With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter XXIII — The Race for Damascus
The Race for Damascus
On September 22, as recorded in the Official History of the Australians in the War, Volume III, General Allenby visited Lieut.-General Chauvel, G.O.C. Desert Mounted Corps, at Megiddo. Both agreed that the three days’ operations had far exceeded their hopes. They had contemplated heavy fighting at Jenin and Beisan, and would not have been surprised if considerable forces of Turks had broken through the cavalry line, and established a strong resistance to any further advance towards Damascus.
"What about Damascus?" he asked Chauvel, who replied laconically, "Rather."
On the morning of the 25th, Allenby met the three Corps Commanders, Lieut.-Generals Chauvel, Chetwode, and Bulfin, in conference at Jenin, and as a result an immediate advance on Damascus was decided on. This meant that new arrangements had to be made immediately for the transport of all necessary supplies for three cavalry divisions moving at top speed. The port of Haifa had been captured and could be used as a fresh base, and it is a splendid tribute to the organizing officers of the force that these divisions were able to start next morning.
And now began the last desperate race between the British and Turkish forces, for which the prizes were to be Damascus, the oldest existing city in the world, a hundred miles away, and beyond that, Aleppo, two hundred miles farther on. When had there been such a contest? A race of three hundred miles, the competitors to be mounted divisions and motor transport columns on the outside running, while on the direct course was the retreating Fourth Turkish Army, followed by our page 219Fourth Cavalry (Indian) Division and the Arabs of the Sheriffian Army under Feisul and Lawrence.
Chaytor’s Force, including the N.Z. Mounted Brigade, had blocked the passages over the lower and middle Jordan, and had advanced eastward across the river through Es Salt to Amman which was captured on September 25, by the Anzac Mounted Division. The Second Turkish Army which was retiring north from Maan, was intercepted by this Division, which in ten days captured over ten thousand prisoners and fifty-five guns.
On September 26 three Mounted Divisions started on their sweep north from Galilee. The Fourth Cavalry Division crossed the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee, and made its way across difficult hilly country to Deraa at the junction of the Palestine railway line with the Hedjaz railway from Damascus to Medina. There it linked up with the Sheriffian forces, and followed up the retiring Turks in the direction of Damascus.
The Australian Mounted Division, followed by the Fifth Cavalry Division, was despatched up the west side of the Sea of Galilee, to strike north-east across the high tableland with the object of reaching Damascus before the Fourth Turkish Army could arrive there. All ranks now guessed what their next objective was, and welcomed the endurance test ahead of them. They felt that they had, during the last seven days, completely established their superiority over the enemy under whatever circumstances they encountered him.
The Fifth A.L.H. Brigade with its N.Z. Gunners led the advance of the Division along the side of the Galileean Lake of sacred memories. The waters of the lake, sparkling in the sunlight on their right flank, gave a completely different aspect to the campaign. Here was water, cool, fresh, and clear, in abundance. No longer need man or horse suffer from thirst or dust, or feel that page 220a wash was too expensive a luxury to be indulged in. In high spirits rode the mounted men past the sites of ancient Bethsaida and Capernaum, formerly flourishing towns (whose ruins now proved the accuracy of Christ’s direful prophecy), and on past the northern end of the lake until they reached the vicinity of the bridge over the Upper Jordan River which flows down from the southern slopes of Mount Hermon through the marshes of Hule, or Waters of Merom, into the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. This bridge, called Jisr Binat Yakub (the Bridge of the Daughters of Jacob), carried the traffic to the high plateau at Kuneitra which was the jumping-off place for Damascus.
Fighting a desultory rearguard action during the afternoon, the Turks managed to delay the advance long enough to allow them to evacuate a village which they occupied as a repair depot for transport vehicles, and retiring to the eastern side of the river, they blew up one of the masonry arches of the bridge. This was a serious check to the mounted men who were racing against time to reach the distant goal ahead. The Turkish machine-gunners held the steep rocky slopes of the opposite bank, and as two divisions of cavalry were following up in the track of the Fifth Brigade, the latter had at all costs to effect a crossing over the Jordan. During the late afternoon the N.Z. guns and the mitrailleuses of the French regiment and some guns of the other L.H. Brigades were massed on the west bank, and during the night kept up a heavy counter-fire against those of the enemy. While they were thus engaged, the Fourth and Fifth Brigades succeeded in making a crossing in the darkness of night under extremely difficult conditions lower down the stream. The banks were steep and high, and were composed of rocks and rounded stones; the horses found great difficulty in getting a footing, and had often to be assisted up the bank with ropes round their hindquarters, page 221the troopers pulling them up by sheer strength. It was a splendid piece of work carried out under almost incredible conditions, but the Jordan was crossed, and the Turkish force completely outflanked.
Early next morning the remainder of the ex-Cameliers crossed the river for the last time. Six months before they had crossed and recrossed it near its mouth at the Dead Sea; they had held outpost on its banks, and bathed in its waters in its middle course; and now, in view of the mountains whose snows supplied it with water, they were to say farewell to it.
Already the engineers had effected sufficient temporary repairs to allow of our artillery and transport to cross. No sooner were they across and winding up amongst the rounded boulders than an enemy aeroplane appeared, and to the huge delight of our men, proceeded to bomb the place we had evacuated two hours before. Then he spotted the teeming road full of horses and men, and turning, swooped down with his guns barking spitefully at them. A section of the New Zealanders perched two machine-guns on rocks to get elevation, and with two men to each gun holding them in position and feeding the ammunition belts in, our gunners gave battle to this grim bird of war. He soon made off after doing little or no damage. Shortly after the drone of one of our planes was heard coming from the direction of Haifa. He disappeared towards Damascus; an hour passed, and he returned, circled round the Division, and dropped the laconic message, "Got him."
The country northward from the Upper Jordan is covered with loose stones and boulders which proved very trying to the horses and motor transport, but in spite of these difficulties the column pushed on past Deir es Saras, where the Third L.H. Brigade captured prisoners and guns, and at nightfall on the 28th the Division arrived at Kuneitra. On the afternoon of the page 22029th, the advance was continued, the Third L. Horse leading. Strong opposition was met with at Sasa, which was captured in the darkness of the early morning by the Eighth and Ninth A.L.H. Regiments, when many prisoners, all the enemy machine-guns, and two field pieces were taken.
From early morn on the 30th, dense columns of smoke could be seen in the distance ahead, indicating that the Turks realized that it was impossible to stem the irresistible force of this well-ordered mass of swiftly moving, hard-fighting horsemen who had carried all before them since the artillery and infantry had opened the gate for them to pass through ten days before. Halting for breakfast the Commanding Officer of Desert Mounted Corps issued his final orders to Divisional and Brigade leaders, and the stage was set for the final dash and assault which was to result in the ancient "Garden City" passing from the rule of the Turk.
The country was at first rough and rocky, but soon after Sasa was passed, the plain opened out level and clear. It was a situation for cavalry and the opportunity was immediately seized. Military Operations. Egypt and Palestine, vividly describes what followed; "The Australian Light Horsemen made the pace a cracker, breaking up into small parties, and rounding up fugitives. The Australians were unshaven and dusty, with eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, but rode with the bursting excitement of schoolboys. Their blood tingled with the sheer joy of their gallop to victory, and they laughed aloud as they thundered down on the terrified enemy. With swords flashing in the early sunrise, little parties of three and four men raced shouting on bodies of Turks ten and twenty times their number."
Later on in the morning Turkish forces some thousands strong with their transport were seen six miles across the plain, retiring on Damascus, and in an attempt page 223to check our force, they took up a position on the ridges on either side of Kaukab, on the Kuneitra-Damascus road. (Kaukab is said to be the spot where Paul, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, was suddenly converted and called to the apostleship.) But no check was allowed to stop the advance of the mounted men. Bouchier’s Force (Fourth and Twelfth A.L.H. Regiments) was detailed to attack this position with the sword, while the Third and Fifth L.H. Brigades raced away to the north-west to isolate Damascus on the north by blocking the two roads leading to Beirut and Horns. Heavy shell and machine-gun fire was encountered at El Mezze, but this was soon silenced by our artillery, and Langley’s Regiment (14th L.H.) outflanked the Turks, and pushed on for the hills overlooking Damascus from the north-west.
The tall spires of the minarets of mosques, together with the huge latticed masts of the wireless station, could be seen rising above the trees and gardens which surrounded the great city, while more fires could be seen rising from the enormous dumps which existed in and around the town. Some sort of resistance was offered from the shelter of gardens, but this was more in the nature of a delay than of an action. Branching away diagonally to the left, the Fifth Brigade and N.Z. Gunners pushed well forward of the central attack. Here the incident of Nablus was almost repeated, when two of our machine-guns engaged two Turkish field-guns both in view of each other. But time being the essence of the contract, our force streamed away still farther to the left, the land rising as it advanced. Any feeble, unorganized opposition was brushed aside, and when opportunity offered, looking away to the right, our men saw, miles behind them, a disorganized rabble, once the Fourth Turkish army, streaming along on the road from Deraa, and harassed continually by the shrapnel of the page 224pursuing Fourth Cavalry Division, while our Arab allies hung on its flanks. It was the finish of the great race; all the competitors were in view, and our force was leading. Chauvel’s plans with his driving power behind them, had been successfully carried out; all that remained to be done was to take possession of the prize, the vastness of which, as our Brigade advanced up the hillsides, spread out before it.
It was far on in the following day ere the living were all removed from that scene of carnage, and much arduous and unpleasant work had to be accomplished before the road became even passable for mounted and wheeled traffic. Long will the dreadful sights of that otherwise beautiful gorge live in the memories of those who saw it on that morning of October 1, 1918.
But this overwhelming victory of General Allenby’s, conceived so boldly, and developed and executed so swiftly, was to have a most appropriate spectacular finale before the curtain was finally rung down on the last scene, the capture of Damascus. At the end of that last day of September, there was staged on the outskirts of the ancient city, a display of fireworks of such a nature as had never before been seen in the Holy Land, or perhaps in any land.
When the Turkish Commanders realized that complete disaster had overwhelmed their forces, they ordered page 226the destruction of everything that might be of use to the victorious invaders. Earlier in the afternoon of the 30th, while the disorganized remnants of the Turkish Fourth Army were still streaming in from the south, harried by the Arab forces, and raked by shrapnel from the British Fourth Cavalry Division, a tremendous explosion shook the hills, and the tall latticed masts of the powerful wireless station on the outskirts of the city swayed and toppled to the ground. Then followed the destruction of the buildings which housed the generating power for the station. With a mighty roar, the roof seemed to rise in the air, and scatter machinery and instruments over the neighbourhood. The destruction of the station meant that communication to the outside world from Turkish Headquarters had ceased. One wondered what was the last despairing message sent out over the air before this final acknowledgement of defeat was made to the world at large.
This destruction, impressive though it was, was but the prelude of the spectacular and awe-inspiring closing scene. As the day drew to a close and the stuttering roar of the steaming machine-guns died down, and the rattling of rifle fire in the dreadful gorge of death ceased, there arose denser clouds of smoke and flame from the great dumps on the outskirts of the beleaguered city, where were stored immense supplies of petrol, shells, cartridges, and explosives of all descriptions, as well as fodder, tents, and all the necessary equipment for the supplies of the Turkish armies in Syria, Palestine, and Arabia.
As darkness fell, the flames spread rapidly amongst the inflammable material, and roar and crash succeeded each other with ever-increasing rapidity and intensity, until they seemed to merge into a continuous roll of thunder which echoed in the adjacent hills. Rows upon rows of great fifty and hundred gallon drums of petrol covered many acres of ground, and as the flames reached page 227these, each one exploded, and sprayed its flaming contents over its neighbours, which in turn burst and hurled themselves hundreds of feet up in the air in great sheets of flame.
Close at hand to these were the great ammunition dumps which in their turn added their contribution to the vast inferno. As shells exploded high in the air, Verey lights in myriads of stars lent colours of every brilliant hue to the grandeur of the scene.
Hour after hour raged the thundering conflagration, lighting up as clearly as daylight, the age-old city and the surrounding plain with its verdant covering of trees, while farther away stood out the illuminated hills, gazing down on this gateway of the great Arabian Desert which stretched away to ancient Baghdad, while in the outer distance was the vast background of the darkness of the Eastern night.
From the very top of the highest hill overlooking the western entrance to Damascus, and distant about a mile and a half in an air line from the blazing inferno, the Australian Light Horsemen and the New Zealand Machine-gunners lay beside their tired horses and worn guns. Exhausted as they were with the strenuous days and sleepless nights they had spent in the mad race from Galilee, these Crusaders from the Southern Seas had all thought of fatigue banished from their minds by the immensity of the marvellous scene being enacted before them. They could not but feel that they were witnessing the death throes of a fighting nation which for centuries had held at bay the armed forces of Europe, and they grimly realized that the immense supplies of death-dealing explosives intended for the destruction of themselves, had provided the materials for the funeral pyre of the Turkish nation.
As the night wore on, the explosions became more fitful, and gradually they ceased altogether, and the tired page 228soldiers huddled together on the bare hilltop, and dropped into well-earned slumber. Quietness descended on the hills and valleys, a quietness broken only by the sighing of a tired horse, or the distant cry of a prowling jackal in the hills, while overhead the cold blazing stars, which are nowhere so bright as in this ancient and romantic land, looked down on the scene as serenely as, for thousands of years, they had looked down on the succession of conquerors whom they had seen come and go, ever since the dawn of history.