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Chauvel, Sir Henry George (Harry) (1865–1945)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Henry George Chauvel (1865-1945), by James Peter Quinn

Henry George Chauvel (1865-1945), by James Peter Quinn

Australian War Memorial, ART03340

Sir Henry George (Harry) Chauvel (1865-1945), soldier, was born on 16 April 1865 at Tabulam, New South Wales, second son of Charles Henry Edward Chauvel, grazier and cattle-breeder, and his wife Fanny Ada Mary, née James. Chauvel was educated at Sydney Grammar School but had a final year at Toowoomba Grammar before taking his place on his father's cattle-station on the Clarence River. He learned to manage a property, and became a most accomplished horseman.

His ambition was to follow family tradition and join the British Army, there being little scope in the diminutive colonial forces, but his father's losses from drought made Sandhurst and the cavalry impossible. In 1885, when the volunteer movement was reviving, C. H. E. Chauvel raised the Upper Clarence Light Horse in which his son was commissioned next year. In 1888 the family moved to the Darling Downs in Queensland. Harry Chauvel was compelled to resign from the New South Wales forces, but he was commissioned in the Queensland Mounted Infantry in 1890. He had been managing Canning Downs South for three years when in 1896 he obtained an appointment in the Queensland Permanent Military Forces as a captain and adjutant of the Moreton Regiment. He went to England with the Queensland Jubilee Contingent in 1897, staying on for a year for courses and attachments to regular infantry.

Chauvel served with distinction in the South African War as a major in the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry, taking part in the relief of Kimberley, the advance to Pretoria and the battle of Diamond Hill. At the crossing of the Vet River he personally captured a troublesome machine-gun. For a time he led a mixed force, known as Chauvel's Mounted Infantry, in operations in eastern Transvaal. Returning to Australia in 1901 he took command of the 7th Australian Commonwealth Horse as lieutenant-colonel, but the war ended before he reached Durban. For his services in South Africa, Chauvel was appointed C.M.G. and mentioned in dispatches; he was also given the brevet of lieutenant-colonel.

In the next decade Chauvel established a reputation as a trainer, especially of officers; many who attended his staff rides were to distinguish themselves in World War I. Apart from a short period in South Australia reorganizing the mounted troops, he remained in Queensland in staff appointments until 1911. He was one of the group, including (Sir) William Bridges and (Sir) Brudenell White, which was close to Major General Sir Edward Hutton, commander and organizer of the Australian Army in 1901-04. Chauvel was a strong supporter of the existing militia, and the organization from 1910 of the compulsory system around its officers and non-commissioned officers owed much to his advocacy. On 16 June 1906, at All Saints Anglican Church, Brisbane, he had married Sibyl Campbell Keith Jopp; they had two sons and two daughters.

In 1911 Chauvel became adjutant general and second member of the Military Board. He was at the centre of affairs during the critical period when the compulsory system was being set up and the Royal Military College was being developed at Duntroon. This work was only partly completed when, in 1914, he was sent to London to be Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff. By the time he and his family reached England, Europe was at war and Australia was preparing an expeditionary force. Bridges chose Chauvel to command the 1st Light Horse Brigade; he was the only Australian regular, other than Bridges himself, to obtain a senior command in the original Australian Imperial Force. He served usefully at the War Office until he went to Egypt in December. His visits to Salisbury Plain had convinced him that the camps would not be ready for the A.I.F.; his urgent representations to Sir George Reid, high commissioner in London, influenced the historic decision to disembark the force in Egypt.

When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps assaulted the Gallipoli Peninsula north of Gaba Tepe on 25 April 1915, the three light horse brigades remained in Egypt. They were quickly called for as reinforcements for the infantry, but Chauvel and the other brigadiers stubbornly insisted that their brigades go as complete units, although dismounted. Chauvel landed on 12 May, taking command of the vital sector around Pope's, Quinn's and Courtney's posts. He held these positions against all Turkish attacks until he was sent to a quiet sector in September. During that time, he became known for his coolness and courage especially in the critical fight of 29 May. Like Lieutenant-General (Baron) Birdwood, the corps commander, he spent much of his time walking his trenches and closely observing the state of his troops and their positions.

After two short periods in command of the New Zealand and Australian Division, Chauvel took command of the 1st Division on 6 November. He led it through the evacuation in December and the subsequent expansion of the A.I.F. in Egypt. In December he was promoted major general and in January 1916 was gazetted C.B. Although Birdwood offered him command of one of the infantry divisions soon to go to France, Chauvel elected to remain with the light horse as commander of the new Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division. He also took command of all Australian forces in Egypt including the 1st Squadron, Australian Flying Corps; however, for virtually all matters other than operations, he was responsible to Birdwood in France during the rest of the war.

The new division was still settling down when on 23 April, the Turks raided the British outposts covering the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Chauvel immediately moved across the canal to restore the situation, beginning an advance which was to continue for two and a half years until the enemy was driven from Aleppo on the northern borders of Syria. His division was the only desert-worthy force in Sinai, so that when the second Turkish thrust for the canal was defeated at Romani on 4-5 August 1916, Anzac Mounted became the spearhead of Eastern Force in the advance across the desert into Palestine. At Romani, with only two of his four brigades under command, Chauvel outfought the Turks in blazing heat. He pursued them, but his division was too light a force to complete their destruction. 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. After Magdhaba he was appointed K.C.M.G.

In the first battle of Gaza on 26-27 March 1917, Sir Harry Chauvel took advantage of the fog to place his division across the Turkish communications. He had forced his way into Gaza when he and the victorious British infantry were ordered to withdraw owing to the approach of fresh Turkish forces. In these operations, the newly formed Imperial Mounted Division was placed under his command. Immediately after the unsuccessful second battle of Gaza, 17-19 April 1917, Chetwode was given command of Eastern Force and Chauvel succeeded to the command of the Desert Column, thus becoming the first Australian to lead a corps. When General Sir Edmund Allenby became commander-in-chief in June 1917, he reorganized the army into three corps, giving Chauvel the Desert Mounted Corps of three divisions. In August he became the first Australian to attain the rank of lieutenant-general.

In Allenby's offensive from 31 October, Chauvel attacked Beersheba from the east, seizing the wells intact by a surprise charge at sunset. The myth that he launched the 4th Light Horse Brigade as a last desperate throw after a brusque order from Allenby does not sustain examination; Allenby's signal, which arose from misunderstanding an earlier message from Chauvel, was sent after the light horse had entered the town. However, when Gaza was taken and the Turkish centre rolled up, Chauvel was in no position to administer the coup de grâce as four of his nine brigades had been detached and the remainder were almost exhausted. Nevertheless the Desert Mounted Corps, supported by the 60th Division, drove the Turks up the Plain of Philistia beyond Jaffa and the Nahr el Auja, and Jerusalem was entered by the infantry early in December. For his part in these successes, Chauvel was appointed K.C.B.

In the reorganization in the spring of 1918, a fourth division was added to Chauvel's corps, which now consisted of the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions and the 4th and 5th Cavalry Divisions. Allenby attacked twice across the Jordan during this period; the first operation was a powerful raid but the second, under Chauvel, was designed to seize ground with a view to advancing on the vital Turkish rail junction of Deraa. Doubting the feasibility of this plan with the limited forces and logistic support available, he made objections and obtained most of the 60th Division for the assault. Despite the rapid capture of Es Salt on 30 April, the battle swung against him. The Turks repeatedly repulsed the attacks of the 60th Division and drove in his left flank, threatening to cut off his brigades around Es Salt. Moreover, the promised aid from the Arabs did not materialize. As the Turks were being strongly reinforced, on 3 May he decided to withdraw, with Allenby's gruff approval.

This operation was in no sense a raid and deserves the title of second battle of the Jordan given it by the enemy commander-in-chief, General Liman von Sanders. If Chauvel failed to seize and hold all his objectives, the blow had important psychological results in that it convinced the enemy that the next British offensive would be launched in the same area and by the same troops. When it came on 19 September, the offensive began on the Mediterranean flank, with his corps poised to dash forward as soon as the infantry had cut a path through the Turkish defences. The secret movement of three cavalry divisions and their impedimenta from the Jordan Valley to the orchards near modern Tel Aviv was a triumph for Chauvel and his staff. Within twenty-four hours, by hard riding, his corps was positioned thirty to forty miles behind the disorganized Turkish armies, astride their communications and moving to seize the few crossings of the Jordan. 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 1 October; after a short pause he was ordered to march on Aleppo, 200 miles (322 km) to the north.

Aleppo fell to an Arab force on 25 October. There had been little fighting during the advance; this was fortunate, for Chauvel's tired divisions 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 (483 to 804 km), 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 co-ordination of his widely spread forces, and the special care that he gave to the logistical basis of all his operations. Although the headquarters of his polyglot corps was British, he had appointed to key administrative positions Australian officers of outstanding capacity, such as Colonel R. M. Downes and Lieutenant-Colonel William Stansfield. 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.

Returning to Australia in September 1919, Chauvel was appointed inspector general and 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.

In these straitened circumstances Chauvel succeeded White as chief of the general staff in June 1923. At the government's request he continued to act as inspector general. Chauvel's reports of 1921-30 are not only a prime source of Australian military history but also his own testament. In plain, unambiguous terms he warned in report after report of the deterioration in Australia's strategic position owing to the relative decline of British sea power; he cast doubt on the efficacy of Singapore as the first line of defence and he argued that the army must be strong enough to hold out until help arrived. He also made it clear that the existing skeleton force of partly trained men was unfit to fight.

In 1924 Chauvel persuaded the government to increase the duration of annual camps from six to eight days and to extend the period of service for trainees from two to three years, but he was unable to obtain funds to rearm the coast defences or even to maintain the army's vehicles and equipment. Nevertheless, he pressed for better pay and conditions for the exiguous permanent force on which the army depended. In particular, Chauvel sought to keep a close relationship with the British Army, by sending officers to the staff colleges and to the Imperial Defence College and on exchange duty in various British headquarters. Insistence on this policy prepared the more senior officers of the Australian Staffs Corps for their outstanding part in World War II.

It was not until 1925-29 that the army's first few motor vehicles and tanks began to arrive from England. Chauvel was well aware that this was only a gesture; the army remained what it was, a force of 1918 vintage in which the officer corps struggled to keep up with British developments. Nevertheless, the foundations were laid, as in army-air force co-operation exercises beginning in 1925, Chauvel's own exercise for senior officers the same year, and the establishment in 1926 of the Defence Committee of which he was chairman until 1930.

In his role as inspector general, Chauvel frequently travelled to every State to inspect brigades in camp and watch their training.He preferred this to the paperwork and committees which beset him as chief of the general staff. Like all true commanders, he drew strength and refreshment from contact with troops, and his long term as inspector general gave him an unrivalled knowledge of the service. When James Scullin became prime minister in October 1929, one of his first acts was to suspend compulsory training. Chauvel had not been consulted but was required to provide a plan for a smaller, voluntary force. He at once put his authority and influence behind the organization of the new militia which, in spite of the economic crisis, enlisted 25,000 volunteers and 5000 senior cadets in less than six months.

In November 1929 Chauvel was promoted general, the first Australian to attain this rank. His retirement 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.

Retirement was for Chauvel a fruitful experience; directorships in three important companies gave him new interests and he now had time for ex-servicemen's causes. He was for many years chairman of the trustees of the Australian and Victorian war memorials, a senior patron of Melbourne Legacy, and active in the work of the Australian Red Cross and the Young Men's Christian Association. On the eve of Anzac Day 1935, one newspaper wrote that Chauvel 'has come by his quiet work in the interests of returned men to be regarded as their peace time leader'. Such work was but one manifestation of the religious faith on which his life had been built and which was recognized by his Church when he was made a lay canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1930.

In 1937 Chauvel led the Australian Services Contingent at the coronation of King George VI. He represented the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia on the committee which drew up plans for reserve and garrison forces early in 1939. When the Volunteer Defence Corps was set up in June 1940, Chauvel became its inspector-in-chief. At 75 he was in uniform again and on the move around the country. When White, who had been recalled to be chief of the general staff, was killed in 1940, it was to Chauvel that the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, turned for advice on a successor. In 1944 his health began to fail and he died in Melbourne on 4 March 1945, survived by his wife and children. He was cremated after a state funeral.

As a soldier, Chauvel's courage and calmness were matched by his humanity which was extended to the enemy as well as his own men. He was always well forward in battle; in the field he lived simply, sleeping in his greatcoat on the sand when his force was on the move. Loyalty was one of his chief characteristics: he stood by Birdwood when Allenby tried to interfere with the A.I.F. command, and by the New Zealanders when there was an attempt to make Anzac Mounted wholly Australian. He has been criticized for lack of resolution at Rafa and Magdhaba but this was probably an unwillingness to accept more casualties for a prize he did not value; there was no question of his resolution at Quinn's Post, or Romani or Beersheba. Besides, he knew that if Anzac Mounted were to suffer a disaster, the Desert Column would be crippled.

Chauvel seemed shy and reserved, in Birdwood's phrase 'very retiring', so that some found him aloof. In reality he was a warm, uncomplicated man, with a keen sense of humour. He rarely sent written orders of the day but he made a point of visiting and addressing troops who had done well or had suffered heavy casualties. Because he understood the British and knew how dependent the small Australian and New Zealand forces were, his policy was to co-operate rather than confront. Because Chauvel was relatively junior and responsible to Birdwood in France, tact and diplomacy were required. His successes in the field and his obvious integrity strengthened his position, but some senior officers seem to have resented a mere 'colonial' having the best command in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

His long period of office at the head of the army showed Chauvel at his best. In an adverse political and economic environment he knew that, as he could neither train nor equip the army for war, he must ensure the survival and efficiency of the officer corps. Nor could governments pretend that they had not been warned. Lieutenant-General Sir Sydney Rowell summed up: 'Chauvel was the sheet anchor of the Army in this period … It says a great deal for the esteem in which he was held and for his wisdom and integrity that he held the Army together at a time when it was always on the rundown and was, in 1929-31, approaching the critical point where it would have collapsed completely, had it not been for Chauvel's work and influence'.

Portraits are in the Australian War Memorial, the Naval and Military Club, Melbourne, and the Imperial War Museum, London. A fine portrait by George Lambert is in the possession of the family. There is a bronze tablet to Chauvel's memory in St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, his sword is in Christ Church, South Yarra, and there is a memorial window in the chapel of R.M.C., Duntroon. His two sons were graduates of R.M.C. and served with the Indian Army; his daughter Elyne Mitchell became a well-known writer.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melb, 1978), and for bibliography.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Chauvel, Sir Henry George (Harry) (1865–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chauvel-sir-henry-george-harry-5569/text9497, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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