Grandpa on the Road to Damascus

by

Stephen O'Brien

Grandpa Gordon White was seventy when I was born in 1962. As I was growing up mother repeatedly told me that he’d been a soldier on horseback and that he’d entered Damascus before Lawrence of Arabia. I had no idea who Lawrence of Arabia was until the movie came on television in the mid-1970s. My mother saw little difference between movies and documentaries and she was most miffed at the movie version of the entering of Damascus. My grandfather himself hated war movies and I learned while still in primary school never to ask old soldiers about war. However, as he entered his nineties and beyond he began to talk more, just in little snippets at smaller family gatherings

 

In my twenties, I bought a copy of Gullet and photocopied, on enlargement, passages about such events as the Es Salt Raid that overlapped some of his stories. Those he liked to read because, often for the first time, he got a view of the overall picture. Grandpa’s stories were just vignettes of personal experience and his explanation of the background was frequently based on soldier-talk from those years. In relating these stories, I do so more or less in Gordon’s own terms. The details regarding circumstances are not necessarily perfect, for folk such as Gordon were only cognisant of what was directly before them at the time. Also, the stories only came to me in fragmentary anecdotes and I may have made mistakes of my own in splicing them together.

Grandpa never talked much about the war until well after his ninetieth birthday.  One of the few times he said anything at all was in 1962 when the movie blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia was the must-see film of the year.  Grandpa was most put out by the scene where Lawrence and Prince Faisal rode in triumph through the streets of Damascus, having supposedly liberated the city.

 

Grandpa hadn’t given too many details, but he was staunch about one thing.  Lawrence wasn’t the first allied soldier into the city.  It had been a small group of the Tenth Light Horse, himself included.  That much my mother was able to tell me.  That and one other thing.  Grandpa and his mates had robbed a train on the way.

Gordon Percival White photographed circa 1908

It was over twenty years before Grandpa told me some of the finer details.  By the time he was into the nineties he had started to talk more about the times when he was Trooper Gordon White, Tenth Light Horse.  He told of the day-after-day drudgery of constant riding.

 

“We all had lice”, he explained.  “Anybody who said they never had lice wasn’t there.  You had two shirts.  You rode along wearing one while you had the other draped over the shoulders of your horse, with a long crease folded from side to side.  The lice would crawl away from the sun by sheltering under the fold.  When you had a rest you dismounted, got your shirt and hammered the blazes out of the creased bit.”

 

At some rest stops, they were simply too exhausted to kill lice.  He described one ride where men and horses were covered in a layer of fine pale dust that made them almost unrecognisable as individuals.  Every mans’ face was a mask of dust with moist reddish slits marking their eyes and mouths.  Given the chance to dismount and rest they did so silently.  Too tired to converse or stretch each man just sat in the heat with his own thoughts.  Then one weary voice piped up with the comment, “Cow of a place that Australia, isn’t it?”

 

And everybody laughed.

 

In the light of such experiences, it was no surprise that the time when the men and their horses were able to swim in the Jordan was often quoted by Grandpa as one of his only two really nice experiences of the entire war.  The other one was Damascus.