T. E.
Lawrence
   
    


T. E. Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc in North Wales in 1888, the second of five boys born to Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner. Thomas Chapman was an Anglo-Irish landowner who had abandoned his wife and eloped with his maid, the couple living henceforward as 'the Lawrences', maintaining a respectable bourgeois front to Late Victorian and Edwardian society. They finally settled in Oxford in 1900, and all five boys (Bob, Ned, Will, Frank and Arnold) attended the City of Oxford High School. Ned was deeply affected by the discovery of his illegitimacy and also by his mother's strict, repressive, guilt-ridden religious belief.

Lawrence read History at Jesus College, Oxford, and during his school and university education developed a deep interest in the Middle Ages and in particular the Crusades and medieval military architecture, cycling across France to visit castles and cathedrals in 1908, and walking across much of Syria to record Crusader sites for an undergraduate thesis in 1909. Lawrence's familiarity with the geography, culture and language of the Arab Middle East dates from this time. This seems to have fused with his romantic attachment to the Middle Ages. The modern desert Arabs were perhaps, for Lawrence, somewhat akin to the mounted knights of medieval Europe.

After graduation, under the patronage of David Hogarth, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, Lawrence secured a four-year scholarship from Magdalen College, Oxford, which allowed him to work as an archaeological site supervisor at the major Hittite site of Carchemish in Syria (1910-1914), first under Hogarth himself, later under Leonard Woolley. It is likely that Lawrence formed a close relationship with a young Arab called Dahoum during his time at Carchemish, and that this proved to be the most important sexual relationship of his life. Lawrence may also have been involved in some informal intelligence work at this time, especially since Hogarth seems to have moved in British intelligence circles, and certainly played an important intelligence role during the First World War.

These connections ensured that Lawrence was commissioned into the army shortly after the outbreak of war and moved straight into an intelligence post without having to undergo formal military training. His main role was map-making, for which his knowledge of Arabic, Middle Eastern geography, and the native tribes of Syria was of great value. For the first half of the war, therefore, he was stationed in Cairo and saw no fighting. His first visit to the front took place only in October 1916, when he accompanied Ronald Storrs, Oriental Secretary at the British High Commission, on a fact-finding and liaison mission to the Hijaz region of Western Arabia.

In June 1916 fighting had broken out in the Hijaz, when Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, the guardian of the holy places, had revolted against the Ottoman Empire on the promise of British military support for his forces during the war and diplomatic support for his political aims afterwards. Mecca had been secured, but the revolt had failed against Medina. Not only had the Arabs become bogged in a half-hearted siege, the Turks had built up their forces and were planning a counter-offensive that threatened to crush the rising at the outset.

Lawrence met Prince Feisal, one of Hussein's four sons, who commanded the Hashemites' Northern Army (Hashemite being the family name of Hussein and his sons, Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zeid). A strong bond was forged and Feisal requested Lawrence's permanent attachment to him as a liaison officer. This relationship, which lasted for the remaining two years of the war, was the basis of the extraordinary role Lawrence now played in the development of the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence acted as a military advisor to Feisal, a link between him and the British military authorities in Cairo and later Palestine, and a guerrilla commander in the field, sharing the leadership of a succession of local and deep-penetration raids. It seems highly likely - but is impossible to prove and remains highly controversial - that Lawrence was the dominant strategic planner in Feisal's Northern Army. He may have originated the plan by which Feisal's Army moved 200 miles north in January 1917, from the port of Yenbo to the port of Wejd, a strategic move that threatened the Turkish communication line along the Hijaz Railway deep in the rear of the Medina garrison, destroying its mobility and removing any threat to the other Arab armies still operating in the region. The move to Wejd opened a second phase in the revolt, the initiative passing to Arab guerrillas supported by British military specialists, who commenced a series of attacks on the Hijaz Railway which increasingly pinned down Turkish forces in small outposts and drained their resources.

A yet bolder move came in June-July 1917, again probably at the suggestion of Lawrence, when a small Arab force carried out an extraordinary 600-mile trek through some of the worst desert in the world, emerging north-east of the key Turkish port of Aqaba. The local Howeitat tribe then joined the revolt, encouraged by Auda abu-Tayi, a Howeitat chieftain and renowned warrior who had been on the march from Wejd. A series of skirmishes were fought against a succession of Turkish garrisons on the road to Aqaba, and one major battle, at Abu al-Lissan, culminating in the capture of the port at the beginning of July. The revolt had now entered the relatively rich and heavily populated regions of Syria, and in this area an intensive guerrilla war, focused particularly on the Hijaz Railway, was waged for over a year.

The final phase of the revolt involved Arab participation in the final British offensive of September-October 1918, which, beginning in Palestine, quickly broke the Turkish front and began a generalised collapse and rout of the Turkish armies both west and east of the Jordan. The Arabs formed a fast-moving right flank to this offensive, reaching Damascus, the ancient capital of Syria, on 1 October, at which point a confused struggle for control erupted between the British military authorities, local Syrian nationalists, and the Hashemite forces represented by Feisal and Lawrence. This was the culmination of a developing political crisis, caused by contradictory British promises respectively to their French allies, the Hashemite rebels, and Zionist leaders.

Lawrence returned to Britain via Cairo at this point, but he was destined to be heavily involved in post-war diplomatic work in relation to the Middle East until 1922, acting as an advisor to the Emir Feisal at the 1919 Versailles peace conference, for example, and later to Winston Churchill during his 1921 mission to secure a lasting settlement in the region. This was also the period when Lawrence wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the period when he was turned into an international celebrity by the American impresario Lowell Thomas, whose film and slide lecture was a sell-out in New York and London in 1919.

Lawrence seems to have suffered some kind of mental breakdown, however, brought on by the trauma of war, by guilt about the British deception and betrayal of the Arabs, and by the death of his former lover Dahoum, stresses which worked upon a psychologically vulnerable mind. Lawrence never really recovered, and his eccentric lifestyle as a semi-recluse, serving in the ranks of the armed forces between 1922 and 1935, must be understood primarily as a way of coping with his mental illness.

Equally, Lawrence's well-deserved reputation for having deliberately woven a web of mystery around his own life - leading to charges of charlatanism and outright lying - is best understood as a form of mental instability. It has, however, made biography difficult. We would make one claim. Whatever Lawrence's personal inadequacies and failings, it seems likely that his role in the Arab Revolt was a very significant one, and the military treatises that he wrote shortly after the war mark him out as a highly original thinker: in fact, as the first theoretician of modern guerrilla warfare.