Lawrence of Arabia

This page, Lawrence of Arabia, explores T E Lawrence and the desert campaign of the First World War.

Lawrence and the Middle East

Lawrence first visited the Middle East in the summer of 1909 whilst still a student at Jesus College, Oxford. He set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, during which he covered in the region of 1,000 miles (1600km). The research fed into his thesis on The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture, for which he gained a First in Modern History.

Above: T E Lawrence and Sir C Leonard Woolley at the excavation site in Carchmesh, circa 1912-1913

He returned to the Middle East in December 1911 to join the British Museum’s excavations at Carcamesh in Northern Syria, and was still there in 1914 at the outbreak of war when, in October, he was commissioned and posted to Cairo, joining the Intelligence Staff of the GOC (General Officer Commanding) Middle East.

Dreamer of the day

But Lawrence was no ordinary scholar turned soldier. He was the kind of person for whom knowledge that the earth was round simply drew him, all the more fixedly, in pursuit of other horizons, other limits to test.

‘All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.’

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Introduction)

T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) at Hejaj

Lawrence grasped the opportunity to test himself in the combined inferno of the desert and war:

Some of the evil in my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven….

Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers terrible: a death in life. … We no doubt enjoyed more the rare moments of peace and forgetfulness; but I remember more the agony, the terrors, and the mistakes. 

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Chapter 1)

Selves conversing in the void

The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Introduction)

Lawrence was a central player in the kind of conflict that, in a Le Carré novel, might be described as a dirty little sideshow, in which betrayal is planned from the start. 

Appointed Liaison Officer in the campaign, conceived by the Arab Bureau, of encouraging internal insurgency by the indigenous Arab tribes against their Turkish rulers, Lawrence fought with Arab irregulars under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Above: Prince Faisal, centre, Lawrence to his left

But in contrast to the Arab forces, who were fighting for independence and freedom from colonial rule, the British interest lay in tying up Turkish troops in minor conflicts across the Arab region. The contradiction between these two positions caused Lawrence intense anguish:

The Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. … It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war, these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured … that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims.

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Introduction)

Above: Lawrence instructing tribesmen

In his adoption of Arab costume and the life of a Bedouin tribesman, Lawrence was widely regarded as having gone native in spectacular fashion. But, as the Commander, Allenby wrote, he kept to the British line: “I gave him (Lawrence) a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign.”

This duality threatened to fatally undermine Lawrence’s sense of identity:

In my case, the efforts for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only… Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments. 

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Chapter 1)

T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) at Rabegh, 1917

This dislocation and fragmentation of the self came to a climax in Deraa.

Deraa then, as now, was a key strategic town on the road to Damascus. On a spying mission in the town Lawrence was apprehended and taken to the Turkish Governor. On rebuffing the Governor’s sexual advances, Lawrence was subjected to a brutal beating of such extremity that afterwards the Governor ‘rejected me in haste, as a thing too torn and bloody for his bed.’

Lawrence writes that they beat him until he was ‘completely broken’, and experienced ‘a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together’ until, ‘at last when I was completely broken they seemed satisfied.’ The chapter concludes with the words:

‘in Deraa that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.’ 

(from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter LXXX)

Above left: Previously unknown photograph of T E Lawrence taken in Aqaba, Jordan by an airman in November or December 1917, shortly after he escaped from the Turks at Deraa. Above right: Lawrence circa 1918 (via www.telegraph.co.uk)

Details surrounding this incident are left frustratingly vague in his account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom; it is at Cloud’s Hill that the conversation between the two selves of which Lawrence speaks is given concrete expression.

Above: Lawrence becoming 'Lawrence of Arabia' - Lawrence with Lowell Thomas, 'He has invented some silly phantom thing, a sort of matinee idol in fancy dress, that does silly things and is dubbed ‘romantic.’'

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