The Australian Light Horse

The following base notes informed a presentation given by Roland Perry at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 18 October 2009.

In 1915 and 1916 two diplomats representing the empires of France and Great Britain were sitting around in London and Paris having a lovely time carving up the Middle East – on paper. Forty-five-year-old Frenchman François Georges-Picot and 36 year-old Englishman Sir Mark Sykes were gleefully putting red and blue bits on a map reminiscent of a primary school colouring-in book. They acted as if the mere act of creating their carve-up on paper would translate into their two empires actually creating ‘Piece’. You know, ‘you have a piece of Syria and we’ll take Palestine’. ‘You have a piece of the Lebanon and we’ll take Jordan’. And so on.

There was only one problem with this. The enemy – the Turks – were dominant in the region. They had proved it at Gallipoli in 1915 and they had just humiliated the British again in mid-1916 in Iraq (then called Mesopotamia.) The Ottoman Turks weren’t going anywhere. They had ruled the Middle East for 400 years. They were supremely confident under their commander Mustafa Kemal. They thought they were invincible, especially with the support of German manpower, arms and officers.

Like a serial killer with a chainsaw in some horror movie, the Sykes-Picot agreement seemed merely a grotesque fantasy.

In reality Turkish troops, fresh from victory at Gallipoli, began a march across the Sinai Desert to take Egypt, which was then controlled by the British. The Turks had few fears. They outnumbered their British opposition by about ten to one. There was one vital difference from Gallipoli. The Anzac force had their horses, the Walers, which became the secret weapon of the Middle East war. One hundred thousand horses were sent to Cairo under the control of AB (Banjo) Paterson, the great balladeer. The Walers (so-named because of their origins in New South Wales) had thoroughbred sires and mares variously of Timor pony, brumby, Irish pony and draught horse stock. They stood 14 to 16 hands and were more than hardy. They could go 80 kilometres in a day and travel without water for up to 65 hours.

The Anzacs also had the best battle commander of either side in Lieutenant General Henry (Harry) Chauvel. The Turks, for the first time were stopped in their sand tracks and defeated in six major battles, the main one being the Battle of Romani. In that encounter, Chauvel did an uncommon thing for a man of his maturity (then 51) and rank: on horseback, he led out a vital reserve brigade from the front in full view of attacking Turks, who were exhausted as dawn came up and heralded another brutally hot day. The sight of a great column of 1000 fresh horsemen coming to join the battle was a huge psychological blow for the Turks, who were without food, water and footwear, which had been discarded during a night of battle and pursuit.

After those battles, the Commander in Chief of British forces, General Sir Archibald Murray said: ‘These Anzac troops are the keystone to defence of Egypt'. [1]

Thanks to the Anzac force then, Egypt remained a British Mandate, for the time being. By early 1917, the Light Horse had pushed the Turks north up the Mediterranean Coast into Southern Palestine. At the fortress city of Gaza, that current trouble spot, for reasons known only to the British High Command, the Light Horse was marginalised. The infantry became the prime force. Due to incompetence and the command insisting on making decisions from faraway Cairo, the British managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Chauvel was asked to withdraw his force when they had reached Gaza and could walk down its deserted main street. The British were stopped twice. By May 1917, the British force was stuck short of the 70-kilometre line from Gaza to Beersheba and entrenched in a way similar to the horrific close slaughter going on in Europe.

The fiasco in the Middle East, which should never have happened, meant heads had to roll. Murray was sent packing back to London. He was replaced halfway through the war with General Sir Edmund Allenby.

The defining moment for a chance at victory against the ruling Ottoman Empire in the Middle East occurred not on the battlefield but in Allenby’s Cairo office in the first week of July 1917. Allenby had been kicked out of the more important Western Front by his rivals in the British Army. He was shipped off to command the sideshow war in the Middle East. Allenby was downcast and irritable when he arrived. But within a week his attitude changed. He met the two most important commanders in the Middle East. The puckish, jut-jawed Major TE Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia), wearing sandals and Arab dress, paddled his way into Allenby’s office and announced that he and a contingent of Arabs had just ‘taken’ Aqaba in Southern Arabia. He claimed he could garner the Arab tribes on Allenby’s right flank to aid in the defeat of the Turks.

But a far more important meeting happened within days: the moment Allenby met Harry Chauvel. Allenby was impressed by the fine-boned, diminutive Australian’s demeanour and his impeccable record. Where other generals were more bluster than substance, Chauvel was measured and laconic. Allenby himself was bull-like in manner, terrorising his staff and officers. But this tactic could not work with the self-possessed Chauvel.

Soon after that meeting, Allenby promoted him above all the other generals in his Middle East army and put him in charge, eventually of the formidable Desert Mounted Corps of 34 000 horsemen. It was the dominant field commander’s role. His success or failure would define Allenby’s own level of accomplishment after his humiliating ‘demotion', and his place in history.

Allenby was rejuvenated. He had met two different styles of commanders, one whose record and manner suggested he could lead the offensive to destroy those two Turkish armies in Palestine and Syria; the other promising to provide a hit-and-run guerilla force of local inhabitants. They would disrupt a third Turkish army parked in hundreds of forts on the vital Hejaz Railway, which ran from Syria in the north to deep into Southern Arabia.

Allenby’s first aim was to take Gaza. There would be an army feint at Gaza, while the cavalry would take the more vulnerable town of Beersheba 70 kilometres east and inland. The secret attack date was 31 October 1917. Perhaps no other hour of battle in the entire Great War would decide so much. If Chauvel and his cavalry/Light Horse force failed, a third defeat at Gaza would mean the British would never push the Ottoman Empire out of the Middle East. The Army would be stuck in a trench battle getting nowhere. The Sykes-Picot colouring book could be torn up and thrown in the bin. Allenby, Chauvel and Co. knew that if there was a third failure to take Gaza it would be at least a year before a fourth attempt to take it. That would mean 31 October 1918 – the day of Armistice in the Middle East war. The map would remain almost exactly as it was before the war started in 1914.

Most people are aware of what happened next. Again, as in Romani in the Sinai, it was about timing. Chauvel waited for the very last hour of daylight to send the Australian 4th Light Horse to take Beersheba in a daring six-kilometre bayonet charge of 800 mounted riflemen. Against all odds, they smashed through the Turkish lines of 4800 soldiers, ignoring all weapons fire and attempts to stop the horses in the late afternoon blitz. It was the most important single psychological event in the Middle East war. After Beersheba, every time the Light Horse charged the enemy buckled.

The breakthrough and taking of Beersheba opened the way for the British Infantry to defeat the Turks at Gaza a few days later. This in turn delivered the opportunity for Allenby to direct Chauvel and Lawrence to command their respective forces towards Damascus.

It would take another year and another 20 or so Light Horse charges and battles.

On 22 September 1918, from the orange groves of Jaffa, Chauvel’s Light Horse force galloped through a hole opened up by the British Infantry in the Turkish 8th army (which had been pushed north up the Mediterranean coast). The Light Horse swept across the plains of Armageddon in northern Palestine (now Israel) to Lebanon and Syria, destroying most of two Turkish forces (the 7th and 8th) with back up from the infantry and air force.

In the meantime, Lawrence and the Arabs stepped up attacks on a third Turkish army on the important Hejaz railway, harassing it constantly and distracting the enemy force from helping their beleaguered comrades in the 7th and 8th armies further west. By the end of the week to 29 September, the cavalry had ridden to aid the Arabs in their battles with the remaining Turkish force.

At 5am on 1 October 1918, a 400-strong contingent of the West Australian 10th Light Horse, commanded by a Perth dentist, Colonel ACN (Arthur) Olden, set out from the Barada Gorge, 30 kilometres west of Damascus. Chauvel had chosen the 10th especially for this mission. This mighty regiment had been decimated (along with Victoria’s 8th Light Horse) at Gallipoli at the Battle of the Nek. Three years on and 26 major cavalry battles later, Chauvel wanted the 10th to have the honour if there was to be any conquest of Damascus, the ultimate prize.

En route the 10th captured a train full of Turks and a cache of gold coins and cigars. They rode on, chomping on cigars, a swirl of smoke around them and beneath them billowing dust kicked up by their horses. They were shot at by Turks in the 12 000 strong garrison outside the town. But the Turks inside it were in no physical state to take on even a few hundred Light Horse. Their leader Mustafa Kemal had fled north in the hope of fighting another day. Seeing this, the troops thundered on into Damascus, where they were greeted as conquering heroes by the populous.

The Turks in the city had either fled or were holed up in a garrison with no intention or capacity to fight. Olden stopped his column at Government Hall and hurried into the building with three lieutenants to find the Governor. They found an official welcoming party led by Emir Said, who the Turks had left in charge. He was very keen to surrender Damascus, expecting to be retained as Governor. Olden, showing presence of mind and flair, accepted the formal surrender. He was aware (cynically) that he was now in the line of some of the great names in history, including Egypt’s Ramses II, Greece’s Alexander and France’s Napoleon. Once ordained as Syria’s new conqueror, he left in a hurry, leading the column north in pursuit of the Kemal and his escaping force.

Allenby, the British Commander in Chief arrived on 3 October for one of his quick, decisive conferences, which included Chauvel, Prince Feisal (Faisal), son of the Grand Sherif of Mecca, Lawrence and others in both the British and Arab forces, that had played major roles in the drive to Damascus. The Commander in Chief cut to the salient points, shocking both Lawrence and Feisal: 'I am Commander in Chief', he said, ‘and you [Feisal] for the moment are Lieutenant-General under my command'. [2]

Faisal would have to obey Allenby until the carve-up of the Middle East – as outlined in that marvellously prescient colouring book – was settled officially at the end of the war. Feisal was told that he had no choice but to accept that France would have control over Syria. He left the conference in anger.

Lawrence said he could not work with the French for whom he had a pathological dislike. He would go back to England right away. He left the meeting.

Chauvel told Allenby he thought he had been ‘a little hard’ on Lawrence. Allenby relented saying he would arrange an audience for him with the King (George V), and write to the British Foreign Office on his behalf so that he could explain ‘the Arab point of view’.

As a last gesture of goodwill after days of tension between the two, Chauvel gave Lawrence a Rolls Royce for the long drive back to Cairo and an exit from the war.

Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom four years later: ‘I have come to feel that the trouble between us [he and Chauvel] was a delusion of the ragged nerves which were jangling me to distraction these days. Chauvel won the last round …’. [3]

The Australian and Chauvel’s Light Horse also won the entire contest against the Turks. Over the next four weeks, Chauvel pursued them, pushing Mustafa Kemal north over the Turkish border.

This ended 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East. That was the prime legacy of Chauvel and his Light Horse. There were three other legacies, all controversial. Without getting into the ideology, worthiness or consequences, they should be mentioned. The second legacy was the creation of the conditions that allowed the creation of Israel. The third legacy was the formation of Arab States. Neither of these developments would have occurred if the Turks had remained in control of the Middle East. They suppressed minorities – witness the Armenians and their near-genocide. The fourth legacy was the tapping of oil in the Middle East to feed the rapacious West for the next century.

For these reasons, the Anzac Light Horse had enormous impact from 1915 to 1919. They should be remembered and honoured.

Notes

1. British Museum; General Murray: letters, BM to Robertson (CIGS). MS October 1916. MS 52463. Also see National Archives of Australia; Department of Defence; B539, Correspondence files, multiple number series with AIF Australian Imperial Forces prefix, Jan 1914–31 Dec 1917; AIF112/5/611, Reinforcements, 1915–17.

2. Chauvel’s notes to the Australian War Memorial, pp. 9–11. I January 1936. Papers of General, Sir Henry George Chauvel, AWM PR00535.

3. TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wordsworth, Herfordshire, 1997, p. 655.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017