T E LAWRENCE AND THE WAR IN THE DESERT
The original text of TE Lawrence’s book on the war in the desert ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ was lost on Reading Railway Station in December 1919. Most of the war time notes he had were destroyed as each section of the book was completed, but from early 1920 Lawrence began writing again from memory, and the few diaries and field notes left ‘ to scribble out what I remembered of the first text’. A third version was produced in the Middle East and London in 1921/1922 and a private text was produced in Oxford in 1922 and a text for subscribers in 1926/27.
An abridged edition of only 130,000 words - the original version was 330,000 words - was also published in 1927, parts having been serialised in the Daily Telegraph in December 1926. Winston Churchill proclaimed that the book (I assume as a friend he received one of the special editions) ‘ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language. As a narrative of war and adventure it is unsurpassable’. It is certainly a very challenging read by a man whose scholarship is unquestionable.
Lawrence completed his studies at Oxford and took a First Class Honours Degree at Jesus College. His thesis was on Crusader Castles in the Middle East and was the result of a punishing journey he undertook. He travelled alone covering over a thousand miles on foot, he immersed himself completely in the language and culture of the region and developed an admiration for the Bedouin and a love of the desert.
This is all in sharp contrast with Mark Sykes, co-author of the Sykes Picot Agreement, who failed to complete his degree at Cambridge, and although he published books on the Middle East they lacked the academic rigour of Lawrence’s work.
Lawrence’s research was much admired by the leading Oxford archaeologist D G Hogarth who used his influence to support Lawrence’s acquisition of a Fellowship from Magdalen College Oxford which enabled him from 1911/1914 to join the archaeological expedition excavating the very significant site at Carchemish.
In early 1914 with Sir Leonard Wooley and Captain S E Newcombe Lawrence explored the Northern Sinai on the Turkish frontier east of Suez. What was described as a scientific expedition did result in the publication ‘The Wilderness of Zin’ in 1915, but it was also a map making reconnaissance from Gaza to Aqaba which was to prove of great strategic importance.
Lawrence wrote this book in a little outhouse at the end of the garden of his family home at 2 Polstead Road, Oxford. This had been converted into a ‘three room writing apartment’ that Lawrence designed himself. It had some of the features that he was later to include at Clouds Hill. (The house is currently for sale and there are hopes that it may be converted into a study centre supported by the three Oxford Colleges with which Lawrence is linked).
At the start of the war in 1914, Lawrence was a civilian in the Map Department of the War Office preparing maps for the Sinai. By December 1914 he was in Cairo, as his knowledge and experience of the region was important to the Intelligence Bureau. He spent over a year continuing to create maps, receiving and processing data from agents and interviewing Turkish prisoners. Mark Sykes was also working in the Cairo Bureau at this time. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence describes him as ‘ a bundle of prejudices, intuitions and half sciences’ and a man who would ‘sketch out in a few dashes a new world, all out of scale, but vivid as a vision of the things we hope’. According to Lawrence, Sykes had changed his views on the Arab cause by the time of his untimely death in Paris in 1919.
Lawrence was becoming increasingly frustrated with his role in Cairo, and the death of two of his four brothers, Frank and Will in the fighting on the Western Front encouraged him to agitate for a more active role. His opportunity came when he was allowed to accompany Ronald Storrs, another member of the Cairo team who Lawrence described as’ the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East’, to consult with Hussain ibn Ali the Grand Sharif of Mecca.
The Arab revolt against the Turks had been encouraged by Sir Henry McMahon in October 1915 before the signing of the Sykes Picot Agreement. Arab attacks commenced on June 5th 1916 when ibn Hussain’s two sons, Princes Ali and Feisal, attacked the Turkish Garrison at Medina. The attack had to be abandoned after three days due to a shortage of arms and ammunition. On June 10th 1916 in Mecca Sharif Hussain ibn Ali publicly proclaimed the revolt seizing the city and driving the Turkish Garrison out. Another son Abdullah laid siege to the town of Ta’if 40 miles to the east of Mecca.
It was to discuss the limited success of these actions that Storrs and Lawrence came to Mecca, and Lawrence identified Prince Feisal as the man the British might work with. Lawrence returned to Cairo to persuade his senior colleagues to support Feisal’s rebellion and to persuade them to provide him with money and weapons. Lawrence believed that Feisal was capable of bringing together the various tribal groups into an effective fighting force.
Lawrence was given permission to return to Feisal as a political and liaison officer. He had never had any military training but became the brains and the organizing force of the Arab uprising and as his detractors would claim, certainly by his own account. There is a long list of names in the Introductory Chapter to Seven Pillars of Wisdom and he writes, ‘My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy’.
I would suggest that his knowledge and empathy with the Bedouin, combined with his undoubted intellect were significant factors in the success of the desert campaign. Lawrence responded to the culture and the reality that this would not be a war of pitched battles, but a guerrilla campaign. ‘Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert’. As a distinguished historian he would know that the history of guerrilla warfare is as old as war itself but for the practice of guerrilla warfare with modern weapons had only to look at the recent experience of the Boers and the Irish.
With the use of good intelligence, he learnt to attack the Turks with small groups when the enemy could be taken by surprise, and avoiding engaging in any sustained combat. The Damascus to Medina Railway was an essential part of the supply chain for the Turkish Army which as a result of guerrilla actions became largely inoperable. A few carefully sited machine guns and Stokes mortars could destroy a train. Such was the ambush at Hallat Ammar,where those Turkish soldiers that were not killed in the initial attacks or managed to escape were soon killed by Arab looters who took everything they could from the shattered carriages.
The capture of Aqaba on July 1916 was a considerable achievement, but was probably not fully sanctioned by British authorities in Cairo. The attack required a 600 mile journey across the desert. It took eight weeks, and everything they needed had to be carried in their camel saddle bags. There was an attempt to negotiate a surrender but when this failed the strategically important town was captured following a dramatic camel charge on the Turkish Garrison.
Lawrence described a meeting with a German prisoner which is informative. Firstly it confirms that here as elsewhere the Germans were providing a whole range of support for the Turkish Army. This prisoner was an engineer building a well and although unfinished he was able to draw’ enough clear water to drench our thirsts’. Lawrence described the 42 Turkish Officer prisoners as ‘an intolerable nuisance’. He writes ‘they were disgusted to learn how ill provided we were’.
The town itself had been reduced to rubble by French and British Naval shelling but its capture was a great psychological victory for the Arab cause. Lawrence however from this time seems to have fallen into line with Allenby’s plans. He continued with Feisal guerrilla actions against the Turks and did take part in the victory parade in Jerusalem on 11th December 1917. By the time Allied forces reached Damascus in October 1918, Lawrence was understandably physically and emotionally exhausted having pushed himself to near breaking point. It was also clear to Lawrence that the British would not fulfil the promises made in 1915 and would support their French allies before they would help the Arabs.
Demoralized and disillusioned, Lawrence sought and was allowed to resign his position and return to England. As a young man he had loved the ‘Arthurian Legends’, and perhaps in some people’s eyes he had dreamt of a ‘Camelot with Camels’. This was not to be and the Colonial powers reverted to their lines drawn in the sand.
On his return to London, King George Vth summoned Lawrence to Buckingham Palace on 30TH October 1918. He was to receive a Knighthood and his DSO, not the private audience he had hoped for. Lawrence, believing the Arabs had been betrayed by the British Government, politely declined the honours.
T E Lawrence’s fame came as the result of the American War Correspondent Lowell Thomas who, in 1919 launched a lecture tour recounting Lawrence’s exploits in the desert with photographs and film. The British public were presented with a war hero ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence