Lawrence of Arabia: His life and Times

By Laurance Harmon

The Englishman T.E Lawrence was already a hero of the Arab liberation struggle against the Ottoman Empire by the time he was 30. Lawrence tactics were a model of gurrilla campaigning, and his account of the struggle, “seven pillars of wisdom”, is an epic of the effects of war on men. His diplomacy helped established the modern states of Iraq and Jordan, but Lawrence was an emotionally complex character, and his career ended in controversy.

Lawrence was born in Wales in 1888. He was the second of five illegitimate sons of Sir Thomas Chapman &. Sarah Junner. Junner, who was employed to look after Neds sisters, decided to run away with Thomas, together, Thomas and Sarah adopted the name ‘Lawrence.By 1896 they had settled in Oxford, lawrence attended Oxford High School. From there, Ned went on to study history at Jesus College, Oxford. In 1910, he gained First Class Honours in his final examinations, in part through a notable thesis on Crusader Castles. Research for this had included a lengthy walking tour in Palestine and Syria. He had been fascinated by archaeology since childhood. After graduation, he worked from 1910 to 1914 as an assistant at the British Museum’s excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish, on the River Euphrates. His success in the latter role was to prove very valuable later. At Carchemish, he learned how to motivate Arab villagers and, unlike Englishmen working in the British Empire, he did so with no help from military discipline or colonial authority.

After war broke out, Lawrence spent a brief period in the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London. He was then posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo where he became, among other things, an expert on Arab nationalist movements in the Turkish provinces that now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. In October 1916, he was sent on a fact-finding mission to the Hedjaz, where Sherif Hussein of Mecca had rebelled against Turkish imperial rule. The quality of his reports and his empathy with Arab leaders led to a long-term role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt, serving with the forces led by the Emir Feisal, one of Hussein’s four sons.

In the early stages of the Revolt, British and French military advisers urged the Arabs to capture the Turkish stronghold at Medina and to cut definitively the Hedjaz Railway which was the Turkish supply-line running south from Damascus to the Hedjaz. With help from the Royal Navy, in the spring of 1917 Emir Feisal’s main force moved northwards up the Red Sea coast, it posed a serious threat to Turkish lines of communication. Soon afterwards, Allied intelligence learned that the Turks were planning an imminent withdrawal from Medina. While this would delight Hussein, British headquarters in Cairo feared that these Turkish forces would be transferred to the Palestine front, where they would be an additional obstacle to a British advance. Cairo therefore urgently requested that the Arabs should prevent the Turks leaving Medina. In response, Lawrence developed a new strategy. The Arabs would allow the Hedjaz railway to keep working, but only just. Frequent guerrilla raids would inflict damage. As a result, withdrawal from Medina would be impossible, Turkish soldiers and repair workers would be deployed along the line in order to defend it.

By mid-1917, the situation in the Hedjaz was satisfactory, but Lawrence and Feisal wished to extend the revolt northwards to Damascus. Arab raiding parties would need freedom of movement, which was impossible in the settled agricultural regions of Palestine and Lebanon. Any northern operations would have to be based further inland, in the deserts to the east. This proposal faced a crucial problem: how could such forces be supplied? Lawrence knew, there was an obvious route if it could be secured. This was the track leading inland from Akaba at the northern end of the Red Sea.

Lawrence had visited Akaba before the war, and knew that the Turks had built heavy defences. Thus while Akaba itself could easily be captured from the sea, Wadi Itm was virtually impregnable. Without Wadi Itm, Akaba itself would be worthless. Lawrence therefore devised a scheme, to make a wide circuit inland through the desert, and take the Wadi Itm defences by approaching them from the rear. This remarkable exploit was accomplished, and by 6 July 1917, the Arabs held not only Akaba but also the vital mountain passes. The British Headquarters in Egypt was astonished four days later when Lawrence, who had traveled by camel across the Sinai Peninsula, arrived in Cairo to request urgent supplies.

From that point on, Lawrence became the key link between General Allenby, the new Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, and Feisal’s army. As the revolt extended, Lawrence’s role became increasingly important. Allenby planned to advance northwards, but the crucial Turkish supply-line was the Hedjaz railway and its branch into Palestine. Lawrence promised that the Arab army would cut the line at the crucial moment. Moreover, in the final stage the local people would revolt, hampering a Turkish retreat. This took place in September 1918. The Turks found that their communications had been cut and their retreating forces were harassed on all sides. As a result, their forces were swept back in total disarray. Lawrence’s account of the Arab revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom is borne out by British military documents now available. They1 show that his personal influence between July 1917 and September 1918 was, if anything, understated in the book.

After the capture of Damascus, Lawrence hurried back to England in order to promote the cause of Arab independence. He served in the British Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, working closely with the Emir Feisal. While the British Government had been well aware of his achievement, at the end of the war he was almost unknown to the general public. This changed in 1919 when an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, arrived in London. Thomas, who had briefly visited Akaba during the Revolt, had been encouraged by Lawrence to write of the Arabs’ fight for freedom. Lawrence quickly became a popular hero, and found that this gave added weight to his political campaign. However, the idea of Arab independence was anathema to French imperialists, who were determined to rule Syria, while the British Government of India had similar ambitions in Iraq. Despite passionate lobbying, Woodrow Wilson, the ailing American President, turned his back on the affair. Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) were duly allocated to France and Britain as mandated territories – colonies in all but name. Exhausted and bitterly disappointed, Lawrence returned to England. He lived partly at Oxford.

From 1920-1921, Lawrence was attached to the Middle East division of the British colonial office. He then became deeply depressed. He now hated himself for his “fraudulent” role in the Arab campaigns, his illegitimate birth and the bestial humiliation of Deraa. In 1923, Lawrence adopted the name Ross and enlisted as a mechanic in the royal air force, it was not long before the press learnt of this and he was soon gone again. Lawrence then joined the tank corps under the name of T.E Shaw, but that did not last long either. In 1925, he rejoined the Royal Air Force and served as an enlisted man until 1935, on May of that year, shortly after his discharge, Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dorset. Lawrence remains an enigmatic figure to this day.