Turks abandon Damascus as Allies approach

On the night of September 30, 1918, as Allied forces led by General Edmund Allenby march steadily toward Damascus, Turkish authorities abandon the city.

Damascus, located on the Barada River in modern-day Syria, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, it served as the base for Turkish and German troops to direct their operations against Allied forces at the Suez Canal during World War I. British troops in the region were commanded from mid-1917 by Allenby, who led his men in a successful campaign in Palestine that year, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem in December. Though Allenby lost some of his troops to the Western Front due to the German offensive there in the spring of 1918, the British had managed to recoup their strength in the region by the summer, due to an influx of reinforcements.

On September 19, Allenby’s force went on the attack in Palestine near the city of Megiddo—the biblical site of the Battle of Armageddon—that began a string of victories over the following weeks. On September 27, Allenby’s cavalry rode from Palestine across the Golan Heights into Syria, putting them only 60 miles from Damascus. The Allied advance was held up the following day by a division of 1,500 Turkish troops; by the late afternoon of September 30, however, they had wrested free and were on the way to Damascus.

That night, Turkish authorities fled the city in anticipation of the Allied occupation, ending hundreds of years of Ottoman rule in Damascus. Led by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade from Australia, Allied troops took control of the city the next day, seizing some 7,000 Turkish prisoners. Allenby’s forces were aided in their campaign in Syria by a force of Arab nationalists, led by Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Since 1916, Hussein and his sons, encouraged by British contacts such as T.E. Lawrence—the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”—had given their support to the Allies in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire. When the Allies occupied Damascus, Arab riflemen fired their guns in the air to celebrate the fall of the Turks in that city. Barely a month later, Turkey sued for peace, signing an armistice with the Allies on October 30, 1918.

Though Allenby had left Faisal Hussein in charge in Damascus—and a Syrian national congress declared him king in March 1920—the post-war settlement at Versailles determined that France would have control of Syria, as well as Lebanon and northern Mesopotamia. Faisal was deposed in July 1920 when the French entered Syria under a mandate of the League of Nations. The following year, after the British-mandated government permitted a plebiscite, Faisal became the first king of Iraq. Meanwhile, despite repeated revolts, Syria remained under French rule—including a one-year stint under the pro-German Vichy government in 1940-41—until after World War II, when Damascus became the capital of an independent Syria.

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