Grandpa on the Road to Damascus


Following the aborted invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli, the emphasis of the war against the Ottoman Turks shifted to Damascus, the seat of German and Ottoman military power in the Arab Middle East.   By the end of September 1918, the Allies were nearing the city and it was evident that Damascus would soon fall.  A stream of refugees was fleeing the city along the road that ran along the Barada River.


On the evening of September 30, the Australians, having attained the heights above the river, engaged the Turkish and German forces as they fought to withdraw, [1] and disengage from the advancing Australians, resulting in much carnage (There is a good G.W. Lambert oil painting of this at the A.W.M. in Canberra).


The West Australians of the Tenth Light Horse were first down into the gorge the next morning and Gordon described being shocked by what he saw. Grandpa only talked to me about that particular scene the one time, for not only were there dead soldiers but dead civilians. “There were women there, dead women,” he’d said sullenly.  In particular, he recalled an abandoned droshny harnessed to two dead horses and containing the well-dressed corpse of what was evidently a woman of some means.


However, they soon had soldiers to face in the form of a train containing hundreds of troops trying to run the gauntlet on the railway that followed the relatively gentle contours at the base of the gorge.  The train was stopped, and some 500 prisoners taken.  Then the Aussies became aware of all the money and luxury goods that the Germans and Turks were trying to keep out of the hands of Allied authorities.


For once Grandpa’s mob and the enemy had a common purpose, and quite a lot of stuff was kept from the hands of the Allied authorities that morning.  Whiskey, cognac and cigars were sought after items.  And so was the cash.  Some of this was in soon to be worthless paper money, but much of it wasn’t, for this was a land where the people still preferred to use gold and silver coin.  Mexican silver dollars, Maria Theresa thalers and big silver Ottoman coins called mejidis spilled everywhere.  Gordon recalled sifting through these and picking out what he called “Turkish sovereigns”, sixty piastre gold pieces of about the same size and weight as an English sovereign. My mother had a brooch made out of one of them, with the calligraphic cartouche of the Ottoman sultan facing outwards, and she’d tell us that grandpa had pinched it from a train during the war. This was kind of strange to us kids, for Mum was a very proper person and the notion of her proudly sporting stolen property was not in keeping with her general character.


Somewhere in their ranks, there was a railways enthusiast and in true trainspotter style he ignored the prospect of filling his pockets with gold and silver and proceeded to remove the bronze identification plate from the locomotive. The plate made it all the way home and is now in the railways' museum in East Perth.


Finding themselves so far forward and meeting no real resistance their officer led them onwards into Damascus itself.  This was pure devilment and they had a pretty good idea that their commanders would have a pink fit if they knew what was up.  But they were too far forward of the rest of their lines for anyone high up to register an objection. Nevertheless, there was a certain tremulous uncertainty about what would happen when they entered the city.


Editor's note:

[1]  According to the Official History (Gullett, 1922, pp. 754-55) it was the whole Turkish force attempting to escape from the city: “German machine gunners, operating from the tops of motor-lorries and trains, defied the challenge to surrender, and all along the gorge the unequal issue was joined. The result

was sheer slaughter.”