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


by James Maberly (continued)

Lawrence of Arabia -  T.E. Lawrence


Interestingly, TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, told a different story. Lawrence triumphantly drove into Damascus on October 1, 1918 and claimed that he had taken Damascus, and of course the film of his escapades enshrined it in ‘history’. In fact, an unassuming Australian dentist, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Olden, commander of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, arrived in the city first. Olden dismounted at the town hall – at dawn on the same day as Lawrence – drew his revolver and entered. Governor Emir Said surrendered the city, declaring the light horsemen the "first of the British army" to arrive.


Lawrence, piqued, wrote in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom that close to Damascus the Australians were "too sure of themselves to be careful . . . thin-tempered, hollow, instinctive". "The sporting Australians saw the campaign as a point-to-point with Damascus the post."  He makes no reference to the Australian entry before him and even suggests that Chauvel was in some way subordinate to him, with him (Lawrence) directing activities in Damascus. He even scoffs a little at the Australians in one comment towards the end of the book, after the capture of Damascus “… and a complaint from Chauvel that some of the Arab troops were slack about saluting Australian officers!”

Chauvel later wrote of the comments in the Seven Pillars: "The first of the Arab forces to enter Damascus were those who followed Lawrence in and, by that time, an Australian Brigade and at least one regiment of Indian Cavalry had passed right through."


In a letter he later sent to my Grandmother, he wrote “You asked me about Lawrence. Well, to tell you the truth, I had very little use for him. He was decidedly a gallant fellow, and had a personal attraction, but he gave me too much trouble for me to have any regard for him”.


Lawrence’s book brought him great fame and credibility, and indeed he was highly successful in bringing the Emir Feisal and his troops into the war against the Turks. So from a tactical and political British perspective, he achieved both their and his own aims. Sadly, in his determination to encourage greater and wider understanding of and sympathy for the Arab cause, his manipulation of the facts in his book left him open to considerable criticism.  See right.


Additional text here.


Above: Chauvel riding through Damascus, 7th October 1918 (AWM)


Map shows the advance through Megiddo to Lake Tiberias (the sea of Galilee, where Chauvel routs the Turks), followed by the pursuit northwards to Damascus. Note the dates on the left and the final thrust up to Damascus on the right (see Image Footnote 3)


Below: T.E. Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Damascus Thrust.png

Chauvel’s forces then advanced north towards Aleppo, Major General MacAndrew leading the 5th Cavalry Division with the Arabs under Nuri Bey on his right flank.  They took Homs with ease and headed for Aleppo. The first attack by the now depleted Division was repulsed, but on 25 October, a charge by 1500 of Nuri Bey’s Bedouin broke through into Aleppo, forcing the withdrawal of the Turks. There had been little fighting during the advance from Damascus; this was fortunate, for Chauvel's tired divisions, exhausted by the recent campaign were melting away, ravaged by malaria and typhus.


Six days later, the war in the Near East came to an end.


In the five weeks since the opening of the offensive, the divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps had advanced from 300 to 500 miles, taking over 78,000 prisoners and great quantities of booty. Their battle casualties were only about 650. Many reasons may be adduced for this overwhelming success but not the least was Chauvel's planning of his successive thrusts, his coordination of his widely spread forces, and the special care that he gave to the logistical basis of all his operations.


In response to this feat, Lt General Philip Chetwode subsequently wrote to Chauvel, congratulating him for his "historic ride to Damascus" and "the performances of the Cavalry in this epoch-making victory."  He went on to write that Chauvel had "made history with a vengeance" and that his "performance [would] be talked about and quoted long after many more bloody battles in France will have been almost forgotten.”


Reverence for the logistical support team and the medical services


Chauvel was not only blessed with a brilliant logistics team, but also a highly effective, brave and admirable medical team. It is easy to forget, in the description of the success of battle that, as Napoleon said, ‘an army marches on its stomach’. In this case, it was not only the stomachs of the soldiers but also the horses, camels and mules. Not only was it food, it was also water in very harsh desert conditions. In the five weeks of the offensive, ending in the capture of Damascus and then Aleppo, with men and horses advancing up to 500 miles and taking 78,000 prisoners, all of whom had to be contained and fed, it is quite simply an outstanding reflection of both these services who had their work cut out for them and carried it out with extraordinary ability. Chauvel had chosen his logistics team well and his excellent leadership and regular praise kept them enthusiastic to the end.


In 1919 he was appointed G.C.M.G; he was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the Order of the Nile (twice) and was mentioned in dispatches ten times.



Chauvel with the leaders of the Desert Mounted Corps

H Septimus Power, 1926, AWM ART09557

Back to Australia


Returning to Australia in September 1919, Chauvel was appointed Inspector General, the most senior position in the Australian army, which he held till 1930 and was made a member of the Council of Defence. He was chairman of the senior officer's committee which, in February 1920, advised the government on the strength, organization and equipment of the post-war army. But disarmament and economy were in the air and the government, although at first willing to approve the sizeable force recommended, opted for a token force of 38,000 with six days of camp training a year. Further economies followed. He did what he could under extreme pressure from the Labour Government of the day, to create the core of a solid regular army with officers who had been trained to the standards expected in the British Army.




In November 1929 Chauvel was promoted general, the first Australian to attain this rank. His retirement the next April was almost a national occasion; large public dinners were held in his honour in Melbourne and Sydney. But the only official recognition of his service was a ministerial direction for the provision of an army horse for his daily ride in the Melbourne Domain, a privilege he valued immensely.