Grandpa on the Road to Damascus
Fortunately for the Australians, most of the populations were elated Arabs eagerly awaiting liberation. Also, keenly awaiting them were the Ottoman authorities, anxious to hand over control of the city to somebody other than the potentially vengeful Arabs. Gordon described their spokesman as “a little chappie in a fez who spoke quite good English”. He was most concerned that the Australians not be alarmed by the sound of gunfire. “It is the Arab people. They are welcoming you and are only firing their weapons into the air. They are not trying to shoot you.” Then for a brief period, the Australians found themselves surrounded by a throng of jubilant Arabs who were starting to make them feel that maybe the whole campaign actually had a positive end.
That was Grandpa’s other “good bit”. Two short moments of joy in years of campaigning. Their fun ended abruptly when two British officers arrived and told them to get the hell out of it. Damascus was due to be entered by Prince Faisal accompanied by his Arab army and T.E. Lawrence, who took care to omit the Australians from his later writings about the event. David Lean’s 1962 film also left us out.
Grandpa was happier to tell the story of the time he was sent out as a forward scout. It would have been in Syria or Iraq 1917.
There had been a lengthy engagement the day before and grandpa and two other troopers were sent out with their horses ahead of the main force to check for the presence of a more significant Ottoman force. Out in the desert, well away from any Allied or enemy positions, they encountered three soldiers, two Turkish and one German, all lightly wounded and trying to make their way back to their own lines. Unable to take them prisoner, the Australians instead gave them a blanket and what food and water they could spare. What followed was a cautious and at first silent picnic in the desert.
It was the German who surprised them with the fact that he could speak English.
"They told us that you would not take prisoners", he said.
"We're not taking you prisoner. We can't. We're forward scouts and you'll only slow us down."
"No. You misunderstand. They told us that you would shoot us. Anyone you catch you would kill."
Further notes were compared. The Australians had been told the same thing about the Turks and the two Turks, with the German as interpreter, were as eager as the Australians to set the record straight. The six soldiers spent some time comparing the propagandistic misinformation fed to them by their respective commanders before parting company to return to their own lines. The German and my grandfather had exchanged addresses, but they never did regain contact. That particular incident was just one of many that turned Gordon firmly against the institution of war.
A photo taken about March 1994, when the emu feather cockade was reinstated with the XLH. Image from WA Newspapers
Grandpa always used to say that war was “a terrible waste”, and that we never seem to learn. Recent news scenes seem to bear this out. The destruction, the deaths of the innocent, jubilant dancing Arabs celebrating the overthrow of a hated regime by a Western power. It’s all happened before. Even the post war miring of Western forces in the land of a disaffected liberated people has happened before. For a great many troops, the 1914-18 war did not end in 1918. Trooper Gordon White and thousands of others were retained as an occupying force doing ‘police work’ in Egypt and not demobilised until 1919, being needed to suppress an angry Arab population who had been led to believe they would have autonomy once the Turks were gone.
In 1941 Australian troops were again in Syria. This time they were fighting the French.
Grandpa, Gordon White, died in November 1997, sound in mind but frail in body. He was 106 years old.