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Palestine by the Boss (LTGEN (later GEN) Sir Harry Chauvel)


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The AIF in Palestine

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss at any length the merits of the Palestine Campaign in relation to the strategical aspect of the methods adopted by the Allies for the conduct of the late War. Suffice it to say that History shows that wars in the past have been won by skill of manoeuvre and not by exhaustion of the enemy’s man-power and that, when a dead-lock occurs between forces of approximately equal strength, success has been won by other means than costly frontal attacks. That this was realised in the end of 1914 is evidenced by the Gallipoli Campaign, the conception of which was absolutely right. It failed because the two factors essential to the success of a flank attack of such a nature were entirely absent, ie, surprise and sufficient initial forces. its place was eventually taken by the Campaigns in Palestine, Mesopotamia and Salonika. Not that the Campaigns in Palestine and Mesopotamia were originally intended as a flank attack but they gradually developed into a very definite one and fulfilled their mission as such. What is now known as the Palestine Campaign was indeed originally organised only for the Defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal, although there were some amongst us who already foresaw that the essential flank attack must develop out of it and that great opportunities would eventuate for Cavalry, whose role on the Western Front was obviously finished.

It was the successes obtained at Romani, Magdhaba and Rafa which led the War Council to agree to the change from a defensive to an offensive Campaign. At these three battles the Australians and New Zealanders of the Light Horse, Mounted Rifles and Imperial Camel Corps played a very important part. At Romani it was the gallant stand made by the 1st Light Horse Brigade against the enemy’s main attack for four hours during the night of the 3/4 August, 1916, on an unexpected out-post line, and the skilful rear-guard action of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades on the morning of the 4th which won the battle. At Magdhaba, with the exception of one British Company of the Imperial Camel Corps and the Horse Artillery Batteries. Australians and New Zealanders were the only troops engaged. Similarly at Rafa, except that one Yeomanry Brigade had been added. Again it was the demonstration by the Australians and New Zealanders of the long reach and striking power of cavalry in this country (Magdhaba was 75 kilometres from their Advanced Base and Rafa) which led to the constant, and eventually enormous, increase in the cavalry in this theatre. Without a considerable number of Cavalry the Turkish line from Gaza to Beersheba could not have been turned and without large masses of Cavalry the Battle of Megiddo, as Lord Allenby carried it out, could not have been conceived.

Although Rafa was fought and won partly on Palestine soil, the Invasion of Palestine commenced with the 1st Battle of Gaza which was unfortunately unsuccessful, though the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles had penetrated the outskirts of the city from the rear and the 53rd Division had carried the key to the enemy’s position. The reasons for its failure were a fog which delayed the Infantry attack and a possibly exaggerated aircraft based report of enemy reinforcements moving on the rear of the attacking cavalry. The withdrawal during the night of the 26/27 March, 1917, of 20 kilometres across the front of advancing enemy columns, was one of the most difficult operations the cavalry were called upon to perform during the Campaign. The 2nd attack on Gaza, 19 April 1917, was again unsuccessful and resulted in heavy losses to the British Forces. The reasons for failure were simple — a frontal attack upon a fortified position held by an enemy traditionally staunch in defence. The position had been immensely strengthened since the 1st Battle and heavily reinforced. All the Australian formations took part in this battle. The role designed for the Cavalry did not eventuate and the brigades were gradually drawn into the Infantry fight. The 4th Light Horse Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps suffered considerable casualties.

The period between the 2nd and 3rd Battles of Gaza, the summer of 1917, was a particularly trying one and was spent by the Australians alternately between trench warfare, long reconnaissances and short rests by the sea-side. The plans for the 3rd Battle of Gaza involved the turning of the enemy’s left flank at Beersheba and this task was allotted to the two divisions of Australians and New Zealanders (one of which included at that time a Yeomanry Brigade) while the 20th Corps attacked the Western defences thereof. This meant two long night marches, nearly 50 kilometres in one case, with all possible concealment during the day. The attack on Beersheba commenced at dawn on 30 October 1917, and lasted all day for, though the 20th Corps had taken most of the enemy works to the West by 16:00, and Australians and New Zealanders were pressing on it from the North East, the town itself was still held and resistance was thickening. The last remaining Australian Light Horse Brigade (the 4th) was put in straight at the town from the East. Two regiments charged over successive lines of trenches and galloped into the town before the Turkish Command had realised what had happened.

During the few days following the capture of Beersheba the Australian Brigades and Battalions of the Imperial Camel Corps took their share in holding off Turkish counter-attacks in the waterless country North of Beersheba while the attack of the 21st Corps against the enemy’s right at Gaza was proceeding and the 20th Corps was preparing to attack the enemy’s left centre. Released eventually for their more legitimate role, the Australians with the other Cavalry took up the pursuit of the enemy’s main forces retiring from Gaza and its vicinity. This entailed long and waterless Marches and constant fighting as, though in every case prevented by the skill and initiative of the cavalry leaders, whether British, Australian or New Zealand, from forming any continuous line of resistance, bodies of the enemy occupied every commanding position on the line of advance and held on tenaciously.

After the enemy had been driven far enough to the North to permit of his moving on Jerusalem, Lord Allenby adopted the tactics of all his ancient predecessors, and, keeping his Cavalry generally on the plain, moved his Infantry into the hills to the attack on Jerusalem so that only one Australian Regiment, the 10th Light Horse, temporarily lent to the Infantry, took part in the actual capture of the Holy City, though Australians and New Zealanders were subsequently employed with other troops in the attack on Jericho, its capture actually falling to the lot of the 1st Light Horse Brigade.

The Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade were also employed in the subsequent raid to Amman, which was organised partly to assist our Arab Allies and partly to destroy the Turkish Railway connecting Medina with Damascus. The demolitions on the Railway were actually carried out by the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Imperial Camel Brigade, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade and the Imperial Camel Brigade had to withstand the counter-attack which followed the withdrawal, at Ghoraniyeh Bridgehead and Musallabeh.

In April, 1918, Loid Allenby’s further advance into Syria, and perhaps Asia Minor, was unfortunately checked by the German offensive in France which led to urgent reinforcements for that theatre being demanded from him. He lost many of his best British troops, their places being taken by Indian troops, many of whom were unseasoned and only partially trained. This meant a complete reorganisation and definitely postponed his further operations until the Autumn, at the same time giving the enemy an opportunity to build up a strong line to oppose him, stretching from the Mediterranean, North of Jaffa, to the Jordan and East of that to the head of the Dead Sea. The months that followed, however, were an education in deceptive strategy; for Lord Allenby, having decided to attack and break through the enemy’s line on the Mediterranean Coast, devoted himself to concentrating the enemy’s attention on the other flank, the Jordan Yalley.

Another raid was undertaken, this time to Es Salt, on Gilead, and carried out by the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions, including some Yeomanry Regiments and the 50th Division. Incidentally this raid nearly resulted in disaster, owing partly to the defection of our Arab Allies and partly to the fact that the enemy was concentrating for an attack on our Jordan Valley flank. It was only owing to hard fighting and the prompt support of the rest of the cavalry that the Australian Mounted Division was able to get back at all. The Cavalry were kept on that flank as the enemy’s high command had always paid them the compliment in its "appreciations" of saying that, "in whatever part of the line their Cavalry were, it was from there the British would strike."

So nervous did the enemy become that in July he attacked us in the Valley, either to drive us out or destroy our power of manoeuvre there, and actually penetrated a salient at Abu Tellul. The salient was quickly retaken by the 1st Light Horse Brigade and the attack repulsed elsewhere by the 5th Light Horse, New Zealanders and Indian Cavalry. Every kind of device was adopted to the same end so that the Turks concentrated their reserves opposite that flank, and when Lord Allenby attacked on the 19 September 1918, at Arsuf on the Mediterranean Coast, they were quite unprepared and sufficient of their line was broken by the 21st Corps in three hours to let three divisions of Cavalry through to cut their communication and line of retreat 65 kilometres to their rear. For this Battle of Megiddo (September 19 to 26, 1918) the Australians were divided, those in the Anzac Division remaining in the Jordan Valley to contain, with other troops, the IV Turkish Army and exploit any successes obtained West of the Jordan; while those in the Australian Division (which now included in the 5th Light Horse Brigade, two extra regiments, the 14th and 15th, formed from the Australians in the Imperial Camel Corps) accompanied the remainder of the Desert Mounted Corps in its sweep across the rear of the VII and VIII Turkish Armies. All brigades distinguished themselves, the 1st and 2nd in the final Capture of Amman, the 3rd at Jenin, the 4th at Semakh and the 5th at Tul Keram and Nablus.

In the subsequent advance of the Desert Mounted Corps to Damascus the Australian Mounted Division led the western column, and had the brunt of the fighting on that side, including a night attack at Sasa by the 3rd Brigade in difficult lava strewn ridges, an attack by the 4th and 12th Light Horse at Kaukab and the blocking of the Barada Gorge by the 5th Light Horse Brigade. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade were the first Allied troops to enter Damascus, the 10th Light Horse actually taking the surrender of the city at 06:30 on the 1 October 1918. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade also overtook an enemy column North of Damascus and took many prisoners.

With the exception of a few Staff Officers, No 1 Australian Light Car Patrol and some members of the Australian Flying Corps, no Australians took Part in the Capture of Aleppo, this task being allotted to the 5th Cavalry Division as it was less decimated by malaria than the other two divisions. In all these operations No 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps also played a very important part. As a portion of the Palestine Brigade RAF it was responsible for a large share of the reconnaissance, mapping, bombing and final destruction of the enemy’s air force.

Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel GCMG, KCB, MID
The REVEILLE (RSL NSW Journal) 8 August 1927
Illustrations from the AWM Art Collection

Note

Sir Harry joined the Regiment in 1885 when his father formed the Upper Clarence River Light Horse. He did not stay long, moving to Queensland, then seeking a career in the permanent forces. He fought with distinction in the Second Anglo-Boer War, then commanded the 1LH Bde at Gallipoli, being one of the two architects of the defence of Monash Valley. When the Light Horse were deployed in Palestine, he was made the Boss, Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps containing the Australian Light Horse (less 13 and part of the 4 LH), the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, British Yeomanry, the Imperial Camel Corps and others. The first Australian soldier to command a corps.

Returning home, Sir Harry went on to play an important part in the army in the austere post-war years; from 1923 he was chief of the general staff. In 1929 he was promoted general – the first local serving officer to attain this rank. He retired the following year but came back into uniform in the Second World War, aged 75, as inspector-in-chief of the Volunteer Defence Corps – the local home guard. He died in 1945

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