Australians and the Road to Damascus
As we enter the first week in October with the anniversaries of the Battles of Megiddo, just behind us and that of the capture of Damascus on 1 October 1918 just ahead, it is perhaps fitting to turn our attention from the hills of Gallipoli and the trenches of Europe to the sand and rock of the Middle East. From the Australian perspective, the Middle Eastern campaign was punctuated by a number of highlights. After months of patrols, the first major action of the ANZAC Mounted Division, commanded by General Sir Henry Chauvel, came at Romani on the 4th and 5th of August 1916 where the division succeeded in halting the Ottoman advance on the Suez Canal.1 This was followed in 1917 by the Battle of Beersheeba on 31 October, which is often referred to as “the last great cavalry charge”. Finally, the successes at Megiddo allowed the Australian regiments to advance to Damascus, paving the way for T E Lawrence to claim victory for the Entente and the Arab army.
Light Horsemen of the Australian Mounted Division riding through a street in Damascus, Syria (1918), AWM J00964.
Launched on 19 September 1918, the battles of Megiddo, involved a coordinated effort of British and Dominion forces under the command of British General Sir Edmund Allenby.2 The strategy involved the infantry opening a gap in the Ottoman line to allow mounted units through to the vital supply and communication lines to the rear. With the way opened for them, the Australian Mounted Division played a central role in the success of the Entente in the Palestine Campaign.
Previously conceived as mounted riflemen, the 11th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments of the 4th Light Horse Brigade used their newly issued swords and cavalry training to great effect at Samakh, Palestine, on 25 September 1918.3 After much debate about the value of swords, Major-General H. Hodgson had convinced Chauvel, with the help of successes produced by Indian cavalry units. The victory of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Samakh served to underscore the significant tactical advantages provided by flexibility of swords over mounted rifles to the Australian lighthorsemen.4
In June 1918, the 14th and 15th Australian Light Horse Regiments, formed from the Camel Corps, were re-mounted to horses, which proved more efficient over rocky Palestinian terrain and, together with a French colonial cavalry unit, formed the 5th Brigade. From the battle of Megiddo launched at 0430 on 19 September 1918, it took the 5th Brigade just ten days to advance 650km, cutting off and capturing enemy forces in both mounted and dismounted attacks along the way.5
A scene in the dust at Lejjun (Megiddo) during the advance on Damascus, showing the Australian Light Horse advancing and prisoners by the wayside. AWM B00256
Although it has been a subject of some debate since T E Lawrence claimed, in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that it was Lawrence and his Arab army who took Damascus, the evidence suggests that 3rd Light Horse Brigade, composed of the 8th, 9th and 10th Australian Light Horse Regiments, under the command of Brigadier General L C Wilson was the first to ride into Damascus in the early hours of 1 October 1918. 6 From Damascus, mounted units together with Arab forces moved on to capture the Syrian city of Aleppo on 26 October 1918, and five days later, the remains of the Ottoman empire signed an armistice with the Entente.
Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, Commander in Chief, Desert Mounted Corps riding through the Damascus at the head of the Australian Army Light Horse, AWM H10659.
When T E Lawrence rode into Damascus (in a Rolls Royce) his vision was for the Ottoman Empire’s grip on the Middle East to give way to Arab self-determination in Palestine and Syria. Optimism at the liberation of Damascus from Turkish forces soon gave way to disappointment as it became clear at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that neither the British nor the French had any intention of allowing Arab self-government, establishing Mandates in Palestine and Syria respectively. However, the political machinations detract nothing from the military achievements of the Entente in the Middle East, in which Australian servicemen played an important role.
Visit the unit pages on the RSL Virtual War Memorial for the 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th Australian Light Horse Regiments to find out more about the individuals involved.
1 “Light Horse”, in Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Sydney: Oxford University Press, 319.
2 “Megiddo – Allenby’s Masterstroke, 1918,” AWM London, accessed 28/09/2015.
3 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment – September 1918, AWM Unit War Diaries, 10/13/36.
4 Jean Bou (2007), “Cavalry, Firepower, and Swords: The Australian Light Horse and the Tactical Lessons of Cavalry Operations in Palestine, 1916-1918,” Journal of Military History, 71(1): 119.
5 14th Australian Light Horse Regiment – September 1918, AWM Unit War Diaries, 10/19/2.
6 Mal Booth & Nigel Steel, “The Taking of Damascus” Australian War Memorial, accessed 29/09/2015, . For an example of the debates on how the capture of Damascus has been remembered and retold see, Nick Squires (2007), “Australia Claims it Captured Damascus First” The Telegraph, 13 December, 2007, accessed 28/09/2015
© Elsa Reuter, RSL Virtual War Memorial