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Sunday, 17 August 2008
Massacre near Damascus, 30 September 1918
Topic: GW - Atrocities

General Ali Fuad Erden, Birinci Dünya Savaşında Suriye Hatıraları

In constructing his book, General Ali Fuad Erden give a good general coverage of the actions in Palestine in September 1918. He describes in detail the tensions between the Germans and Turkish troops. General Ali Fuad Erden's book, Birinci Dünya Savaşında Suriye Hatıraları or in English: Syrian Memories during World War 1, then goes onto make a claim regarding a massacre of women and children on 30 September 1918 by the forces of TE Lawrence. The story is told at p. 281:

Damascus was falling. As the Turkish Army under command of Marshal Liman von Sanders was abondoning the city and were reteating to Aleppo, the families of Turkish officers, government officials and cadets from the War School at Damascus were transported by train to Anatolia. On the way, they were ambushed at Rabova pass by Arabian rebels of Sherif Faisal. The rebels under command of Faisal were positioned on both sides of the pass and barricated the railway. They enfiladed the train with machine gun fire.... Mothers and children were all killed. 

If true, this was certainly an attrocity and a clear war crime. It bears serious investigation because the allegation is made by a senior member of the Ottoman Army.

First thing to do is to establish the location of Faisal's force in relation to the train departing from Damascus on 30 September 1918. This is not a great difficulty. The forces of Faisel and TE Lawrence were south of Damascus marching north from Der'a in company with the Indians of the 4th Cavalry Division. Both forces were marching along the Hejaz Railway at near the location of Khan Deinun, some 8 km south of Damascus. Unless the train was leaving to head south down the Hejaz Railway on its way to Aleppo, an impossibility, then the forces of Faisal could not be responsible for this massacre at Rabova on the date mentioned. It is a geographic impossibility. So in essence, Faisal's force is quickly exonerated from this allegation.

The next item to examine is if a massacre was recorded on this railway line in the time frame mentioned. Only one massacre occurred on that day in the Barada Gorge, about 10km west of Damascus. This was undertaken by machine gun and rifle fire by members of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade. Here is a first hand account of the episode by Tom Darley, With the Ninth Light Horse in the Great War, Adelaide, 1923, pp. 156-8:

    At 4 p.m. the 3rd Light Horse Brigade moved off, the Regiment being in advance, with orders to cross the Damascus-Beirut railway and endeavour to get astride the main road in the vicinity of Jobar. Progress was slow owing to the terribly rough and steep hills to be crossed.

    At 4.45 p.m. A Squadron had seized the high ground overlooking Dumar and the Damascus-Beirut main road and railway. The only means of entering the village from this point was by a narrow rocky track. A Squadron made two attempts to force this route, but found it to be strongly defended by a number of machine guns placed in and around the village.
    The squadron with a section of the 3rd Machine Gun Squadron attached took up a position on the high ground overlooking the village, main road, and railway. Large numbers of the enemy, in great disorder, were attempting to escape in the direction of Beirut, the road being choked with transport of all descriptions. The squadron immediately opened fire on this party, and inflicted heavy casualties. On the arrival of the remainder of the Regiment a few minutes later B Squadron and all available machine and Hotchkiss guns were put into the line, concentrating their fire on the road and railway.

    The enemy forces were making desperate efforts to escape, and opened a fierce fire on our position. Thousands of the enemy were pushing forward in their endeavour to get through the pass, in spite of the deadly fire brought to bear on them, just one great mass, without order or leaders, each striving to save himself at the expense of his neighbour. Refusing to surrender, they were shot down in scores, and eventually seeing the hopelessness of their attempt, they retired in the direction of Damascus, leaving the Gorge piled with bodies of men and animals.

    At dusk a fresh attempt was made to force the track to the village, but as it was strongly held and was likely to lead to heavy casualties, it was decided to wait for daylight. Orders were received at 6.30 p.m. to hold the present position, commanding the main road and railway for the night, and that the advance would be continued at 5 a.m. on the following day.

    The Regiment was detailed to send two troops, dismounted, to reconnoitre the road and village as early as possible. Two troops of C Squadron, under Hargrave, Lieutenant LMS, M.C.; and, Masson, Lieutenant GG, moved out for that purpose at 7.15 p.m. It was a difficult task, but was accomplished without casualty, the troops returning at 9 p.m. Hargrave, Lieutenant LMS, reported that the village had been evacuated with the exception of a few stragglers, and that six hospitals had been located, these being full of sick and wounded. The main road was blocked by enemy transport, and a Turkish guard was on duty at the railway station. Great credit is due to these two troops for their boldness and daring in successfully reconnoitring the position.

    The Regiment held its position during the remainder of the night, intermittent fire being maintained on the road and railway at the entrance to the Adana Gorge. At this point the main road, railway, and the Barada River run side by side through the Gorge. It was estimated that the enemy suffered 700 casualties at this point, besides which hundreds of animals of all descriptions were killed. During the night an enemy train from Beirut passed through the Gorge and was captured by the Brigade when the advance was continued the following day.

    As day broke on the 1st October, 1918, the beautiful city of Damascus, the Jewel of the East, came into view. Many splendid buildings could be seen, including the main railway station and the military barracks, now used as a hospital, from the staff of which the red crescent was flying. The Barada River wound like a silver thread through the town and surrounding country, with numerous small water channels passing through the beautiful orchards and vineyards which enclosed the city on all sides.

    At 5 a.m. the Regiment, with the remainder of the Brigade, crossed the river by the bridge at Dumar and proceeded along the main road towards Damascus. As the advance continued the terrible execution of the previous day became apparent, the road being completely blocked with piles of dead and dying men and animals, and disabled transport. The advance troops reported that for nearly a mile ahead the road was practically impassable, and parties were sent forward to clear a track. It was gruesome task. The wounded Germans and Turks were carried, with as much care as possible, to the grassy bank of the river, where they were left to be collected by our ambulances, which were in rear of the Brigade, whilst the dead were removed to the side of the road to await burial.

    Wounded animals were shot and dragged to the side of the road, as were also the vehicles. Many of the vehicles had overturned into the river during the attempt to break through, and had been abandoned.

In relation to the train, here is the entry of the 9th LHR in the War Diary for 1 October 1918:

    0500 The Regiment joined remainder of 3rd Light Horse Brigade crossed the Barada by bridge at Dumar thence proceeded along main road towards Damascus. The road was strewn with enemy dead and wounded and in places dead animals and abandoned transport and guns, almost completely blocked the roadway. The road for about a mile presented a horrible sight amidst such charming surroundings. The devastating effect of accurate machine gun and rifle fire was everywhere apparent. Many of the vehicles had overturned into the Barada River. About one thousand prisoners were collected in the vicinity of Dumar railway station. A complete train was taken between Dumar and Damascus side of gorge. A few Germans made a slight stand here but were soon overpowered by advanced Regiment [10th Light Horse Regiment.]

9th LHR War Diary, AWM4, 10/14/44 - October 1918

It might appear as though this is the train in question.

The carnage in Barada Gorge, 1 October 1918

Here is Liman von Sanders description of the event from Five years in Turkey, 1927, pp. 304-5:

    At dusk the first British cavalry patrols with two machine guns gained the ridge on the southwest side of the Barada valley, and took the road in the valley under fire. There fugitives and vehicles were wedged together. The fire, though of small effect, increased the disorder and turmoil in the valley.

    The 146th Infantry Regiment and the small German units attached to it were to form the rearguard; they were assembling at the burning railroad station of Kadem and were to be the last troops to pass through the town after dark. Kadem street, running northward through the city, was blocked by felled telegraph poles and their wires. Hostile Arabs were firing from all directions from roofs, gates, balconies and from windows.

    Some fugitives brought the false report that the Barada valley was blocked by the British. Lieutenant Colonel Frhr. von Hammerstein promptly decided to turn northeast and take the direct road to Homs, in which he succeeded. It was discovered subsequently that Turkish troops, on hearing that the Barada valley was closed by the British, had preceded Hammerstein's column on the direct road to Horns. They were the remnants of the Third Army Corps under Colonel Ismet Bei, of the 24th Division under Lieutenant Colonel Lufti Bei, and of the 3d Cavalry Division, which latter being poorly led, had played no role in the retreat.

    It turned out that the Barada valley was not seriously threatened. It was mainly Arabs and the few British mounted men mentioned who were firing in the darkness from the heights on the road in the valley.

    Toward 9 p.m. on September 30th the last troop train left Damascus and reached Rajak without damage, though fre-quently fired upon. This is worthy of note because from Damascus the railway and the road in the Barada valley run close together for ten kilometers.

    On returning to Baalbek via Rajak late in the evening of the 30th, I received from the 43d Turkish Division of the Second Army a report from the Beirut-Zahle road, that six enemy battalions were advancing on the Meissner Pasha road toward Dchedede and that at noon twelve battalions had been ob-served marching from El Kuneitra to Damascus. I think the first report was incorrect.

As can be seen, there is no mention of any troops from Faisal mixing in with the Australians or in this region at the time. If there had been, it would have been mentioned - only in the most derogatory sense. The Australian troops refused to fight with the Arabs, or for that matter trust them. Australians had their comrades' bodies stripped in the desert, robbed in their camps, sniped at, spied upon and at Es Salt in May 1918, deserted by them. In essence, the Australian troops hated the Arabs with a vengeance. At Ziza they even joined with the Turks to prevent a massacre of Turkish soldiers when Arab rebels thought they had an easy kill. So the reports of any Arabs with Australian troops would be a matter of fantasy rather than have any basis of reality.

If a train was attacked on the evening of 30 September 1918, it was attacked by the men of the Australian 3rd LH Bde and more specifically, the 3rd Light Horse Machine Gun Squadron. The Arabs under Faisal followed into Damascus only after the 3rd LH Bde captured the city and passed through in pursuit of Turkish troops fleeing the city. The Australians entered the city at 6am while Faisal did so at 8am. Prior to that there were no organised Arab forces in Damascus capable of undertaking such an action.

As to the massacre, the train was a legitimate military target with no women and children on board. While the outcome was dreadful and brought tears to many Ottoman households, it was well within the laws of war and thus not a war crime. That Australians led in this action indicates that General Ali Fuad Erden heard this story second hand but has decided to retell it as though he had personal knowledge of the event. This gives a word of caution to the contents of this book and suggests that the author is not above embellishing an account for his own reasons. 

As to the account accusing the men following Faisal and advised by Colonel TE Lawrence, aka "Lawrence of Arabia", this is one charge that is misplaced. That Faisal and his men committed atrocities and war crimes is beyond doubt but they did not commit this crime. Just because they were nothing more than a murderous and thieving rabble doesn't mean they can be blamed for everything with impunity. This site will exonerate them from this crime but very shortly, the massive crime perpetrated by Faisal and his men at Damascus will be revealed. All this occurred because of a subterfuge of Lawrence leading to Faisal and his men being given control of Damascus on 1 October 1918. But that is a matter for another investigation and out of the scope of this post.

Citation: Massacre near Damascus, 30 September 1918

Posted by Project Leader at 1:40 PM EADT
Updated: Sunday, 17 August 2008 5:46 PM EADT

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