TE Lawrence: Was he an Accidental Hero?

Born in an age when class and status in life preordained one a priori to a particular station in life, Thomas Edward Chapman aka Lawrence of Arabia rose above such strictures to become universally acclaimed and renowned for his exploits in the Arabian Desert, Transjordan and Mesopotamia. How was that meteoric rise possible for somebody so taciturn, ascetic and iconoclastic in outlook?

Much of which is known about TE Lawrence is discerned from his autobiography entitled The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which I have never actually finished reading in spite of various attempts. Many accounts of Lawrence’s exploits and ordeals are at odds with one another. In broad outline and Lawrence own sang froid attitude have been attested to by many colleagues but Lawrence will forever remain an enigma where one is never able to grasp the real man with any certainty.

Main picture: Thomas Edward Lawrence in traditional Arab garb

What is the tap root or wellspring of his individual’s almost masochistic determination to succeed even in the most harrowing of circumstances? The consensual view is that his traumatic formative years became the mould from which the asceticism was cast. Born out of wedlock to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, his governess, Lawrence had to endure the family shame when instead of the accepted practice of blaming the mother as wanton and shipping her off to a nunnery to live out her life in penury and repentance, Lawrence’s father did the unexpected: he “eloped” with her.

From the Movie "Lawrence of Arabia"

From the Movie “Lawrence of Arabia”

The one effect of this decision based on love, was that Sir Thomas forfeited the rights to his lands and his estate. Moreover such was the disapproval of “living in sin” & partaking of carnal pleasures, that Sir Thomas was compelled to adopt the moniker of Mr Lawrence. In order to maintain the pretence of their veil of lies, the children, three boys, were largely forbidden to play with other children, lest they, in their childish manner, should accidently have lifted this veil, albeit innocently. The end result was that they were physically and socially isolated from their peers.

Moreover in spite of his parents being a loving couple, Sarah Junner – aka Mrs Lawrence – probably as an avenue to release the tensions accumulated by this unnatural situation, took to beating the children mercilessly for minor infractions and perceived wrongs. As a defence mechanism against such capricious behaviour, Lawrence would endure the harshest treatment without displaying the slightest pain or discomfort. Naturally this attitude would infuriate his mother who, in a demonic rage, would beat him mercilessly without hearing a murmur in response.

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I contend that it was largely as a consequence of this austere upbringing which moulded the unemotional hard-as-nails man who would be awarded the sobriquet of Lawrence of Arabia.

The measure of the man was soon revealed when, while still at school, he undertook a 1000km cycle tour of the old castles of France and Normandy – alone.

This tour was formative as it would serve as the template for subsequent more arduous trips that he would undertake.

Just as crucially, Lawrence was comfortable with his own company and seldom sought the pleasures of a friendly chat. In the obdurate world of the searing desert with its suffocating heat and paucity of water, Lawrence was content. Unlike other Europeans that the Arabs encountered, Lawrence in contrast to them, required no assistance and instead took to chivvying them along. It is suffice to state that in today’s parlance, the epithet different could readily be applied to Lawrence’s behaviour.

TE Lawrence

TE Lawrence

 

During his studies in archaeology at Oxford University, Lawrence elected to take a three month sabbatical and undertake a solitary expedition to the Holy Land. It was then that Lawrence learned how to endure the rigors of midnight cold, the midday heat and driving thirst much to the amazement of his Arab entourage. They were in awe of him. Initially due to his stamina and endurance, the like of which they had never experienced before, but also for his attitude towards them; for in Lawrence’s eyes, the Arabs were not his minions but rather his equals, his partners in his quest to understand the old Crusader forts and castles.

To further his acceptance by his Arab comrades, he adopted their mode of dress and their language with which he rapidly became proficient. His dress and ability to communicate in Arabic was never an act of showmanship but rather a heart-felt desire to understand their psyche and to be accepted by them. Unlike other Europeans who the Arabs instinctively distrusted, with TE Lawrence they developed an unspoken rapport.

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Yet despite this intimate relationship, Lawrence would never be truly accepted. In their view Arabia – present day Saudi Arabia – was sacred land, a holy land on which the infidels – non-Muslims – were not allowed to cross let alone reside.

With the advent of war in Europe between the Central Powers – Germany and Austro-Hungry – and the Entente powers of Britain, Russia and France, Lawrence undertook yet another tour of the Levant. From the outset, this foray would possess a different objective, an ulterior motive. Even though ostensibly yet another archaeological survey of extant Crusader Forts, its covert purpose was to map suitable invasion routes and more importantly water sources.

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All of this would serve the Allies well should the Ottoman Empire fall under German sway. As if jointly understanding the future importance of this area as a possible theatre of war, the Germans had dispatched their agent Curt Prűfer to curry favour with the Arab Nationalists. Standard Oil ever eager to obtain exploration rights in the area despatched William Yale, a descendant of the founder of the Yale University in the USA, to also undertake a stealthy overview of the likelihood of oil being discovered there.

The paths of all three parties did cross but of the three, probably Lawrence’s party, was the most inconspicuous as their appearance and mannerisms accorded with their stated objective.

The camel corps

The camel corps

Suffice to say that when war was declared by the Ottoman Empire against the Entente Powers, Lawrence rapidly obtained employment in the British Intelligence Mapping Department located in the Savoy Hotel in Cairo.

In every way, Lawrence was atypical of the other British permanent force officers. He frequently ran afoul of petty regulations as regards dress code and formal discipline. The only reason for charges not being laid against him arose due to the fact that Lawrence possessed a veritable mine of information which nobody else in Britain or the Middle East possessed.

Unknown to Lawrence at this juncture, was that the French and British were surreptitiously engaged in political machinations regarding the future vision for the Middle East. This understanding was known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the British and French negotiators of this pact. While this duplicitous game was being rehearsed, the Emir of the Hejaz which included the Muslim Holy Sites of Medina and Mecca, King Hussein, had approached the British Intelligence with a request to assist them with weapons and money in order to throw off the yolk of the oppressive Turks.

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These politicians convoluted machinations included duplicitous activities between the French and British themselves as Sykes attempted to prevent the French from assisting Hussein or obtaining any sway over him. It was only when in 1916 that Lawrence was invited on a foray down the Red Sea to a nondescript Arab port town called Jeddah that he became aware that the British were considering assisting the Arab cause militarily.

With a perspicacity born of this previous intimate contact with the Arabs, he rapidly discerned the personalities and their actual leadership abilities and possible martial prowess. Instead the British Intelligence Officers – Lawrence’s senior – assigned to put feelers out to Hussein was oblivious to all these undertones and subtle shades of meaning.

It was at this juncture that Lady Luck shone her lamp on Lawrence. With this officer being indisposed due to illness, Lawrence was forced to play a more substantial role in getting the Arabs on-sides without conceding Britain’s ultimate goal of hegemony.

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Lawrence could not countenance playing such duplicitous games. Instead in a treasonous act, he confided in King Hussein on pain of his death that Syria had been ceded to France in terms of this accord after the termination of the conflict. For playing open cards with him, Lawrence demanded that the Emir’s son, whom he regarded as the most martial of all his sons, should be appointed leader of the Arab marauding force.

While Lawrence’s actions, including subsequent ones, were clearly treasonous and possibly even seditious to British policy, Lawrence was able to maintain control of the situation which so readily could have spiralled out of control.

In short order, Lawrence was disabused of the martial prowess of the Arab fighters when in an initial foray, a force under a skittish son of Hussein, fearing a Turkish attack, retreated in disarray setting off the whole Arab force in a pell-mell retreat.

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To his chagrin, Lawrence had to make light of this episode but it did engender within Lawrence an understanding of the strengths & weaknesses of the Arab forces. It was then that Lawrence came to the realisation that the Arab psyche was more suited to waging a terrorist type war of hit-and-run rather than a western style conventional war as this strategy would accord with their strength.

After only one foray against the Hejaz Railway, Lawrence was placed in charge of an attack on Aqaba situated on the littoral at the furthest extent of the Gulf of Aqaba. In contrast to the anticipated direction of the attack – from the sea- Lawrence would lead at attack from Wejh on the Red Sea. Their circuitous route would take them eastward across the Hejaz Railway to their forming up area of Wadi Sirhan. This would allow the various tribes, mostly Howeitat, to assemble over a few weeks in the comparative safety of this natural feature.

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While these forces were gathering, Lawrence, accompanied by a few warriors, ventured northward towards Damascus so as to create a diversion. The idea was to blow up a culvert. Even such a small incident would force the Turks to deploy troops to protect all possible vulnerable points along this railway line from Jerablus in northern Syria to Medina in Arabia.

On the 18th June 1917, Lawrence and Auda, a Howeitat chieftain, left the safety of the Wadi and journeyed to a point in the desert, Bair, containing four water wells. The Turks had beaten them to it. All had already been dynamited. Upon closer inspection one was still serviceable but barely so.
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What was counterintuitive about the desert was that despite the vast expanses, one was reliant upon these wells. Hence one’s presence in an area would be rapidly become known and the secret of Lawrence’s force would be revealed to the locals and ultimately the Turks. Lawrence had already generated his own disinformation by blowing up the culvert near Damascus, now he sent raiding parties in various directions with instructions to create diversions with pin-prick attacks. When encountering locals, these raiding parties had to inform them that the main force was still forming up in Wadi Sirhan and would only be ready to proceed in a few weeks.

The route of their attack would of necessity have to follow the line of water wells all the way to Aqaba. Naturally most of the main oases were guarded by Turkish garrisons which Lawrence would avoid if at all possible. Seventy miles south of Bair was the small town of Maan astride the Hejaz Railway. Lawrence’s plan was to skirt this town but in order to order water supplies he would make a detour to Jefer 25 miles north east of Maan, with its four wells.

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To again confuse the Turks, Lawrence accompanied by a 100 fighters made a journey northwards to Amman. From the outset, Lawrence had to prevent any rash actions by his troops. He needed to disabuse them of the necessity of pitched battles. Their martial ardour could not accept that it was a game of bluff where speed was imperative and the blowing up of a culvert gained just as much attention as a destroyed train.

The imperative of speed created its own complications: what to do with any prisoners captured. For the Arabs the solution was simple: kill them. This appalled Lawrence. Every situation meant his intervention and finding some equitable solution. During one expedition, a Circassian Merchant crossed their path. His immediate execution was ordered by the Arabs. Lawrence’s merciful solution – if it can be called that – was to disable the man sufficiently that he would only be able to raise the alarm in few days. Lawrence’s solution was to remove all the man’s clothes and to slash his soles so that he could not walk. He would be forced to crawl to the nearest railway line. Whether this expedient saved the man’s life or not is unknown but to call it merciful is dubious.

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The Turks had been at Jefer as well. Its wells too had been dynamited. A day’s work is what it took to repair one.

A flying column was despatched to attack a Turkish blockhouse south of Maan at Fuweila. The initial assault was driven off by the Turks. In reprisal, the Turks descended upon a local Howeitat settlement and massacred the inhabitants by slitting the throats. The natural antipathy between the Turks and Arabs came to the fore. Enraged, the Arabs renewed their assault on Howeitat and overran the Turkish garrison.

Meanwhile the Turkish garrison based at Maan had despatched reinforcements to Fuweila. Lawrence was in a deep quandary: was it to be the relief column or Maan? As the relief column posed the greatest danger especially if they proceeded to Aqaba that is what Lawrence was forced to focus on.

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On the 2nd July 1917, Lawrence’s force surrounded the pass at Fuweila. Eventually the Turks were found in a valley called Aba el Lissan. They were soundly asleep beside a stream. In contravention of standard military operating procedure, no pickets or guards had been placed on the surrounding hillocks. Lawrence placed his men on the overhanging rocks from which they opened fire on the Turks trapped below.

In the searing heat, a desultory fight ensued with the Arabs being forced to continually move position to prevent themselves from being burnt on the scorching rocks and also so as to obtain improved firing positions.

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What it ultimately took – according to Lawrence’s memoir – was a flippant comment to Auda, the Howeitat leader about “all talk and no work” that set Auda off. Fearing that he had offended Auda and wishing to make amends, Lawrence too saddled up his faithful camel, Naama, and dashed after Auda. As Auda charged, the rest of the Arabs warriors rose and followed his lead down to the Turks below with Lawrence in the vanguard.

It was more a massacre than a battle. For the loss of two Arab lives, 300 Turks lay dead and 100 captured with 150 wounded. Lawrence’s solution this time was more merciful. The captives were forced to walk back to Maan without food or water. For the wounded, the future was not as bright. At Lawrence’s behest they were placed next to the stream as – in Lawrence’s words – so that they would not succumb to thirst but due to their wounds. As a final iniquity, the Arab warriors stripped them of all their possessions in recompense for what the booty would not be receiving in Maan.

 

TE Lawrence and Prince Feisal and others pose after the capture of Aqaba

TE Lawrence and Prince Feisal and others pose after the capture of Aqaba

It was now that Lawrence’s leadership was tested again. Was it to be Maan or Aqaba? The Arabs hankered after Maan for its plunder and booty whereas for Lawrence Aqaba represented the objective.

The party set off on the 40 mile journey to Aqaba during the cool of the night. Lawrence’s contrarian scheme caught the Turks at Aqaba off-guard. The smattering of blockhouses abutting the desert was not manned as the Turks quite rightly had anticipated an attack from the sea & not from inland as for them it was considered impassable.

Its eventual capture was an anti-climax. After a two day stand-off and desultory sniping the Turkish garrison surrended.

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Throughout the United Kingdom, Lawrence was declared a national hero. An application was even made for the immediate awarding of the Victoria Cross.

From my viewpoint, Lawrence might have achieved a significant victory in capturing Aqaba but what was the impact on the outcome of the war? Not to be too churlish, it had no impact of any significance and did not hasten its end one iota.

Why were there such outpourings of lavish praise for such an insignificant action?

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After a string of failures in the static warfare on the Western Front with its humiliating failures, the British and the Allies required some positive news however trivial to bolster their morale and resolve. Already the French troops had mutinied on the Marne at the prospect of imminent death.

Secondly and arguably more importantly, Lawrence is suspected of embellishing his life story. As all the numerous witnesses to these audacious acts were Arabs, their views on the events have never been recorded.

Finally what Lawrence gave to the British was somebody who embodied the virtues of grit, determination and derring-do which they so admire. Lawrence was a man whose deeds encompassed the desire for victory within the confines of a true British adventurer and hero.

 

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