General Sir Harry Chauvel
16 April 1865 - 4 March 1945

Accession Number: ART13521 Artist: McInnes, W Title: Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel Date Made: 1938 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: Overall: 129.1 x 104.5 cm Classification: Painting Copyright: AWM copyright

Henry George Chauvel was born in Tabulam, New South Wales on 16 April 1865 and was educated at Sydney Grammar before doing his final year at Toowoomba Grammar. He was commissioned into the Upper Clarence Light Horse, a militia unit raised by his father, Major C. H. E. Chauvel, in 1886. Two years later the family moved to Queensland and he resigned his commission and took up one in the Queensland Mounted Infantry. In 1896, Chauvel transferred to the Queensland Permanent Forces with the rank of captain.

Chauvel commanded A Squadron of the Queensland Mounted Infantry in the Boer War, where he was mentioned in dispatches and was made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG). He returned to Australia to take command of the 7th Commonwealth Light Horse, but did not get back to South Africa with it until after the war had ended.

After the war he returned to Australia where he served as a staff officer with the Northern Rivers District near Townsville. He was chief of staff there from 1904 to 1911, being promoted to lieutenant colonel in December 1909. Appointed to the Military Board as Adjutant General in 1911, Chauvel was involved in the implementation of the compulsory training scheme. On 3 July 1914, Chauvel replaced Colonel J. G. Legge as the Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff in London, with the rank of full colonel. He was offered the post of Commandant of the Military College at Duntroon on completing his posting there, but the outbreak of war intervened.

On the outbreak of war, Chauvel was appointed to command the 1st Light Horse Brigade. He remained in England however, because that was where the brigade was scheduled to train. While his brigade was en route to join him, Chauvel became convinced that the proposed camps on the Salisbury Plain would not be ready on time. He persuaded the High Commissioner in London, former Prime Minister Sir George Reid, to approach Lord Kitchener with an alternate plan of diverting the AIF to Egypt, which was done. Chauvel finally sailed for Egypt with Major T. A. Blamey on 14 November 1914.

When the light horse were called upon to provide reinforcements for the Gallipoli Campaign, Chauvel and the other light horse leaders protested that they would serve better intact. Their arguments won out, and the light horse were sent to fight at Gallipoli dismounted. The campaign would be a very different one from the open warfare for which the light horsemen had trained. Chauvel arrived on 12 May 1915 and took over the critical sector which included Quinn's, Courtney's and Steele's Posts from Brigadier General J. Monash. Open to Turkish observation on two sides, these four advanced posts at the top of Monash Valley were the linchpin of the defence. Chauvel reorganised the defence, appointing permanent commanders for the posts. He also formed special sniper groups who eventually managed to suppress the Turkish snipers, making it safe even for mule trains to move up Monash Valley.

Chauvel's brigade soon found itself under heavy pressure from the Turks. On 29 May 1915, the Turks fired a mine under Quinn's Post and broke into it. As fate would have it, the permanent commander of the post, Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Cannan was absent, having been invited by General Sir Ian Hamilton to spend two days rest on his flagship, Arcadian and the acting commander, Lieutenant Colonel G. J. Burnage was wounded in the fighting. Chauvel responded by bringing up reserves and appointing a temporary post commander, Lieutenant Colonel H. Pope, with orders to drive the Turks out at all costs. Fortunately, Major S. C. E. Herring was miraculously able to charge across the open practically unscathed, his attack having coincided with a Turkish one on another part of the post and the Turkish machine gunners could not shoot without hitting their own men. In fact, there were only about seventeen Turks in the post, who eventually surrendered. Chauvel's decision may have have been the wrong one, but it was decisive. He was also lucky.

Chauvel spent six weeks in Egypt in June and July in hospital. He took over acting command of the New Zealand and Australian Division on 19 September 1915, a position that became permanent on 2 October 1915. Then on 6 November 1915, he became commander of the 1st Division, and was promoted to Major General. He commanded this division through the final phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, the evacuation, and the reorganisation in Egypt in February and March 1916. On 15 March 1916, Chauvel, offered his choice of appointments, chose to take command of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division rather than take the 1st Division to France. His new command consisted of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades, and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, supported by three brigades of British horse artillery. In June 1916, Chauvel also took over the role of GOC AIF Egypt from Lieutenant General A. J. Godley. He was therefore answerable both to the British GOC-in-C of the EEF, General Sir A. J. Murray and to the GOC AIF in France, Lieutenant General Sir W. R. Birdwood.

Once again, Chauvel's campaign started with being attacked by the Turks. His division was committed to No. 3 Section of the Suez Canal Defences, the northern part of the Suez Canal, under Major General H. A. Lawrence. Arrangements were far from ideal. Command was divided between Chauvel and Lawrence. The British infantry commanders would not take orders from Chauvel, and Lawrence was too far away to control the battle. Lawrence's dispositions were faulty, with the British infantry located too far away to support the mounted troops, which resulted in the burden of defence falling on the mounted troops. 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 selected the same position as the forming up area for his attack.

Chauvel's was unable to do more than direct the defence of his position as two of his brigades had been taken away from him by Murray. Under Lawrence's command, they did not move until too late. The counterattack that Chauvel had been calling for all day did not materialise until dusk. At Katia and again at Bir el Abd, Chauvel attempted to sweep around the Turkish flank but wound up making frontal attacks on the Turkish rearguard and was beaten off by determined counterattacks and by the timidity of Brigadier J. M. Antill, who withdrew under light shelling. Despite a haul of over 4,000 prisoners, Chauvel felt frustrated, his failure to rout and destroy the Turks rankling him. However, for the Anzac horsemen, who suffered over 900 of the 1130 British casualties at Romani, it was a clear-cut victory, their first decisive victory and the turning point of the campaign. Later Chauvel realised that it was the first decisive British victory of the war outside Africa. And it was Chauvel's victory, almost single handed and in spite of Murray and Lawrence. Afterwards Chauvel visited each of his brigade and personally congratulated them for the way that they had fought, a gesture that became a habit.

Afterwards, the command arrangements were altered. A new command, Eastern Force, was formed under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell, and its advance troops, including Chauvel's Anzacs, became part of the Desert Column under Lieutenant General Sir Phillip Chetwode, a capable British cavalry baronet with a keen and insightful mind. Chauvel soon won victories over the Turks at Magdhaba and Rafa. In these battles, Chauvel had a free hand, answerable only to Chetwode, instead of the cumbersome arrangements on the Canal. His men and commanders were more experienced, and his tactics simpler and easier for them to follow, and intelligence on enemy dispositions considerably better thanks to the work of the aviators of No. 1 Squadron, AFC. And still he was lucky, the battle at Magdhaba being won after he gave the order to break off, and the Rafa being won in spite of the same mistake by Chetwode, thanks to Brigadier General C. F. "Fighting Charlie" Cox ignoring the order. For these victories, Chauvel was created a Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the 1917 New Year's List.

In February 1917, a second mounted division, the Imperial Mounted Division, was formed from the 3rd and 4th Light Horse Brigades and two British mounted brigades. A British regular army officer, Major General Sir H. W. Hodgson was appointed to command, with an all-British staff. The deliberate mixing of Australian and Imperial troops was done with Chauvel's approval but was contrary to the policy of the Australian Government, which soon registered its displeasure, sending Brigadier General R. M. McC. Anderson to Cairo to discuss the matter frankly with Chauvel and his superiors. As a result, the Imperial Mounted Division was renamed the Australian Mounted Division.

In the First Battle of Gaza, Chauvel's mission was similar to Rafa and Magdhaba, but on a larger scale. He encircled the town while the British infantry was to capture it. When this failed, Chetwode ordered Chauvel to attempt to capture it from the rear. Chauvel successfully improvised a 4pm assault on Gaza and 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 Dobell order the mounted troops to withdraw, despite Chauvel's protests. This time his brigadiers at the front, Brigadier Generals G. de L. Ryrie and E. J. Chaytor, felt compelled to obey, as they could not see the whole battle. All guns, including captured ones were hauled away, as were all unwounded prisoners, the wounded and even the dead. Chauvel ensured that the Turkish wounded were each left with a full water bottle.

Dobell decided to launch the Second Battle of Gaza as a full scale frontal assault with heavy artillery, tanks and poison gas. It ended even more unsatisfactorily, and Dobell was relieved, his place taken by Chetwode, while Chauvel took over the Desert Column. Shortly after General Sir Edmund Allenby took over the EEF and moved to regularise the command set-up. The Desert Column became the Desert Corps, with the Anzac Mounted Division, the Australian Mounted Division, the British Yeomanry Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade assigned. Although some thought that Allenby would 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, and the first to reach the rank of Lieutenant General.

In the Third Battle of Gaza, it was again Chauvel who had the critical role. Chetwode believed that the EEF did not have the resources to defeat the Turks in their fixed positions so he planned to drive the Turks from them by turning the enemy flank at Beersheba. Beersheba lay on the edge of the enemy line, in a waterless area. The Desert Mounted Corps would have a long overnight approach over waterless desert and would have to capture the town quickly with its wells intact or perish from thirst. Once again the battle went right down to the line, but the mission was accomplished, albeit not without a wild mounted bayonet charge by the 4th Light Horse Brigade -- the last of history's great cavalry charges -- to capture the town and its vital water supply. Few battles have been won in such spectacular fashion. For this decisive victory, and the subsequent capture of Jerusalem, Chauvel was created a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) in the 1918 New Years List.

Chauvel, however, was still disappointed at the failure to destroy the Turkish army. The Turks had fought hard, forcing the commitment of the Desert Mounted Corps in much fighting before the moment for a sweeping pursuit came. When it did, the men and horses were too tired and could not summon the required energy. Once again, Chauvel studied his mistakes, determined to learn from them. In February 1918, the Desert Mounted Corps began a series of operations across the Jordan. Chauvel faced great difficulties with the terrain, the weather and a tenacious enemy. The campaign was not a success. The Desert Mounted Corps found itself fighting outnumbered, with Turkish reinforcements closing in from all sides. Chauvel was forced to withdraw back to the West Bank of the Jordan. His handling of the withdrawal was as skilful as any operation he undertook.

Chauvel soon found his British troops diverted to France, to be replaced by two Indian cavalry divisions, and the Australian Mounted Division faced a similar fate for a time. Its Yeomanry brigade was disbanded and Chauvel replaced it with a new 5th Light Horse Brigade formed from the Australian and New Zealand components of the now disbanded Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, and a French cavalry regiment. In the final campaign he was able to effect a secret redeployment of three of his mounted divisions, launch a surprise attack on the enemy, win the Battle of Megiddo and follow up this victory with one of the fastest pursuits in military history -- an astonishing 167 km in just three days. It was not just a great victory, but one of the greatest of all time. This time he succeeded in destroying the Turkish army at last. At a cost of 533 battle casualties, the Desert Mounted Corps had taken over 70,000 prisoners. 

The Desert Mounted Corps moved across the Golan Heights and captured Damascus on 1 October. To restore calm in the city, Chauvel ordered a show of force. This was later lampooned by Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence as a "triumphal entry" but was actually a shrewd political stroke, freeing Chauvel's forces to advance another 300 km to Aleppo, which was captured on 25 October 1918. Five days later, Turkey surrendered. For his services as commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, Chauvel was created a Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the 1919 New Year's list.

Chauvel returned to Australia in late 1919 and was appointed Inspector General, the Army's most senior post, which he held until 1930. In February 1920, he was promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant general, back dated to 31 December 1919. In January 1920, Chauvel chaired a committee to examine the future structure of the army. This proved next to impossible in the face of defence cuts that were imposed in 1920 and 1922. On Lieutenant General C. B. B. White's retirement in 1923, Chauvel also assumed the post of Chief of Staff as well. In November 1929, he was promoted to the rank of full general, becoming the first Australian to reach that rank. Chauvel attempted to maintain an increasingly hollow structure in place. As Chief of the General Staff, Chauvel had tried to keep standards up by arranging for regular officers to be posted to British staff colleges at Camberley and Quetta, and the Imperial Defence College. When conscription was abolished by the Scullin government in 1929, it was left up to Chauvel to make the new volunteer system work. He retired in April 1930.

During the Second World War, he was recalled to duty as Inspector General of the Volunteer Defence Corps, the Australian version of the home guard. He held this post until he died on 4 March 1945. He is commemorated in a bronze plaque in of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. His sword is in Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne and his uniform in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. There is also a memorial window in the chapel of Royal Military College at Duntroon.

As Inspector General and Chief of the General Staff, Chauvel fought long and hard to ensure that the nucleus of a well trained army would be available to meet the next great challenge, which eventually came in 1939, but it will be as the leader of the light horse that he shall be remembered. Chauvel's employment of his mounted troops was characterised by a firm understanding of their capabilities. His leadership was characterised by painstaking preparations and careful staff work. He exploited the mobility of the light horse, took carefully calculated risks and, if things did not work out, quickly withdrew. He employed his troops boldly in the tradition of the cavalry, and thereby achieved great results, yet still kept his losses to a minimum. The capture of Beersheba, and the final battle at Megiddo remain some of the finest feats achieved by mounted troops in any war.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 7, pp. 624-628; Hill, A. J., "General Sir Harry Chauvel" in Horner (ed), The Commanders

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Last update 8 June 2010