the right to hold any position in the Government of France. Had they stayed, they may not have survived. Family legend says that all but one of the Chauvel ancestors went to the guillotine and the survivor was a boy whose only identification was a watch which was inscribed ‘Chauvel de la Martinere’.
The story goes that Simon and Margaret crossed the channel in an open boat, Margaret and their little boy wrapped in a silk bedspread which she had embroidered and which still exists, sharing the space with a grandfather clock! The Chauvel’s flourished in England for a while as army officers, businessmen and property owners until in June 1838, Charles Chauvel, Harry’s father sailed for New South Wales in Australia. He took up a farm which he called Narrangrass, and made a success if it as a grazier and in 1848, he sold it and bought Tabulam, the most gorgeous property situated on the Eastern side of the River Clarence. It consisted of 96,000 acres (39,000 ha), on which he raised 12,000 head of cattle and 320 horses.
Harry was born on 16 April 1865 at Tabulam, their second son. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and Toowoomba Grammar before taking his place on his father's cattle-station. He learned to manage a property, and became a most accomplished horseman, particularly as a jockey. His ambition was to follow family tradition and join the British Army, there being little scope in the diminutive colonial forces,(at that time a volunteer force) but his father's losses from drought
made Sandhurst and the cavalry impossible. In 1885, when the volunteer movement was reviving, Charles Chauvel raised the Upper Clarence Light Horse in which Harry was commissioned next year. In 1888 the family moved to the Darling Downs in Queensland where Harry was commissioned into the Queensland Mounted Infantry. He had been managing Canning Downs South for three years when in 1896 he obtained an appointment in the Queensland Permanent Military Forces as a captain and adjutant of the Moreton Regiment. He went to England with the Queensland Jubilee Contingent in 1897, staying on for a year for courses and attachments to regular infantry.
Boer War and Beyond
Chauvel served with distinction in the South African War as a major in the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry, taking part in the relief of Kimberley, the advance to Pretoria and the battle of Diamond Hill. At the crossing of the Vet River he personally captured a troublesome machine-gun. For a time he led a mixed force, known as Chauvel's Mounted Infantry, a blend of Canadians and Aussies in operations in eastern Transvaal – they were a kind of ‘special forces mounted group’, tasked to deal with troublesome small enclaves of Boers in a more unconventional guerrilla style, just as the Boers were so good at using themselves. Returning to Australia in 1901 he took command of the 7th Australian Commonwealth Horse as lieutenant-colonel, with intentions of returning to South Africa, but the war ended before he reached Durban. For his services in South Africa, Chauvel was appointed C.M.G. and mentioned in dispatches; he was also given the brevet of lieutenant-colonel.
In the next 10 years he established a reputation as an excellent trainer of officers and in 1911 was appointed Adjutant-General and the second member of the Military Board. When the First World War broke out, he was in London as the Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff. He left London in December and joined the Australian Light Horse Division in Egypt.
Image credit: See Image Footnote 1
Chauvel landed at Gallipoli on 12 May, taking command of the vital sector around Pope's, Quinn's and Courtney's posts. He held these positions against all Turkish attacks until he was sent to a quiet sector in September. During that time, he became known for his coolness and courage especially in the critical fight of 29 May. He spent much of his time walking his trenches and closely observing the state of his troops and their positions.
Chauvel’s reputation as a cool and calm leader became quite apparent at Gallipoli where I am sure most of you will know the positions of the allies in relation to the Turks was quite abysmal, and thousands of soldiers died in what would now be considered quite ridiculous offensives which had no hope of success. The Turks were above them and thus in a very commanding position.
In two particular actions, his behaviour stands out. The first was on May 19th 1915. The Turks were trying to capture Quinn’s Post, as it would hold massive tactical advantages for them, overlooking the Anzac positions. I quote from the Battalion commander’s report.
“I was particularly struck with the coolness of (General Chauvel’s) behaviour. In order that (I) might refer to him without any loss of time, and in order that he might know the exact situation, he left his headquarters in the Gully and came up to us and his calm and collected manner was an example to us all. For a considerable time, the situation was what one might call ‘hot’. The noise was terrific, the casualties numerous and to add to the horror of the scene, many men lost their feet as the bombs rolled down the hill towards us in the darkness and exploded at the men’s feet. Amidst all this confusion and excitement, there was no soldier whose demeanour was cooler than Chauvel’s. He stayed with us for hours until the situation adjusted to his satisfaction”.
They succeeded in dislodging the Turkish attack and took a number of Turkish prisoners.
On 7th August, a mammoth offensive planned by Lt General Birdwood to try and dislodge the Turks from the Peninsular began. Almost everyone thought it a crazy proposal, but it went ahead anyway. Everything went wrong. The New Zealanders had not
been successful in capturing Chunuk Bair, the 1st division had failed to capture and hold the German officers trench, the 8th and 10th Light horse (from a different brigade) were massacred at the Nek after the artillery stopped firing too early, and to start with, Chauvel’s regiments took similar punishment. After the first wave of men went over the top at Quinn’s Post and were massacred within seconds, Chauvel approved an order for the second wave to stay in the trenches and no further actions were launched.
It is interesting to consider that, whilst this was an extremely sane and sensible decision, he had actually disobeyed a direct order from Birdwood. Everyone else had gone over the top, but realising it was futile for all the given reasons above, Chauvel countered the decision. Nothing was ever said or done about this, so clearly the wisdom of the moment was apparent to his superiors – and indeed, they still had fighting men available, where other leaders had lost many.
Egypt, Sinai and Palestine
After the evacuation from Gallipoli on the 18th and 19th December, the Australians and New Zealanders were sent to Egypt to assist in the war in the Middle East. In December he was promoted to Major General and in January 1916 was gazetted C.B. Although Birdwood offered him command of one of the infantry divisions soon to go to France, Chauvel elected to remain with the light horse as commander of the new Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division. He also took command of all Australian forces in Egypt, including the 1st Squadron, Australian Flying Corps.
The new division was still settling down when on 23 April 1916, the Turks raided the British outposts covering the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Chauvel (centre below) immediately moved across the canal to restore the situation, beginning an advance which was to continue for two and a half years until the enemy was driven from Aleppo on the northern borders of Syria.
His division was the only desert-worthy force in Sinai so that when the second Turkish thrust for the canal was defeated at Romani on 4-5 August 1916, Anzac Mounted became the spearhead of Eastern Force in the advance across the desert into Palestine.
Map showing the rough route and ground covered by the Desert Mounted Corps during the Desert campaign from Jan 1916 till 26th October 1918. From From the inside back cover of ‘Chauvel of the Light Horse’ by Alec Hill
At Romani, with only two of his four brigades under command, Chauvel outfought the Turks in blazing heat. He pursued them, but his division was too light a force to complete their destruction. He realised his men were exhausted, having borne the full brunt of the attack (and bear in mind the Turks had an estimated 6000 rifles to his 3000), so he took the wiser decision to allow his men some rest and recuperation before moving ahead.
Romani was a very interesting battle as in many ways it was the turning point in the war against the Turks and yet it is all but forgotten. Up until Romani, the Turks had been on the offensive – and aggressively so. From that time, they were effectively on the run. For the Battle of Romani, Chauvel chose his ground carefully, reconnoitring it from the ground and the air, and selecting both forward and fall back positions. His luck held; the German commander — Friedrich Kreß von Kressenstein — selected the same position as the forming up area for his attack in August 1916.
Chauvel, centre, in Palestine, 1916 (AWM H03813)