Howard Chambers 1914-1919
“I was cutting cane today when I received a letter advising me to report for medical examination. I felt rather excited about it but kept it to myself. About 30 turned up at the Orderly room and six of us were selected. The rest looked rather disappointed.”
Former Homebush resident, Howard Chambers’ first entry in a lifetime of diary writing in early December 1914 recorded the excitement of being accepted for the Australian Light Horse Expeditionary Force. After a trip to Charters Towers to farewell a brother, he travelled by coastal steamer from Townsville to Brisbane to join the 2nd Light Horse Regiment and army life at Enoggera.
The history of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment 1914-1919 records: “It was a red letter day when our uniforms came along. Hitherto our clothes had been decidedly mixed. Even the few original uniforms brought to camp presented endless variety, but there were in addition, bowler hats, panamas, straw boaters, felt hats, caps etc, etc, on each parade.”
Rifles were not issued until January 21 and the diary entry for January 25 reads: “Had rifle drill for the first time today. Haven’t much time to learn it now.”
They did not sail until February 10 and by then Chambers was quite pleased with his shooting with a little brag to his diary about having won 10 shillings for the best 500 yards score. There was also time one night for some outpost work in the patch of scrub at the foot of the hill in the moonlight and skirmishing in the bush before going to a cricket match on the Gabba ground. There was also some experience gained as a member of a picket.
“We were posted to different streets in pairs. Sergeant Smith and myself visiting the whole picket until 11 pm. It was a strange experience and we felt our position. At the Central Station one of the LH who was rather drunk fell foul of the picket and wanted to fight in the carriage. There was some excitement for a time. Smith and myself dispersed a mob on the south side without any trouble. Smith and I had a rather good time parading the streets. Saw a few old friends during our wanderings.”
Chambers family was large, with four sisters and six brothers, and they maintained a home in Brisbane in addition to the farm near Warwick. One of the brothers, Arthur, had already sailed for Egypt as a Staff Officer of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment. There were frequent family gatherings during the pre-embarkation weeks and later his diaries recorded all the family letters which he sent and received and noted the wedding day of one of his brothers as well as most of the family birthdays – a close family.
They had a great send off at Enoggera by the unallotted who came to the station in hundreds. “The people all along the line waved frantically to us on our trip to Pinkenba. It has been an awful day, as it has been raining all the time. Our horses were put on this morning. Have just finished feeding the horses. We’ll soon be off now for some port unknown. Only LH on board. Goodbye to Queensland.”
But they were delayed until the next day. “On account of a cyclone that was blowing out to sea, we did not leave until 7 am this morning. It was an awful day yesterday: the rain simply pelted down and the few ladies who braved it got an awful ducking. We are still off Cape Moreton and it is said that we are going straight North: our first port of call being Colombo. It was an awful mix-up last night in the rain getting hammocks and getting fixed up”.
They were to lose 11 horses on the six week voyage to the Suez. Towards the end of the trip it is noted that: “The horses seem to be getting very tired of it now and hungry too. To my idea they don’t get enough to eat. The Red Sea will play up with them”.
The voyage was fairly uneventful except for a brief stop in Colombo where most had their first experience of another and very different country although they had seen other islands on the way.
“Time 11.55 am. Timor Islands seen to the north this morning at 8 am, 80 miles off. They are 7000 feet in height the Captain says. Five more islands are showing now in the north a long way off. A beautiful evening on the Indian Ocean, with the water inky black in colour and glazed like glass. We are travelling straight for the setting sun. Islands a long way off on the Starboard side (north) said to be the Malay Archipelago. It is the best evening so far. The water looks so inviting that I’ve heard some of the boys remark that they would like to fall overboard. I generally come up here (on the foc’sle) and write these notes during the evening after supper. We often sit here and talk.”
Later as they sail up the Red Sea Howard writes: “The water looks very pretty at night as it sparkles with a phosphorescent glitter. It is a beautiful night. The water is shining like glass and there is absolutely no motion. We could see the African coastline in the distance all day just about. The climate has changed: it is quite cold at night now. Country very rough looking and poor. Our journey is coming to an end, for tomorrow we are landing the horses at the Suez”.
They and the horses were disembarked the next day – which was his 30th birthday – and transported by train, overnight, to a camp near Heliopolis.
Within a day he was in touch with his brother who was in another camp a few miles away. “Marched through the streets (of Cairo) with our mouths open this morning: everything so new and funny – in a way – to us. The buildings are wonderful but to me don’t seem to be finished off – straight sides and flat tops. All built of stone.”
They were surprised by some of the farming methods – “All the ground is worked up by hand nearly. Ploughing is done by a couple of oxen in a plough that was made in Noah’s time”. Chambers observed that “the country along the valley on the other side of the Nile looks well. It seems to be all irrigated. The crops of lucerne and barley look well.”
The first encounter of the Australians and New Zealanders with an enemy was not considered heroic in the Official History. But not everyone was involved in “The Battle of the Wazzir” when Australian and New Zealand men rioted in the brothel quarter of Cairo on Good Friday, because Chambers’ diary for that day writes of a trip through Cairo and then out to Pyramids; “proceeded to climb the largest one – Cheops. Very high and it made us very hot. About 470 feet. Electric train and tram run between Heliopolis and Cairo a distance of about six miles. Train 1 piastre, tram half a piastre. Pyramids about six miles out of Cairo – one piastre.”
He went on to comment: “A fight took place in Cairo during the afternoon between Red Caps (British Military Police) and Australians. One New Zealander was killed and a few others shot. Despite all leave being cancelled the unrest in the camp continued over Easter and culminated in the men attacking the canteens on account of the rise of price of beer. Most disorderly; canteens were pulled down and looted. LH called out.”
Serious training was, of course, continuing all the time and the harshness of the environment was beginning to take its toll.
“The nights are very cold while the days are hot. No drill at all today, excepting the physical drill, first thing. We are having a very easy time on account of too many men going into the hospital. The sand storms are getting awful at times now. This loose sand and loose pebbles makes walking very hard. I know now what marching across a desert is like.”
It was not until a few days after that memorable Sunday, April 25, that news came of the Gallipoli battle. “Great excitement in camp this evening: word has just come in with the account of the first fight of the Australians in the Dardanelles. The (9th Battalion Inf [Q]) struck it the heaviest and were nearly wiped out. The wounded came to Heliopolis Hospital with the news this afternoon. The fight was grand from all accounts. The first fight of the Aus at Dandanelles last Sunday 25 has made a wonderful name for the Australians and especially so the Queenslanders 9th Battalion Inf were just about smashed up in taking the landing. It is said that 600 of them were killed. The 25th April 1915 will never be forgotten by Australia. Over 2600 of the reinforcements for the Infantry left last night for the front. The Turks I think are in for a hot time now.”
The real battle had been joined and the last few entries in the little notebook diary record the hurried preparations for the departure of the urgently required reinforcements, which included his brother: “Hear some wild yarns about our regiment going to Dardanelles shortly. The yarn is too true. Arthur called in at our tent this evening and told us all about it. The men have been preparing for their departure which is to be in a few days time – about Sunday (9th). They have been sharpening their bayonets and a lot of other jobs.
The losses have been heavy at the Dardanelles and the LH is going to hold some of the places taken by our infantry. We have to look after the horses which are going to be left here. They hope to send them along later. There is great excitement – the men are pleased to be able to do something at last. I am going to look after Arthur’s horses”.
Colonel Bourne, who compiled ‘The History of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, 1914-1919’ wrote that by July even though “the medical officers had had orders to evacuate no man who could hold a rifle – the Regiment was so weak numerically that we had one Squadron 3rd Regiment attached.”
Just as one brother arrived in reinforcements the other succumbed to gastroenteritis, was evacuated to Hospital and did not return until September.
In August, the Anzacs were used to create diversionary “demonstrations” during the debacle of the Suvla Bay operation. The 2nd Light Horse Regiment had 16 killed and 36 wounded in a suicidal attempt to capture the enemy position at Quinn’s. Chambers remembered that dreadful day in a later diary. He also remembered his departure.
The Regiment sailed for Alexandria on December 19 and the brothers spent Christmas Day at sea. Once back in Egypt the regiment re-grouped in the Mounted Force which fought the Turkish army in the Sinai Desert, Palestine and Jordan. The desert terrain and environment were exhausting for both men and horses, water was at a premium and of poor quality. It became an essential element in the strategic planning and on one occasion Chambers’ diary tells of a reconnaissance party infiltrating at night well behind the enemy lines to prospect for water.
“Left at 6 pm with party of 34 for Wadi el Arish. A dangerous job. First party into Wadi el Arish. Arrived at Wadi el Arish at 4 am. Left at 5.30 am. Arrived back at Gerrat at 3.30 pm. Distance about 30 miles to Wadi el Arish.”
They took a heliograph and a basket of carrier pigeons with them in case they needed to communicate!
The enemy began to use aeroplanes and bombed the Brigade camp at Romani. The 2nd Light Horse Regiment was not badly hit but many of the Brigade horses stampeded and galloped to death in the desert. In some battles the soldiers had no rations for a day and the horses no water for more than two days. There was always concern for their horses. Before the Battle of Magdhaba, Chambers wrote: “Arrived at a hill on the coast to the East of El Arich at 8am today. 3 pm and our horses hadn’t had any water since yesterday before we started at Gerrat, but some have just gone away to water.”
They won that battle and returned to camp for Christmas (1916) with 1100 prisoners. A Scottish Division which then became responsible for rationing the prisoners was not amused by having to share their rations. Chambers says they spent Christmas Day: “Having a rest in camp and washing. The usual work of fixing up again – Xmas pudding for lunch.”
Another victory at Rafa convinced the Turks that the Mounted Troops were a formidable foe and they withdrew to the more difficult Gaza-Beersheba defence line. It was near Khan Unis during the second battle for Gaza that Arthur Chambers was killed.
“Went out on extreme left of our front to connect with New Zealanders. Met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire and it was here that Arthur was mortally wounded, but I did not know it was such a wound at the time and heard good results from him. Friday 20th April – The worst day I ever spent in my life. Arthur died between 1 and 2 this morning. We buried him at 10 am. The Brigade had to move out and we were given permission to bury poor old Arthur. About this time Taubes bombed the Brigade and inflicted about 100 casualties. We have had an awful time lately no sleep, no rest, very little to eat and have had a good number of casualties.”
Among Arthur’s belongings which were sent home was a silver cup which had been won in an “Arab Pony” race at Assuit a year before. The “pony” was Arthur’s horse Teddy which is believed to have been of racing stock and bred on a property bear Warwick. Teddy served later with the regiment at Beersheba.
The Regiment improved their trench lines and maintained patrols around the Shellal area and there were several diary entries about attention to his brother’s grave.
The splendid 5th Century Shellal mosaic, which is now displayed in the War Memorial in Canberra, was found there and professionally protected and recovered after the battle of Gaza. He was so impressed by the good agricultural land there that he eventually names his home at Netherdale “Shellal”.
Despite the personal trauma, he was still in the front line and involved in such dangerous stunts as the demolition of the old Turkish railway line running to Beersheba. “Under cover of darkness we arrived at the railway at 7.30 am, blew up a great length of enemy line – 30 miles away SE. Arrived back in Camp Shellal at 11.30 pm, 6000 lbs gun cotton used.”
He then returned to a training school near Cairo as a musketry instructor and from his diary it seemed as if the less stressful life behind the lines was helping to heal body and soul.
However, tragedy struck again at the end of July 1917. In the previous December Arthur had received a family letter saying that two other brothers had sailed for France at the end of November. The diary has only five inconsequential entries between August and the end of November after writing: “Received cable last night with the sad news about poor old Tooey.” The much loved youngest brother Stuart, had been killed at only 20.
The New Year (1918) found him on secondment, in command of the training squadron near Cairo.
In May he rejoined the Regiment near Bethlehem where he contracted the malaria which was to trouble him for the rest of his life. So many of the force were having to be evacuated with malaria that at one stage the Regiment had only one man for each three horses!
During the next stint of duty in the Jordan Valley, they repulsed an attack on Musallabah – a pivotal position for the entire force in the Valley.
“To Musallabah. Came out last night about midnight. Slight shelling by the enemy onto our position this morning. Visit by Generals Chauvel and Howard Vyse. Enemy putting up a great show with artillery. Enemy attack with German and Turkish troops. King and seven of troop killed. All quiet again. Gave us great dust up with artillery. Saw General Chauvel again. Capt Handy, Sgt Chambers (no relation) and Gisart killed. We are being relieved tonight by the 8th. Got away from Mussalabah at about midnight.”
He was not to participate in the front line again because of illness and being evacuated to hospital in Gaza and Port Said. By the time he recovers the diary is recording: “News of Bulgaria’s collapse – unconditional surrender, Turkey capitulates and Austria capitulating.”
His weariness of these dreadful years is clear when he writes: “News of the war still exciting, but very little excitement is shown by the soldiers. They have been looking for it for so long.
And on the 11th November 1918: “Word has just come – Germany has agreed to no terms”. Life changed. He wrote of Christmas: “Turned out a beautiful day, we had a bonza Xmas dinner, the best so far.”
At last, despite a bout of malaria, he joined a ship from England bound for Australia. Amongst the 1400 on board he noted some well known people: C.E.W. Bean (reporter), A B Patterson (Banjo), C G Macartne (cricketer).
He served again in the Garrison Battalion, in New Guinea during World War II.
Throughout his later life he was much to many people as husband, father, grandfather, uncle and friend. Although his surviving son and daughter no longer live in the Mackay district, grandchildren and their families still remain. Many folk who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in the Juliet and Kippen Streets area of Mackay will remember him as the old man who led the regular swimming parts to Far Beach.
Excerpts from the diary of Howard Chambers
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