Topic: BatzP - Damascus
The Liberation of Damascus
Palestine, 1 October 1918
Chapter XLIV The Capture of Damascus
During the night Wilson had assembled his brigade on the high ground above the village of Dumar, at the western entrance to the Barada Gorge. At 5 a.m. he began his hazardous move through the heart of the city to reach the position lie was ordered to occupy on the road to Horns. At that time he knew nothing of the action of Ayoubi and Said, but believed that Damascus was still in the hands of the Turks. He was aware that some thousands of enemy troops must be concentrated in the town, and in the circumstances his decision to attempt the passage of the narrow, crowded streets was a daring one: hit lie very properly staked success on the moral effect to be produced by his galloping horsemen upon the over marched and beaten foe. A handful of the brigade scouts under Foulkes-Taylor (the youngster who had galloped Es Salt earlier in the year) probed out the way, closely followed by Todd's 10th Regiment, with Major Timperley's squadron leading.
The passage through the gorge was restricted to a walk by the terrible effects of the previous evening's slaughter. The roadway was heaped up with dead and wounded Turks and Germans, vehicles, and killed and maimed teams of cattle and horses. So deadly had been the shooting that, despite all the cover close at hand along the bends of the gorge and about the vehicles, 370 dead were counted, and great numbers of wounded. A flock of sheep which had accompanied one of the columns were all dead upon the road, and even dogs had been shot. At Dumar a troop-train was taken with 480 prisoners, and among the wreckage along the route were eight guns and thirty machine-guns. But, though the scene was grim, and they as yet knew nothing of the sporting enterprise ahead, the Western Australians, long seasoned alike to the horrors and the risks of war, rode with light hearts through the early morning shadows of the winding pass. The train at Dumar had contained, besides great wealth in gold and silver coin, a store of German cigars; and, as the troopers passed out of the gorge, and the sun-touched minarets of the city rose above the beautiful tangle of green gardens splashed with ripening fruit and gay with flowers, they blew forth clouds of smoke, and seemed to have no thought beyond their keen relish of the moment.
Their way was along a narrow dusty road on the north bank of the swirling main stream of the Barada, now contained between straight banks as it leads into the city; on their left was a dingy mud wall, and then sharply rising gardens enclosing the richest homes of Damascus. As Timperley and Major Olden (4econd in command of the 10th Regiment) rode forward behind the scouts, their appearance was the signal for an outburst of scattered rifle-fire. A few shots came from Turkish snipers, but most of the rifles were discharged into the air as an exuberant greeting from the Arabs. Now clear of the pass and definitely committed, Olden increased the pace to the gallop, and, raising a dense cloud of dust, the squadron dashed on towards the centre of the city. As they bowled along beside the Barada, they passed within less than 200 yards of the great Turkish hospital and barracks across the stream on their right, where many thousands of enemy troops were assembled, apparently just rousing themselves for breakfast. But the pace was not slackened, and the Turks, dazed with exhaustion and sickness, made no attempt to use their rifles. Riding up to the bridge beside the Victoria Hotel, Olden and Timperley were attracted by a great throng of people outside the Serai on the other side of the water. Sword in hand, the Australians clattered over the bridge, charged through the crowd, and pulled up in front of the building. Scores of eager hands seized their reins, and Olden and Timperley, taking their revolvers and followed by a few troopers, entered the building and demanded to see the civil governor.
Early as was the hour- it was then between 6.30 and 7 a.m. - the hall was packed with the notables. When the clamour caused by the appearance of the Australians was stilled, Emir Said advanced. Olden, unaware of the situation, told him that Damascus was surrounded by many thousands of Chauvel's troops, and resistance was impossible; he next demanded an assurance that his troops would not be molested, and gave in return the undertaking that the lives and property of the populace would not be molested. Emir Said, with characteristic Eastern dignity, readily acquiesced.
"In the name of the civil population of Damascus," he said, " I welcome the British army." He formally wrote out his assurance for Olden, who, declining eagerly-proffered hospitality, left the building and continued his ride towards the Homs road.
The old city was now delirious with excitement. Christians and Arabs, in all the colours of their varied dress, crowded about the light horse column. Rugs and silks, flowers and perfumes, with fruits and other delicacies, were thrown from the windows, and the mob fought for the privilege of holding and touching the stirrups of the victors. Only with great difficulty was Wilson's stern march to action stopped from degenerating into a tumultuous and indefinite triumphal procession about the streets and bazaars. Zeki Bey, an officer detailed by Emir Said to guide the column to the Holm road, could not be made to understand that the Australians were anxious to get clear of the city as soon as possible. He insisted upon a parade; but a Greek merchant, who had formerly lived in Jaffa, came to the rescue, and led the way across the city out towards the north.
From the westward hills modern Damascus, with its tali gardens and its towers and minarets, is fair to look upon. But, after passing in through wide orchards and trailing vines and stately avenues of poplars and other decorative trees, the crowded city itself is dingy and squalid. No trace remains of the old-time splendour; even the famous bazaars, although occasionally they yield a treasure in ancient dyes and Eastern handicraft, are stocked chiefly with shoddy goods from the West. Yet the city is still to the traveller a place of magic and glamour, which "doth tease us out of thought as doth eternity." The Australians on this wonderful morning were the only calm, purposeful men in the clamorous city. Years of campaigning had moulded them into reserved men of the world, and the streets of old Damascus were but a stage in the long path of war. They rode with drawn swords, dusty and unshaven, their big hats battered and drooping, through the excited people of the ancient city, with the same easy casual bearing, and the same quiet self confidence, which mark their bearing on their country tracks at home. They ate their grapes, and smoked their cigars, and missed no dark smiling eyes at the windows; but they showed no excitement or elation. And their lean, long-tailed horses, at home now like their riders on any road in the world, found nothing in the shouting mob or banging rifles of the Arabs, or in the narrow ways and vivid hues of the bazaars, to cause them once to shy or even cock an ear.
Soon after 7 o'clock Wilson was clear of the city and in vigorous pursuit of the enemy columns in flight towards Homs. When a few months before he had galloped Es Salt so brilliantly, he took no special steps to advise General Hodgson of his success, but had proceeded at once with the complete fulfilment of his orders. So now at Damascus he sent him no messenger and left no troops in the city, but went on after the enemy with every man in his brigade. When, therefore, soon after he had cleared the streets, Lawrence rode into the town with a few Arab horsemen on the heels of the advance-guard of the 24th Cavalry Brigade, the Arabs believed that they shared with the Indians the honour of the first entry. The delight of the tribesmen was boundless. Galloping with wild shouts about the streets, trailing their coloured silks and cottons and firing their rifles, they made a have display. Their melodramatic demonstration, in sharp contrast to the casual bearing of the hard-fighting Australians, who had risked all nearly two hours earlier, chilled the Christians, but aroused the great Moslem crowds to frenzy. About 830 a.m. Chauvel drove in from his advance headquarters at Kaukab to arrange for the civil administration of the city. He found Shukri Pasha at the Serai, agreed that he should act temporarily as military governor, and then drove back to confer with his three Divisional Commanders.
Bourchier, with the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments, had passed the night on the edge of plantations south-west. of the city. About 6 a.m. Hodgson ordered him to push patrols forward, and the leading squadrons, under Major J. C. Chanter, working through the crooked lanes, came upon thousands of Turks assembled about the hospital and barracks. The enemy troops showed no disposition to fight; but, as they still carried arms and Chanter had only about 100 men, be waited for the rest of the 4th Regiment to come up. The enemy was then challenged, and about 12,000 Turks laid down their rifles. These wretched men had been marching hard for ten days on their long journey from Gilead and Bashan, and were in the last stage of exhaustion. Driven hard by Barrow, and worried all the way by the Arabs, short of rations and tramping on blistered and bleeding feet, they presented a lamentable picture of physical and mental suffering. Dysentery was general and acute, and malaria and other diseases, including cholera and typhus, were already rife in their ranks and were rapidly spreading. The great barrack, which had been turned into a hospital, was packed with severe cases: desperately sick men, utterly broken in spirit, lay huddled together on all the floor-space, in the surrounding sheds, and out under the trees. During the day it was discovered that every other building used as a hospital in the city was equally crowded. Medical supplies were exhausted; the doctors and nursing staffs, unable to meet the demand on their services, were collapsing from strain and sleeplessness. The Turkish tragedy was culminating in Damascus.
H.S. Gullett (1944) The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Citation: The Liberation of Damascus, Palestine, 1 October 1918, Outline