Monday 15 January 2007 by Nigel Steel. No comments
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Chauvel, Key people, The Arab Revolt, The Light Horse, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse

The political background to the entry into Damascus is complex and murky. Yet, only by identifying the underlying web of forces involved, can sense be made of what happened as control of the city passed from the Turks to the Allies.

It is clear that parts of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment were the first troops formally to enter Damascus when they passed through on their way to secure the Homs road and that Major Olden was handed the city by the acting governor, Emir Said, a member of the influential al-Jaza'iri or Qadir family. But within hours this unexpected turn of events was overshadowed by the political need for Damascus to be seen to be liberated by the Hashemite army led by Feisal that had fought its way north from the Hejaz.

An article published in 2005 by the British historian Dr Matthew Hughes of Brunel University reviews and updates the evidence supporting this view which was first identified more than 40 years ago by Professor Elie Kedourie of the London School of Economics. Both show that, as part of a wider Imperial policy originating in London, the British were keen to establish the Hashemites in a strong position in central Syria to destabilise French claims to this area enshrined in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Independently the Hashemites wanted to move their power-base from the distant and sparsely populated Hejaz to Syria and establish themselves as the legitimate and natural heirs to Turkish rule there. In this respect the British and Hashemites were equal partners of self-interest.

To support these goals the British authorities decided Fesial and his army needed to emerge as the liberators of Damascus, despite the clear military victories of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under General Sir Edmund Allenby which had led to it. Allenby therefore ordered his troops not to enter the city, but bypass it and it was solely for pragmatic reasons that the 10th Light Horse cut through it rather than moving round. Lawrence, as Fesial's advisor and liaison with Allenby, entered Damascus only a short time after the Light Horse departed. Since his first meeting with Feisal, the occupation of Damascus by the Arab army had been Lawrence's ultimate objective and immediately he set about ensuring that it was Fesial's men who took over the administration of the city.

His first step was to remove the de facto governor. Emir Said had been appointed by the Turks as they left on the previous night, but his family had long standing French links. It was imperative he be replaced by a supporter of Feisal. Lawrence installed Shukri Pasha el Ayoubi. Chauvel was later deeply irritated to discover that Shukri had not actually been elected by the citizens as Lawrence told him, but picked by the Hashemites. Lawrence later had to use force to suppress an attempt by Said and the Qadir family to reassert themselves.

With the Hashemites in control of the city, it became vital that nothing be done to undermine their authority. The Allied troops were therefore ordered not only not to enter it, but establish positions clearly beyond its boundaries. The administration of a city the size of Damascus soon proved to be beyond the experience and competence of Feisal's army, but it was some days before Chauvel felt able to intervene. The political imperative of maintaining the appearance of Hashemite rule took precedence.

Further reading

Matthew Hughes, 'Elie Kedourie and the Capture of Damascus, 1 October 1918: A Reassessment', War and Society, Vol.23, No.1, May 2005

Matthew Hughes, 'Australians and the fall of Damascus, 1 October 1918', Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No.26, April 1995

Elie Kedourie, 'The Capture of Damascus, 1 October 1918', Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.1, No.1, 1964

Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House version and other Middle-Eastern studies, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970)

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), Chapter 44

AWM 93 12/4/38 Comments by General Sir H.G. Chauvel on Seven pillars of wisdom


Readers may also wish to view the narrative of the taking of Damascus written in the war diary of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade that is now provided online here (AWM4, 10/3/44 - September 1918). Please be aware that we have had to bundle files such as this and it is 20 pages in length and therefore a 2.7 Mb pdf download. It could take some time on a slow dial-up connection. The narrative about the entry of the Light Horse into Damascus can be found on pp. 15, 16, 19 and 20 of the pdf bundle.