Distant death brings home pain for family

By Roger Moroney

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The Gallipoli campaign lasted just over eight months and during that time 44,000 Allied troops died. Among that number were 2779 New Zealanders. One of them was Major Selwyn Chambers from Havelock North. Roger Moroney reports.

Neil Chambers with his grandfather's 1914 war diary and a photograph of a grand mounted parade through Cairo that Major Selwyn Chambers took part in. Photo / Warren Buckland
Neil Chambers with his grandfather's 1914 war diary and a photograph of a grand mounted parade through Cairo that Major Selwyn Chambers took part in. Photo / Warren Buckland

"He would have been looking forward to coming back home," Havelock North man Neil Chambers said of his grandfather Selwyn.

Selwyn Chambers was a devoted man of the land and loved his home of Hawke's Bay - and had relished the opportunity and challenge of building the very first ferro-cement residential home in the region after taking over a large slice of the family farm, Kopanga, when he was just 22 years old.

He would have looked forward to moving into the grand house that was being completed while he was away - away at war.

He would also have dearly looked forward to returning to the arms of his wife, Violet, and their 18-month-old son, Russell, who he had been away from for seven months.

But Major Selwyn Chambers of the Wellington (East Coast) Mounted Rifles would not return home. He died and was laid to rest at Gallipoli.

Neil Chambers had long been aware of how his grandfather's life came to a terrible end at the age of just 28, and had long known he had kept a diary which the family had put aside in a safe.

"I was doing some research into the history of Kopanga and came across it in the safe and started going through it."

The beautifully written words of his grandfather did not declare any thoughts of imminent death or even danger - just excitement as he adjusted to life in camp in Egypt.

Part of the mounted brigade, there were reviews and inspections and continual training which he clearly relished.

One of four brothers and two sisters, he had been a territorial soldier before the outbreak of WWI so joining up and doing his bit for his King and country was never in doubt.

Nor was the determination of the local children at Havelock North School, which he had attended, in ensuring he would be well equipped for his horse-mounted duties by raising funds to provide him with a grand charger in 1914 which was named Sir Henry Havelock.

He was in camp for a time at Trentham before embarking for Egypt and enjoyed the time he could spend away from duties with Violet.

He would arrive back in Havelock North for a stay to see his family and Violet, and sometimes they would travel down to see him.

"The country is very dry and will need water very soon," he wrote on October 4, 1914, during a visit home.

A week later, he wrote that he spent the afternoon with his mother and Violet, who had gone to visit him at camp, at "the golf house" after leaving a subordinate to take charge of the squadron after church parade.

On October 14, two days before boarding his ship for Egypt, his parents and Violet arrived to see him off.

It would be the last time they would see him.

On October 14, he wrote: "Father, mother and Violet had lunch aboard the Bari. After lunch, I took Violet back to the Hotel Cecil and said goodbye to her there - and went back to the ship."

It sailed two hours later.

He and the rest of his Expeditionary Force squadron, which had 176 horses, arrived in Egypt and began disembarking on December 4.

Major Chambers was in charge of the train from Alexandria to their camp which carried "eight officers, 38 NCOs, 155 men and 216 horses".

He said the train was very long but as the terrain was flat "we got along all right".

There had been speculation that the Turks would set forth on an invasion of Egypt in 1915 so members of the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force stationed there accordingly.

That threat, however, began to dissipate, as General Andrew Russell (a family friend of the Chambers) wrote in a letter to Selwyn's father, Mason, in January 1915.

"Everything is going well and training is in full swing. It is doubtful if the Turks will make their promised descent on Egypt - I think it will be doubtful if we get a go if they do. Probably we should go to the continent in early March."

At that very time, the wheels of wartime planning were turning in London, and Winston Churchill was piecing together plans for seizing the Dardenelles in Turkey to open up the Black Sea and the pathway into Russia.

Major Chambers was not headed for the continent, he was headed for Gallipoli.

He did not land on the fateful morning of April 25, instead he and his mounted rifles comrades landed after darkness had fallen on May 12 - arriving on destroyers before being transferred to barges.

"As we came in the flashes of rifles could be seen and rifle fire heard distinctly," he wrote in a letter home to his father.

"We were tucked away in gullies the sides of which were so steep that in places the men would have to wedge in above a shrub to be able to sleep."

He said that the sound of rifle and machinegun fire was constant - day and night.

"If no shot was heard for one minute it was very noticeable and somebody was sure to remark about it."

He saw the graphic horror of war when his squadron went into the trenches for the first time.

"There were many dead bodies of unfortunate colonials who had fallen two weeks before we landed and the stench was awful - some had part of their clothing burnt off by shells and altogether it was an ugly sight."

On the first night in the trenches, he organised for a team of volunteers to bury the dead.

He described the Turkish troops as being "knocked about pretty severely with gunfire".

At one stage "without warning or arrangement" several enemy troops emerged from their trenches bearing red and white cross flags and walked plainly into the open - they wanted to bury their dead.

"We were careful not to fire but kept a good look-out."

However, some shots were fired "and the thing ended".

There was attack after attack and, at some stages, the Turkish soldiers got so close to the edges of the trenches the Kiwis could see their bayonets poking over the top. There were fears of being cut off from other units as the Turks kept up their relentless attacks, sniping and at times throwing small bombs.

On May 29, Major Chambers was lucky to escape death.

"I got up on the trench and walked across the centre - just as I was getting back into the trench again a Turk poked his rifle over the bank and had a shot ... but missed."

He wrote of one confrontation that "men were getting too keen and looking out over too much and, in one place alone, I saw three men shot dead in five minutes ... I then began to wonder how long this could last and sent a written order around the trenches that we were to remain on the defensive and not look over at all."

The attacks did, however, become less frequent as the Turks took a hammering.

"The enemy has made a few attacks on the main position but have always suffered pretty heavily. In one not long ago, they lost about 300 men in a very small space."

He wrote that his men were "very close" to the Turks who were only about 35 metres away.

On July 22, Major Chambers was delighted to receive some New Zealand papers and noted in his letter home "I hope you have had a fair growth of grass".

He was obviously thinking about home, and also wrote poignantly "I will be glad when it is over and do not want to see any more of it".

He added that "everyone is keen and anxious to see the thing through".

Then he signed off with a note that he was keeping very well "and that is an important thing in case of being wounded. I hope you are all well ... your affectionate son".

On August 11, the news came through that 28-year-old Selwyn Chambers had died on Gallipoli.

Along with several officers, he had been resting in a bivouac during a lull in the fighting when a bullet struck him in the neck.

His parents, and young wife, were devastated.

Selwyn's cousin, Sergeant Nigel McLean, wrote to his uncle and aunt and said "I have lost a good friend".

He said the bullet struck him in the neck, severing his main artery and cutting his windpipe.

"He was conscious for half a minute only and dead in ten. A doctor was lying alongside him and was attending to him in less than a second but he was beyond medical help and died without being able to speak."

General Russell wrote to the family and said their son was buried "on top of the very post he so gallantly defended two months ago" and that a cairn of stones was being built at the grave site. "I am so sorry for you. For I knew and felt how you hated parting with him."

The family also received a letter from chaplain to the Wellington Mounted Rifles, the Reverend William Grant. "We laid him to rest when dusk had fallen on the highest part of the hill - it commands a glorious view of land and water - and he lies there.

"That God may comfort the sorrow of a father's heart and make you proud that your son found death in the way of duty, fighting for the liberties of the world."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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