GENERAL GOYBET'S MEMOIRS OF THE DAY OF MAYSALUN
Revue des Troupes du Levant V, January 1937
The magazine Revue des Troupes du Levant V, January 1937, published the memoirs of the Day of Maysalun of General Goybet, the commander of the expedition that marched on Damascus. These memoirs include a good deal of military data. They also touch, in passing, on many political events and here and there contain some general observations.
The information and observations are interesting in that they help to reveal the truth about certain problems and lay bare the mentality of the leaders who assumed the task of "imposing the mandate on Syria" by iron and fire. I therefore thought it necessary to go over the Generals writings and quote from them, now in summary fashion, now in literal translation, depending on the importance of the passage. I have added nothing to his observations because I believe that the facts and events detailed in the preceding pages make any commentary of mine superfluous.
The memoirs are organized in 12 short sections, entitled: (1) "King" Faisal (2) Secret Massing of Troops (3) Terrain (4) Plan of Movements (5) Ultimatum (6) "D"
Day (7) Diplomacies, Hesitations, and Decision (8) Stage of the Tragedy and Its Actors (9) Khan Maysalun (10) City of "A Thousand and One Nights" (11) End of the Regime (12) General Order No. 22. A short appendix follows.
Most of the sections of the memoirs and analyses are wholly military in content. The General mentions the number and names of the units under his command. He analyzes the strategy developed after a study of the terrain and the general mobilization undertaken in preparation for war. There are copious details of the battle that subsequently took place.
I see no purpose in reviewing the military data. I should like merely to summarize his notes on the strength and losses of the expedition.
The Army of the East was composed of three divisions, the one under General Goybet's command being the Third. This division consisted of: 4 brigades of chasseurs, 2 brigades of cavalry, 4 batteries of 75 mm. artillery, 2 batteries of 65 mm. artillery, 1 battery of heavy artillery, 155 mm. Schneiders. Also under his command were 15 tanks, 4 armored cars, units of engineers, and reconnaissance planes. He could also call on bombers belonging to the High Command.
His troops comprised Algerian chasseurs, Moroccan cavalrymen, and Senegalese infantrymen. French casualties in the Battle of Khan Maysalun were 250 dead and 200 wounded, including 3 officers.
The memoirs begin with a brief section on King Faisal. The General shared the general French view:
"In Damascus the Emir put the royal crown on his head and began to conscript Syrians and equip several army divisions. He prohibits the circulation of Syrian currency and prevents Hawran grain from reaching our zone. He uses every means at his disposal to block trade between Lebanon and Sherifian territory. Likewise, he places many obstacles in the way of supplying by railroad our troops stationed in the north.
"Moreover, our apparent inactivity encourages him to win over men with elastic consciences either by alluring promises or by glittering gold. He urges some Syrians to prepare for a trip to Europe to seek assistance in delivering Syria from the oppression and tyranny of France."
Consequently, the supreme French authorities came to feel the need of resorting to force and so undertook to mass troops on a large scale.
General Goybet concedes that their purpose was not really "to defend the French zone" because, despite the Damascus garrulousness, "an attack by Sherifian soldiers on the western zone was scarcely possible." Their true objective was "to bring the threat of French bombs to the western zone."
Inasmuch as the most important and sensitive point in the eastern zone was the capital Damascus, this city was naturally regarded as the principal military goal. The major part of this operation was assigned to the Third Division under the command of General Goybet.
1. Massing of Troops
The General prepared his, troops thoroughly for the march on Damascus. He kept the garrisons of Tibin and Marj Uyun where they were and called out the garrisons of Banyas and Marqab in Tripoli and Tell Kalakh. The bulk of his forces were massed along the sides of the road leading to Damascus between Beirut and Sawfar.
Advance units were sent to Zahlah, Sa'd Na'il, and al-Murayjat and given training in mountain warfare. The General considered it necessary to conclude the preliminary phase by bringing the forward lines up to the Litany River through the occupation of Shturah, Al-Mu'allaqah and Rayaq. This was all very easily accomplished.
Similarly, he built a good airfield near Ta'nayil in the Biqa'. He admits that the farm of the Jesuit Fathers there helped greatly in camouflaging this operation.
On July 14, 1920 having wound up his preparations, the General had only to await marching orders from the Commander in Chief, General Gouraud.
General Goybet mentions the demands incorporated in General Gouraud's ultimatum and goes on to say:
"We must admit that General Gouraud has shown his characteristic leniency by sending an ultimatum to Emir Faisal despite all the latter's acts of cunning and treachery. They should have led to the issuance of orders to march on Damascus at once, without any warning. . . We were all sincerely hoping that the Emir's delusions of grandeur would drive him to return an equivocal answer or a flat 'no'."
3. Marching Orders
The orders for which General Goybet was impatiently awaiting did not arrive until the night of July 21st, the time fixed for the expiration of the ultimatum.
They came at midnight by telephone:
"There is no answer from the Emir. Telegraph lines have been cut in Sherifian territory. The march on Damascus is to begin on July 21st according to plan."
General Goybet promptly issued the necessary instructions to his officers.
4. The Advance
At 0430 hours of July 21st the French troops began to move across the Litany River. They found the bridges intact and encountered no Sherifian patrols. Goybet asserted that the absence of Sherifian soldiers was part of a stratagem. He therefore ordered his commanders to proceed very carefully in readiness for a possible attack or any other contingency.
When he learned shortly afterwards that the French forces reached and occupied Mijdal Anjar without fighting, he decided that there was no reason to waste any more time by taking precautionary measures. He ordered his officers to regroup the entire army and move on to Damascus directly. He himself traveled in back of the vanguard.
5. The Meeting with Colonel Cousse
Colonel Cousse met General Goybet in the Wadi al-Harir. The General describes the incident in these words:
"I noticed a car approaching from the direction of Damascus in which were Colonel Cousse, French liaison officer to Emir Faisal, and several Sherifian officers. Colonel Cousse's face was pale with emotion. He Said:
"'What are you doing, General? You have invaded Sheriuian territory, even though Emir Faisal agreed to all the demands of the High Commissioner.'
"'I have orders from General Gouraud to proceed to Damascus,' I answered simply. 'I am carrying out a plainly limited military assignment. As for political matters, take them up with someone in the rear.'
"I continued on as the Colonel's car disappeared behind us en route to Alayh."
6. The Push Forward
The intelligence obtained by General Goybet from air reconnaissance confirmed "the retreat of the Sherifians toward Damascus". He therefore decided to move quickly in order to cover as much ground as possible before sunset.
At 5 o'clock in the afternoon the vanguard reached Ayn al-Judaydah where it prepared to encamp. When the General arrived, however, he disapproved of the location and ordered the troops to occupy the heights which dominate the Wadi al-Zurzur. The necessary dispositions were then made. By nightfall the division was secure against attack from any quarter and in a position to march toward Khan Maysalun early in the morning."
7. Retreat of the Tanks
Following a description of their movements, General Goybet says:
"We accidentally discovered the Sherifians' intention to hold on to the Wadi al-Zurzur in order to prevent our troops from leaving through the pass of the Wadi al-Qarn. The tanks rolling along with the forward units were instructed to proceed to the mouth of the W and take possession. However, on emerging from the Wadi they were greeted by four or five 105 mm. shells, which forced the commanding officer to pull back to a safe place."
Goybet notes the reasons that led him to conclude a truce at Aynal-Judaydah:
"During the night a Sherifian delegation accompanied by Colonel Toulat, Chief of the French Mission in Damascus, came to headquarters to remind us that Emir Faisal had accepted all the terms of the ultimatum. He asked us for another delay in order to give the Sherifian government an opportunity to study the situation created by our advance.
"We took up the matter with Colonel Pettelat, Chief of Staff. Colonel Toulat told us that the news of our march greatly excited the people of Damascus and resulted in a number of clashes. The foreign consuls became perturbed, fearing that our action
might cause a massacre of the Christians.
"We saw the following benefits in a 24-hour delay:
"(1) It would afford our troops a chance to get much needed rest after spending a day under the broiling sun and a sleepless night of intense exertions in the dry, waterless mountains.
"(2) It would enable us to tighten communications between the various units of the division which were gathered together for the first time in 24 hours. This created many problems each requiring study and a decision.
"(3) It would show our good intentions to the foreign consuls who are the representatives of Christian Europe in Damascus.
"Actually, our stopping where we did was dangerous. It destroyed the advantages derived from our swift advance by helping the Sherifians fortify their defensive positions before the entrance to the Wadi al-Qarn and complete the equipping and massing of their men in certain sensitive places along the line of march.
"Nevertheless, we decided to offer 'a suspension of all activities for a period of 24 hours', provided that the Sherifian Government in turn give our troops the right to use the railroad from Ray to al-Takiyah to ensure our supplies. For this purpose we would utilize the road leading to the aforementioned station on the left side of the Wadi al-Zurzur.
"The Sherifian delegation accepted our terms and proceeded to Alayh to negotiate with General Gouraud directly."
9. The New Request
On the morning of the following day, i.e., July 22nd, the General sent out patrols to reconnoiter the road to al-Takiyah left of the Wadi al-Zurzur. He learned that it was a mule path and absolutely impassable by motor traffic. He also calculated that transportation of supplies by the single train from the station of al-Takiyah to Ayn al-Judaydah would require all the army mules, including those employed to carry cannon and machine guns.
It was necessary therefore to use the road leading out of the station of al Takiyah along the right side of the Wadi al-Zurzur which crossed the Damascus road near Khan Maysalun.
General Goybet observed that two critical problems would be raised if his army
remained on the Plain of al-Judaydah:
(1) Water - The five wells in al-Judaydah yielded 20,000 litres daily, whereas the army needed 90,000 litres.
(2) Anthrax - the Plain of al-Judaydah had been traversed by caravans for thousands of years. They apparently became "the accursed fields", to use Pasteur's phrase, where the anthrax germs were endemic. Indeed, within an hour a number of animals, including the horse belonging to one of the General's staff officers, died of this dread disease.
For these reasons General Goybet wrote to General Gouraud to explain "the absolute necessity" for demanding that the army be permitted to advance to the flowing wells of Khan Maysalun and be guaranteed free use of the excellent road connecting the station of al-Takiyah to the Damascus road. This, mind you, "while halting the march to Damascus".
10. The New Conditions
After giving a detailed description of his army's situation in Ayn al-Judaydah, General Goybet says: "This request of mine crossed in transit the new conditions General Gouraud set for 'halting the march on Damascus'." Enumerating the conditions, he concedes: "These new demands, the necessity for which I proved, are of such nature as to increase the difficulty of their acceptance by the Emir. We were not surprised, therefore, to see Colonel Toulat come to us that evening with the Emir's negative answer to the new ultimatum sent him by the High Commissioner."
11. The Last March
General Goybet followed his reference to Colonel Toulat with an account of how the order for the last march was given:
"I shall never forget the affecting scene that took place in the virtually roofless building that I had appropriated for an office. Colonel Toulat picked up the telephone and called General Gouraud to tell him that Emir Faisal had answered in the negative. The General apparently made some objections to which Colonel Toulat replied: 'It is obvious that halting our march on Damascus would definitely put an end to our spiritual influence in the East.'
"General Gouraud immediately ordered me by telephone to continue to move forward."
12. The Final Sections
General Goybet then tells about the battle, entrance into Damascus, parade through the streets and review of the troops, and reaction to the proclamation of the end of the Sherifian regime in Syria. He concludes by quoting the order of the day issued by General Gouraud after the battle:
"The General is profoundly happy to send congratulations to General Goybet and his brave troops. . . They broke the resistance of the enemy who had defied us for eight months. They have recorded a glorious page in the history of France and Syria."
13. Mention of the Crusades
General Goybet appends a brief postscript in which he registers some of his observations after he settled down in Damascus.
It is worth while for us to read and ponder the words of this commander who asserted that he conducted the military campaign against Damascus "in order to carry out the decision of the League of Nations to civilize Syria and the Syrians". He wrote:
"I am in Damascus!
"This name used to evoke fabulous associations in my mind as a young boy whenever I came across it in the records of my family.
"Jean Mongolfier, the distant ancestor of my paternal grandmother Louise, was captured during the Second Crusade in 1147 and brought to Damascus.
"He was an ordinary foot-soldier, so the 'thieves' did not accord him the good treatment they reserved for the brilliant knights. The people of Damascus worked him as a slave in one of the factories engaged in manufacturing paper from cotton.
"Poor Jean labored there for three years until he managed to escape from the city and, after countless perils, rejoined the Crusader army. When he returned to his birthplace after an absence of ten years, he built the first paper mill in Europe.
"Is it not an act of 'supreme justice' that the descendant of a prisoner during the Crusades should enter the holy city as a triumphant conqueror?"