General Sir Harry Chauvel, GCMG, KCB (1865–1945)

 

by James Maberly (continued)

Image credit: See Image Footnote 2

Quote, mostly from the Light Horse Association website:

“While the enemy was still many miles away, Chauvel dispersed his Anzacs around Romani and kept them there until they became accustomed to the fearful heat and reduced water rations.

 

It was not until almost midnight on August 3rd that Australian listening posts heard the sounds of troop movement to their front. The Turks, initially surprised to find the Australians so close to them reorganised and wave after wave of Turkish forces attempted to break the Light Horse line.

 

The full fury of the assault now fell on the main body of the 1st Australian Brigade, 1st, 2nd & 3rd Regts, which had been waiting tensely on Romani’s lower slopes.

 

For three hours the Light Horse threw back one massed attack after another. Then, still under tremendous enemy pressure, they were ordered to withdraw slowly.

 

Although the withdrawal was carried out according to orders, it was impossible to conceal the manoeuvre from the enemy. As a result, the Turks, convinced they had the Australians at their mercy, drove in with increased fury and even crashed through some parts of the Anzac line. Many died and many fell, and it was at this point that one of the great legendary events of Australia’s Light Horse history occurred.

 

“Major M. Shanahan, DSO, seeing five of the men unhorsed and surrounded by Turks, galloped wildly through the enemy ranks, got one of the Australians up into the saddle with him and, with two others clinging to each stirrup, got clean away.

 

After dropping off the troopers, Shanahan took his mount back into the fray. The Major was shot in the thigh, but kept on fighting the Turks with Bill until dawn, when Shanahan collapsed. Bill then carried Major Shanahan back to Romani for medical treatment. Shanahan soon afterwards had the injured leg amputated.”

That horse was known as ‘Bill the Bastard’ and a book has recently been written about him. A 1.5 times life-size sculpture is currently being built and I have been asked to go across at its inauguration and take the salute on behalf of my grandfather.

 

"As daylight flooded through the haze of battle, Chauvel, watching the battle from a vantage point, could see his battered 1st Brigade still struggling against tremendous odds as it continued to retreat. Also, Turks were now sweeping in massed waves against the New Zealand brigade. But Chauvel made no move to reinforce his hard-pressed men, for the battle was going exactly as he had foreseen. The Turks were being drawn into a line of fire.

 

Hidden on the flanks waiting his command were his 2nd and 3rd Australian Brigades, while British cavalry and artillery units were already moving up into position.

 

Chauvel at last decided to spring his trap.

 

First, he directed the remnants of the 1st Brigade to stop their withdrawal and, after joining up with the New Zealanders, hold a firm line. Then he brought the 2nd and 3rd Brigades in from the flanks, thus implementing his plan to compress the enemy into a very sandy area covered by the British artillery. Finally, as the Anzacs dismounted and moved in a great mass towards the Turks, the British artillery opened up. Salvoes crashed right into the enemy ranks and great gaps appeared in the tight-packed force preparing to counter-attack the advancing Australians.

 

Helped by the never-ceasing artillery barrage, the Anzacs gradually clawed their way forward, throwing back desperate counter-attacks as they hurled the enemy from one position after another. Elsewhere, the Turks still flung themselves forward in massed attacks, probing for a weak spot in the main Anzac positions. But the thin line held firm as groups rushed from one trouble spot to another.

 

As darkness closed in, silence at last descended over the area. Men from both sides broke off the battle from sheer exhaustion and sank to the ground in their positions. It started all over again just before dawn when Chauvel, realising he must keep the initiative, got his gaunt and haggard Anzacs to their feet and ordered them to make a final onslaught against the Turks. The artillery, he said, would help by laying down another devastating bombardment.

 

After that, Chauvel applied pressure right along the line. It was too much for the Turks, particularly when the artillery opened up. They turned and fled, leaving 5000 dead on the battlefield.

 

In the pursuit that followed, the enemy was to lose many more men before finally falling back to their main position across the Sinai Desert. The battle of Romani was over. The Empire troops casualties numbered 1100.”

 

This British Empire victory, the first against the Ottoman Empire in the war, ensured the safety of the Suez Canal from ground attacks and ended the German plans to disrupt traffic through the canal by gaining control of the strategically important northern approaches to it.

 

There followed several other important victories by Chauvel and  Under Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Chetwode, commanding the newly created Desert Column, he destroyed Turkish garrisons at Rafa (December 1916) and Magdhaba (January 1917), thus clearing the way for an assault on the main Turkish positions around Gaza and Beersheba. Both were conducted with the same determination and foresight as Romani. After Magdhaba he was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. (K.C.M.G.)

Gaza

 

General Sir Archibald Murray then made two fatal attacks on the town of Gaza sustaining over 10,000 casualties. In the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917, Chauvel's mission was similar to Rafa and Magdhaba, but on a larger scale. He enveloped the Turkish position at Gaza while the British 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division and 54th (East Anglian) Infantry Division attempted to capture it. When this failed, Chetwode ordered Chauvel to attempt to capture Gaza from the rear. Chauvel successfully improvised a late afternoon assault on Gaza that captured the town despite the barriers of high cactus hedges and fierce enemy opposition, entering it after dark, only to have an out-of-touch General Dobell order the mounted troops to withdraw, despite Chauvel's protests. This time his brigadiers at the front, Ryrie and Chaytor, although they believed that Gaza could be held, felt compelled to obey, as they were told they could not see the whole picture, as intelligence reports suggested a large Turkish re-enforcement was less than 5 miles away. All guns, including captured ones were hauled away, as were all unwounded prisoners, the wounded and even the dead. Chauvel ensured that wounded

Turkish prisoners that were unfit to make the march to Deir al-Balah were each left with a full water bottle. The withdrawal was, in effect, a terrible mistake: the allies could have held Gaza, as the re-enforcements stopped short and did not immediately enter the town. In fact, the Turks couldn’t believe their luck and in the ensuing weeks, re-enforced Gaza to the hilt, so that when the second battle of Gaza took place, the allies were trounced with over 6,444 casualties. Very few Australians were involved in the second battle and Chauvel was not involved at all.

Murray/Allenby

As a result of these errors, General Sir Archibald Murray was relieved of his command and Gen Sir Edmund Allenby assumed command and he handed Chauvel leadership of the Desert Mounted Corps, the first Australian to achieve this level of command.

 

The Desert Mounted Corps consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Australian Mounted Division, the newly formed Yeomanry Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade.

 

Although some thought that Allenby should replace Chauvel with a British officer, Allenby retained him in command. Chauvel thus, on 2 August 1917, became the first Australian to permanently command a corps. A "brass-bound brigadier" was quoted as saying, "Fancy giving the command of the biggest mounted force in the world's history to an Australian." On being told of the appointments, in a letter dated 12th  August 1917, Chetwode wrote to congratulate Chauvel, "I cannot say how much I envy you the command of the largest body of mounted men ever under one hand – it is my own trade – but Fate has willed it otherwise”. It was the biggest column of mounted men since Alexander the Great traversed the same deserts.

Beersheba

 

Allenby decided the best way to deal with the Gaza defences was to break through to the East and outflank and cut the town off from its supply lines and thus render it ineffective. And so it was decided to capture the wells at Beersheba as strategically the wells were a vital water supply.

 

With a little deception created by the dropping of false documents into enemy hands by the famed Intelligence officer Major Richard Meinertzhagen about a proposed third attack on Gaza, and the actual firing of British artillery at Gaza, the stage was set.

Beersheba was defended by lines of trenches supported by isolated redoubts on earthworks and hills, which covered all approaches to the town. In the morning of 31st October 1917, to the South West, 20 Corps, led by Sir Philip Chetwode attacked.  The Ottoman garrison was eventually encircled by 20 Corps as they and their supporting artillery launched their attacks. Over a sustained period of time, they were successful and achieved their objective of holding a line. The British 20 corps though suffered roughly 1200 casualties in their actions that day.  (See Map #1 below).

Image from: History of Ossett 'Joe Pickard'

Meanwhile, the Anzac Mounted Division cut the road to the northeast of Beersheba. Continuous fighting against the main redoubt and defences on Tel el Saba which dominated the eastern approaches to the town by the New Zealand Brigade under Chaytor resulted in its capture in the afternoon (see Map #2 below).

 

During this fighting, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade had been sent to reinforce the Anzac Mounted Division, while the 5th Mounted Brigade remained in corps reserve armed with swords. With all brigades of both mounted divisions already committed to the battle, the only brigade available was the 4th Light Horse Brigade, which had been until then held in reserve. Chauvel ordered them to capture Beersheba. The Brigade Commander, Brigadier General William Grant proposed that the troops should charge cavalry style, rather than dismounting some 3 or 400 yards from the objective and skirmishing forward as infantry as they would normally do. Firstly there was nothing for them to take cover behind as they skirmished forwards, secondly, time was of the issue as the light was fading, and thirdly it would take the Turks by surprise. Chauvel agreed and the attack commenced. (See Map #3 below).

 

At 16.30, these swordless mounted infantrymen, many with bayonets in hand, galloped towards the town and a redoubt supported by entrenchments on a mound of Tel es Saba south-east of Beersheba. The 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right jumped trenches before turning round to make a dismounted attack on the Ottoman infantry in the trenches, gun pits, and redoubts. Most of the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left rode on across the face of the main redoubt to find a gap in the Ottoman defences, crossing the railway line into Beersheba. The town was captured, and crucially, before the Turks could blow up all the wells as they withdrew under pressure from the allies. For this decisive victory, and the subsequent capture of Jerusalem, Chauvel was mentioned in despatches twice more, and appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1918.

Map #1

Map #2

Map #3

The (disputed) photo of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba

Image: AWM P03723.001

Taking Gaza and heading north to Damascus

 

On 1st and 2nd of November 1917, Allenby succeeded in capturing Gaza. There then followed a period of rest and training before the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) headed north towards Jerusalem. There were a number of challenges along the way which meant it took a while to break through the Turkish defences, but in September of 2018, Allenby’s forces undertook a remarkable offensive that led to an advance of more than 500 kilometres in a little over a month. This astonishing victory, in which the regiments of the Australian Light Horse took part, destroyed three Ottoman armies and dramatically reshaped the Middle East.

 

This offensive, known as the Battle of Megiddo, was followed by the rapid advance into Syria that seized Damascus and culminated at Aleppo. The battle of Megiddo was one of the most completely successful operations of the war; only the Turkish army beyond the Jordan escaped the catastrophe and it was harried across the desert by the Anzac Mounted Division and the Arabs. Giving the Turks no time to recover, Chauvel destroyed their forces around Haifa and Lake Tiberias and made plans for the pursuit to Damascus; then having forced the passage of the Jordan north of Lake Tiberias on 28 September, he drove the enemy across the Golan Heights and rode for Damascus with two divisions while his third entered Deraa and drove the Turks northwards with Arab help. He entered Damascus on 1st October; after a short pause he was ordered to march on Aleppo, 200 miles (322 km) to the north.