Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Harry Chauvel & TE Lawrence
In the dying days of the war to end all wars, Anzac horsemen cantered down the Golan Heights and put the Ottoman army to flight. Damascus lay before them, theirs for the taking. On the night of 30 September 1918, they took it.
Early the next morning, their commander arrived. The son of a New South Wales grazier, Harry Chauvel was a born cavalry officer. He was 53, the first Australian to command a corps, and Damascus was the pinnacle of his career as a field soldier.
Chauvel found his local liaison officer, a 30-year-old Oxford archaeologist named TE Lawrence, outside Government House, "attired as the sherif of Mecca" and surrounded by a crowd of exuberant Arabs.
Lawrence had spent the previous two years raising a revolt in the desert, an enterprise he described as a "sideshow of a sideshow". Emaciated, exhausted and agitated, he informed Chauvel that a new civil administration had been formed and suggested the Australian troops be kept outside the city, well away from its discipline-sapping temptations.
Immersed in the logistics of men and mounts, prisoners and provisions, Chauvel took this advice at face value. But Colonel Lawrence had divided loyalties. He'd promised Damascus to the Hashemite king, Faisal bin Hussein. The Arab army was running late and its triumphal entry into the ancient capital would fall flat unless Lawrence could buy it some time.
By afternoon, the jubilation of the liberated Damascenes turned to pillage and revenge, and Chauvel realised that his subordinate was trying to put one over him. Faisal's supporters were clearly incapable of maintaining order, so Chauvel paraded the Light Horse through the streets. Their emu feathers had an immediate calming effect on the population.
When Faisal eventually galloped into town, he was met with bad news. Syria and Lebanon were promised to France, and the British were keeping Palestine. Chauvel was the minute-taker at the meeting. Lawrence denied knowledge of the sell-out and asked to go home.
After the war, Lawrence lobbied for the Arab cause, denigrated Chauvel in his empurpled and unreliable memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, joined the RAF under a false name, died in a motorcycle crash in 1935, and was later played on the screen by a much taller actor. Harry Chauvel became Chief of Staff, trained a generation of Australian officers and died in harness at the age of 80. Inspired by his memory, his nephew Charles made Forty Thousand Horsemen, a film in which Peter O'Toole does not appear. In 1921, the British installed Faisal as the king of Iraq.