Foreword: History of the Desert Mounted Corps

 

It gives me great pleasure to write a few words of introduction to Lieut. Col. Preston's History of the Desert Mounted Corps, which I had the honour to command. In writing this History Lieut. Col. Preston has done a service to his country which I am sure will be fully appreciated, particularly, perhaps, by those who served in the Corps, and who feel that the part they played in the Great War is but little known to the general public. As a work on Cavalry Tactics, I trust it will be of some value to the student of Military History, and, if it does nothing else, it must demonstrate to the world that the horse-soldier is just as valuable in modern warfare as he ever has been in the past. Indeed, the whole of the operations in Palestine and Syria, under General Allenby, were text-book illustrations of the perfect combination of all arms, both in attack and defence, and the last operations in this theatre, which led to the total destruction of the Turkish Arms and the elimination of Germany's Allies from the War, could not have been undertaken without large masses of Cavalry.

 

Lieut. Col. Preston is well qualified to undertake the work. First of all in command of one of my finest Horse Batteries, and subsequently as C.R.A. of the Australian Mounted Division, he was often in touch with my Staff, being constantly employed on reconnaissance duties, in which he was peculiarly expert. He served throughout the whole of the operations of which he writes, and had considerable previous experience in the Sinai Campaign, in which the Horse Artillery of the Desert Column played so conspicuous a part.

 

This History commences with the re-organisation of the British Troops in the Egyptian theatre of the War, on Sir Edmund Allenby taking over command in June 1917. The troops operating East of the Suez Canal had hitherto been known as the ' Eastern Force,' which had been successively commanded by Sir Herbert Lawrence, Sir Charles Dobell and Sir Philip Chetwode, who were again directly under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief in Cairo.

 

The advanced troops of 'Eastern Force,' viz., all the available Cavalry, Horse Artillery and Camel Corps, with from one to two Divisions of Infantry, had been organised into what was called ' The Desert Column.' Sir Edmund Allenby decided to take command of the troops in the Eastern Field himself. The available Infantry was formed into two Army Corps, and the Cavalry of the Desert Column was formed into a Cavalry Corps of three Divisions (subsequently increased to four on the arrival of the Indian Cavalry from France early in 1918). The name of the original Desert Column was preserved as far as possible in the title of the new Cavalry Corps, as most of the troops composing it had fought throughout the Sinai Campaign, and by them much had already been accomplished. The Turk had been driven from the vicinity of the Suez Canal, across the Sinai Desert to the Palestine Border and beyond, and several hard-won battles had been fought. Also, covered by these operations, a railway and pipe line had been constructed, without which, under modern conditions, the further invasion of Palestine could not have been attempted.

 

The Desert Mounted Corps was composed of Australians, New Zealanders, British Yeomanry, and Territorial Horse Artillery and Indian Cavalry, with French Cavalry added for the last operations; and it says much for the loyalty of all, and the mutual confidence in each other, that the whole worked so harmoniously and efficiently to one end. It will be readily understood, too, that operations of the nature Colonel Preston describes could not have been carried out successfully without a highly efficient staff. I was peculiarly fortunate in the personnel of my staff and also in my Divisional Commanders, two of whom were Indian Cavalry Officers, one a British Cavalry Officer, and the fourth an Officer of the New Zealand Staff Corps.

 

To a leader or a student of military history the campaign was intensely interesting, but at the same time there were many hardships — intense heat in the summer, with dust and insect pests inconceivable to those who did not go through the campaign, and cold and heavy rains in the winter. The fortitude and endurance of the troops was beyond all praise, but the summer of 1918 spent by the Corps in the Jordan Valley, at about 1200 feet below sea-level, with a temperature varying from 110 to 125 degrees, will not be forgotten by them.

 

The occupation of this area was essential to the success of General Allenby's final operations; and everything possible was done to alleviate the conditions — with considerable success, as, though our wastage from malaria and other diseases was heavy, the greater bulk of the cases of malaria were contracted after leaving the areas which had been treated under the supervision of our Medical Staff. Our most serious losses occurred after reaching Damascus, and, on the farther advance to Aleppo, one division was brought to a complete standstill by the ravages of this disease.

 

Though drawn from such widely different quarters of the Empire, the personnel of the Corps was well fitted for the class of warfare it was called upon to undertake. The horsemen of Australia and New Zealand were accustomed to wide spaces and long days in the saddle, and were full of initiative, self-reliance and determination to overcome every obstacle in their way. The Yeomanry, though not so accustomed to hardships, had behind them the glorious traditions of the British Cavalry, in the annals of which their charges at Huj and El Mughar will live for all time. The Horse Artillery too, drawn from the Counties of England and Scotland and the City of London, lived through the whole of the campaigns in Sinai and Palestine with their comrades from overseas, and showed themselves no whit behind-hand in the matter of endurance. The value of their work is best shown by the esteem in which they were held by the other troops. The long apprenticeship of the Indian Cavalry to the trench warfare of the Western Front had robbed them of none of their dash and brilliancy in the open warfare to which they were so eminently fitted. The personnel of the Signal Service, Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Army Medical Corps, and Army Veterinary Corps came from the same sources as the other troops — units often being composed of mixed personnel — and to the efficiency of these the successes attained by the Corps were very largely due.

 

HARRY CHAUVEL,

Lieut.-General,

late Commanding the Desert Mounted Corps

Commonwealth of Australia

Department of Defence

Office of the Inspector-General

September 1920

 

 

Post Script

 

It is interesting to note that when Sir Harry penned this Foreword, he chose to include as many of his combat and combat support assets as possible in his praise, along with their origins.  This sentiment is reflected in his efforts to include all in a stele that was placed near the mouth of the Dog River (Nahr al-Kalb) in Lebanon at the conclusion of the campaign.  The original inscription had only cited ‘The British Desert Mounted Corps….aided by the Arab Forces of King Hussein’.  A J Hill, Sir Harry’s biographer noted that ‘it was 1927 before he found an opportunity of revising the Dog River inscription.  He seized it and after three years – three governments being involved – the work was put in hand and completed’ (Chauvel of the Light Horse, 1978, p.193).  The finished inscription is:

THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS

COMPOSED OF

BRITISH, AUSTRALIAN, NEW ZEALAND

AND INDIAN CAVALRY

WITH A FRENCH REGIMENT OF

SPAHIS AND CHASSEURS D’AFRIQUE

AND THE

ARAB FORCES OF KING HUSSEIN

CAPTURED DAMASCUS, HOMS AND ALEPPO

OCTOBER 1918