Lawrence and Arabia

July 13, 2011 • 1:29 pm

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 (detail). Augustus John. 1919.

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.

Carchemish field crew; Dahoum at far right.

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.”

Feisal. Augustus John. 1919.

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.

Bedouin; Auda abu Tayi of the Howeitat, 2nd from right.

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 approaches Akaba.

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.

Destruction along the Hejaz railway.

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.”

The Sykes-Picot agreement (from Wilson, J. 1990. Lawrence of Arabia: the Authorized Biography).

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.

Feisal's delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.

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.

Cairo Conference, 1921.

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.

26 thoughts on “Lawrence and Arabia

  1. Nicely written post, Greg.

    Lawrence and Feisal used classic principles of guerilla warfare …

    It would very interesting to read any account if whether Lawrence studied insurgency warfare, or rediscovered it. The Seven Pillars suggests the later, a remarkable achievement in itself:

    My wits, hostile to the abstract, took refuge in Arabia again. Translated into Arabic, the algebraic factor would first take practical account of the area we wished to deliver, and I began idly to calculate how many square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps one hundred and forty thousand square miles. And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners; but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at. … The Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical. They would believe that rebellion was absolute like war, and deal with it on the analogy of war. Analogy in human things was fudge, anyhow; and war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.

    Sykes-Picot made a mess of the region, with effects that will bedevil everyone for a long time to come. It’s very worthwhile contrasting Churchill’s parallel designs to partition Anatolia and the Turks after the Great War, which would have had comparably awful effects, with lasting Greek and other claims on Istanbul, the Bosphorus, and the Turkish Aegean coast. Without Ataturk, all this would have come to pass.

    We had a previous discussion about Norwich’s history of the Papacy, and several posters mentioned his worthwhile Byzantium. People interested in the fascinating and influential history of the Levant after the fall of Constantinople should also read these popular histories:

    Ottoman Centuries, by Lord Kinross.

    Ataturk, by Andrew Mango.

    The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf.

    Religion is an important theme is all these histories, as is atheism. Maalouf even includes this quote the from 10th c. Syrian poet al-Ma’arri:

    The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts:
    Those with brains, but no religion,
    And those with religion, but no brains.

  2. And for those who haven’t read ‘Seven Pillars…’: please try to if you can – it is well-written, fascinating and appealingly heroic yet melancholy.

    1. Noticed above:

      (An earlier and longer draft, preferred by some critics.)

      Lawrence says in the published version that he left the complete draft on a train and had to reconstruct it from memory. Did it turn up later, then? Amazing.

      1. The Oxford text of 1922 is later than the lost draft. Lawrence lost only part of the text on the train, and had access to some (but not all) of his materials, so he didn’t rewrite just from memory. Release of British official papers show that he got right most of the checkable facts, so he probably relied more on these materials than his memory. The lost manuscript never turned up.

        The lost partial manuscript episode is a curious incident in Lawrence’s life, which some have made much of, but of which there is little evidence other than Lawrence’s written accounts.


    2. I agree that Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a must-read, on many levels: As a classic travel book if nothing else.

      One caveat though. IMO, the first ~100 pp. (my older HC edition, I don’t have it with me) which are his musings on various things, before he lands at Jeddah for the first time, is well worth skipping.

      IMO, it is sophomoric philosophizing and navel-gazing that add litte/nothing to the real story: What he witnessed in Arabia, 1916-1918.

    1. Indeed. Before I saw the caption my reaction was that it was a painting of O’Toole as Lawrence.

    2. There was an attempt to make a film much earlier, either the late early 40s, to star Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind). I don’t remember now whether it was shelved because of studio issues (script, budget, etc.) or because of his death in 1943 (shot down by German fighter planes).

      Take a look at him, he looks more like Lawrence than O’Toole:

      He was a really good actor too, though I’m sure the film would have been more like the usual Hollywood biopic of the time: semi-fictional.

        1. I think that was the Leslie Howard version. Not sure though. I read it in a really good book about the making of the Lean movie but I can’t find it now. If that was the case, then scratch my comment about “the usual Hollywood biopic of the time” because it probably would have been pretty good.

  3. I loved Seven Pillars. What’s intriguing is that here is this man who travelled, was exposed to many different cultures, religions, and ideas. He was a child of the Enlightenment however, he remained a Christian. Isn’t that interesting that someone with his experiences and understanding of the world would believe something that is subject to such derision withing the contemporary culural mandate? Maybe, after all, there is something to this man, Jesus Christ, who lived and was murdered 2000 years ago and has had such a monumental effect on human history.

    1. @ 5 creditaction

      Maybe, after all, there is something to this man, Jesus Christ, who lived and was murdered 2000 years ago and has had such a monumental effect on human history.

      Well, except for the part that the jesus story is a bunch of made up stuff.

    2. Maybe, after all, there is something to this man, Jesus Christ, who lived and was murdered 2000 years ago and has had such a monumental effect on human history.

      Maybe frogs have wings! Maybe, just maybe!

    3. I have had a look at your website & it seems pretty clear that you are a Jesus follower – is that correct?

    4. Lawrence did not remain a Christian. His mother was devoutly evangelical, and impressed her views upon all her sons, but only one (M.R. ‘Bob’) took up her call to missionary work. A.W., the youngest, was the most forceful in his rejection, having been recorded as striking a table while forcefully stating, “I hate Christianity.” For T.E., his Christianity disappeared without much commentary or fuss. Wilson (p. 124) summarizes:

      It seems probable that he was already [1913] beginning to lose the evangelical fervour that he had learned at St Aldate’s. Under the influence of the bedouin culture, his Christianity would be replaced during the next few years by something approaching agnosticism.

  4. I’m surprised noone has mentioned Lawrence’s involvement in what would surely be seen now as a war crime. From Seven Pillars — see especially the last sentence:


    The Zaagi burst into wild peals of laughter, the more desolate for the
    warm sunshine and clear air of this upland afternoon. I said, ‘The best
    of you brings me the most Turkish dead’, and we turned after the fading
    enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the
    roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not
    able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s
    head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three
    bullets from his automatic through the man’s bare chest.


    Tallal had seen what we had seen. He gave one moan like a hurt animal;
    then rode to the upper ground and sat there a while on his mare,
    shivering and looking fixedly after the Turks. I moved near to speak to
    him, but Auda caught my rein and stayed me. Very slowly Tallal drew his
    head-cloth about his face; and then he seemed suddenly to take hold of
    himself, for he dashed his stirrups into the mare’s flanks and galloped
    headlong, bending low and swaying in the saddle, right at the main body
    of the enemy.

    We sat there like stone while he rushed forward, the drumming of his hoofs
    unnaturally loud in our ears, for we had stopped shooting, and the
    Turks had stopped. Both armies waited for him; and he rocked on in the
    hushed evening till only a few lengths from the enemy. Then he sat up
    in the saddle and cried his war-cry, Tallal, Tallal’, twice in a
    tremendous shout. Instantly their rifles and machine-guns crashed out,
    and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell
    dead among the lance points.


    The old lion of battle
    waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable
    leader. By a skilful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split
    their formation into three parts.

    The third part, the smallest, was mostly made up of German and Austrian
    machine-gunners grouped round three motor-cars, and a handful of
    mounted officers or troopers. They fought magnificently and repulsed us
    time and again despite our hardiness. The Arabs were fighting like
    devils, the sweat blurring their eyes, dust parching their throats;
    while the flame of cruelty and revenge which was burning in their
    bodies so twisted them, that their hands could hardly shoot. By my
    order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war.


    I seem to recall a scene in the film where an American journalist reproaches Lawrence for an incident like this, maybe the same one.

    1. Isn’t it the case that US helicopters, like Lawrence’s Camelry, don’t always take prisoners either? And not ‘for the only time’ but as a matter of doctrine since 1991, IIRC.

      (I tried a search to check this, but my google-fu failed. Apologies if this was something made up by Tom Clancy)

  5. There was a fascinating book published in the 1960s by Stanley Weinberg–Private Shaw and Public Shaw: A Dual Portrait of Lawrence of Arabia nad George Bernard Shaw. This book focuses on the friendship that developed between Lawrence (who had enlisted in the RAF as “T.E. Shaw” after WWI. and the playwright.

    1. Indeed, Shaw contributed to the cost of the Brough Superior on which he had his fatal accident, cf. link I posted above.

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