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Story: Chaytor, Edward Walter Clervaux

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Chaytor, Edward Walter Clervaux


Farmer, military leader

This biography, written by Mike Wicksteed, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Edward Walter Clervaux Chaytor was born in Motueka, New Zealand, on 21 June 1868, the first child of Emma Fearon and her husband, John Clervaux Chaytor, a runholder. Between 1880 and 1884 he attended Nelson College as a boarder. After leaving school he took up sheepfarming on the family property at Spring Creek near Blenheim. In 1886 he enlisted in the Marlborough Hussars (later the Marlborough Mounted Rifle Volunteers), and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1889 and captain in 1893. On 17 October 1898 Chaytor married a widow, Louisa Jane Hiley, at Spring Creek. They were to have three children.

Early in 1900 Chaytor left for the South African War as part of the Third (Rough Riders) Contingent of New Zealand Mounted Rifles. In an action on 26 May at Reit Keil, for which he was mentioned in dispatches, he suffered a severe gunshot wound which shattered his right thigh-bone. Although he later rejoined his unit and took part in several engagements, the wound continued to give trouble and Chaytor, now a major, was invalided home to New Zealand in May 1901.

Chaytor returned to South Africa in February 1902 with the Eighth Contingent as a brevet lieutenant colonel commanding the South Island Regiment. The war ended on 31 May. However, Chaytor's combat experience – periods of hard soldiering spent in the saddle – had furnished him with an invaluable grounding for his later professional career. He was respected by his soldiers, primarily for demonstrating the valuable leadership trait of always being close to the action.

On his return to New Zealand in 1902, Chaytor became a major in the 1st Battalion of the Nelson Mounted Rifle Volunteers. He resigned this position in September, when he was appointed assistant adjutant general at Defence Department headquarters. He retained his brevet rank until it became permanent in 1906. In 1907 he became the first New Zealand officer to attend the British Army's Staff College at Camberley. He graduated with a glowing commendation from the college's commandant, Major General Henry Wilson. On his return to Wellington in 1910 he was appointed director of military training and education.

Chaytor's steady rise in rank continued. He was promoted to colonel in 1911 and from late 1910 commanded the Wellington Military District from its headquarters at Palmerston North. He was appointed adjutant general in July 1914. Now aged 45, his red hair was starting to recede; he had a thinnish face with a prominent Roman nose, sharp blue eyes, a slightly jutting jaw, a resolute mouth, and a moustached upper lip. His placid nature stood him in good stead in the active commands he was about to resume.

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Chaytor transferred to the staff of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as the principal personnel and logistics officer to its commander, Major General Sir Alexander Godley. Chaytor played a pivotal planning role for two major overseas deployments. The first was the speedy assembly and dispatch of a 1,400-strong detachment which occupied German Samoa on 29 August 1914. The second, and more complex, was to raise the main body of the expeditionary force, comprising 8,427 men, 3,815 horses, and all their equipment, which sailed from Wellington on 16 October 1914. The rapid creation of the two formations represents one of the most skilful feats of organisation and administration in New Zealand's military history.

The New Zealanders sailed to Egypt, where Chaytor became assistant adjutant general and (later) acting quartermaster general of the newly formed New Zealand and Australian Division commanded by Godley. They spent several months in training before being sent to Gallipoli in April 1915. A few days after the landing, Chaytor suffered a minor head wound. On 22 May he was hit again, this time in the right shoulder and arm; the wound was serious and he was sent to the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Following his recovery, Godley, in November 1915, gave Chaytor command of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade in Egypt. This brigade remained behind in the Desert Column of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force when the rest of the New Zealand forces sailed for France early in 1916. Chaytor, now a brigadier, became the senior New Zealand officer in that theatre of the war. His immediate superior was an Australian, Major General Harry Chauvel. Both were tactically competent and sound leaders with similar backgrounds. They got along well together, and Chauvel rated the New Zealand Mounted Rifles his best brigade.

Nearly 18,000 New Zealanders served at various times in the almost forgotten campaign in Palestine, and Chaytor proved to be an imaginative and able commander. On 19 July 1916, in what was one of the first examples of a senior commander personally exploiting the new technology of flight, he used an aircraft to reconnoitre Turkish positions in the Sinai desert; he was slightly wounded by ground fire.

It took the Egyptian Expeditionary Force until January 1917 to clear the Sinai of Turkish forces. Chaytor's tactical self-confidence came to the fore at Rafah, the final battle in the Sinai campaign. After a hard, day-long action against a stubborn Turkish defence, the British commander, Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode, aware that Turkish reinforcements were on the way, ordered his units to withdraw from the assault on the town. Chaytor, about to launch an attack with his brigade, chose to ignore the order; in the ensuing attack the town's defences were overrun and Rafah was taken.

Chauvel was selected to command the Desert Column in April 1917, and Chaytor took over the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, being promoted to major general; he thus became the first – and only – New Zealander ever to exercise command of an ANZAC force at divisional level. He was knighted for his endeavours in 1918. On 16 September 1918, Chaytor was allocated an additional, division-sized formation. During the final operation of the campaign, 'Chaytor Force' captured Amman in Jordan on 25 September.

An armistice with Turkey came into effect on 31 October 1918. On his return to Wellington in 1919, Chaytor was appointed general officer commanding New Zealand military forces. The difficulties of the period of demobilisation were exacerbated by a spirit of war-weariness evident throughout the country. Nevertheless, steps were taken to create a military organisation which the country could afford, and which would be available for home defence and as the nucleus of an expeditionary force. In 1922 the Defence Department was able to begin preparing for a force of some 7,000 men to be available in the Chanak crisis.

Edward Chaytor retired in 1924 after a relatively short, but exceptionally successful, career as a professional soldier. Seven times mentioned in dispatches, he had been made a KCMG, a KCVO and a CB. Soon after his retirement he sailed for England where he lived with his family until his death at South Kensington in London on 15 June 1939. Louisa Chaytor died in 1948.

How to cite this page:

Mike Wicksteed. 'Chaytor, Edward Walter Clervaux', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3c13/chaytor-edward-walter-clervaux (accessed 29 May 2024)