Midnight the Warhorse: Part 12 - The Road to Damascus
by Peter Haydon
The Australian Walers were the envy of the entire cavalry world.
An account by an English cavalryman paid this tribute to them:
"They had covered 170 miles since the 29th October and the horses had been watered on an average of once in every 36 hours, the heat had been intense, their ration was 9 1/2 lbs of grain per day without any bulk food. Indeed the hardships endured by these horses were almost incredible. On one occasion they had only had water three times in nine days, at intervals of 68, 72 and 76 hours respectively. They carried on average 12 stone of soldier, another 9 1/2 stone for the saddle, ammunition, sword, rifle and clothes, totalling 21 stone. They carried this all day every day for 17 days, on half rations and only one drink in every 36 hours. It is no doubt these Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world”.
Ion Idriess was there and witnessed the charge giving this firsthand account in his book the “The Desert Column”:
“All the Turkish guns around Beersheba must have been directed at them. Captured Turkish and German Officers have told us that even they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by machine guns and artillery. At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man—they were an awe-inspiring sight—horse after horse crashed, but the massed squadrons thundered on—a heart-throbbing sight—the horses leaping the redoubt trenches as the Turks thrust up at their bellies—whirlwind of movements—dense dust as troops poured into the town…….Beersheba had fallen”.
The battle had been won by the ferocity and courage of the Australians. Often termed “insanely courageous”. It had weakened the Turkish defences so they could push onwards to take Gaza. The Australians then rode onto Bethlehem where they watered their horses at Solomon’s Pools. Their reputation now preceded them as a fearless fighting force. They rode through Jerusalem and the Jordon Valley as the Turks retreated, which become to be known as “The Great Ride”.
Peter Corlett's statue of a lighthorseman 'leaping' a trench at during the charge in the town of Beersheba today (unveiled in 2007).
Barney had a lot of close shaves but luck seemed always on his side. One of the closest was when he was looking through a metal hole out from a trench. He turned away to speak to someone just as a bullet flew through the hole. His number was not up yet. He often wrote on the top of his letters home “The Promised Land” or “Dinkum Desert” and always maintained the sense of humour he was known for.
The Light Horse pushed onto Damascus being the first to enter and capture the city. Apparently, this honour was to be bestowed upon Lawrence of Arabia to triumphantly claim the city but the Arabs held back until it had been firstly secured by the Australian Light Horse. As they rode past the Hall of Government, Major Olden dismounted, entered the hall and received the official surrender of Damascus from the Governor on behalf of the British Army.
They were the “First to Damascus”.
As it turned out the decision to hand Damascus over to the Arabs was an unmitigated disaster with looting and their inability to operate things like the hospital, water and with all other infrastructure failing to function.
They had pushed the Turks right back to near their border when the war ended on 31 October 1918 exactly one year after their Beersheba charge. They had reached Homs and there was now no need to continue onto Aleppo.
They had saved the Suez Canal and had overseen the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries were redrawn and the modern state of Israel formed. All such significant events in historical terms.
Above: General Allenby was in charge of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force
Above, right: Grass...the horses grazing by the Jordan River
Right: A pause during the 'Great Ride' on the way to Damascus