First to Damascus

The Story of the Australian Light Horse and Lawrence of Arabia
(now in third reprinting since publication in March 2002)


In 1918, 12,000 Australian Light Horsemen advanced across the Middle East, covering nearly 450 miles of treacherous desert and mountains. After twelve days the Great Ride climaxed in the taking of the fabled city of Damascus. The Ride was praised by the Allies’ Chief of Staff Earl Wavell as ‘The greatest exploit in the history of horsed cavalry…’.

Few people today have heard of the Great Ride, let alone remember it as the last triumph using massed cavalry. What most people remember is Lawrence of Arabia’s version – that it was this romanticised figure who virtually single-handed led the Arab troops to victory and took Damascus in the name and authority of Arab army chief Prince Feisal. The truth is different.

Jill Hamilton tells how Damascus was defended by the same Turkish general who had blocked the Australians at Gallipoli in 1915, and how for many of the troops, the taking of Damascus was a ‘getting even’ for that defeat. She describes the courage, endurance and mateship that made the desert crossing possible, and pays homage to the deep and important bond between horse and rider that enabled so many men and animals to survive.


Read the Prologue of First to Damascus here

First to Damascus 

The Story of the Australian Light Horse and Lawrence of Arabia

Dedication My father owned a horse in Egypt. It carried him from the shadow of the Pyramids, across the deserts to Palestine and to the fringes of one of the last great cavalry feats in the history of warfare. This book is dedicated to that horse – and to the 50,000 horses shipped from the Australian bush to Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the First World War, under the care of Banjo Paterson, never to return. Monuments, after all, can be in words as well as in stone.

For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are, And the stock-horse snuffs that battle with delight…



First light confirmed a scene of horror. During the night, horses and men had gone down together in hundreds and died in one tangled, bleeding mass. The ground was thick with the dead and the dying. Most of the fugitives in the Barada Gorge, the main escape route to Beirut, were Turkish and German soldiers who had refused to surrender and had been machinegunned under orders from High Command.

Sealing all the exits of Damascus was urgent. The British wanted the Turkish and German military commanders, troops and officials to surrender, not to escape, but many, including Mustafa Kemal, had already raced ahead.

At great speed, leading the remnants of his army, he had galloped out of range. Narrowly, he had escaped becoming one of the 40,000 prisoners taken in less than a fortnight. When the Allies had opened fire, the Turks in the front of the column had tried to turn back to the city, but the push of the people behind them was so strong that they were shoved forward into the zone of endless bullets pouring down from the cliff above.

After four centuries, the crescent moon and star flag of the sprawling Ottoman Empire, which had fluttered over Damascus since 1516, was soon to be hauled down. World War I had just entered its fifth year. The British were about to have a significant victory in the Middle East, a conquest that would give them a dominant role in the area.

Night and day since 19 September 1918, the Allies had relentlessly gone on in pursuit of the Turkish soldiers, whose stirring war cry of ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ was all too familiar. Now thousands were trying to flee before the British army finally seized the fabled city. Hundreds of dead men, horses and even a flock of dead sheep, lay in between broken-down vehicles, abandoned guns, machinery and disabled transport, blocking the path of the advancing horsemen. Some unlucky human survivors were heard, feebly calling for water. Those who were still conscious gazed with eyes that begged for a little mercy; mercy that they knew would not come from the Arabs. The air was heavy with the nauseating smell of unburied corpses of men and beasts. At dusk, the prowling jackals would close in to perform their funeral rites.

As the riders made their way through the dead and wounded, they took care that the horses’ iron hooves would not trample and mangle the faces of the fallen. Corpses were strewn everywhere. Groans and screams echoed pitifully in the silent dawn. The animals waited either for rescue, the relief of a quick pistol shot or a bayonet stab.

In the half-light of early morning, a troop of scouts raced back. For nearly a mile ahead the road was almost impassable. Progress through the debris was slow – both the riders and their horses were showing signs of exhaustion.

Most of the soldiers – from the Kimberleys, Geraldton, Perth, Kalgoorlie and the back of Broome – felt like old campaigners now. Thirteen days earlier, they had started at Jaffa (from where the famous orange had taken its name), then swept up the coast of Palestine on what they already referred to as the ‘Great Ride’. Few mounted troops and horses could have endured such a journey. Feeding and watering 12,000 horses and their riders as they invaded new territory, let alone the 57,000 troops in the rear, together with the tens of thousands of camels, mules and donkeys, was such a formidable task that both man and beast often went without forage and water.

This was the largest group of cavalry ever used in an advance by the British army, and the largest deployed in modern times. It was on a par with the cavalry at Waterloo or at Omdurman with the Hussars against the Mahdi’s Black Flags when Winston Churchill charged against the Dervishes.

Although the Australian mounted troops’ mastery of horses set tham apart and they received the admiration and adulation now reserved for pop bands, film stars and footballers, few people are aware of their major role in the fall of Damascus. It was to be the culmination of a campaign that had started four years earlier in Gallipoli.

Usually, the disastrous nine months of the Gallipoli campaign are seen in isolation, not as part of the ongoing campaign between the British and the Turks in the western Mediterranean, but between 1915 and 1918, battles had endlessly dragged on between two empires: the shrinking Ottoman Empire and the expanding British Empire that encircled the globe. By chance, on the roads to Damascus, two of the main players on the Turkish side were the same commanders as had been at Gallipoli: Mustafa Kemal and Otto Liman von Sanders. For twelve days, the British Desert Mounted Corps had been pursuing them, from Nablus and Nazareth. But now on the steep and terrible hills above Damascus the wheel of fortune was turning full circle. Kemal, despite fighting desperately, was losing.

God, the Koran and the Germans were failing the Turks. The Germans, too, had overrated the effect of the Sultan announcing a jihad – a holy war.

Strong though the Muslim faith was, it had not proved a unifying force. The Sherif (Governor of Mecca) and the British – with much help from Lawrence – defused the jihad so effectively that few people now associate the word with World War I.

Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, with headquarters in Cairo, had led the offensive around the Mediterranean coast and, right from the beginning, had defiantly used Muslim soldiers, pitting co-religionists against each other. (This was a separate operation from the British campaign run by the India office in Mesopotamia, which does not fall within the scope of this book.) The four-year operation can be divided into four distinct phases, each one with a different British commander.

The first, in February 1915, the initial Turkish–German offensive against the Suez Canal, was successfully repulsed by General Sir John Maxwell; second, Gallipoli, was where the Turks, under the German general, Otto Liman von Sanders, aided by Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, had defeated General Sir Ian Hamilton’s forces; the third was the slow British advance across the Sinai Peninsula, led by Sir Archibald Murray between 1916 and 1917, which ended in disaster for the British when General Kress von Kressenstein had twice beaten them at Gaza. General Sir Edmund Allenby led the fourth and final phase. After breaking through Gaza at the end of 1917, he had captured Jerusalem. Merged into the last two phases of the Turkish–British conflict was the guerrilla warfare of the Arab Revolt, immortalised in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence.

Capturing Damascus had seemed a wild dream when Lawrence, soon to be known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, had first proposed it to the Arabs in 1916.

It was then one of the great cities of the Middle East, more central to the region than Cairo or Baghdad and, as Lawrence later wrote, ‘the climax of our two years’ uncertainty’. He again stressed its importance in his book’s epilogue: ‘Damascus had not seemed a sheath for my sword when I landed in Arabia; but its capture disclosed the exhaustion of my main springs of action’.

The Australians pummelled the road through the deep Barada Gorge, down the barren, steep hills. Lawrence, who had been part of the group that had bivouacked in their rough camp on the ridge above the gorge the previous night, was not, as planned, behind them. With his small stature arrayed in extravagant, flowing robes similar to those of a desert sheikh, complete with Bedouin headdress and dagger, standing beside his huge armoured Rolls Royce, the ‘Blue Mist’, he was more than noticeable. Below the minimum height for soldiers, Lawrence had not qualified for active service like his two brothers, who had both been killed in France. He had gone into the army through the intelligence department, and for two years had acted as British liaison officer to Prince Feisal and the Arab irregulars. He was already renowned for his daring guerrilla tactics, especially blowing up trains. With Prince Feisal, the small Arab regular army and the colourful rag-tag band of Arab irregulars, he had rendezvoused with the Australians at the town of Deraa. Both groups had been progressing in a northerly direction for over a year, but the last few days had been the first time that the two forces had been in the same area. Now, having slept briefly beside his car, Lawrence was now nowhere to be seen.

In the distance, the Australian horsemen could see the indistinct outlines of the slender white minarets and the glittering domes of Damascus’s mosques. They horsemen were still too far away to hear the holy chants of the Muslims in the mosques; still oblivious to the destruction, calls to prayer still rang out. Under the threat of sniping from the odd survivor in the dense undergrowth on either side of the Barada Gorge, the men of the 10th Light Horse Regiment flung themselves from their horses, and proceeded to clear a path through this shambles. When they pushed the dead to the side of the road, a quick count revealed 370 Turkish corpses. Wounded Turks – and they were in their hundreds – were carried to the grassy bank of the river.

Arrangements were made for them to be picked up by ambulances later.

Once the men were past the bodies, the command to ‘Push on!’ was given.

Short of water, short of food and short of sleep, their faces smeared with sweat and dirt, their lips dry and cracked, the Australians rode on. Engulfed in a thick cloud of dust, they galloped as fast as the steep descent and the stamina of their horses would allow. The weather was hotter than usual for early autumn. Spirits rose. The river in front was not a mirage. It was forbidden to drink straight from rivers but, as always, some men filled the crown of their felt hats with water and let their horses drink. Others also managed to splash their eyes. But the unofficial halt was short.

Damascus, reputedly the oldest city in the world to be continuously inhabited, had for centuries been a vital nerve centre of the sprawling Ottoman Empire and the key to Syria. Soon, though, this fabled city was to be taken over by the Allies. And soon the question would arise – who entered first? Was it the Australians? Was it the Arabs? Had Lawrence descended the hill by another route, met up with some Arabs and got there first? Was there really a sham entry staged by the British to deceive the French? Did the Australians unwittingly undermine the Arabs’ quest for self-government in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire? What was the significance of the order to the Australians not to go into Damascus? As political consequences would follow from the claim of who was first into Damascus, each side, each faction, was passionate about the honour of being the first who entered. Even war diaries differ in their answers.

Historians have made the debate about who was first in to Damascus a bone of contention. The chaos and confusion at Damascus of different forces reaching the city at similar and/or overlapping times created a scenario where claims could be staked – and pushed aside by counter-claims. While some books present the 10th Light Horse as the first past the post, in others Lawrence and the Arabs are not only the winners, but are often depicted as the real victors of the campaign. The issue of who was first to Damascus went far beyond personal pride.

Professor Eliezer Tauber, of the Bar-Illan University in Israel, goes so far as to say, in his book The Arab Movements in World War I: ‘One of the most controversial questions in the history of the First World War in the Middle East is the question of who conquered [Damascus], or to be more exact, who reached Damascus first.’ Because of the Declaration to the Seven – a statement made by British officials in the Arab Bureau in Cairo in mid-1918 – the question of who arrived first in Damascus was critical. The Declaration stated that the British would recognise Arab independence in Arab areas that had been independent before the war, or that had been liberated by the Arabs themselves. Therefore the question of who got to Damascus first was significant enough for people to distort the truth. More importantly, the fate of this fabled city could affect the sharing of the lands in territories around it.

Could there really have been an error in the official reporting of the date and hour? The 1951 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica says that Lawrence, ‘…after breaking up the enemy’s trans-Jordan army, entered Damascus some hours ahead of the British. Lawrence took charge of the city till Allenby could reach it, and suppressed attempts at reaction’. The historian B. H. Liddell Hart wrote that Damascus was taken with the help of ‘two comparatively novel tools – aircraft and Arabs’. Leon Uris’s epic novel The Haj says that Feisal ‘entered Damascus and had himself proclaimed King of Syria…’.

Respected historian Elie Kedourie was one of the earliest and strongest advocates of the theory that the Australians were first into Damascus. Tauber, too, thought they were first there. But then Professor Stephen Tabachnick, at Memphis University, joined in the debate to resolve the question (as far as it can be resolved) of whether or not Lawrence was truthful about who actually entered first. Qualifying his remarks with ‘it may well be a matter of interpretation’, he cautioned me to remember that city limits were not always clearly delineated.

David Lean’s 1962 prize-winning film, Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole, gives the impression that Lawrence was first into the city. No Australian horsemen appear in it at all. Robert Bolt adapted the screenplay from Lawrence’s classic history of the campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In this, Lawrence is the central figure and narrator, unfolding the campaign’s grandeur, its epic proportions, its brutality, cruelty and gore. Both book and film omit to mention the Australian Light Horse galloping towards Damascus, let alone ever entering it, or the twelve-day cavalry offensive by the Australian horsemen and the pitched ‘head-on’ battles fought by British troops.

The jostling, politics and jealousies at the gates of Damascus were not reported at the time. My interest stems from my father, Robbie Robertson, who was a trooper with the 10th Light Horse in the last year of World War I.

While writing a book on Napoleon and his horses, I became curious about my father and his warhorse.

I decided to write about the story of the Light Horse in the Middle East during the war; not a ‘drums and trumpets’ history with details of a long string of battles, but a story giving an overall view of its achievement. It lays no claim to historical completeness. At the same time as following the Light Horse from Gallipoli in 1915 to Syria in 1918, I decided to try to unravel the controversial and touchy question of ‘Who was first to Damascus?’ In searching for the answer to this question, I also found the reasons why details of the campaign have remained mostly in obscurity.

The fact that Field Marshall Earl Wavell, who had been Allenby’s Chief-of- Staff in the Middle East, praised the advance as the largest body of cavalry employed in modern times under one commander is usually forgotten. He went so far as to say that it was ‘the greatest exploit in history of horsed cavalry, and possibly their last success on a large scale…’. The cavalry historian, the Marquess of Anglesey, called it ‘the last [campaign] in the history of the world in which the mobility conferred by men on horseback was successfully employed on a large scale. Never before in the annals of the British army had so numerous a mounted force been employed’.

No matter how he is described, Lawrence is usually mentioned in histories of the Middle East campaign, whereas the Australians are usually omitted. In the battle-filled fortnight that preceded the fall of Damascus, Lawrence and the Arabs usually overshadow all other participants, such as the Australian Light Horse, who formed the bulk of the cavalry, together with regiments from New Zealand, India, Britain and France. Another point usually omitted in descriptions of the campaign is the support given to the horses by the aircraft. This combination of cavalry and air power was unique in military history. In Europe, aircraft were restricted by bad weather and limited landing places, but in Palestine and Syria, pilots could take advantage of the clear skies and some of the immense treeless plains for landings and take-offs, although flamingoes, once they were inured to the noise, could be slow to move and got in the way.

To disentangle the mystery, I realised I would have to entwine the stories of the Australians in the Great Ride with the role of Lawrence in the Arab Revolt and as an intelligence officer. Did some of the ambiguity lie in the fact that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was a forerunner of cloak-and-dagger intelligence officers? Professor Tabachnick raised the possibility when he asked, ‘Does he [Lawrence] see himself as a heroic knight or a cynical agent? Is he a dreamy arts graduate forced to participate in a brutal war that destroys him, or a willing sadomasochist who loves war too much?’ Wanting to extract the truth from the blurred falsehoods and extravagant claims that so often, and so casually, accompany war, I set off to Damascus, Deraa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Amman and many other places touched on during the advance into Syria. No Hashemite royal archives opened their hitherto sealed doors, but the fascinating chain of events that led the Allied and the Arab forces to meet in Damascus still needed to be resolved. The campaign, plotted in London, Syria, Cairo, Paris, Berlin, Constantinople (Istanbul) and Damascus, was shaped by many players, including the Arab irregulars with Lawrence, the German generals with the Turkish troops, the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces General Headquarters and, of course, the individual corps, divisions and regiments.

Despite writing the 1,188 pages of Lawrence’s official biography, Jeremy Wilson, former chairman of the Lawrence Society, ignores the Australian entrance into Damascus. When answering my request for information on who was first into Damascus he said: In the end, the problem for most researchers is simply logistical: the documents are split between London and Australia, and no-one has had the resources to study both sides… Wilson overlooks the hundreds of overseas researchers welcomed into the library of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, some of whom have been given fellowships. Among them were Dr Yigal Sheffy of Tel Aviv University and Dr Matthew Hughes from Northampton University in England. Their theories, together with those of Tauber, and the papers delivered during the Israeli–Turkish International Colloquy held in Tel Aviv and Istanbul in 2000, have thrown new light on the Middle East during World War I – and the role of the Australians in it.

Wilson stressed, in his reply, that: The capture of Damascus is a fuzzy area in Lawrence’s life and could do with clarification. I don’t see this as a question of Lawrence’s version against the Australian version, because in their more moderate forms both versions are probably correct. But there are unanswered questions, and the documents must exist to establish exactly what happened. I am intrigued, for example, by [General Sir Harry] Chauvel’s differing accounts, and by insinuations in the 1922 text of Seven Pillars that are toned down in the subscriber’s abridgement.

Wilson’s allusion to ‘differing accounts’ by the corps commander was challenging. Were the Australian reports really contradictory? As with everything to do with special or undercover agents and espionage, it seemed shrouded in mystery. In 2001, when the British Foreign Office began lifting the embargo on certain old intelligence files, more contradictions emerged, but at the same time, paradoxically, more clarity. Research led me not just to files, but to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge, in the heart of London. Although details of the intelligence organisation in Cairo that employed Lawrence were still not easy to come by (like much to do with the Secret Service), something filtered through, as will be seen at the end of this book, which made the story clearer.

The great-grandson of an Irish horse-breaker, my father was the proudest of riders. Through persistence and a little lying – he was only sixteen – he had been accepted into Western Australia’s mounted infantry. With neither a bridle nor the crucial bit, he could turn a horse by tapping on its neck. Skilled though he was, the tough school of the Outback, where he had learnt to tame wild bush horses, did not produce riders who cared for the niceties of dressage, accoutrements, class distinctions – or rules.

Riding had given him a nonchalant sense of daring, and like his father, he was also a gambler. Risking arrest, he had briefly run a ‘two-up’ school both in the back streets of Cairo and twenty miles away in Heliopolis. Two shiny copper Australian coins, with the profile of George V on the front and the word ‘penny’ on the reverse, usually jingled in his pocket in expectation of a game. Whenever the cry ‘Come in spinner!’ was heard, he would flick and toss the lucky coins with dexterity from the tips of two outstretched fingers.

Also always ready for a quick round of poker, he kept a well-thumbed pack of cards inside his khaki jacket with his cigarette papers, or if he was in luck, some Woodbines or Navy Cut.

There is a photograph of my father taken in the Middle East. He is astride his faithful steed, sitting deep in the saddle, wearing the uniform of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). I have looked at this equestrian picture nearly every day of my life, yet I do not really know my father, or even his horse’s name. Overcome with emotion at any mention of his horse, he rarely spoke of him. When a child, I mentally fused my father with his battlescarred animal until they became a single entity, as they seemed to be in the photograph. If I gaze long enough at the picture, tears well up in my eyes. I see him on his horse galloping across those sandy and stony deserts, heading towards uncertainty and heartbreak.

Over two decades after the Great Ride, when I was born, my father was still proud of having once been in the Light Horse. But despite always wearing his Returned Soldiers’ League badge on the lapel of his fine wool suits, he was one of a minority who did not attend ceremonies. We never went to Anzac Day services. He told his sister, Dorothy, that anything to do with the slaughter was too much for him. The one parade in which he did take part was traumatising. Years later, he said to our mother, ‘I hate bringing back those times’. Like many young men, he had enlisted with enthusiasm, only to find himself dehumanised, disillusioned and exploited – appalled at the thought of what he was obliged to do with his sword and rifle in either self-defence or the heat of combat. The poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who tried ‘to touch the hearts of men with poetry’, described similar sentiments: I stood with the Dead, so forsaken and still: When dawn was grey I stood with the Dead.

And my slow heart said, ‘You must kill, you must kill: ‘Soldier, soldier, morning is red’.

My father’s sister explained how my father was also forced to kill the one thing he loved. He never, she believed, recovered emotionally from having to shoot his beloved horse. Shooting his constant companion was the only way to save him from being sold as a beast of burden to join the overworked wretches in the streets of Cairo or in quarries or mines. (Many horses were so cruelly treated that in the 1930s, a charity, the Brooke Hospital for Horses, was set up to care for the survivors.) Australian men in those days had no outlet for their grief other than rage or drink. My father shut part of himself down and bore the emotional scars for the rest of his living days. Remembering what his sister had told me, it is possible that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but there was little help then available for the war-damaged soldier, except advice such as ‘Go home; get on with a job; be a man!’ I lived with Robbie Robertson for fourteen years but can recall no closeness. We shared over 5000 days and nights in a respectable but dreary liver-coloured brick house on pale stone foundations near a golf course, three miles from Manly beach, Sydney. At the age of fifty-three, mumbling something about feeling unwell, he collapsed on the floor and died from a massive heart attack. He had not seemed the same since returning from a short business trip overseas four months earlier – even though he was, at last, able to talk in an easy manner about some of his experiences. The Italian ship sailing to Naples had gone via the Suez Canal, taking him briefly back to his old haunts from the war around Cairo. Heavier and not so agile, he again rode out to the Pyramids at Giza this time, not riding his own horse by moonlight but riding a tourist camel in daylight. Nor could he fulfil his youthful wish of striding through the heavy, double wooden doors of Shepheard’s Hotel, which during the war had been off-limits to all but officers. He never saw its lotus-topped pillars or bought a gin and tonic at the Long Bar. All he found was a hole in the ground. The building, along with all its old snobbery and exclusivity, had gone up in flames two years earlier in the riots that had deposed King Farouk.

While I was writing this book, my sister said that our father comes to life for her ‘only when I either turn the stiff cardboard pages of the old family photograph album or when I meet a pet cockatoo’. He was unusually animated when pointing out talking birds – a yellow-crested white cockatoo that screeched out his name had been a close companion of his youth. For me, though, my father exists solely in that photograph of him mounted on his beloved horse. With his brown eyes alert, his lean bronzed face stern, he is unsmiling beneath the distinctive Australian hat with its upturned brim and plume of emu feathers in the band. The weather was hot, yet he was wearing his serge khaki soldier’s uniform with its coarse jacket with voluminous exterior pockets. Not so tall as powerful – he was still growing – he had fine features, a fresh, clear skin, profuse brown hair, bushy eyebrows and prominent cheekbones. In the photograph, the head of the horse is as important as that of the rider. Take away the horse and the picture is nothing. The animal gives potency to the rider.

Little remains besides the photograph to tell of my father and his time in the war. Records simply list Private Noel Robertson, number 57192, who served with the AIF from 24 April 1918 until 10 July 1919 in the Great War and in the Egyptian Rebellion, religion Church of England. His campaign medals, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, have gone, and his horse’s bones lie in Syria.

Remembering the 12,000 horsemen, together with the 12,000 horses – the geldings from the Kimberleys, the bays from the Albany grass country and the bright chestnuts bred on the tawny plains behind Wagga – I set off to find out what was real, what was imaginary, and what had just been invented so that I could answer the much-repeated query – who was first to Damascus?