From the Archives - The dentist who trumped lawrence of arabia

We have no shortage of stories from the First World War; tales of heroism amidst the horror. Yet one of the most fascinating – and the story we’re celebrating this ANZAC Day – is a little-known one of a Narrogin dentist who took Damascus.

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There are many tales of heroism from the First World War that are part of many family histories; of young men, sent far away to strange lands to fight in a brutal war. They are remembered on ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day and at Christmas gatherings, when families look back at old photographs and war medals.

Arthur Olden’s descendants have his medals, as well as a very unique piece of historic memorabilia – a document surrendering the city of Damascus to their ancestor.

Olden was born in Ballarat, and in 1904 was registered by the Dental Board of Western Australia. He set up practice in Narrogin – treating the people in and around the township.

Kay Weaver, manager of library services for the Shire of Narrogin, says Olden was a community-minded man who was a founding member of the local golf club, member of the town’s first polo club, and town councillor.

Olden enlisted in the First Word War 1914 and joined the 10th Light Horse Regiment. He was twice wounded at Gallipoli.

Tony Park, former Australian Army Major and bestselling author of 17 novels (including Ghosts of the Past, a military history thriller), says whether most Australians know it or not, they’re probably more aware of the actions of the 10th Light Horse than any other ANZAC unit.

“These were the young men from Western Australia whose slaughter at The Nek formed the basis for the climax of Peter Weir’s iconic film, Gallipoli,” he says. “Raised to fight as mounted infantry, the unit’s squandering in an ultimately futile offensive at Gallipoli symbolises, in many ways, the horror and wastefulness of the war. There’s no doubting the courage of the men of the 10th Light Horse, but Australians should be as equally aware of their successes as well as their losses on the ANZAC peninsula.”

One of the successes involves Olden who led his troops into Damascus and accepted the city’s surrender – inadvertently beating Lawrence of Arabia to the prize.

“The great Megiddo Offensive, which had begun on the night of 18-19 September was drawing towards its conclusion at Damascus a little over a week later,” explains Michael Kelly, historian at the Australian War Memorial. “On the 30th of September, the Australian 5th and 3rd Light Horse Brigades were involved in smashing a retreating Ottoman and German column in the Barada Gorge to the north-west of the city.”

Ordered to cut the Damascus-Homs Road to the north of the city, Olden’s scouts found no viable way around the Barada Gorge. “The only option therefore was for the 3rd LH Brigade to advance down the Barada Gorge in the early hours of 1 October, through the carnage they had helped to wreak on the Ottomans and Germans the day before, then enter the city from the north-west before turning north-east towards Duma,” Michael says.

Taking the initiative, Olden knew that the only way through was via the city.

In doing so, Olden’s troops beat TE Lawrence into Damascus by a couple of hours. However, the claim of who first entered Damascus is often disputed – with Lawrence being credited, including in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia.

“It hadn’t been the intention for the Australians to stop and accept the surrender; it was one of those events that could have been very different had Lawrence and his Arab force actually arrived first,” Michael explains. “Olden, following orders, moved on quickly and the 10th Light Horse Regiment led the rest of the 3rd Brigade out of the city in pursuit of the retreating Ottomans and they had left the city by 7am.

“The surrender of Damascus to the Australians was significant to them as they had fought a long campaign through the Sinai and then Palestine,” Michael adds. “Although the casualties were nowhere near those suffered on the Western Front, the Australians had been prominent in many significant actions during the long advance. The capture of Damascus, without a casualty, was the crowning glory of the Australian Light Horse campaign. Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel called the capture of Damascus the ‘high water mark of the Desert Mounted Corps’ endeavours.’

“The Australians had not intended to occupy Damascus, but the ANZAC Mounted Division remained around the city and was responsible for restoring order that had so quickly crumbled under the mis-management of the new Arab governing body,” Michael says. “The local Damascenes were thankful indeed that the Australians were present to restore and then maintain order.

“Lawrence wanted to ensure that the Arabs had a prominent position not only in the governance of Damascus, but in post-war negotiations regarding their self-determination,” he adds. “Lawrence was also a shameless and tireless self-promoter. The fact that the light horsemen reached Damascus first, ruined Lawrence’s narrative of an Arab victory. He downplayed the role of the Australians in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

“Also, where the 3rd Brigade had advanced through the city on horseback and had not stayed to enjoy the victory celebrations Lawrence arrived by Rolls Royce car, making a great spectacle of his entering the city. This was part of that self-promotion and pro-Arab propaganda.”

In reality, revolver in hand, Olden accepted the surrender, cut short the Emir’s speech and declined refreshments, and issued instructions for the restoration of civil order, before setting off again on his primary mission.

Tony says the fact that the Australians entered Damascus first speaks volumes about their tenacity and the fact that in so many engagements during the war they were at the front of the front line.

“The other significance, for all Australians to ponder, is that most people will never have heard of the campaign, let alone the fact that Australians were first into Damascus,” he adds.

To read the complete article on page 16, follow the link here

Image Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial B00814. Group portrait of officers of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment. Back row, left to right: Captain (Capt) Reginald William MacCallum; Lieutenant (Lt) Astley Bertram Cornelis Hamersley; Lt Charles Foulkes-Taylor MC; Lt Alan Herbert; Lt Henry Rodney Kingdon; Lt Albert Robert Strutton; Lt Harrison Claude Ainsworth. Middle row: Lt Albert Hopkins; Lt John Gordon Finlay; Lt Arthur Wyatt Miles Thompson MC; Lt Edgar Frank Richardson MC; Lt Alexander Urquhart Martin; Lt Ernest Ruse; Lt Alan Bell Gollan; Capt Henry Geoffrey Palmer. Front row: Capt Leonard Tilsley Baker (Medical Officer); Major (Maj) Richard Achilles Capron; Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Arthur Charles Niquet Olden DSO; Lt Col Thomas John Todd CMG DSO and Bar (DOD 23 January 1919); Maj Lewis Clayton Timperley; Maj Charles Gilmour Dunckley; Maj Herbert Bowen Hamlin DSO (DOD 30 May 1919).

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