The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

After watching David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, I became fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. As a high-school kid I slogged through Lawrence’s expansive and detailed memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and followed up with some of his other writings, even his translation of the Odyssey.

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabi...

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab revolt forces in the Battle of Aqaba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose camera crew captured some of Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, was largely responsible for the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In sold-out post-war lectures, Thomas depicted Lawrence—in his flowing Bedouin robes waging a guerrilla war for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Turks—as a dashing figure, a chivalric knight. The romantic legend appealed to a war-weary Britain. Lawrence’s own popular account, Revolt in the Desert, only fed the fever and became a bestseller.

But the psychological price of his war exploits and celebrity soon caught up with him. Lawrence became shy of publicity and sought escape in an ascetic’s life. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and entered the Royal Air Corps as a private, only to be publicly exposed. Forced to change his name again, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. He recounted this post-war military experience in his memoir, The Mint.

When he died in 1935, aged 46, after crashing his motorcycle to avert two boys on bicycle, the Lawrence of Arabia legend became secure. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” Winston Churchill said. “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”

Sooner or later someone is bound to challenge such hyperbole; in Lawrence’s case it took about thirty more years.

In 1969, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpson attempted to pry beneath the legend. Based on classified documents released by Britain’s Public Records Office in 1968 and on interviews with people who played roles in critical episodes of Lawrence’s life, the book proffered more questions than answers. As its sensational jacket copy states: “Archaeologist, author, savant, soldier, intimate of poets and kings, an intellectual who was also a man of action…or pathological liar, homosexual, Irish nobody, traitor, a Foreign Office lackey in fancy dress?”

More documents, including many of Lawrence’s wartime dispatches, have since been declassified, and more research done on the war in Arabia and the disastrous 1919 peace conference in Paris that determined the region’s fate. Their addition has enabled journalist Scott Anderson to provide a balanced reassessment of Lawrence’s influence and accomplishments in his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Lawrence in ArabiaAs the subtitle promises, the book’s scope is broader than a biography of the man. The Lawrence of Arabia legend (as if an Englishman, despite the robes, could ever be of Arabia) is recast in the context of the ambivalent role Lawrence played in what was essentially an imperial gambit.

Anderson weaves the story of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt with those of an international cast of characters representing the many factions wrestling for a piece of this oil-rich land. Primary focus is on the rivalry of the European powers and the Zionist movement that mostly sprang from Europe and targeted a homeland in Palestine.

Front and center are the political machinations of the British and French, in the guise of diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, whose secret agreement would seal the fates of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran—assuming the Triple Entente won the war and wrested these territories from the decaying Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

English: Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduce...

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduced from http://www.passia.org with permission.

Where did Lawrence stand on this land grab? At first he and the Cairo-based intelligence unit he worked for advocated a policy of Arab liberation under British tutelage. They wanted to nullify French claims on Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) by keeping the French out of the Arabian campaign. To this end, Lawrence’s superiors encouraged Emir Hussein of the Hashemite clan to revolt with the promise of an independent Arab nation that included Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.

Lawrence was sent to join the Arab guerrillas to ensure that British interests prevailed. But, according to Anderson, Lawrence’s growing wariness of the political machinations taking place in London and Paris to undermine their promise to the Arabs led him to secretly reveal to Emir Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal, the nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Was this treason or a shrewd manipulation to spur the Arab prince to press his campaign toward the capture of Damascus?

As Anderson makes clear, Britain was not the only nation, and Lawrence hardly the only emissary, in the region conniving for position. From Jerusalem, the German spymaster Curt Prüffer instigated Islamic jihad in British-ruled Egypt. Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn ran a spy network in Turkish-controlled Palestine to aid the British, whom he believed the best guarantors of a Jewish homeland, while his colleague and sometime adversary, Chiam Weizmann worked the corridors of power in London. Even the Standard Oil Company, through its representative William Yale, was negotiating oil rights with the Turks while providing oil to both sides of the conflict. Later, after America entered the war, Yale would keep the U.S. State Department abreast of British and French military and political maneuvers.

Anderson succeeds in showing how the duplicitous and cavalier decisions of crumbling empires at war brought about the muddle of the modern Middle East. Lawrence, who understood the religious and tribal complexities of the region, failed to win his case for an independent Arabia including Syria. After the capture of Damascus, which effectvely ended the Arabian campaign, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became public, Lawrence left the Middle East, never to return.

Suffering from what Anderson describes as post-traumatic stress disorder, this brilliant, arrogant and ascetic warrior-scholar believed he had betrayed the Arabs he had fought beside. “Blast the Lawrence side of things,” Lawrence wrote in a letter using the alias T.E. Shaw. “He was a cad I’ve killed.”

Anderson tells a compelling story that brings greater political and psychological insight to the Lawrence legend, but the enigma of the man endures.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

  1. “Lawrence of Arabia” is also a memorable film from my boyhood. It is going to take some time before I can say “Lawrence in Arabia” instead.
    This is a seminal post, Tom. It helps readers to better understand how the “Middle East” got to where it is today. We owe a debt of gratitude to authors such as Scott Anderson.

    • Yes, the movie is iconic, and although it uses dramatic license to build its story, it does a good job of capturing the complexities of the man. Anderson’s book is well worth reading if you are interested in the subject. What amazes me is that no one, even Anderson, has managed to capture the essence of Lawrence’s persuasive intellect and charisma. He impressed Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Bell, and scores of others with his brilliance.

      Thanks for commenting, Russell, and as always, thanks for reading.

  2. I saw this book the other day but foolishly didn’t pay much attention but I blame T. E. Lawrence’s own The Pillars of Wisdom which is up there with Moby Dick and Ulysses for unfinishability.

    • Yes, as Anderson acknowledges, Seven Pillars is one of those books that is more often praised than read. I remember it being pretty dense going. In contrast, Anderson’s book is well written, well researched and compelling.

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