General Sir Harry Chauvel’s Wartime Christmases

 

by Honor Auchinleck

Those who enlisted in response to the outbreak of war on 3rd August 1914 expected their adventure to be over and to be home by Christmas were to be disappointed.  Colonel Harry Chauvel who with his wife Sibyl and three children arrived in England in September 1914 on posting might have expected a family Christmas.  After war broke out, the remaining months of 1914 turned out to be different. 

 

By Christmas 1914 Colonel Harry Chauvel was in Cairo.  There is no mention of how Sibyl and the children spent their Christmas.  If it had been mentioned in letters, Sibyl edited it out of her transcriptions perhaps due to her reluctance to put anything personal into a document which she realized possibly would in future have wider circulation. It must have been a very uncertain, lonely Christmas for the family who had only been living in England for a few months. Sibyl had relatives in England, but she hadn’t had a chance to meet them.  As well as concerns Chauvel would have had for his family in England, just over three weeks after his arrival in Egypt, Chauvel also had other matters on his mind:

 

1914: Cairo Christmas

 

‘On Dec 20th,’ Sibyl Chauvel wrote, setting the background to the letter she received from her husband, ‘Prince Hussein was proclaimed Sultan, & on the 23rd, there was a march of troops through Cairo, a demonstration meant to impress the natives, since there were rumours of unrest amongst them with regard to the new Sultan's [1]accession. In the meantime General Birdwood[2] had arrived from India, & my husband wrote on Dec 25th:

 

‘General Birdwood, who is to command the Army Corps in which we are to be for the present, has appeared on the scenes.... We had a march through Cairo on Wednesday last, General Maxwell taking the salute close to the Continental Hotel. It turned out 1160 men, & I have been told they looked splendid, & marched well. The horses were very fresh though, & the camels we met on the road going in caused some consternation.  There were only ourselves & the New Zealanders.  The other Australians were not in it as they had lined the streets on the occasion of the Sultan's accession.’

 

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The Gallipoli Campaign intervened between Christmas 1914 and Christmas 1915 cutting a swathe through a generation throughout Australia, the British Empire and Turkey.  Christmas 1915 coming within five days of the evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsula, survivors of the campaign like Chauvel had both their memories of the past eight months upon which they would have undoubtedly reflected and the uncertain future to which they could look forward. Harry hardly mentions Christmas in his account of the evacuation, his time on Mudros and sudden embarkation for Egypt.

 

1915: Mudros Christmas

 

Dec 20th Mudros. ‘I slept in pyjamas last night, & woke up to the sound of a band, -- & I have actually seen a woman!  --- several in fact, mostly Greek peasants, but one real Australian nurse, riding, (or rather I should say, ‘on a horse').  In other words, we are more or less in comparative civilisation again.  We left Anzac in the dead of night, & arrived here at seven o'clock yesterday morning.  I came over in a little ship of the Khedivial line, dirty, smelly, & probably lively, but you can't imagine the joy of getting into a cabin again, even under the circumstances.

 

You will probably have read of the evacuation long before you get this.   As far as I know at present, it was carried out without casualty, & without the Turks suspecting it.  If so, it was a very great achievement.  Of course, we are all very sad at leaving the job unfinished, but after the failure of the Suvla landing in August, it was really the only thing to be done, only we never thought we would get off without serious losses, owing to the proximity of the enemy, & the fact that they overlooked us everywhere. However, we Australians can have no remorse, as we at all events did all that was expected of us & more.  That is one satisfaction, & the other is that the whole Peninsula has not been evacuated.

 

We have a very comfortable camp.  I do not know how long we are going to be here, but it will be quite interesting for a bit until the novelty wears off, & the change should do us all good, although I am afraid it is going to be just as cold as the Peninsula.  Still, a tent is a deal healthier than a damp dug-out.’

 

Dec 28th S. S. "Ascanius" ‘The day after I last wrote, we got orders to hold ourselves in readiness to re-embark at once for Egypt.  As a matter of fact, I did not get a ship until Sunday 26th December, when I embarked with Glasfurd[3] & two A.D.C.s on this ship, & sailed the following morning.  Most of my command had already left on various other transports.  This is a Blue Funnel liner, & very comfortable indeed, -- but very full, of course. I don't know how long we will be kept in Egypt, but do know that we are going to Tel-el-Kebir, which is a little more than half way from Cairo to Ismailia.  It is on the desert, & is not a particularly charming spot, but it will be good for training.

 

‘We had quite an interesting few days on Mudros.  I had a horse to ride, & saw what there was to be seen, including some of the French camps.  Glasfurd & Godfrey White & I motored over to Castro, the capital of the island, one day for lunch, & had a look at the old castle which is about 1100 years old, & is still in occupation as a barracks.  I bought you the only thing I could find of a purely local character, a small silk table-cloth made by the islanders, rather pretty and quaint.  We had a look at the hot baths at Thermos en route, but shied off.  There were very few baths, & small ones at that, & you could not have one to yourself without paying an exorbitant price for it.  Furthermore, the water was frightfully hot & there was no means of tempering it, & we were afraid of motoring in the cold wind afterwards.  I was rather disappointed, as I had had only one bath in the last six weeks.  Water was so scarce with the 1st Division that one's clothes had even to be washed in the scrap of water that one washed one's face in, & a bath was out of the question.  Three was also a scarcity at our camp at Mudros.  However, I had a really beauty when I came on board here, & am quite clean now!

 

‘We had Christmas dinner at Mudros, & what with the billy-cans from Australia, & my Christmas hamper, it was "quite a good one."

 

Dec. 29th 1915 Telegram from Alexandria:  

 "Arrived Egypt” [4]  

 

Wartime Christmases are among the most poignant for service personnel serving far from their loved ones.  Christmas 1916 on Sinai was no exception for Major General Harry Chauvel.  A century later, excerpts from Chauvel’s letters tell his story, marking one of the early turning points in World War One for the ANZAC Mounted Division and for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force:

 

1916: A Right Royal Christmas

 

El Arish, Dec 24th  ‘Lots of things have happened since I wrote you last, & you will see from the enclosed copy of a telegram from General Chetwode[5] to “East-Force”, that we have had another pretty stiff fight.  El Arish was a bloodless victory as the whole show was evacuated before we got here; but our night march was an achievement, twenty-five miles in the dark over unknown country, mustering from different quarters at an unknown starting point & striking simultaneously three different points known only on the map, with compasses the only guides.  We had a cordon round the place before dawn, & were in occupation by 6.30a.m. We found the enemy had withdrawn to a place called Maghdaba at dawn yesterday.  They put up a very good fight, & at one time I thought we were not going to get through.  However, they collapsed altogether about 4.15p.m., but it was almost dark when we got the whole position, & it was a devil of a business collecting prisoners & wounded, & assembling units in the dark.  I did not get away till 9.15p.m., & did not reach this until 9.30 this morning, so I have had only one night in bed in the last four.

 

We were all very tired riding back to El Arish, & were all seeing things whose existence was doubtful! I even galloped after a fox once, & am not really sure now that it was there.  My staff & I were moving home independently to the rest, & once we all went to sleep & got off the track.  As [Brigadier-General J.G] Browne had volunteered to lead, I had gone to sleep, & woke up suddenly to find I could not see the telegraph posts that had been our guide, & there was poor Browne, fast asleep too, & the telegraph posts no where to be found.  However we had not be looking for them long, when we heard the dogs barking in El Arish to which we were quite close.  Our horses must have got tired of following the telegraph, & struck a bee-line across the Desert for the wells.

 

We had 130 casualties, not 70 as stated in the wire, & I have lost some very good officers killed.  I have now, as well as my own command, the Imperial Camel Corps (British, Australian, New Zealand), a very fine lot commanded by Brig-General Smith V.C of the Gyppy Army.

 

We have a charming camp site overlooking the sea, & are looking forward to some bathing, though it is mighty cold here in the early mornings.

 

I am going to open my Christmas hamper tomorrow.  [Lieutenant Colonel W.P. Farr sent it along with my camp gear from Bir-el-Mazar yesterday.’

 

Dec 25th  ‘Today opened with a lot of signal messages of congratulations, also with news of the bag from the troops I left to clean up the battlefield.  It is very satisfactory indeed, & I think it is a very fine Christmas box for the Commander in Chief.’

 

 

‘We had a right royal dinner on Christmas night.  I don’t know how we got all the stuff up, but I believe Farr bagged some camels we had no right to!  We drank “The King”, & in view of the presence of the French and Italian attachés, “Our Allies”.  Both these made speeches, & I had to respond.  They are both good fellows, & put up with the hardships of our march without a murmur.  I said to the Frenchman, “I am afraid you have been very uncomfortable.” He said, “Not at all.  It has been an honour to share your discomforts”. Considering they lost all their kit during the first night’s march & were perished with cold, I thought it was very nice of him.  He had a buster, too, during that first night!  I rode back to him & asked if he were hurt, & he said, “No, but I have lost my helmet & my prestige”! He never found his helmet (& it was very hot in the middle of the day), but I think he picked up his prestige again. They were both rather a nuisance when we were mustering prisoners in the dark, as they kept getting arrested by the escorts, & having to be rescued.’

 

Dec 27th ‘We got all our prisoners off today, 45 officers and nearly 1400 others; also 179 of our wounded.  They made two very imposing processions along the beach.  I forgot to tell you that the Turkish commander had two women with him, presumably his harem, & a couple of small boys.  They rode in on camels, two on each.  They have to ride about 15 miles along the beach, & then they get the train for Kantara.  The wounded get the hospital train; we were going to send them by sea, but it has been blowing a gale for the last three days, & the sea is too rough.’

 

If, having returned from leave only ten days before the Battle of Magdhaba, on Christmas Day Chauvel felt bereft without his family, he was too stoic to let on.   At Christmas 1916, for Chauvel and many others, each of the two previous wartime Christmases must have been distinguished by their own particular memories.  Christmas 1915 must have brought its own reflections on Gallipoli and undoubtedly memories of the many who did not return.  There must also have been the uncertainly of not knowing what lay ahead. It was another three years before the Chauvels spent Christmas together and by then they were back in Melbourne.

 

The early successes in the First World War in the Middle East, in early 1916 at Romani and subsequently at Magdhaba, are often masked by the war of attrition during a hard winter on the Western Front. After the setbacks at Gaza, the fortunes of war gathered momentum at Beersheba, paving the way in December 1917 to Jerusalem.

 

1917: Christmas in the Holy Land

 

17th Dec ‘I have seen Murray’s despatch on the Gaza battles.   It is pretty accurate. Except that he is wrong in saying that the fog delayed the Cavalry as well as the Infantry at the first Battle of Gaza.  That was not so, as we got to our appointed places half an hour before the time arranged. 

 

It has been pretty cold here on & off, but nothing to worry about yet.  It has also been very wet, & the roads have been almost impassable, but fortunately they dry up at once.  We have every kind of transport now, -- railway, caterpillar, motor lorry, horse & mule wagon, camels, mules, & lastly thousands of donkeys, -- so we are practically independent of the weather.  Motor lorries & camels are no use in wet weather; the camels slip about, and finally sit down! Caterpillars can go through almost anything, but make the roads look silly in the wet weather, though they improve them when it is dry.

 

I have at last managed to get up to Jerusalem.  Howard-Vyse [6]& I motored up there with Sir Phillip Chetwode on Saturday, at the invitation of General Shea[7], whose troops were responsible for the actual capture.  We all stayed the night with Shea, whom we found comfortably ensconced in a very nice house in the suburbs of Jerusalem.  The road up is most interesting & a wonderful feat of engineering, very steep in places, but very well made, probably, I think, on an old Roman base. The scenery, all mountains & gorges, is very picturesque & dotted here & there with native villages, mostly on the top of mountains, & presumably on the site of ancient towns which appear always to have been built in inaccessible places for defensive purposes.  Chetwode showed us the positions which Shea’s men had to attack, & I think they did marvellously.  We saw in the distance Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, which was their shoving-off place for one brigade in the final assault.  Jerusalem is disappointing approaching it from this side, as you have to drive through modern suburbs before you get to it, & you are on top of it before you realise it.  We had tea with Shea, & then, what do you think we did? We spent our first afternoon in the Holy City?  -- Went to an indifferent Pierrot Show given by Mott’s Welshmen!

 

We had a very interesting day on Sunday, however.  Directly after breakfast we motored to a hill called Shafal where we got a splendid view of the country to the North & North-East, including the Jordan Valley, & the northern end of the Dead Sea.  We then motored down to the Mount of Olives, & climbed up to the top of the tower of the Russian Convent, from whence we got a magnificent view of the Dead Sea & the Mountains of Moab to the East, Jerusalem & the Garden of Gethsemane at our feet, & Bethlehem to the South.  We got back to Shea’s Headquarters by 10 o’clock, when we attended a very impressive service held by his Senior Chaplain in an open square.  After that we motored down into the old town with a guide.  Unfortunately, no one is allowed into the Holy Places yet, by the C-in-C’s orders, so we could only look at them from the outside. 

 

Dec 24th. Allan [Chauvel], Rupert Downes[8] & Frank Newton[9] managed to get up to Jerusalem & Bethlehem in one of my cars on Saturday.  They enjoyed their trip, though the road was awful on account of the wet weather, of which we are having more than we want. They were a trifle more successful in their shopping than I was.  Downes bought me back a pair of candlesticks made of olive wood that shut up into a very conventional little parcel for tracing, & a little ink bottle, also made of olive wood, that will not turn over.

 

I hope you won’t stay long in London.  I am awfully nervous about those air-raids.’

 

Dec 25th. I wrote you only yesterday, but must write again today because it is Christmas Day.  I do hope you are having a happy day with the children.  We had a church parade and Communion Service for Corps Headquarters at ten o'Clock in a big empty building used for storing almonds, which was arranged & decorated with great care & artistic effort by Maitland Woods[10] & my A.D.C.s, the Jews finding the floral decorations, also the piano & violin.  We thought to keep dry!  But the roof leaked in many places, & the water simply poured in, & we had to keep shifting our seats to get away from, not drips but water spouts! Fortunately everyone but the poor old padre himself had overcoats, which were hastily put on. Maitland-Woods stuck it out manfully though he could hardly hear himself speak for the noise of the rain & the wind, & and his extempore altar & pulpit had to be shifted.  The Jewish Mayor had provided a mat for me to kneel on (the floor being earth) but by the time the Communion started, it was an inch deep in water! The weather has been simply vile; it has been blowing a gale for several days, accompanied by very heavy rain, & it does not snow any intention of stopping.  The Roman Catholics had a High Mass at midnight at Bethlehem last night, to which I was invited to send any R.C. officers.  I sent Colonel Preston[11] to represent me, & lent him a car.  Some others also went including General Fitzgerald, but I am afraid they must have had an awful time getting there.  Last night was the wildest I have ever known for many months, & I was very thankful I was not in a tent.’

 

Port Said

 

8th Jan 1918

 

‘I have just got your letter of Dec 3rd & 6th.  You seem a bit worried that I will not let you send me food, when I appreciate the hamper that came from Australia so much, but you must not mind that.  I would not have you send me any for worlds.  I think it is absolutely criminal to ask people to send any food stuffs out of England to this land of plenty.  It is quite different from Australia.  I saw my Christmas hamper on its way up to me, but goodness knows when it will reach me in the present state of the roads.’[12]

 

If he thought the end of the war was less than a year away, the careful Chauvel never let on. By Christmas 1918 he had other anxieties, many of which must have been shared by many.

 

Christmas 1918: ‘We must hope for the best’

Desert Mounted Corps HQ

Homs

 

Nov 8th ‘It would be glorious if I could get home for Christmas.  I have written twice to the C.G.S. asking him if he can give me any tip at all, but have had no reply.  I am hundreds of miles from G.H.Q. & nobody that knows anything has been near me.’

 

Nov 11th ‘We have got the news today that the Germans have signed the Armistice, so I suppose things really are nearing the end. 

 

I have some grave doubts whether I will get away for some time. There will be much to fix up here, demobilisation schemes etc.  However, we must hope for the best.’

 

Dec 15th ‘I have not written to you for the last week as I have been expecting to go by the first boat, & thought I should get home as soon as the letter.  However I now find there are odd mails going by ships that either don’t take passengers, or are full.  I don’t know when I am going to get away.  The ship I was booked for has been diverted to Salonika for transport purposes, & Hodgson, who was on the list ahead of me, & was ordered to embark nine days ago is still here.  I am so disappointed, as all hope of getting home for Christmas has now gone.  I will get there sometime I suppose.  I am sorry to hear you had influenza.  I do hope you were not very ill & are quite well now.  I am very glad you are more comfortable now (in rooms in Cambridge).  I have been very anxious about you as to whether you are warm enough and have enough to eat.’

 

Dec 25th Although I am hoping you will have left for Egypt before this gets to England, I feel I must write to you today – you might not get away as soon as I hope.  I am more sorry than I can say that I could not get home for Christmas, but all the ships that might have taken officers home on leave were diverted for other purposes; & now it is expected that demobilisation of Australian troops will commence sooner than was anticipated, & I don’t think it is right to go away until that is at least underway.’

 

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A sense of disappointment must have coloured Christmas 1918, not only for Sir Harry but for almost all the servicemen who were unable to travel to their families.  Sibyl joined Sir Harry on 20th January and remained with him as they travelled and Sir Harry took leave of those who had served under him.  Having been an Army wife myself, I can only imagine how important it must have been for my grandmother to meet those whom she’d hitherto only read about in Sir Harry’s letters home or in press reports.

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Footnotes

 

[1] Sultan Hussein Kamel was Sultan of Egypt from 19th December 1914 to 9th October 1917.

[2] William Riddell Birdwood (1865 – 1951) was promoted Lieutenant General on 12th December 1914 and given command of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps

[3] Major John Duncan Glasfurd (1873-1916), was appointed by Major General Sir William Bridges as a general officer with the 1st Division AIF.

[4] Sir Harry was appointed KCMG on 18th January 1917 and promoted Lieutenant General in August 1917.

[5] In 1916 Lieutenant General Chetwode commanded the Desert Mounted Corps.  In June 1917 he took over the XX Corps.

[6] Brigadier Richard Howard-Vyse (1883 – 1962), British Cavalry officer, Chief Staff Officer, Deserted Mounted Corps, 1917.

[7] General Sir John Stuart Mackenzie Shea (1869 – 1966) commanded 60th (2/2nd London Division in 1917 in Palestine

[8] Colonel Rupert Downes (1885 – 1945) In 1917 he was the Deputy Director of Medical Services for the Desert Mounted Corps.

[9] Major Frank Newton (1877 – 1962) was appointed in 1917 by Chauvel to look after Australian personnel matters in the Desert Mounted Corps.

[10] Padre William Maitland Woods (1864 – 1927) joined Chauvel’s staff in 1916.

[11] Lieutenant Colonel R M P Preston DSO

[12] Chauvel War Books (Volume II), p.64