The Great War: Racing and the 'Great Ride'

On 13th March 1917, General Sir Harry Chauvel wrote to his wife Sibyl’ ‘We are having a race meeting at Rafa on Monday next, and I am giving a cup for the “Anzac Steeplechase”.  There is also the “Syrian Derby” a cup given by Sir Phillip Chetwode; the “Promised Land Stakes”, the “Border Plate”; and the “Jerusalem Scurry” (for mules).  I am also one of the stewards, and I’m running a horse in the Anzac Steeple.  We are looking forward to a good day’s sport.   If a ‘Boche’ plane comes over it will be rather puzzled as to what the crowd is!'

Image sources (above and below, left): Chauvel War Books, Volume 2 (Australian War Memorial)

Just over two months after the battle of Rafa on 10th January and less than a week before the First Battle of Gaza on 26th-27th March 1917, on 21st March, General Sir Harry Chauvel wrote, ‘We have had a great day today, - the races at Rafa - and I don’t know when I have enjoyed a day’s racing so much. The course was lovely - beautiful green grass in a large natural amphitheatre - right in the middle of the battlefield of Rafa!  The Turk’s trenches and rifle-pits need a little dodging when laying out the course, but that was all, and the jumps were sandbag walls with brushwood on top.  My division won five out of the six horse races, and out of the other three, one, the Anzac Steeplechase was won by a 3rd Light Horse Brigade horse.  My own horse, Bally, ran third in the Anzac Steeplechase. I ran him in my groom’s name, as I was giving the cup.  I think the results were very creditable to our horses, considering there were so many English hunters and well-bred horses about.’

General Chauvel goes to tell his wife that he’s sending the programme which includes the ‘Battle of Romani’ by the Pipe Band.  ‘It is a beautiful thing’, he explains, ‘written by Lt Colonel Maclean, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who is A.A.&Q.M.G. with the Scottish Territorial Division (52nd Division) which was with us so long at Romani.’

The pipe band plays 'The Battle of Romani' at the Rafa races

Chauvel on Bally at the Rafa Races

 

Eighteen months earlier on Gallipoli, Chauvel had understood the role of race meetings on the morale of the battle weary.  On 8th November 1915, from Headquarters 1st Division, Chauvel wrote to his wife, ‘I am enclosing a copy of the “Peninsula Press” with the results of the Melbourne Cup in it.  These were inserted at my instigation.  We had a sweep in my Brigade, & we wanted the results as soon as possible, so I gave General Birdwood a hint that it would be taken as a compliment by the Australian troops if they were cabled for, & inserted in the “Press”.

 

The entry[1] records, ‘We have to thank the Eastern Telegraph Company for the following cable giving the results of the racing for the Melbourne Cup: (1) Patrobus, (2) Westcourt (3) Carlita (4) Garlin.  Patrobus won by half a neck; the betting was 8 to 1.  Westcourt (betting 50 to 1) was second by a length: Garlita (betting 7 to 1) was third by a length.  The betting on Garlin was 25 to 1.’

Chauvel was not to know that Patrobus’s breeding could be traced back to P and W Mitchell whose horse Trafalgar had been beaten in the exciting 1910 Melbourne Cup by half a neck by Comedy King.  Trafalgar’s grandsire was Carbine, the winner of the 1890 Melbourne Cup. Walter Mitchell, partner of Peter Mitchell in the P and W Mitchell partnership was the father of his future son-in-law, Tom Mitchell.

 

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[1] Peninsula Press (Monday, 8th November 1915, No. 87, Official News, R. E. Printing Section, G.H.Q., M.E.F)