The Australian Light Horse Part 4 – the end of the war

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Harry Chauvel leads the Light Horse into Damascus in November 1918.

Victory at Beersheba in November 1917 was sweet for the Light Horse but it was one of the last charges of a light brigade. Harry Chauvel started 1918 with a KCB on Allenby’s recommendation. After months of fierce fighting the Light Horse were ordered to take a break on Gaza’s coast. Here they reenacted their charge for photographer Frank Hurley but refused to ride at full gallop much to Hurley’s annoyance. The men were owed their jokes, badly depleted by war and malaria.

By now they were topped up by Indigenous troops. Aboriginal people could not vote in 1917 (and would not for another 50 years) but were finally allowed to die for Australia. Queensland’s Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley pompously proclaimed “half-castes” would be accepted into the AIF “provided they satisfied the medical authorities that one parent was of European origin”. Many, like Frank Fisher of Cherbourg (Cathy Freeman’s great-grandfather), were great horsemen and good shots and a much needed injection of new talent. Horsemen supported infantry as Jericho fell in March, 1918.

While the Australians were still crucial to set battles, Lawrence’s unorthodox Arabs Revolt shored up Jerusalem’s right flank by taking Tafilah despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Allenby pushed on to Amman along the Hejaz railway line. Chauvel’s men became sappers to build a gateway quickly over the Jordan River. Near where John baptised Jesus, they performed their own miracle putting up four bridges in one night. The Turks resisted strongly, and the victor of Gallipoli, German commander Liman von Sanders was back in Palestine to lead the defensive line.

Turkish morale was boosted by the news of a German advance on the Western Front. Allied generals were so panic-stricken they pinched 60,000 troops from the Arab campaign to throw into Monash’s defensive line in France. America was finally in the war but had not yet supplied troops in large numbers. Chicago reporter Lowell Thomas and a cameraman were dispatched to the war to find suitable propaganda images to bolster American spirits at home. The Western Front was too horrific so they went to the Arabian desert to follow Lawrence’s revolt as they laid waste to Turkish supply depots along the railway.

Allenby had his sights on Deraa 100km northeast of Jerusalem on the rail junction between the Damascus-Amman line and the coastal branch line to Haifa. Another cavalry charge took the approach town of Es Salt with Turkish and German forces blaming each other for the defeat. Conditions were tough with summer temperatures rising to 50 degrees and hazards like spiders, scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes. Lawrence and the Arabs blew up the railway lines around Deraa while air bombing left it demoralised and isolated but still untaken. It didn’t matter, because in France Monash comprehensively defeated the Germans at Amiens and it was only a matter of time before it would be all quiet on the western front. The Ottoman Empire was tottering and the British defeated the Turkish 8th Army on the Plain of Sharon leaving a large breach the mobile Light Horse took advantage of, storming into Nazareth. Chauvel was happy another holy city was taken but annoyed his men allowed pyjama-clad Von Sanders to escape in a hurriedly assigned staff car.

On the same day – September 25 – Amman and its defensive force of 2500 Turks, Germans and Austrians surrendered to the British. Damascus was in sight but Chauvel’s problem was administration. He wanted to support the Turkish civil governor as he did in Jerusalem but was aware of Arab political ambitions in the city. Faisal’s army hurried north for the symbolic right to be first into the city and Chauvel and other officers were wary of Arab irregulars who did not follow “the rules of war”. At Amman the British protected 6000 Turkish prisoners of war, who would have been slaughtered if the Arabs got there first.

Damascus was in chaos as Arabs revolted against Ottoman leaders. By the end of September Faisal’s flags flew on many buildings, an act of defiance that would have meant certain death barely months earlier. They could hear bombs from Chauvel’s Mounted Division on the outskirts of town. Around 4000 Turkish and German soldiers were ambushed as they escaped along the road to Beirut and were butchered in what one Australian soldier called ‘a wallaby hunt’. Damascus was encircled but Lawrence wanted ‘a Brown Dominion’ in the city, an Arab administration reliant on Britain. When the Australians finally entered the city they were feted as liberators and greeted by the Emir who hailed their ‘bravest manner of the Saxon race’ a phrase that uncomfortably reminded Australian officer ACN Olden of his German enemy. Olden and his men moved north to chase the Turks leaving the Arabs to brawl over Damascus.

Lawrence went to the Ummayad Mosque, the oldest place of worship in the Muslim world, to pay homage to the tomb of Saladin. Saladin took Damascus from the Crusaders and died there in 1193. Chauvel appointed a new city administrator who was a proxy for Sharif Hussein. The British War Cabinet encouraged the fiction the Arabs took Damascus as a ploy in their ongoing ‘great game’ with France. But it was bluff. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement gave Syria to the French. Lawrence returned to Egypt in outrage never to return to the Arab world.

Mustafa Kemal refused to give up. He holed up in Aleppo ready for a great battle at the end of October when news of the armistice filtered through. The British took Mosul 15 days after the armistice giving them the oil they had coveted for four years. It was a bone of contention four years later at the Lausanne Peace Conference, which re-defined Turkey’s borders.

With the war over, Chauvel’s problem was managing the flood of refugees and log jam of shipping as everyone headed home. The Light Horse were sent to Gallipoli for the first time in three years to find fallen comrades and then went on to Constantinople. Many had to face the most painful act of their lives: farewelling their beloved horses. The War Office in London decided there weren’t enough ships to take them home and Australian quarantine restrictions were strict. They had to sell them to the British and Indian armies or to local markets. The remainder would be shot. 20,000 horses were sold to the Egyptians but many soldiers detested the idea of “a Gypo on their horse’s back” and preferred to kill rather than trade them. The Australian Light Horse eventually went home in 1919 to face an uncertain future. Their whalers never saw New South Wales again.

See Part 1 (1915),  Part 2 (1916) and Part 3 (1917)

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