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Mysteries & Secrets - Lawrence of Arabia

Selfless Champion
Thousands of cheering people lined the streets of Damascus on the morning of October 1, 1918, as the rebel army marched into the liberated city. When the Ottoman troops had withdrawn the previous day, the ancient Syrian city had passed from Turkish to Arab control. The cheers were directed not only at the victorious tribesmen but also at a young Englishman who - dressed in flowing desert robes rode among them. The rebellion and its British mentor had become inseparable.

Seeking British Support

In June 1916 Hussein ibn-Ali, the sharif of Mecca, had raised the flag of revolt against the four-century-old Ottoman domination of the Arabian Peninsula. As governor of the Hejaz, the desert province bordering the Red Sea, he controlled Islam's holiest place, Mecca, which gave him spiritual leadership of the Arab peoples. Yet Hussein's rebellion soon stalled in front of Medina, where Turkish troops were assured of supplies via the railway to the north.

Before proclaiming the rebellion, Hussein had sought support from the British. He later claimed that they had promised guns, ammunition, and technical assistance in cutting the rail link. From the outset, the British intended to control the revolt and deliberately withheld supplies to make Hussein "more modest and accommodating." But when it began to appear that Hussein might be driven back to Mecca and forced to capitulate, the British realized that it was time for a firsthand report. The man they sent from Cairo was a 28 year-old intelligence officer who spoke Arabic and already had some years of experience in the Middle East: Thomas Edward Lawrence.

British Colonel T.E. Lawrence 1916

Education of a Warrior

The home into which T.E. Lawrence was born, on August 16, 1888, was scarcely a stereotype of Victorian England. Four years earlier, Thomas Chapman had left his wife and four young daughters in Dublin to set up house with the girls' governess, Sarah Maden. Moving about from Ireland to England, Wales, Scotland, and France, Thomas and Sarah had four sons over the next nine years (a fifth was born in 1900). Settling down in Oxford under the assumed name Lawrence, the couple at last achieved an outward respectability; their sensitive second son, Thomas Edward, however, suffered a lifelong embarrassment over his illegitimacy.

At the age of 12 or 13, young Lawrence broke a leg. Whether due to the slow-healing fracture or to an adolescent bout of mumps, the boy stopped growing when he reached a height of 5 feett 5 1/2 inches. With a disproportionately large head, he looked much shorter than that when he entered Oxford University's Jesus college in the fall of 1907. Perhaps to compensate for his small stature, Lawrence developed several affectations - among them a shrill, nervous giggle that many found annoying. In a man's world, he seemed asexual if not effeminate.

At Oxford, Lawrence was most influenced by David George Hogarth, a Middle Eastern scholar and archaeologist. Hogarth encouraged him to write his degree thesis on the Crusaders' military architecture and gave the student detailed instructions when he sailed for the Middle East in June 1909 to conduct his field research. Traveling through Syria alone and on foot, "living as an Arab with the Arabs," Lawrence fell in love with the region and its people. Back at Oxford, he took first-class honors in history and left the university in the summer of 1910.

Through Hogarth's recommendation, Lawrence received a postgraduate award to join an archaeological dig at Carchemish, an ancient ruins on the west bank of the Euphrates River. Except for summer months when heat forced a suspension of work, Lawrence spent most of the next four years in Syria - the happiest years of his life, he would later say. Stripped to his shorts, he quickly tanned in the blazing sun and learned how to handle the 200 workmen in his charge by chatting and joking with them in Arabic. But archaeology did not completely account for Lawrence's deep interest in the area, sometime before January 1914, he had become a spy.

Battle in Hejaz

Espionage in the Desert

Since the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire had been known as "the sick man of Europe." With Germany, France, and Russia all eager to replace the crumbling empire as the power broker of the Middle East, Britain moved to secure its own interests. Having seized Egypt in 1882, the British controlled the Suez Canal, the lifeline to their Indian empire. But they had to monitor closely any political activity east of the Gulf of Suez and across the Red Sea.

Under the respectable sponsorship of the Palestine Exploration Fund, Lawrence joined archaeologist Leonard Woolley and British army captain Stewart Newcombe in a survey of the Sinai Peninsula early in 1914. Ostensibly, they were seeking to trace the 40-year wanderings of the Israelites following the exodus from Egypt. In reality, they were looking for evidence of Turkish military activity in the border region.

World War I erupted in August 1914, and for a time it looked as if the Ottoman Empire would remain neutral. But when the Turks attacked Russia, Britain's ally, Lawrence volunteered for service in Egypt. By December he was in Cairo, helping to set up an intelligence network in the area he had come to know so well.

Arabia in Revolt

Lawrence would never be a conventional soldier. Of his first meeting with the boyish junior officer, Lawrence's commander in Cairo could later recollect only his intense desire to tell the young man to get his hair cut. Yet his military colleagues were impressed with his keen mind, infectious enthusiasm for the work, and "extraordinary capacity to get his own way quietly." But he soon grew bored with the routine of mapmaking issuing geographical reports, and interviewing potential esponiage agents.

In 1915 two of his brothers were killed fighting in France. In contrast, Lawrence wrote in February 1916, "We do nothing here except sit and think out harassing schemes of Arabian policy." The next month, however, he was sent on an extraordinary secret mission to Mesopotamia [present-day Iraq] where a British-Indian army was besieged by the Turks. He was to offer a bribe of 1 million pounds to the Turkish commander to raise the siege and, on the sly, sound out local Arab tribes about joining a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Both efforts failed, and Lawrence returned to Egypt, as he complained, once more to be "nailed within that office at Cairo."

When news of Hussein's revolt of June 1916 reached Cairo, Lawrence wrote home to say how good it was "to have helped a bit in making a new nation." In October he was sent to the Hejaz to meet the Arab rebels. Although capable of providing moral leadership, the dignified Hussein was clearly too old to be a military commander. His first, second, and fourth sons, Lawrence judged to be "too clean," "too clever," or "too cool." But in Hussein's third son, Faisal, Lawrence found "the man I had come to Arabia to seek - the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory." Comrades in arms, the short, fair Englishman and the tall, dark Arab would ride to glory together during the next two years.

"Aurens": Going the Whole Way

To win the confidence of the Arabs, Lawrence took to wearing native attire and learned to endure long hours on camelback. "If you wear Arab things at all," he wrote, "go the whole way. Leave your English friends and customs on the coast, and fall back on Arab habits entirely." His adoption of an Arab lifestyle won over the normally suspicious tribesmen, who would greet his arrival in camp with repeated shouts of "Aurens! Aurens!" - the closest they could come to pronouncing a name so alien to their language. Accompanied by Lawrence and his retinue of 25 servants and bodyguards, Faisal launched the offensive that would end in Damascus. Under Lawrence's tutelage, he developed a strategy suitable to the terrain and his men's fighting ability. Moving up the Arabian Peninsula, the rebels waged guerrilla warfare that terrified their enemy and won recruits from other tribes en route. They bypassed Turkish strongholds to strike repeatedly at the Hejaz Railway -dynamiting bridges and track, derailing trains, disabling locomotives. "This show is splendid," Lawrence wrote; "you cannot imagine greater fun for us, greater vexation and fury for the Turks."

In January 1917 the Red Sea port of Wejh was captured and, with the surrender of Aqaba in July, the campaign in the Hejaz ended in victory for the Arabs. The British commander in Cairo suddenly became aware that the Arab rebels were holding down more Turkish troops than were the British and, as Lawrence observed somewhat maliciously, "began to remember how he had always favoured the Arab revolt." Faisal's men, henceforth, would be the right flank to General Allenby's Allied armies thrusting north through Palestine.

Twice during 1917 Lawrence made dangerous secret forays behind enemy lines to rouse Arabs in Syria. At the village of Deraa, in November, he was briefly detained by the Turks, who probably did not realize his identity. What happened there is still the subject of controversy.

According to the account in his postwar memoirs Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence was horribly tortured and sexually abused by his captors. The lurid tale was dismissed by a prominent American historian as "most implausible"; but one of his fellow officers remembered him returning from Deraa greatly distressed and was convinced that he had experienced some "horrible nightmare." Nonetheless, within three weeks of his return from Deraa, Lawrence was recovered enough to ride with Allenby into Jerusalem on December 9, 1917.

Through 1918 the Allies continued to advance north, with Lawrence and the Arabs on their right flank. As Allenby prepared for the assault on Damascus in September, he had 250,000 men under his command. Although the Turks nominally had an equal force, Lawrence's 3,000 Arabs were pinning down 50,000 of the enemy east of the Jordan, while an additional 150,000 Turks were spread out across Mesopotamia in a vain attempt to check other Arab uprisings. With his five-to-one superiority, Allenby moved confidently toward victory on October 1.

Big-Power Politics

In May 1916 Britain and France had signed a secret accord - known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, after the two negotiators - that called for a postwar division of Turkey's Middle East territories into British and French spheres of influence. Any Arab state in the region would be subject to British and French administrative control.

Two days after the triumphant entry into Damascus, Faisal learned the bitter truth about the limitations to Arab independence. Insisting that he had known nothing of the secret accord, Lawrence demanded that Allenby relieve him of his military duties and that he be permitted to return to England. "Not being a perfect fool," he was to write bitterly in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A could see that the promises to the Arabs were dead paper." He regretted having let his men risk their lives for such a meaningless reward; "instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed." Henceforth, Lawrence realized with a shock, his battles were to be fought in the corridors of power rather than on the sands of the desert.

Back in England and uncomfortably dressed in uniform, Lawrence appeared before a committee of Britain's war cabinet on October 29. His proposal: scrap Sykes-Picot to keep the French out of the Middle East and divide Mesopotamia and Syria into three kingdoms ruled by three of Hussein's sons, with Faisal presiding in Damascus. While he awaited a government decision, Lawrence wired Hussein, suggesting that he send Faisal as his representative to the peace conference to be held early in 1919 in Paris. But once more, Lawrence had unpleasant news for Faisal. Meeting his ship at Marseilles on November 26, he informed his wartime comrade that the French had vetoed his participation in the peace conference.

During December and January, Faisal was in Britain, where Lawrence introduced him to Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader to whom the British had promised a postwar Jewish homeland in Palestine. Looking upon Semitic Jews and Arabs as "an indivisible whole," Lawrence hoped for their cooperation in developing the Middle East. In return for uncontested entry to Palestine, the Jews were to lend Faisal money to establish his kingdom in Syria.

The war in the Middle East had always been secondary to the struggle with Germany on the Western Front; and Lawrence's campaign with the Arabs had been called "a sideshow to the sideshow." Nonetheless, the boyish Colonel Lawrence was, an American delegate remarked, "the most winning figure" at the peace conference that convened on January 18, 1919. With Faisal denied a seat at the conference, it became Lawrence's task to ensure that his Arab comrade remained loyal to Britain.

To Lawrence, it was the French who were now the enemy; his own hope was "that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony." Few shared his vision, either British or Arabs. Britain had a new interest in establishing a mandate over the Middle East: oil. And the government was not about to turn on its wartime ally, France. Reluctantly, Faisal agreed to the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that postponed true Arab independence.

The Fight Ends, the Legend Grows

Defeated at the peace conference, Lawrence tried to win public support with a blizzard of newspaper articles and letters and later became Winston Churchill's adviser on Arab affairs at the Colonial Office. It was all to no avail.

Proclaimed king of Syria in March 1920, Faisal was deposed by the French in July - as the British stood by doing nothing. In 1921 the British placed Faisal on the throne of Iraq, which remained under British domination for the next decade. Meanwhile, his brother Abdullah was installed as emir of Transjordan, another British protectorate. In 1924 Hussein was forced to abdicate as ruler of the Hejaz, to be replaced by the leader of another tribe, ibn Saud.

Disgusted with politics, Lawrence meanwhile had retired to Oxford to write his revealing memoirs. Why had he done it all? The epilogue to Seven Pillars of Wisdom gave four motives. First and strongest was a personal one, "omitted from the body of the book, but not absent, I think, from my mind, waking or sleeping, for an hour in all those years." It was, scholarly detective work has revealed, Lawrence's love for an Arab boy named Dahourn, whom he had befriended at Carchemish in 1913; freedom for the boy's people, he wrote elsewhere, would be "an acceptable present." A few weeks before Damascus was taken, he learned that the boy had died of typhus - "so my gift was wasted," he noted in sorrow. Lawrence's second motivation was patriotism, to help Britain win the war. Third was intellectual curiosity, "the desire to feel myself the inspiration of a national movement." And fourth was personal ambition, "to sum up in my own life that new Asia which inexorable time was slowly bringing upon us."

Was Lawrence a hero? Or was he a shameless self-promoter? Was he truly dedicated to Arab nationalism? Or was he merely using gullible Arab tribesmen to help perpetuate British imperialism? Or was this a story not about dedication to a people and their cause, but rather one of obsession with an unobtainable love?

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