Nahr al-Kalb or Dog River is little way north of Beirut, on the conqueror’s road from Europe and the Near East, or vice versa. Alexander the Great passed this way in 332 BC and Herodotus, first historian and travel writer, saw the Ramesses II carving around 440 BC. Ramesses had passed by a thousand years earlier, around 1250 BC.

Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC, Roman Emperor Caracalla in 215 AD century AD, and Napoleon III in 1861 have had inscriptions carved here. The tradition continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a variety of commanders of greater or lesser quality had inscriptions carved.

Two victorious Australian generals – Sir Harry Chauvel in the First World War and Sir Thomas Blamey in the Second also caused inscriptions to be carved, honouring the deeds of their forces.

Controversy attached to both events. First, because the initial inscription failed to acknowledge the Anzacs Light Horsemen, and second because of Kenneth Slessor’s acid poem about the General – not named, but obviously referring to Blamey.

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The Romans knew the river as the Lycus, but Nahr al-Kalb came to be called Dog River after a statue of a wolf said to have stood guarding the entrance to the river. The statue was supposed to have had a cleverly designed mouth vent so that when the wind blew in the right direction it howled. Australians building the Second World War bridge are said to have found a statue of a wolf, which later vanished.

A few hundred yards upstream is the ‘modern’ bridge, constructed in the 1930s, and beyond that, the ‘Arab’ bridge built around 1390 by Sultan Barquq. His inscription is opposite.

There are seventeen ancient inscriptions, all easily accessible beside the road on the south bank of the river except Nebuchadnezzar’s, which is hard to find on the north bank.  The inscriptions were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996.

There are two Australian-related inscriptions.  One is from 1941 commemorating the liberation of Lebanon and Syria from the Vichy French, situated a few metres down the road from the Arab bridge, and the one from 1918, celebrating the capture of Damascus in 1918, in the cliff above the Napoleon III tablet..

General Chauvel and the 1918 Inscription

General Harry Chauvel, Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps had asked that their deeds be recorded, but the Royal Engineers given the task carved ‘The British Desert Mounted Corps, aided by the Arab Forces of King Hussein captured Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. October 1918.’

Chauvel saw this inscription in 1919 when he revisited the Light Horse battlefields – including Damascus and Aleppo where the Australians had been first to enter those cities. (Chauvel had dinner with Charles Bean in Aleppo at the Baron Hotel, following Bean’s Historical Mission to Gallipoli.)

He was determined that the inscription be changed to reflect the true composition of the Desert Mounted Corps, and not the military censor’s political requirements, which ignored the Australian, New Zealand  and Indian contribution.

It took Chauvel until 1927 to have the inscription changed. It now reads:

The Desert Mounted Corps

composed of

British, Australian, New Zealand

and Indian cavalry

With a French regiment of

Spahis and Chasseurs d’Afrique

And the

Arab forces of King Hussein

Captured Damascus Homs and Aleppo

October 1918

Blamey,  Slessor and the1941 Inscription

Kenneth Slessor visited Dog River on 16 November 1941, after witnessing and reporting the armistice between Allied and Vichy French forces signed on 14 July.  ‘ A delightful drive along the coast, past magnificent sea and mountain scenery.   Stopped at Dog River, and climbed a path up hill to see the Assyrian and Egyptian inscriptions on rocks …’

In a dispatch dated Cairo 31 January 1942 Slessor outlined the story of the inscriptions and that the Australian sculptor/soldier Lynton Dadswell was to carve a new inscription ‘with the approval and personal interest of General Blamey.’

Slessor photographed the finished inscription on 18 May 1942, where he was reporting on the ‘tremendous’ engineering work, the Haifa Beirut Tripoli Railway.

At some point in 1942 he wrote this caustic poem, one of only two composed in the Second World War.

An Inscription for Dog River

Our general was the greatest and bravest of generals.

For his deeds, look around you on this coast –

Here is his name cut next to Ashur-Bani-Pal’s,

Nebuchadnezzar’s and the Roman host;

And we, though our identities have been lost,

Lacking the validity of stone or metal,

We, too, are part of his memorial,

Having been put in for the cost,

Having bestowed on him all we had to give

In battles few can recollect,

Our strength, obedience and endurance,

Even our descendants’ right to live –

Having given him everything, in fact,

Except respect

Blamey may have been hubristic but, contrary to popular belief (and the poem), he did not have his name carved in the inscription.

The inscription reads:

June – July 1941

The first Australian Corps captured Damour

While British, Indian and

Free French troops captured Damascus,

bringing freedom

to Syria and the Lebanon

However the conclusion ‘Having given him everything, in fact, except respect’ reflects Slessor’s (and other soldiers’ and journalists’) view of Blamey.

General Sir Harry Chauvel

Sir Harry Chauvel was born in NSW in 1865, and spent his early working life in Queensland, and was commissioned in the Queensland Mounted Infantry in 1890 before gaining permanent appointment in the Queensland permanent Military Forces in 1896.

He served with success in the South African War, leading Chauvel’s Mounted Infantry for a time and was Mentioned in Despatches. Returning to Australia in 1901 Chauvel was prominent in the organisation and training of the new Australian Army, and became Adjutant General in 1911.

War broke out as Chauvel was about to become Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff; he was made commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. The Light Horse brigades initially remained in Egypt while landings were made at Gallipoli, but joined the attack as dismounted units in May.

After the evacuation from Gallipoli, Chauvel was promoted Major General and given command of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division and all Australian forces in Egypt.

Chauvel and the ANZACs then became the lynchpins first in the defence of the  Suez Canal attacked by the Turks on 23 April 1916, and then in the campaign that defeated them over the next two and a half years.

As the forces were reorganised after the appointment of General Sir Edmund Allenby in June 1917 in the next year Chauvel was given command of the Desert Mounted Corps of three divisions.

Chauvel ordered the 4th Light Horse to charge at Beersheba on 31 October 1917, and drove the Turks north beyond Jaffa. In 1918 the Desert Mounted Corps attacked across the Jordan River, won the decisive battle of Megiddo, and rode towards Damascus. Australians accepted the surrender of the city on 1 October 1918, and pursued the Turks (commanded by Mustafa Kemal) to Aleppo as the war ended.

Sir Harry Chauvel returned to administrative duties in Melbourne in 1919, and worked to preserve nucleus of professional officers in the face of cutbacks. He was made Chief of the General Staff in 1923, and retired in 1929. He died in 1945.

His biographer AJ Hill noted: ‘As a soldier, Chauvel’s courage and calmness were matched by his humanity which was extended to the enemy as well as his own men. He was always well forward in battle; in the field he lived simply, sleeping in his greatcoat on the sand when his force was on the move.

Lyndon Dadswell

Lyndon Dadswell was born in Sydney in 1908 and worked as an assistant to Paul Montford at the Shrine of Remembrance in the 1930s. Dadswell made the twelve sandstone panels that form the frieze in the Sanctuary.

Dadswell enlisted in the 2nd AIF in August 1940 and fought in Greece, Libya and Syria where he was seriously wounded on 22 June 1941. After recuperating, he was promoted to lieutenant and became the first sculptor commissioned as an official war artist.

He worked at the AIF’s Middle East headquarters in Cairo, where he shared a studio for some time with Ivor Hele. War correspondent and poet Kenneth Slessor saw him working on the Australian plaque at Nahr al-Kalb (Dog River) in Lebanon.

Dadswell returned to Australia in 1942, and resigned from his commission as an official artist in December.

While he was in the Middle East, he made twelve sculptures of Australians in Greece and the Middle East, which are now in the Australian War Memorial collection. Dadswell taught and worked in Sydney until his death in 1986.

Haifa Beirut Tripoli Railway

This was a big project.  The South Africans worked from Haifa to near Beirut, completing it in December 1941. The Australians constructed the 176 mile northern section from Beirut to Tripoli. At Dog River a 270 foot bridge was constructed across the river. The link was finished on 20 December 1942 – allowing, theoretically at least, travel from London to Cairo by train.

General Alexander, six months ahead of schedule, drove the last spike at Nahr al-Kalb and had an inscription carved.

‘Near this spot on 20 12 42 the last spike was driven in the Beyrouth Tripoli Railway by the C in C  M E F General Hon Sir Harold  G M Alexander GCB CSI DSO MC thereby completing the line between London and Cairo. This section of the line was built by the Australian Railway Construction Group during the year 1942.’

The bridge and the inscription have not survived, obliterated by the modern freeway.