A digger’s road to Damascus
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, The Light Horse
On 19 September 1918 General Sir Edmund Allenby launched his final offensive in Palestine. The attack was a great success and the cavalry swept over the hills towards Megiddo, the ancient Armageddon. Turkish general headquarters was overrun on 20 September and thousands of prisoners were taken. Urban Stanley Billing was a trooper in 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment. A fortnight after the end of the war he wrote a long letter to his wife describing his experiences in the battle. At first the Australian Light Horse had been in reserve, but had swung into action on 20 September. The following morning the 8th Light Horse took around 8,000 Turkish prisoners back to Megiddo (Lejjun), as Billing told his wife.
They were a ragtime lot and ... all were thirsty. Several would have died if I had not given them a drop of water and got them on their feet again. When we got to the well we had a fearful job to hold them. They were just like a mob of thirsty sheep and we had to keep riding round them and beating them back with the flat of our swords. It took 5 or 6 hours to water them and the wells were almost dry and the water muddy and stinking; but they drank it like champagne.
The advance continued quickly. By 30 September, Allenby’s troops had reached the gates of Damascus. As columns of Turks fled west towards Beirut, they were trapped by Light Horse and French cavalry inside the steep walls of Barada Gorge. On the morning of 1 October Billing rode down the gorge in order to pass through Damascus and secure the northern road to Homs.
We rode on into the town through the worst shambles most of us had ever seen. A crowd of Turks and Germans were attempting to escape down a narrow road with the Beirut railway and a steep hill on one side and a forest on the other. One of our regiments had caught them here and simply mown them down with MG and rifle fire. The road was blocked with dead and wounded men, dead horses, mules, donkeys, cattle and a flock of about 30 sheep and goats which had got into the line of fire. There was motor transport, one wagon with the driver dead at the wheel, horse transport and lorries, one with a woman dead in it who had evidently been escaping with the troops, guns, MGs and equipment and stores strewn all over the road . . . As we entered the town there were bursts of MG fire all over the town and in the villages round where other regiments were rounding up the stragglers, but we met with no opposition and the people lined the streets clapping and cheering as we rode through.
A week after clearing Damascus, Billing went sick. He was sent to hospital in Egypt where he wrote his letter. In April 1919 he returned to Australia.
PR83/053 Billing, Stanley (Trooper, 8th LHR), 20 page letter
AWM 224 MSS 35 8th Light Horse Regiment History by Capt. T. S. Austin