In the immediate years after WWI the exploits of TE Lawrence or “Lawrence of Arabia” brought incredible fame to this most interesting, complex and troubled individual. Even the British public knew nothing of him during the war. His fame grew tremendously after the publishing of his exploits in the American press by Lowell Thomas, a journalist and newspaper man who, with his cameraman, took many films during parts of the Desert War. He led and organized the British effort (almost alone) and their Arab allies against the Turkish Empire. His story was enhanced by his autobiographical book, the remarkable “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” tells of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918, during the days when Lawrence was based in Wadi Rum in modern day Jordan as a member of the British Forces of North Africa. With the support of Emir Feisal and his tribesmen, he helped organize and carry out attacks on the Ottoman forces from Aqaba in the south to Damascus in the north. Many sites inside the Wadi Rum area have been named after Lawrence to attract tourists, although there is little or no evidence connecting him to any of these places, including the rock formations near the entrance now known as “The Seven Pillars”.
Speculation surrounds the book’s dedication, a poem written by Lawrence and edited by Robert Graves, concerning whether it is to an individual or to the whole Arab people. It begins, “To S.A.”, possibly meaning Selim Ahmed, a young Arab boy from Syria of whom Lawrence was very fond. Ahmed died, probably from typhus, aged 19, a few weeks before the offensive to liberate Damascus. Lawrence received the news of his death some days before he entered Damascus
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands, and wrote my will across the sky in stars.
To earn you freedom, the seven Pillared worthy house that your eyes might be shining for me, when I came.
Death seemed my servant on the road, ’til we were near, and saw you waiting: when you smiled and in sorrowful, envy he outran me, and took you apart: Into his quietness.
Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage, ours for the moment. Before Earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind, worms grew fat upon, your substance
Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house, as a memory of you, but for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now, the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels, in the marred shadow of your gift.
The original book was written a few times, it was first completed in 1922 and first published in 1926. Winston Churchill was quoted in an advertisement for the 1935 edition, saying: “it ranks with the greatest books written in the English language. As a narrative of war and adventure, it is unsurpassable.”
Along with the fame of the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. In 1991, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute placed it fifth on their 100 Years…100 Movies list of the greatest American films. It ranked seventh on their 2007 updated list. In 1999, the British Film Institute named the film the third-greatest British film of all time. In 2004, it was voted the best British film of all time in a Sunday Telegraph poll of Britain’s leading filmmakers.
The film cost was estimated at $15 million, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and it received seven Oscars. Historically it is inaccurate and very incomplete, but like Lowell Thomas’s productions, that reality did little to devalue its marketability and entertainment value.
With that in mind, many think that the book, which the film is somewhat based on, is more like novelized history, and the film is certainly more fiction than fact. It covers two years of the life of TE Lawrence. Only three of the characters depicted are real (Lawrence, General Allenby and Sheik Auda) and for sure, no one knows why Lawrence is in Cairo in the beginning of the war. In fact, no one knows why he is uniform, nor where his great influence comes from, and who he really is. In fact, who really is TE Lawrence, what were his real aims, what does he believe and was he really a hero to the Arabs, an agent for the British imperialist government, or a man attempting to find himself? No one really knows his real interests, his sexuality, who are his friends and why he is so powerful and influential.
The real life and legacy of Thomas Eliot Lawrence or TE Lawrence or as he was known by history, as Lawrence of Arabia, is shrouded by clouded history, controversy, lies, lost records, suppressed state secrets and fantasy. This most secretive and mysterious of men was one of the most famous of the first 3rd of the 20th Century and even the cause of his death, due to injuries on a motorcycle in May of 1935, is questionable. Mystery surrounds him from his emergence in college, from a background even he doesn’t really know.
He was the illegitimate second son of Thomas Chapman and Anglo-Irish squire and heir to a Barony, who left his wife and four daughters, abandoning much of his wealth and position to run away with a household nursemaid named Miss Sarah Lawrence. Even her last name is not really known and it could have been Junner or Maden and she could have been illegitimate herself. Chapman changed his name to hers and fathered five sons. His second son, Thomas Eliot, known as Ned, never knew that his father never re-married until he was in his teens. It certainly must have come of a shock to young Ned, in this post-Victorian Age, to learn that his parents weren’t married and that Lawrence wasn’t his father’s name, nor even his mother’s.
As for his father Thomas Chapman, he was descended from an old English family whose ancestors were cousins of Sir Walter Raleigh. As for his wife, Edith, she was called a “Holy Viper” who was an insanely religious shrew who made the gentile Chapman’s life miserable. She was so fanatical in her evangelicalism that she considered any form of amusement a sin, prayed three times per day, and never spoke without her conversation dominated by biblical quotations. She was an insanely strict parent, treated her daughters brutally and eventually made life so miserable for her husband. Thus, Thomas Chapman just ran away.
TE Lawrence grew up in Wales where his parents took on their new lives. Because of his birth in August of 1888, and even though he only lived a year in Wales, before his parents moved to Kirkcudbright Scotland, to continue to hide their identities, he was later able to accept a scholarship to Oxford reserved for qualified students born in Wales.
An early biography of Lawrence, written in 1924, by the famed American writer and journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981-in the movie, his character is the fictional Jeremy Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy) tells little of his early life, because Lawrence was so secretive. It is said that with Lowell Thomas, Lawrence treated reality and the truth selectively. Later biographers, the famed Robert Graves (1895-1985, the author of “I Claudius”) and Sir Basil Liddle Hart (1895-1970, the renowned military theorist, expert and historian) were not created as cavalierly by Lawrence.
Over the years with the addition of other children, the Lawrence family moved quite a bit, including a long stay in Normandy, which TE Lawrence really considered his home. He and his brothers all attended the Oxford High School, and Ned, as he was known to his family, and earned a (Welsh) scholarship to Jesus College at Oxford. Ironically he loved Normandy, but despised the French.
TE Lawrence’s mother was also highly religious and an adherent of Calvinistic Protestantism. Though she dearly loved her sons and lived vicariously through their exploits, she could be insanely strict, meted out corporal punishment, and seemed to “beat herself up” over her matrimonial sin. This legacy of religious dogma seemed to affect his ideas of personal discipline, of which he exercised throughout his youth. He would go for days without eating or even sleeping. His mother saw this self-imposed regimen as a foreshadowing of his divine mission in his life.
Before entering Oxford, he would forgo an early interest in math to focus on history. In the summers before Oxford, he would spend countless days on bicycle trips to old castles and burial sites in Scotland, Wales and France. At times, some of these ventures would be with friends or alone. He was seriously interested in ancient artifacts and grave stone rubbings.
At Oxford, his great interest had morphed into the world of the Crusades, regarding knights, castle battles, legends, and chivalry. He decided, in the summer of 1908, to make the castles of the Crusaders the subject of his senior thesis, which was a new option regarding his final Oxford exam. He went on a three month cycling tour of France, He went alone with a camera and the trip covered over 2000 miles. At Oxford, he started to be groomed by David George Hogarth, (1862-1927) an author, archeologist, orientalist, (later a naval officer and intelligence officer during WWI) and then the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. This influence of Lawrence was fostered by a recurrent British philosophy of Empire sustained a modern day “Round Table.” This association was described by Leonard Curtis in his strange periodical “Round Table,” combined with a study group, which played a role in British imperial affairs, has never been adequately analyzed or described. Many of these advocates were racists, xenophobes and Francophiles. Their main objective, reflective of Lord Alfred Milner’s (Viscount Milner, 1854-1925, colonial administrator) teachings were “Federation and Imperialism,” a basic union of all the white people in the Empire.
Lawrence was to be a new recruit to what was called “The Great Game,” (spying, as made most famous by Sidney Reilly (1873-1925?), called the Ace of Spies, who was born as Salomon Rosenblum in Russia. Reilly, almost a “Soldier of Fortune,” was finally commissioned by MI6 Head Mansfield Smith-Cummings (1859-1923) in 1918, (He was the prototype for Ian Fleming’s James Bond) Lawrence became a very willing disciple of David Hogarth’s intrigue and interests.
As for Lawrence, his military education didn’t start with the teachings of Carl von Clausewitz, (Prussian general and military theorist, 1780-1831) but went back to Napoleon, all his campaigns, all the information on his tactics, and the writings about how they succeeded. He worked his way back to the tactics of Proscopius a Byzantine military thinker, (circa 560 CE) who advocated indirect means for avoiding pitched battles and described the hit and run tactics that broke the morale of the Gothic lancers and archers. This research by Lawrence seems to be the beginning of his potential career as an intelligence agent. This research not only sharpened his mind, but his hikes and long, lonely bicycle trips also tested his body with physical deprivation.
In 1909, he felt that he had to travel to Syria (which was still controlled by the fading Ottoman-Turkish Empire) to see the ancient ruins of the Crusader castles and battlements that had been built there. To travel there safely he needed and sought what was termed “Iradehs,” or safe conduct passes. The first part of his journey was to Palestine was where he didn’t need any special type of papers. He also carried with him a very powerful Mauser pistol, nicknamed the broom handle, a forerunner of what would be a submachine gun. He hired a Christian-Arab guide as he headed north to the Sea of Galilee. As he was amazed at the contrast of the wild unbroken vast tracts of dessert, he said “the sooner the Jews farm the land, the better!”
When he finally arrived in Beirut, these “papers” had never reached the British Consulate. He had taken some rudimentary lessons in Arabic before he left, so he could basically communicate regarding the bare necessities. Eventually, he did receive a less authoritative letter of safe conduct. The trip, which was reported in various accounts, involved a few violent attacks by robbers and brigands which threatened his life. Many of these incidents were reported differently and some contained critical inconsistencies. But with all his adventures, he returned in mid-October for his final year at Oxford.
As Germany, France and Russia began to take advantage of the decline of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire, Britain started to take sharp notice of both the vulnerability of the Suez Canal to potential, alien forces in Syria and Mesopotamia, along with the discovery of oil. As the power of the Ottomans started to wane, France seized Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881, Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 and then the Sudan, Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy seized Libya and whatever Balkan provinces that they had left broke away. For nearly 400 years the Ottoman Empire’s dominion of the Arab World had extended without a break from Algeria to the Persian Gulf and from Aleppo (modern Syria) to the Indian Ocean. The last absolute Sultan, Abdul Hamid, who came to the throne in 1876, saw the North African part of his empire being carved away. As a result of this continual erosion, in desperation, he began a rule of intense repression, involving spies, informers everywhere, massive arrests, torture and brutal treatment of minorities; Armenians, Kurds, and others. This led to rife corruption throughout their fading empire. The question going forth to the Arab population of their empire, would they be next?
Lawrence would start to develop his language skills and the mastery of the historical background and politics of the region along with intelligence work at the archeology dig at Carchemish along the Western Bank of Euphrates River in both Turkey and Syria. At the same time a bridge was being constructed by German engineers to enable the Berlin-Baghdad Railway to further go into Ottoman-dominated Arabia. Between 1911 and 1914, under the direction of his mentor, David Hogarth, work on this dig continued. In 1911, Hogarth was in the field himself. R. C. Thompson, and later T. E. Lawrence would be there from 1912 to 1914. The excavations would eventually be interrupted in 1914 by World War I, and then eventually ended in 1920, with the Turkish War of Independence. These expeditions uncovered substantial remains of the Assyrian and Neo-Hittite periods, including defensive structures, temples, palaces, and numerous basalt statues and reliefs with Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions. During this period of time, Lawrence would send many shiploads of pottery back to the museum at Oxford. Eventually, the British Museum would ask for their share of the cultural remains of ancient Babylon.
Of course, more problems arose at the dig, especially with disgruntled Kurds and Arab workers along with unhappy Turks, who were leery of the Brits. Both Lawrence and his partner Leonard Wolley, (1880-1960), another intelligence officer, were able to defuse a riotous event regarding workers and their murderous threats to six German engineers.
The Turks were getting concerned about their (the British) real role in the region and Lawrence was encouraged to publish a paper (a white wash) regarding their archeological efforts. They returned to Britain and as Lawrence was completing, “The Wilderness of Zin,” war was declared.
While Lawrence was on this information mission, covered by the dig at Carchemish, an American, William Yale, (a descendent of Elihu Yale, the founder of Yale College) who was working for ESSO (Standard Oil), came in contact with Lawrence. It seems Yale was also looking for information, but found out none from Lawrence. He had been assigned to map out regions of the Negev and Sinai. Later on, during the war Yale was a member of the United States State Department and had a curious habit of turning up in places where Lawrence was assigned. (He would serve in the American State Department for many years and live to 1975.)
When the war broke out, while Lawrence worked on the (white wash) paper at Whitehall, he turned to his mentor David Hogarth for an appointment in the Intelligence Section of the Military Operations Sector. Later, he and a few colleagues were posted to Cairo (seen in the film, “Lawrence of Arabia.”) Both Wolley and Lawrence wound up in the Intelligence Sector, as they wished, and they were assigned to the Egyptian War Office, dealing with the Sinai Project. How he gets transferred into this war zone is never really made clear. Certainly knowledge of his education and skills were beginning to be known.
Interestingly, in the early days of the war as a Subaltern (2nd Lieutenant) with three months seniority, he was not only crafting plans that were considered by Lord Kitchener (Herbert Kitchener 1850-1916, British High Command, lost is the sinking of the HMS Hampshire in 1916 on his way to a conference with Tsar Nicholas II) and was being asked his opinion on conditions in the Turkish sectors of Mesopotamia. It was during these early days, in the coming campaign against the Turks, the idea emerged of the “Arab Revolt.” Ironically, the British-Indian government feared the creation of a large Arab Nation more than that of the Turks, especially with regards to their long-term security from the Russians. Also, there were over 70 million Muslims living on the Indian sub-continent.
While this was happening Lawrence and others were setting up an intelligence network. For a time they all wondered whether there would be real action in the Turkish-dominated Levant. That time would not be long in waiting, as Turkey entered the war by attacking Russia.
It was in this period, before the Arab Uprising, that Lawrence became known for driving large motorcycles and for his scruffy (non-military) appearance. This was part of his general refusal to comply with established rules of conduct for young British officers. He often forgot to put on a hat, wear a belt and even salute. (One could see that emphasized in the film.)
Lawrence as an intelligence officer was first sent on a special mission to relieve the encircled British force of colonials (Indians) and British troops in Mesopotamia under the command of General Charles Vere Townsend, who had himself and 12,000 of his command boxed in by the Turkish commander Khalil Pasha. Lawrence was instructed to try to bribe Khalil with 1,000,000 pounds Sterling, but even when he upped the payment to over 2 million, it was rejected. In the midst of the negotiations, General Townshend surrendered his beleaguered and starving forces.
As for the disaster of the siege of Kut and General Townsend, the Anglo-Indian Command were strangely annoyed at the Lawrence Mission. They thought the idea of bribing the Turks to free Townsend’s surrounded army was dishonorable. Aside from their criticism, Lawrence and Audrey Herbert (1880-1923, later a Colonel) proceeded with their negotiations and were able to manage the release over 1000 wounded soldiers in exchange for non-wounded, Turkish military prisoners, but all else though failed.
Of the 11,000 soldiers taken prison after the surrender, over 5000 died on route to prison camps, as almost 26,000 others died in earlier and futile attempts to relieve Kut. General Townsend was interned, in relative comfort for the rest of the war and lived until 1924.
Lawrence would write a scathing account cataloguing the mismanagement that led to the tragedy at Kut. It was so truthful and brutal, that many parts of it were suppressed, Both Gallipoli and Kut were the result of muddled leadership and poor planning.
Eventually, Lawrence would be assigned to the role in instigating the Arab revolt against the Turks. Of course, contemporary views show him as a champion of the Arabs and an advocate for their freedom. He is depicted as trying to bring an end to the fratricidal rivalries among the various Arab Tribes and weld them together as a nation. That seems to be part of the overall myth of Lawrence.
In the beginning of 1916, Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca (A descendent of the Prophet.) and his sons- were encouraged by British promises regarding support for an independent Arab Kingdom-which would include parts of Lebanon and Syria, assuming an Allied victory. Hussein had been held as a virtual prisoner in Constantinople for seventeen years, before he was sent to Mecca as Sherif. He was the only Arab Leader of high religious standing. He knew most of the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire as he was the only Arab leader known to Muslims outside of Arabia. He was the most critical individual, regarding the role of accepting British support in any uprising against the Turks, especially countering Sultan Hamid’s call for Jihad, or religious war against the infidels (the Allies.) This fear of jihad was quite real, because, as I earlier noted, the British ruled over 70 million Muslims in India.
For these reasons, Lawrence considered Hussein as the only possible candidate for this role. In 1916, he wrote a long memorandum, “The Conquest of Syria.” It was a remarkable description of Britain’s war aims, the consequences of the Arab Revolt, its emerging politics, its strategy and tactics, as well as the post war aims of Britain. Also let us not forget, Lawrence is only 28 years old and still a low-ranked officer. Who other than Lawrence was capable of these efforts? It seems, no one!
With that in mind, his commitment was complete and his success was in kind. The characters of Hussein (Hussein bin Ali al Hashim, 1854-1931, was the 37th direct descendent of Muhammad, the Prophet.) and his son Feisal are quite confused in the film. Feisal (played by Alec Guinness in the film) linked himself to Lawrence for the rest of the “Arab Revolt.” Feisal resisted the entreaties of Colonel Edouard Bremond, (1868-1948), Frances’s early counterpart to Lawrence. Bremond was a professional soldier in the middle of an outstanding career. He was a graduate of famous St. Cyr military academy and served in Morocco and Algiers. He was abrupt, patronizing, and jealous of his reputation. He was in favor of sending in large numbers regular French and British troops to confront the Turks, because of the limitations of the Bedouins in confronting regular soldiers. This was certainly part of the French post-war plans to occupy parts of old Ottoman Empire. Lawrence was bitterly opposed to this, because he believed if foreign troops (infidels) entered the fight the Bedouins would immediately desert. Bremond would be a rival of Lawrence’s for the rest of his life. They both actively disliked each other.
Feisal rejected peace overtures with the Turks and aside from some minor disagreements with Lawrence, remained loyal to him until the end of the war. But, eventually in 1921, he was completely disillusioned and turned quite bitter over his treatment by both the British and the French.
Of course, there would be many complications regarding the relationship between Lawrence and Hussein and his sons. In his account of the “Revolt,” in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” he describes his missions to Khartoum, Cairo, Jeddah and the problem of resisting a Turkish counter-attack from Medina on Mecca, the center of the Arabian rule, which would destroy the “Revolt.” This is how he summed up his mission. “The Sherif of Mecca was aged (he was in his 60s). I found (his sons) Abdullah too clever, Ali too clean and Zeid too cool. Then I road upcountry to Feisal and found him to be the leader with the necessary fire and yet with reason to give effect to our science. His tribesmen seemed sufficient instrument and the (surrounding) hills to natural advantage.”
In fact, Feisal (played by Alec Guinness in the movie is in reality, closer to the fictional character of Sherif Ali Played by Omar Sharif. One never sees Hussein.) With that in mind, according to Lawrence, his superiors were quite thrilled over his positive news regarding his ability to use Hussein’s sons in a productive matter. He was then sent back to the camp of Feisal. Ronald Storrs, (1881-1955, later a career diplomat, future military Governor of Jerusalem & Judea from 1920-6 and a WWII Member of the Arab Bureau) wrote that “Lawrence of Carchemish, Cairo and of any other place for a little while, became permanently, Lawrence of Arabia.” In fact, Lawrence was significantly much more important than a lowly, newly commissioned Subaltern (2nd Lieutenant). He was, in actuality, a very powerful force, sent to Cairo because of his high intelligence, great experience, and knowledge of the language and the customs of the Arab World, along with his unparalleled brilliance.
The remaining question was, who was he really? Who informed his superiors? In a fictional part of the movie, General Allenby is looking over his file and notes that he is well-educated. That did not happen and he met General Allenby much later.
One of the suggested tactics was the cutting of the critical Hedjaz Rail Line, which could eventually destroy the Turkish civil government that depended solely on its lifeline of relief and supplies. This was not the easy task described in the film, “Lawrence of Arabia.” The line was guarded by thousands of troops and it would take almost a year of planning and preparation. Preventing this action was the eventual inability to dislodge the Turks from their stronghold at Medina.
At this time, the secret Sykes-Picot treaty was drawn up and signed. This treaty would eventually grant Britain control and hegemony over Mesopotamia (Iraq) among other concessions that would include where modern Jordan is, along with Kuwait and territories southward. It would also create an internationalized Palestine with Britain in control of the ports of Accra and Haifa. The French, with ancient claims going back to the Crusades would get absolute control of Lebanon and Syria. As for the Sykes-Picot Treaty and the equally secret Hussein-McMahan correspondence in which British promises to the Sherif of Mecca, they are set out clearly in conflict. For sure, there were many Brits, including Lawrence, who were opposed to any presence by the French. Lawrence remained a committed Francophobe his whole life.
The Sykes-Pico Treaty was a secret document created by two career British and French diplomats. Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919, a Baronet) and Monsieur Georges-Picot (1870-1951, a diplomat and lawyer) drew up an agreement dividing the choicest parts of the Ottoman Empire amongst Britain, France and Russia, leaving little worthwhile for the Arabs. Lawrence was well aware of the details of this agreement. How does a lowly, newly appointed, Subaltern of 28 years old know of this secret arrangement? He is certainly much more influential than his rank. Lawrence keeps this secret from Feisal and for sure, his father Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, the titular head of the Arab-Muslim world. He knew that if the Arabs discovered what has happened they will stop fighting.
The agreement was kept secret until the Bolshevik revolution, when the new Soviet government in Russia, revealed all the secret treaties and arrangements made by the former Tsarist regime. The Turks, seeing a chance to end the “Revolt,” hasten to tell the Arabs that Britain has betrayed their cause and to offer them peace terms. The Arabs are tempted to end their campaign, but when King Hussein questions the British, they deny that any such agreement exists. The British reaffirm their promise to free the Arabs. Lawrence and his mentor David Hogarth work to undermine the treaty, not because it betrays the Arabs, but because it lets the French into their plans for Arab Dominion. There were many parts to the agreement, including a way to convince the Zionists that an opportunity was at hand to at last realize their dream of a Jewish Homeland in the traditional Holy Land. In truth, no matter how it was to be interpreted, the Arabs were left with very little. There is no doubt that at the time, and in retrospect, if Hussein had known of the reality of the treaty, the “Arab Revolt” would have collapsed immediately. The Arabs would have known that there was no benefit in helping defeat the Turks. It meant exchanging one master for another. Without the revelation by the new Soviet government, there is no reason to believe the details of the Treaty would have ever been revealed. Of course, Lawrence being the agent that he was, knew all about the Turkish offers down to the last detail, because he looked at the files in Feisal’s office when he wasn’t there. The British often intercepted telegrams between Hussein and Feisal. They often doctored them to suit their purpose and policies, and then delivered the revised versions.
Feisal, of course, was disturbed by what the Turks told him, passed the letters to his father, Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, who responded, “A British promise is as good as gold. No matter how hard you rub it, it still shines.”
The reality is quite different. Lawrence’s main task, according to his own papers was to bring the Arabs firmly under British control and make certain the tribes remained jealous of each other and divided. His paper of 1916, “The Politics of Mecca,” makes that quite clear. Part of his actions and beliefs were his fanatical opposition to any French hegemony in Syria. Also, in this piece, he is hardly seen as the future savior of the Arab People, as depicted in the film.
In one part he writes, “The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks, If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities, incapable of cohesion and yet always ready to combine against an outside force.” How correct he was. This reality would remain true for the next 100 years. He continued, “The alternate to this seems the control and colonization of a European Power other than ourselves, which would inevitably come in conflict with the interests we already possess in the New East.” This certainly reflected their keen interest in oil and the future security of the Raj in India.
Lawrence understood that to curry favor and trust with the Arab leadership he had to immerse himself in their culture. Evidence suggests that Lawrence wore Arab dress and behaved as a Bedouin for reasons aside from love or admiration for the Arabs, is to be discerned in his written piece, “Twenty-Seven Articles,” a manual for British political officers in how to handle Arabs. This detailed pamphlet shows with sincerity that that he adopted an Arab pose to win their trust and to be better able to direct their actions in concert along with the avenues that were parallel and most beneficial to Britain. He immersed himself in everything Arabic, including diet, habits, likes, dislikes, conduct, the nuances of language, etc. He believed that one’s success will be proportionate to the amount of mental effort one could commit.
In March of 2017, after a long bout of dysentery and a high fever, he claims to have re-thought the strategy of the war. He believes that the attack and the capture of Medina, the Turkish stronghold, would be foolish, especially with regards to the loss of men and material. Better let them remain stuck with their supply lines under constant attack.
Such a strategy would leave 12,000 Turks stranded and impotent, unable to move and harm the Revolt. The strategy was to convince the Turks to continue to supply a besieged garrison. In most cases his plans were developed over months as was his strategy of constant harassment, but not the destruction of the railway. Without the cooperation of Abdullah (Hussein’s son) he formed a small force of 300 or so men and attacked the rail station at Aba el Naam. In doing so with two machine guns, one mountain gun and a howitzer he was able to destroy the main building, the water supply, rail cars disable a locomotive, as they severed the telegraph line and the tracks. The 200 men at the station fled into the hills.
It took Lawrence 48 hours to get back to Abdullah’s camp. There was no love-loss between the two of them in the least. As soon as he got there, he set out once again to make a second attack on the railway. These were his first attempts at offensive patrols in force. The hit and run tactics developed in the desert were not novel and had been used for centuries before WWII. Since that time these tactics have been used routinely with freedom fighters, guerrillas and terrorists throughout the world.
Eventually, in April, of 1917, Lawrence would meet Auda, (1874-1926) the leader of the Abu Tayi Tribe, a section of the Howeitat Bedouins. This desert warrior was unique in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. He was fierce, had personally killed countless Arabs (possibly 75+), no less Turks.
He even knocked out his front false teeth that had been made by Turks to show his loyalty to the revolt. Auda (played by Anthony Quinn in the film, was one of the few real characters, aside from Lawrence and Allenby.)
Lawrence was long intrigued by Auda’s romantic image as the toughest of the Hejaz Chieftains. In a long, detailed, dispatch sent by Lawrence, Auda was well-described as the finest fighting force in Western Arabia. With the enthusiastic support of Auda, along with Mira as-Shalan, the long-time head of the Ruala Bedouins, Lawrence planned his attack on Aqaba. Auda’s support convinced Feisal that this audacious assault could work. With Feisal’s growing army, tensions arose within the ranks and the tribal leadership. Even the majority of the tribes were not enthusiastic about a frontal assault, hundreds of miles away across the arid desert.
Feisal, for this effort, relied instead on the nucleus of his bodyguard and then added other tribes, like regiments commanded by the hereditary rulers. This army was constantly changing. While the British command was still pressing on an attack on Medina along with a major attack on the Hejaz rail lines, Lawrence wanted to attack Aqaba from the rear, which was not defended by their big guns facing the sea. Feisal had previous blocked the plan, but with the arrival of Auda, he agreed. Lawrence changed the equation with the promise of glory and limitless wealth. With this Auda became his most enthusiastic ally. Gold was never unimportant to these leaders. They craved it and it bought a lot of effort, especially from their followers. As this was discussed, Lawrence convinced Auda that the attack was really the tribal leader’s own creation. Of course, many tried to take responsibility for the idea.
Lawrence, Auda and Nasir the exiled Sherif of Medina started toward Aqaba with 40 camel men on a mission which would make Lawrence famous. They carried few supplies, no machine guns, no heavy equipment and 20,000 British gold Sovereigns. The desert route was long and difficult and he had no orders from the High Command. He circumvented his immediate superior Colonel Charles Joyce (1878-1965), but he wrote to Colonel Gilbert Clayton (1875-1929) in Cairo and said he was taking on this effort on his own responsibility. This on its face is quite remarkable. It was on this march that he meets the two (seen in the film) young Bedouin boys, who become his servants.
In the long, hazardous, ten day trip from their starting point in Wejh- the lack of water started to become acute. During this effort, Lawrence and Auda crossed the Hejaz railway at the Wadi Deraa and blew up the rails. The rest of the journey was uneventful except for the famous story of Lawrence going back to rescue a man, Gasim, from certain death, who had fallen from his camel. Eventually they reached Auda’s camp and security. While there, for some unexpected reason Lawrence left for a mysterious and controversial reconnaissance in Syria on the 14th of June. Some reports said he was two weeks, other said he never left and there was always some historical doubt about the event. But, none in his camp, or even in the British Army, knew that Lawrence was really a secret agent. When he was gone he met with Syrian Nationalists in the outskirts of Damascus. This action was denied by an Arab historian, but Sir Reginald Wingate (1861-1953, future Baronet and a later High Commissioner in Egypt) recommended him for the Victorian Cross. It eventually was denied, because no British officer witnessed the effort. During his absence Auda raised a considerable fighting force of several hundred men. Three days later, after Lawrence’s return.in a diversion to draw attention away from Aqaba, they attacked a railway to the North. One hundred tribesmen, with Lawrence Auda and his nephew Zaal, struck at the railroad between Amman and Deraa. It was at Deraa where Lawrence was supposedly attacked and abused by the Turkish Bey (played by Jose Ferrer in the movie.)
As for this singular reconnaissance, which was questioned by some, Lawrence talks little about it in his book, “The Seven Pillars…” But, aside from the questions, his own dispatches seem to corroborate the effort along with his diary.
The secrecy and the apparent discrepancies in Lawrence’s various accounts of this and other exploits, can be explained on the ground of secrecy. The evidence is deeply conflicting, but in the light of what is known about Lawrence’s courage and endurance, it seems not unreasonable.
Also, all should understand, who is the now “captain,” and where does his authority come from and why is no one really questioning what he does and the authority he commands?
In an effort to protect important wells from destruction from the Turks, they took on a small Turkish force, which eventually alerted an enemy battalions. The battle was turned by a mad charge by Auda, which was followed by Lawrence, who was thrown from his own camel and knocked senseless while the battle was won. It seems that in the chaos of the charge, Lawrence shot his own camel, causing his fall and injury. With the loss of two Arabs, the Turks incurred over 300 deaths and surrendered over 160 men. Terms of surrender were sent to other Turkish outposts and they were accepted. The eventual fall of Aqaba, two months after Lawrence and Audo had left Wejh, which occurred on July 6th, was a fait accompli. Aqaba was cut off with no relief from the sea and no supplies. There was no real charge, as depicted in the film, the defenders had no choice and the garrison of a few hundred Turks surrendered. Thus, every port on the Red Sea was now in the British naval control. This outstanding victory would eventually make Lawrence a household name all over the world. It was an audacious effort, almost without parallel in modern times.
With that reality of this victory at hand, there was no way to alert British HQ in Cairo about this amazing and totally unexpected occrance. To get the information to Cairo, Lawrence and eight others (not his two servant boys in the film) headed across 150 miles of Sinai Desert. They wound up on the eastern side of the Suez Canal, found an abandoned set of building, abandoned because of the plague, were able to find a working phone, and finally reached an operator who understood what he was talking about. A launch was sent to cross the canal, and they headed to Suez City. Lawrence caught a train to Ismailia which was a connecting station to Cairo.
Upon arriving in Cairo, he made his way too his barracks, changed his Arab garb to an old uniform and headed to British Headquarters where he first meets General Edmund Henry Allenby (1861-1936, later 1st Viscount Allenby.) Lawrence had never met him before. (In the film, he went into an officer’s bar in Arab dress with his surviving Arab servant boy. This never happened.)
It seems that Lawrence had a great deal of authority and he was able to ask for and obtain 200,000 pounds in British gold Sovereigns from General Allenby (there was no personage named Dryden- played by Claude Rains who would certify the request.) In 1917, that money would be equivalent to over $16 million today. Gold opened a lot of doors in the Bedouin World of that era, as it would today.
Lawrence would eventually return to his joint command (with Feisal) of his Desert Army. There he would plan his next effort with more arms at his command and. of course. the gold. The Battle of Tafileh, on the 25th January of 1918, was a heavy engagement with three Turkish battalions of 900 men and officers and a company of cavalry. It was the only major battle Lawrence fought in during WWI. A force of a few hundred soldiers, under the nominally, joint command of Feisal’s younger brother Zeid, Jafaar Pasha Al-Askari with Lawrence, they entered the town of Tafileh. In a classic battle of small feints, strategic withdrawals, and a flanking action, the Turkish regulars broke from their well-defended lines, faced a flanking movement featuring machine guns during their retreat and were basically routed and cut down. Over 200 Turks surrendered, many were wounded and died because of the lack of any medical assets and the vast majority were killed.
In short, according to the media of the time and the famous movie about these two years of his life, “Lawrence’s war appears to be glamourous and adventurous and exciting because, as war go, it was just that, and Lawrence made the best of it. For two years he lived and fought with the Arabs.
He wore Arab clothes, went barefoot, ate Arab food, and suffered Arab fleas. He had malaria, dysentery and boils. It was a rough, rough life.” (From the very authoritative book, “The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia,” by Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson.)
According to Tom Beaumont, who fought with Lawrence, “There was not thought of changing or undressing at night! We slept in a hollow made in the sand with a blanket or two for cover. It was four months before we could get a change of clothes. Shaving was win a tin of water for ten men. We used aviation petrol to wash clothes. Lawrence was incredibly tough and made a point of doing anything the Arabs could do and doing it better. He could ride a camel faster than most of them. He could run alongside and swing into the saddle- about nine feet from the ground- while it was moving. He could do it easier than most Arabs. The Arabs accepted him because of feats like this. He knew how to get along with them. They would follow him anywhere.”
Sir Major Hubert Young (1885-1950, soldier and Liberal politician) who knew Lawrence from his days at the dig at Carmemish noted that “Lawrence was absolutely without fear and very hard on himself, but he also never knew much about the regular army.” (Lawrence was not a product of a military background in the least.) Young, himself could not forgive Lawrence for his hated of the army and it rules, regulations and tradition. But, he understood that “he was a tireless and inspired, if somewhat unrealistic leader who won the respect of Arab and British soldiers alike, because of his utter disregard of danger and his readiness to endure not merely discomfort, but the worst kinds of hardship.”
During February, Lawrence was introduced to the American journalist and adventurer, Lowell Thomas (the character of the American Jeremy Bentley in the movie). This meeting and their subsequent run-ins in Arabia were later to have a profound effect on Lawrence’s life, regarding the incredible notoriety that would come to him, along with the legend that still persists. It would also effect the perception of him that was basically a secret to almost 100% of the British public. There was virtually no Allied propaganda about the “Arab Revolt” and the War in the Desert. Throughout the war, the British government had no clue how to present their effort, utilized no positive propaganda, and through incredible censorship, little was known by the public of the details of almost anything, especially the role of Lawrence from 1914 through 1918. As for Americans, few even knew of the WWI British contribution of “blood and treasure,” Most thought the French, their traditional allies, were doing all the fighting and dying. In fact, Lawrence was virtually unknown, except to his peers and superiors.
In the spring, after a very difficult period of personal introspection and self-doubt, he was re-vitalized and master-minded a major new offensive against the Hegaz Line and a direct attack on the Turkish stronghold of Damascus (the capital of modern Syria.) He continued with his inability of delegating command and personally led numerous raids on the Hegaz rail system. As new and more modern equipment moved into the theater of operations, Lawrence was able to effectively use planes and armored cars. But, success and the vision of victory, was not without emerging problems. Morale amongst his Arab army was dropping. Like all soldiers, the wear and tear, the deprivation, and the fear of surviving the war was creeping into both the ranks and the leadership. German clandestine efforts to divide the Arab leadership was having a subtle, but obvious effect.
Feisal and his father, Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca were in the midst of a growing rift over policy, the direction of their actions and who would lead in the future. The specter of the reality of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, which had been denied for years by the British authorities was weighing heavily on the minds of the Arab leadership. Feisal offered his resignation, but both Allenby, with Lawrence’s initiation and prodding, were able to convince him to rescind his action at this critical juncture. Lawrence was able to doctor a half-hearted, apologetic letter from Hussein to his son and make it more conciliatory.
Lawrence would facilitate the attack on Damascus by isolating Deraa by blowing up a key bridge and destroying rail lines which would prevent further Turkish reinforcements. But, no matter what one did to the rail lines, Turkish retreat to Damascus continued unabatedly.
After a series of land and air attacks, Lawrence and Auda, with a body of irregular troops caught up with a retreating column of Turkish and German troops at a village called Tafas. At that small village occurred what has been termed the “Massacre of Tafas,” The Turkish commander was reported to have murdered 20 small children and 40 women. According to “The Seven Pillars…” The Arabs reacted with uncontrolled rage. Talal, one of the local Chieftains (who led the charge in the movie and was cut down by Turkish marksman) flung himself at the column, along with Lawrence and the others. It was reported that Lawrence gave the implicit directive, “take no prisoners!” The scope of the massacre at Tafas and the destruction of the Turkish and German column were never covered in the official papers of the campaign, very possibly, because of extreme censorship, but it is mentioned extensively in “The Seven Pillars….”
Of course, aside from the horror of war and the brutality of violent death exercised on both sides of any conflict, countless war crimes have been ignored even from when the Geneva Convention outlined rules of the conduct of belligerents in the modern era.
Official records reflect that this large contingent of Turkish troops were prevented from helping in the defense of Damascus. There is no real evidence that they were the “walking wounded” as depicted in the film or even in Lawrence’s book, “The Seven Pillars….” In the film it certainly shows graphically the slaughter of innocents in the village of Tafas. Of course, like many other debated accounts, Lawrence’s description of what occurred has been disputed from different sources, especially from the French who were rivals of the British and from their field leader officer, Captain Eduard Bremond, who despised Lawrence. For sure a massacre of some kind did take place, but a Jordanian historian has presented evidence that the initial slaughter by the Turks was exaggerated by Lawrence in an attempt to justify the orgy of killing of the Turkish column. That seems completely insincere. In other words, so small of a massacre only deserves a reaction in kind?
Historically, in the official account of the Allenby Campaign, “The Advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force,” which was produced shortly after the war from headquarters in Cairo by the British government press and the Survey of Egypt, there is only a brief, but laudatory mention of Lawrence, with hardly any hint of his political importance.
Thus ended the saga of Lawrence and his most pivotal role in the War in the Desert, the Arab Revolt. His fame would explode diametrically, in the days after the war, and would not be superseded by any soldier in the 100 years since the end of that conflict.
What was the consequence of sea changes in the Middle East? In a faraway retrospect, on the day Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1973, the British writer James Fenton founded a framed quotation on a wall of the abandoned and looted American Embassy: “Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.” The words were from T.E. Lawrence. That quote is from The Assassin’s Gate, America in Iraq by George Packer.
Finally, in 1927 after the publication of the masterful, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” trade editions of “Revolt in the Desert,” were published. It was a shortened and more commercial edition of “The Seven Pillars.” George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The most spectacular and mysterious figure of modern times, he relates on of the strangest stories written.” Shaw went on, “he exploded the Turkish Dominion in Arabia. Je united under himself tribes and nations which had not joined together since the last Crusade: he led them to victory- the white genius of the desert legions!”
In England, a serialization of “Revolt” had begun in the Daily Telegraph two months before the book was published. Advance orders exhausted three printings at a price four times that of a novel. Incredible praise was heaped on the book. One reviewer in the Times, wrote, “The description of that last crescendo of confusion and fury and fighting of desperate adventure and hair breadth escapes and at the culminating triumph at Damascus, is a masterpiece. It is a marvelous record, clear, incisive, utterly unsentimental, burking nothing.” There were many more glowing reviews from the Morning Post, The Daily News, The Westminster Gazette, The Times Literary Supplement and many more. It quickly became a best seller in Britain and America. Of course, all this happened while he was posted to Karachi with his pseudo name, as he attempted to run away from the fame, notoriety and incessant clamor and intrusion on his life. In fact, he would never really escape.
Thus, these last fifteen years of Lawrence’s life were a mixture of many, many myths, rumors, accusations, his need to escape, his effort to finish his book, efforts to live quietly, and his strange re-enlistments into both the Army and the Royal Air Force with fictitious identities.
He certainly developed dependencies on powerful friends like George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy, Basil Liddle-Hart, Nancy Astor, and with many others, some from his days in the desert during WWI, along with others who served with him in the military. The question arises, why cannot he deal with reality, his notoriety, the clamor of people, in the post war world? What is he suffering from?
Is it mental, physical or psychological? The effect of the war, his own identity and legitimacy, his height, his health, fear of the media, his lack of resources, his sexuality and possibly post-traumatic stress syndrome are all part of his continuing anxieties.
Since Lowell Thomas’s book in 1924, there been many unauthorized and authorized books on the life of Lawrence. Many theories about who he was and his motivation have come and gone. Many of the later books had the blessing of the Lawrence Trust, ministered by his brother Professor AW Lawrence.
Lawrence has been insanely described as a sadistic deviate for whom the Arab uprising against the Turks was an opportunity to prey on others, or as the most generous man who ever lived; as a fraud who took credit for what others accomplished in Arabia, or as the only important military mind to emerge from World War I. Almost all who knew him during and after the war seems to have been convinced that he was a remarkable “genius,” though they rarely agreed as to what sort. He was impossible to pin down!
For Robert Graves and George Bernard Shaw, he was one of the important writers of the century, while his service mates in the R.A.F. during the 1920’s and 1930’s remember him as the best mechanic, or boat designer they ever knew. George Bernard Shaw’s wife described him as the most kind and decent man, a sort of saint. While, for a decade, the British Foreign Office had troubled dreams about his “real” ambitions, and breathed a sigh of relief when he was finally killed in a motorcycle accident. It is like the powers wanted him to disappear as much as he did himself.
Others like the author John E, Mack have written that “After one reads Lawrence’s idiosyncratic masterpiece, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and the moving letters he wrote later on, it becomes clear that Lawrence was not so much a master of these spectacular effects—a “confidence man” Because, in a way his life was so fragile, so precarious, he could be, indeed he had to be, anybody at all. And because he was brilliantly sensitive and intelligent, all his “any bodies” were superbly convincing. Lawrence suspected, therefore, that his legend was merely his own illusionary sense of what he accomplished, multiplied beyond reason, and‐that the only course for him was to submerge himself below the surface of the legend, which he did, or half did, as a “secular monk” (his phrase) in the ranks of a peacetime army.
John Mack’s “A Prince of Our Disorder” is the first Lawrence biography that avoids these obvious snares and traps by addressing itself without prejudice to the man who gave rise to the legends and, finally, was overwhelmed by them. According to one reviewer, “Mack has tracked down virtually everyone who knew Lawrence, including many desert sheiks who fought at his side in Arabia, and he has gotten onto tape or in letters competing versions of crucial events, as well as memoirs of private encounters, personal impressions, etc. Wherever possible, in the period up through the Arab Revolt, he has given precedence to often unpublished contemporary accounts over later reminiscences, so as to avoid the distorting influence of Lawrence’s reputation.” With that in mind, reflective of the background of his effort, “Mack seems to establish beyond a doubt, that Lawrence’s description of the revolt in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ is largely accurate.
He carefully circumscribes Lawrence’s diplomatic role at Versailles and, later on, when he helped Winston Churchill to rectify the mess the peace conference had made of the Middle East. He underscores Lawrence’s perverse impulse to create the appearance of secrets where, often, none existed, so that the “secret lives” that have delighted legend mongers for the past 50 years are seen to be a sort of joke Lawrence managed to play, finally, on himself.”
The “Lawrence Saga,” never ends, even in death from a reported motorcycle accident. In the same way, as mysteries and legend enveloped his life, there were questions of how it came about, was it really an accident or was it staged?
At least three theories have been put forth, if the crash was not an accident. (Courtesy of “A Biography of T.E. Lawrence,” by Michael Yardley.)
- The crash was a quasi-suicide in which Lawrence had little left to live for and he made a deliberate decision to sacrifice his life to save the boys on the bicycles that were on the road in front of his speeding motorcycle/
- The accident was faked so that Lawrence could retire in peace, perhaps to Morocco. The only evidence of this extraordinary conspiracy is that none of the photographs taken of Lawrence in his coffin came out.
- That Lawrence was murdered (and here it lies in the realm of spy fiction!
- The British Intelligent Service feared his connections with Mosley’s Blackshirts, or because of his intentions to make public his RAF memoirs.
- The Germans, to prevent Lawrence from taking over the re-organization of Britain’s Home Defenses.
- The French or their agents in revenge for Lawrence’s anti-French activities.
- Zionists for reasons that are confused as they are unlikely.
- Bolshevik Russian agents because of Lawrence’s activities of an arch spy olf the world.
- Agents of an Arab Government
- The IRA, because Lawrence took a keen interest in Irish Republicanism and once had refuse Michael Collin’s offer a a brigade in the Free State Army
- Persons unknown because of the new secret work which Lawrence was about to or had already, become involve.
Most of these theories are pure speculation and almost impossible to believe. It is far more likely that his death was a result of high speed and an accident. But, there are many inconsistencies with conflicting statements about the accident, the speed he was going, the condition of the motorcycle, a mysterious car and the extraordinary secrecy and security precautions taken. Why was a policeman by his bed in the hospital?
Thomas Eliot Lawrence, known to history as the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia,” lived and died in the thralls of mystery, myth, secrecy and incredible notoriety. Will anyone really know the true story?
“The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia,” Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, 1969
“A Biography of T.E. Lawrence,” Michael Yardley, 1987
“Lawrence of Arabia,” Jeremy Wilson, 1990
“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence, 1926