Tuesday 24 October 2006 by Mal Booth. 1 comment
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.

Further reading:

PR83/053 Billing, Stanley (Trooper, 8th LHR), 20 page letter

AWM 224 MSS 35 8th Light Horse Regiment History by Capt. T. S. Austin

H S Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine 1914-1918, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol. VII, (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1937), Chapters 40-44

Nigel Steel

Comments

Bill Woerlee

LC Wilson’s struggle for recognition. The honours for the first entry into Damascus turned into a hotly contested history war with Brigadier General LC Wilson leading the charge to ensure the roll of the Australians in this matter was acknowledged, something that failed to occur even from the War Office’s first despatch. In “The Times”, Thursday, October 3, 1918, p.8, this despatch appeared: “Troops of the Australian Mounted Division entered Damascus during the night of September 30. At 6am on October 1 the city was occupied by a British force and by a portion of the Arab Army of King Hussein.” The fuller report in “The Times”, Thursday, October 7, 1918, p.4 by WT Massey makes no mention of the roll played by Australian troops except in reference to mopping up operations. The description of Damascus is shared between Allenby and Arabs. Even modern histories of this event cannot resolve this issue. An article by Major General James Lunt, published in Purnells "History of the First World War”, V7, can’t sort the problem out. Lunt says: “There is still some dispute about who entered Damascus first - the Arabs or the Australians? Chauvel reported on October 1 that the Australian Mounted Division had entered the north-western suburbs the previous night, and that the city had been occupied by the Desert Mounted Corps and the Arab army on October 1. Lawrence claims that the Arabs under Sherif Nasir were the first to enter Damascus. Lawrence had been travelling with Barrow's headquarters but he slipped away before dawn on October 1 and entered Damascus just as the sun was rising over the city.” In his 1929 “Memorandum on the Entry or the Allied Army into Damascus - 30th Sept. – 1st Oct. 1918” L.C. Wilson says: “I have carefully read Lawrence’s book "The Revolt in the Desert" and also that of his friend, Mr. Greaves. Any person reading these books and not having any other knowledge could only same to the conclusion that the Arab 'Troops` were the first to enter Damascus as an organised Military Force. Lawrence was moving up the Hedjaz Railway north towards Damascus on the flank of the 4th Cavalry Division, but he makes no mention of the fact that the Australian Mounted Division and the 5th Cavalry Division were converging at the same time on Damascus from the south west, and as some of the Arabs preceded the 4th Cavalry Division and according to Lawrence and Greaves, entered Damascus on the night of the 30th September, the natural conclusion is that they were the first of the Allied Forces to occupy in a military sense that City.” When we read the various War Diaries from the Regiments that formed the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, Wilson’s chagrin becomes very clear. War Diary, 10th Light Horse Regiment – "At 0400 the 10th Light Horse Regiment was detailed to take up the duties of Advanced Guard to the Brigade with orders to push out to the Aleppo Road which leads out of Damascus in a north east direction and to get astride it near Duma. Regiment moved out at 0500. C Squadron, under Major LC Timperley, as vanguard ‘A’ Squadron in support and ‘B’ Squadron in reserve. The track from bivouac area to Dumar Road was very rough and steep and the advanced guard was not forward up with the Regiment had watered and reached Dumar village. The advance troops then pushed on at the trot to Dumar Railway Station where a troop train loaded with troops but without engine was standing in the station. On the main road immediately opposite the station about 800 Turks were formed up. These with the troops on the train threw up their hands when called upon to do so by Lieutenant FJ Macgregor MC, who with troops was advancing with drawn swords. A small guard was placed over the prisoners and the advance resumed but was soon checked on account of the road being blocked for several hundred years by dead and wounded Turks and Germans, stock, transport animals and abandoned transport and equipment of all kinds with which the road was thickly strewn as the Machine Guns were playing on the road and made havoc with a column that was trying to escape. ‘A’ Squadron were sent forward, dismounted to assist in clearing the road. The advance way delayed here for about 45 minutes. A further batch of prisoners mostly Germans were captured in a store house by the river. The total captives along this road included two batteries of field guns, one battery of mountain guns, one battery of galloping Maxims and a motor car were marked 10th Light Horse Regiment. On entering Damascus huge cosmopolitan crowds were pushing about cheering and firing rifles. Major ACN Olden, who was riding with the advanced troops was met by an Arab representative who conducted the column to the Arab Municipal Chambers where Emir Said who had taken over the city the previous day from Djemal Pasha formally surrendered Damascus. Emir Said detailed the chief of Gendarmes to guide the column to the north east road where our objective lay. Pushing through the crowded streets the populace gave every indication of their great joy at the occupation of the city by British troops. The troops were sprayed from the balconies with champagne, perfumes, rose leaves and confetti. On leaving the city through the suburb Amara information was received that a force of Germans were holding a bridgehead where the Wadi Maraba crosses the main road about four miles south west of Duma." This was the military formation that took the honour of being the first in the city on that day. By the time Lawrence and his rabble entered the city, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was off doing something the Arabs never contemplated, doing the hard fighting that brought victory at Damascus in the first place. Basically Lawrence and his rabble climbed on the backs of the Australians to make a political statement that was not theirs to make in the first place. Sadly, even though they were allowed to install a civil government, they made such a mess of it through incompetence, looting and corruption that Allenby and Chauvel had to quickly put an end to the Arab government and return Damascus to some semblance of civil order. And despite all of this, the myth remains to be articulated in movies and find its way into scholarly works. No wonder Wilson felt that his men were robbed of their glory. Bill Woerlee