129 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton The riders arrived at the imposing Serai, or hall of government, with its wide stone steps guarded by sentinels with muskets.
Between sentinels stood groups of officials and notables looking gloomy and unsmiling, staring into the street, apprehensively waiting to meet the victors.
Olden glanced around to see if any Germans were present.
He was unaware that the Turkish powers had handed control over to the Arabs.
Were the men facing him Syrian Arabs? Were they Prince Feisal’s supporters? Were they from the secret political groups? Clasping a revolver in each hand, Olden, with two other officers, climbed the sweeping stairs flanked by guards and entered a vast, airy, high-ceilinged gaudy salon built to indicate the might and splendour of the Ottoman Empire.
The time was 6 am.
An interpreter was called for.
Olden recounted the conversation in his memoirs.
He enquired: ‘Where is the Governor?’ ‘He waits for you in the Hall above.’ Glances of intelligence and appraisal passed between Olden and the men.
He had no way of knowing that Damascus was no longer an enemy city and, therefore, was not really surrendering.
The most important Turks had fled the previous afternoon and evening, and before they had departed, the Arab, Emir Said al-Jezairi, had been made temporary governor, aided by some of the members of the al-‘Ahd.
Wearing a dark suit and a tarboosh, this small man assumed the dignity of his new position.
Seated in a straight-backed gold and plush chair with carved legs, he leant slightly on the table in front of him.
An exiled patriot, grandson of the Sultan of Algiers, he had decades earlier sought refuge in Syria after setting up the nationalist movement against the French.
The Australians strode across the marbled floor, watched by a large group of men standing in rows, attired in the flowing robes of Eastern officialdom.
Olden stopped and asked Emir Said to join them in the centre of the room.
With grace Emir Said walked across the room, his hands outstretched to greet them, saying in Arabic, ‘In the name of the City of Damascus, I welcome the first of the British Army’. ‘Does the city surrender?’ ‘Yes; there will be no further opposition in the city.’ ‘What, then, is all the firing in the streets?’ An official replied that firing pistols into the air was an Arab form of celebration. ‘It is the civil population welcoming you.’ ‘They [the civil population] may retain their arms for the present, prevent looting by the Arabs, and otherwise maintain order.
As for the shooting in the streets, issue orders that it must cease immediately, as it may be misunderstood.
You will be held responsible for this.’ ‘You need not fear,’ replied the Emir. ‘I will answer for it that the city will be quiet.
We have expected the English here, and are prepared for them.’ Emir Said then began a flowery speech in Arabic, accompanied by applause from the Arabs.
Olden cut him short.
It seemed more prudent to avoid anyone saying too much.
He told him that the British commander-inchief, Allenby, together with Chauvel, would arrive later, adding that the speeches should wait for them.
Accepting assurances that his men would not be molested, he warned that Damascus was surrounded.
Refreshment was then offered by the Arabs but was declined by the Australians.
This was ungracious – indeed it was a gross insult to Eastern sensibilities – but Olden thought it more important to rejoin his men, who were waiting outside in the street.
As soon as he did so, the Australian horsemen continued to make their way through the city.
Their progress assumed the aspect of a triumphal procession, with huge masses of people becoming hysterical in their manifestations of joy.
They clung to the horses’ necks, kissed men’s stirrups, showered confetti and rosewater over them, shouted, 130 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton laughed, cried, sang, clapped hands and fastened flowers in the bridles.
The official diary noted that ‘troops were sprayed from the balconies with champagne, perfumes, rose leaves and confetti’.
Weeping women waved from overhanging balconies.
Hungry horses happily nibbled at sweet cakes, grapes, peaches – and water.
The men swilled it around their parched palates before swallowing, and spilled a few drops over their handkerchiefs to wipe their faces.
Storekeepers bore armfuls of fruit, sweets, cigars and cigarettes.
From the windows of tall buildings, Moslem women, raising their dark veils, shouted what Olden described later as sounding like ‘Meit allo wesahla! ‘Meit allo wesahla! ‘ [a hundred welcomes].
The cry was taken up and carried along the crowd in one continuous chant.
A surprise guest increased their numbers – Captain H B Cross, of the 38th Battalion.
He had been taken prisoner by the Turks on the western bank of the Jordan on 23 September, and along with a captured Australian Flying Corps lieutenant, had been escorted to Damascus.
On the Monday morning he had been packed into a train with hundreds of others for Aleppo, but by nightfall, just when they were on the point of departure, the horizon had been illuminated by a huge explosion.
The Turks came to the conclusion that the earlier train had been captured and blown up.
So the prisoners were hurried off into the town itself and put into ‘a quite decent room for the night’, as Cross later related in a letter. ‘The next morning we were sitting about when one of the escorts who had been in the town came in a state of great excitement saying, “English Cavalry” – a magic word to us.
The other officer and I, realising what had happened, at once bolted out of the door and up the street where, to our great joy, we saw a regiment of the Australian Light Horse [the 10th] riding in with revolvers in hands.
We ran up the street and procuring spare horses, rode off with them through the town and out on the other side for about eight miles…after a meal of bully and biscuits which tasted as good as anything I’ve ever eaten…’ There was no time for the 10th Light Horse to visit the Street called Straight, the Long Bazaar or Darb el Mustakim, mentioned in the Bible, or the Gate of God through which the pilgrims pass, but at least, like Saint Paul, they had been on ‘the road to Damascus’.
Just as Venice and Marseilles are old seaports, Damascus is the ancient port in the desert, its capital.
A centre of commerce and camel caravans, home of the Damask rose, a halting-place between Babylon and Baghdad, Damascus is so out of the ordinary that the previous year Lawrence had written: ‘Damascus is a lodestar [a guiding star] to which Arabs are naturally drawn, and a city that will not easily be convinced that it is subject to any alien race’.
And so it proved to be.
The Australians rode quickly out beyond the city and on the road to Aleppo, continuing their pursuit of Mustafa Kemal.
Meanwhile, as so often when secrecy is paramount, communications were sometimes ambiguous.
Not only were the Australians ignorant of the political nuances determining day-to-day actions, but it seems that Chauvel was ignorant of Lawrence’s full brief of installing Feisal as ruler of Syria. 131 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton Chapter Seventeen Lawrence Arrives in Damascus There was a gap of about an hour between the 10th Light Horse departing from the centre of the city of Damascus and further Allied troops arriving at around 9 am.
Was Damascus going to fall to British or French rule? Was the city to be secure for the Arabs, that is, the Arabs alone, not as puppets of a Western power? Was almost 1,400 years of unbroken Muslim rule about to be broken? Only time would resolve the most acute of the many problems during the entry: the absence of the main player, Feisal, who, with his exhausted troops, was still somewhere between Deraa and Damascus, having being engaged in the merciless battle against the rearguard of the Turkish Fourth Army.
Would the delay hinder Feisal’s position? Who really would rule Damascus? Apart from any political implications, would it not have been better for Muslims to be the first to enter the city that was home to Islam’s fourth-holiest shrine, the Omayyad Mosque, and the tomb of the warrior Saladin? The sun was well up when Lawrence, wearing the dazzling white clothes of a desert sheikh, complete with a curved, ornamental dagger hanging from his waist, arrived in Damascus.
He already knew much of the area well, as he had visited Syria three times over the last ten years.
He had made a daring clandestine incursion there as a spy earlier that year, but had first visited the city in 1908, when he was a student at Oxford doing a backbreaking walking tour in Syria to research Crusader castles for a thesis.
Four years later, having graduated from university, he had visited Syria again while working as a Hittite archaeologist.
No previous visit equalled his arrival on 1 October 1918.
The revelry was such that celebrations had already been going on for two hours.
At about 9 am, an impressive Allied show-of-force procession through the city began.
The 14th Cavalry Brigade were in the lead, followed by the two French regiments (attached to the 4th Australian Light Horse) and parts of the 5th Indian Division, which had just arrived from Deraa.
Despite his importance, Lawrence was in the rear of this convoy.
Although things had not gone to plan, he acted with confidence, waving like a royal from the comfort of an open car as he was driven through the cheering streets of the ancient city.
This position was unexpected.competent though the British-led Allied forces were, nobody understood the intricacies of the political situation in Damascus in the way that Lawrence did.
He would have to act quickly if he was to save Damascus for Feisal, who still had not arrived.
During the next few days, indeed the next few years, Lawrence’s political influence would be enormous.
Much larger than his overall military contribution to the whole Middle East campaign was his pen.
It was through Lawrence that the West learnt that the Arabs – especially Prince Feisal and his father Sherif Hussein – were a force to be reckoned with.
In his writing, Lawrence made no reference to the Australian troops who had preceded him.
He implies, but does not state, that he was part of the historic party that entered the city first. ‘We drove down the straight-banked road through the watered fields, in which the peasants were just beginning their day’s work.
A galloping horseman checked at our head-cloths in the car, with a merry salutation, holding out a bunch of yellow grapes: “Good news: Damascus salutes you”.’ The description went on describing his entry: So 132 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton in the Blue Mist we set off to show ourselves…When we came in there had been some miles of people greeting us: now there were thousands for every hundred then.
Every man, woman and child in this city of a quarter-million souls seemed in the streets, waiting only the spark of our appearance to ignite their spirits.
Damascus went mad with joy… How would the simple fact that the Arabs had not been the first to enter Damascus affect the future of Syria? As stated earlier, the Declaration of Seven, which had been made in Cairo in June that year, had clearly stated that the British would recognise the independence of the Arabs in ‘areas emancipated from Turkish control by the action of the Arabs themselves during the present war…’.
Contrary to Lawrence’s version, later that day Chauvel cabled Allenby to tell him of the progress: THE AUSTRALIAN MOUNTED DIVISION ENTERED THE OUTSKIRTS OF DAMASCUS FROM THE NORTH-WEST LAST NIGHT, AT 6 A.M.
TODAY THE TOWN WAS OCCUPIED BY THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS AND THE ARAB ARMY.
But Chauvel’s report on ‘the capture of Damascus and the arrangements made for the Civil Administration thereof ’ to the War Office (95/4371) dated 2 October contradicts this.
Chauvel states that the Australians entered Damascus on the ‘evening of September 30th’.
This is one of the differing accounts referred to by Jeremy Wilson in the Prologue, and like the other War Office documents, is now in the Public Records Office in Kew, London.
Assessing the cause of the error is difficult.
Was it that he was disturbed by Lawrence’s exaggerated claims of the Arab irregulars entering the city the night before? Or had he meant that they were on the outskirts of the city? Whatever the reason, this deviation from the truth undermined what really happened, devaluing the authenticity of the Australian entry.
In Damascus, friction between Chauvel and Lawrence was visible.
The manner in which Lawrence overstated his authority heightened the hostility between the two men.
Both of Chauvel’s versions contradict Lawrence.
According to Lawrence, 4000-armed Arab tribesmen of the Arab irregulars had entered the city the preceding night.
Unofficial though their entry was, there does appear to be a grain of truth in this claim.
But it is unlikely that there was anything like such a large number, and they did not go to the Serai or make themselves obvious.
Certainly a number of Ruwalla horsemen arrived in the city to look for Ali Rida al-Rikabi and ask him to form a new government.
This would be confirmed when the Arab army entered the city the next day.
Hunt though they did, they did not find Ali Rida al-Rikabi – he had already slipped out of the city and found General Barrow in his camp.
Chauvel was outraged by the claims.
He believed that as he had placed troops at each exit and entrance to form a cordon around the city to prevent the departure of the Turks, these troops would have seen the horsemen enter and Ali Rida al-Rikabi depart.
But it must be remembered that the soldiers were not all in place until the following morning.
Jeremy Wilson, in the notes at the back of his massive biography of Lawrence, explains that ‘Irritation over this matter helps to explain his bad relationship with Chauvel and his disparaging treatment of the Australians…’.
Lawrence James, in The Golden Warrior (1990), mocked some of the assertions by
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