by Greg Mayer
Both Jerry and I have an interest in T.E. Lawrence, the archeologist, linguist, author, soldier, and diplomat, and a couple of years ago Jerry happened to be visiting around the time I prepared an exhibition and public lecture on “Lawrence and Arabia“. There are many misconceptions about Lawrence– he was either a pro-Arab or Zionist or imperialist or anti-imperialist spy who deceived everyone while being manipulated by everyone, and so on; plus, there is an inordinate amount of interest in his sex life, given that he had so little interest in it himself. So, here’s a brief precis of some of the reasons he’s interesting.
Lawrence (b. 1888) observed and participated in the creation of much of the modern Middle East. When he first traveled there as an Oxford undergraduate in 1909, much of the Arab world had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks for centuries. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire had professed a multinational and even multireligious unity– the Sultan was both Caesar and Caliph. But by the early 20th century these ideas were stale, and nationalism was on the rise among both the Turks and the various subject nationalities. Tensions were growing, and secret societies aimed at Arab independence were being formed.
It was into this milieu that Lawrence stepped, first as an undergraduate, and then as an archeologist from 1910-1914. Based at Carchemish, he traveled, mostly on foot, throughout Syria, Palestine, northern Mesopotamia, and Sinai. Being, as he noted, poor, he went to places and met people that most Western travelers did not. He lived among the Kurds, the Armenians, and the Arabs. Working with the large Arab labor force at Carchemish, he learned how to persuade, and to lead them. Asked years later how he ‘handled’ Arabs, he replied, just as you do “Englishmen, or Laplanders, or Czechoslovaks: cautiously at first, and kindly always.”
After the outbreak of the First World War he was posted to Cairo, and in 1916 he traveled to the Hejaz, where Sherif Hussein of the Hashemite family of Mecca had declared the Arab Revolt against the Turks. Lawrence met Hussein’s son Feisal, and found him to be the man who could lead the Arab army north from Mecca to Damascus and beyond.
The Arab Army was a mixed force, but its key element was irregular Bedouin cavalry (or ‘camelry’). The Bedouin brought to the army the assets of “movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, [and] courage.” Rather than drive the Turks from the Hejaz, Lawrence saw that allowing them to remain in Medina (which the prestige of possessing one of the holy cities also demanded of Turkish pride) would hold large numbers of Turks down defending their railway supply line, while the Arab army could flow through and around them.
The Arab Army seized Akaba, providing a secure base from which it could be supplied by the Royal Navy. The base at Akaba also put the Arab Army on the right flank of General Allenby’s army moving against the Turks out of Sinai. Both armies moved north in stages. At each move, the Arab Army recruited fresh fighters as new tribes declared for Feisal and the Revolt. With Feisal’s army in the deserts to the east threatening Turkish supply lines, Allenby took Jerusalem in December 1917. In October 1918, both armies entered Damascus, and the Ottoman government sued for peace.
Lawrence and Feisal used classic principles of guerilla warfare: mobility, avoidance of battle, and popular support. Lawrence wrote,“Our tactics were always tip and run, not pushes, but strokes. We never tried to maintain or improve an advantage, but to move off and strike again somewhere else. We used the smallest force, in the quickest time, at the farthest place.”
Lawrence knew that the British government had given conflicting assurances to its various allies concerning the postwar settlement. His goal of autonomous Arab states would have to contend with promises made to the French, and with the India Office’s desire to extend its administration into Mesopotamia. Even before the war was over, Lawrence returned to England and began a campaign of private diplomacy, through meetings with and briefing papers for the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet, and public diplomacy, through articles in the Times highlighting the Arab contributions to the Allied war effort.
After setting up an Arab administration for Syria in Damascus, in late 1918 Feisal went to Europe for the Paris Peace Conference, and Lawrence joined his delegation. Despite making a strong impression on the gathered presidents and ministers, essentially nothing was achieved: the French proceeded to overthrow Feisal’s government in Syria, and an oppressive Indian-style colonial administration was imposed on Mesopotamia.
Depressed and embittered, Lawrence began a public campaign to change British policy, publishing biting critiques in newspapers throughout 1920. Winston Churchill took note of both the critiques and the policy failures (Mesopotamia was in open rebellion), and upon his appointment as Colonial Secretary he made Lawrence a chief adviser. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, the postwar settlement was remade. Feisal was made king of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and his brother Abdullah emir of Transjordan (later king of Jordan), while their father Hussein continued to rule the Hejaz (he was soon driven out by Ibn Saud). Lawrence regarded this as at least a modest redemption of Britain’s war time promises to the Arabs, and he retired from public life after leaving the Colonial Office in 1922.
He enlisted in both the Army and the Royal Air Force, but it was difficult to achieve the anonymity he sought in the ranks. He eventually settled down in the RAF, becoming a specialist in the design of fast boats used for retrieving downed fliers at sea. All the while he was writing: his masterpiece war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a memoir of RAF life, The Mint, translations from Greek and French, and an enormous output of letters, to artistic and political luminaries and common men alike. He died as the result of injuries received in a motorcycle accident shortly after leaving the RAF in 1935.
Brown, Malcolm. 2003. The British Library Historic Lives: T.E. Lawrence. The British Library, London. (A short bio with some nice pictures– a good medium between Wilson’s massively documented tome, and Brown’s later picture book.)
Brown, Malcolm. 2005. Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, the Legend. Thames & Hudson, London. (Lots of good pictures.)
Lawrence, T.E. 1935. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A Triumph. Doubleday, Doran, New York.
Lawrence, T.E. 2003. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The Complete 1922 Text. Castle Hill Press, Fordingbridge, UK. (An earlier and longer draft, preferred by some critics.)
Lawrence, T.E. 2005. T.E. Lawrence in War and Peace: An Anthology of the Military Writings of Lawrence of Arabia. M. Brown, ed. Greenhill Books, Barnsley, UK. (Also includes his diplomatic writings.)
Wilson, Jeremy. 1990, Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography. Atheneum, New York. (The Lawrence biography, the first based on the many British official papers released beginning in the 1970s.)
Many of Lawrence’s writings, along with a great deal of history and background on Lawrence, can be found at T.E. Lawrence Studies, a website maintained by Jeremy Wilson (who also, at Castle Hill Press, publishes fine press editions of many of Lawrence’s writings). The site has Wilson’s analysis of the historicity of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; the title of the analysis, Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert?, gives away Wilson’s conclusion.