Research and discussion
Page updated May 2012
Did Lawrence play a significant role in drawing the political map of the Middle East after the First World War, and is he therefore in some way responsible for today's frontiers?
At first sight this seems a very large issue to discuss. Yet in reality it is simple and uncontroversial, at least among serious historians.
In the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century, as seen by specialist historians of that region, Lawrence's role was a fleeting one which has left few traces. From that standpoint he merits little more than a footnote - albeit a footnote which has some interesting aspects.
Considering the region area by area, it is easy to substantiate this conclusion.
In the Hedjaz, where the Arab Revolt began, Hussein's kingdom did not survive the 1920s. Lawrence might have had some long-term influence there, if he had succeeded in negotiating a treaty with Hussein in 1921. This would have endorsed British policy in Palestine and would in exchange have given Hussein some British support in the Hedjaz. Hussein did not sign the treaty. In 1924, impervious to British influence, he had himself declared Caliph. This prompted Ibn Saud to launch the offensive which led, first, to Hussein's abdication later that year and secondly, in December 1925, to the final Hashemite surrender by his son Ali.
Palestine and Lebanon
Moving north, Lawrence was not concerned, during the Arab Revolt or later, with the future of coastal Palestine and Lebanon. For the reasons argued in his 1915 paper 'Syria, the Raw Material', he did not believe that these areas could be given Arab self-government on the same basis as the areas inland.
Syria and Trans-Jordan
The region that did concern him was the inland area: Syria and Trans-Jordan. He would have wished this to become a single self-governing state, ruled from Damascus. That was briefly the case, following the war, under the British Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA). But Lawrence had no responsibility for the political frontiers that followed, based as they were on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and put in place by the award of the Mandates for Syria to France and for Palestine and Iraq to Britain. Lawrence's hopes of influencing the future of Syria ended with those awards, and with Feisal's subsequent expulsion from Damascus.
Under the British mandate it was intended that the inland area - Trans-Jordan - would be administered from Jerusalem. While working at the Colonial office in 1921, Lawrence was closely involved in the decision to split-off Trans-Jordan from coastal Palestine. It is difficult to claim, however, that he was imposing his own vision on the political boundaries in Middle East. There was compelling logic behind the split, not least because of the implications of the Balfour Declaration and the arrival on the scene of Emir Abdullah.
Abdullah's appointment, in 1921, to administer Trans-Jordan was a pragmatic decision taken by Churchill after the Cairo Conference. The British had not invited Abdullah into TransJordan. At the end of 1920 he had arrived in Maan (then still part of the Hedjaz) with a considerable force of armed men at his disposal. His intention was to drive the French out of Syria and succeed to the throne which they had stripped from his brother Feisal. The British were in no position to risk a military confrontation when in March 1921 he moved to Amman and established an administration there. Concerned about their relations with the French in Syria they recognised his fait accompli, on condition that he left Syria alone.
Lawrence did not create the Kingdom of Jordan, nor appoint Abdullah king. Churchill's arrangement with Abdullah was at first only a temporary expedient. However, it succeeded and Jordan was declared independent, with Abdullah as its ruler, in May 1923. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created in May 1946, and Abdullah then became its monarch.
Lawrence was involved in the selection of a ruler for Iraq. There, after Damascus had fallen to the French, the Civil Commissioner, A.T. Wilson, had suggested Feisal's candidature. Cornwallis, a colleague of Lawrence in the Arab Bureau who had served with Feisal in Damascus during the OETA period, had, on behalf of Curzon, offered Feisal the throne. But Feisal had refused it. At the Cairo Conference Feisal emerged as the only suitable candidate and Lawrence was the intermediary in obtaining his acceptance. The Hashemite monarchy in Iraq survived until the revolution in 1958, but Lawrence was never involved in the administration or political frontiers of Iraq which he had visited only once, briefly, in the spring of 1916.
Thus it is clear that Lawrence was in no way responsible for the modern frontiers in the Middle East. The only enduring trace of his political influence - the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan - was hardly a triumph of statesmanship. It was a pragmatic solution which, like so much else in politics, sought to make a virtue of necessity.
None of this detracts from Lawrence's remarkable achievements during the Arab Revolt, even though that was (in his own words) "a side-show of a side-show". Nor does it deny that the ideas he promoted may have helped in some measure to bring about a radical long term change in British policy. He was among the first influential Englishmen to reject imperialism: a rejection that finally achieved its objective when the "wind of change" blew through British policy in the 1960s. A common error among Middle East historians is to assume that Lawrence like most of his British contemporaries was a die-hard imperialist. "Do make it clear," he wrote to D. G. Pearman in 1928, "that my objects were to save England, and France too, from the follies of the imperialists, who would have us, in 1920, repeat the exploits of Clive or Rhodes. The world has passed by that point."
Note also that the specific question of political boundaries discussed above is not the same question as 'Did Lawrence have any influence on history?' In December 2011 I posted a 'provocative' question on that topic to the T.E.Lawrence Studies List. The subsequent conversation led to a conclusion that I, for one, had not expected. During 2014 we plan to make part of the List archive available on this website.Back to main FAQ page >>>
T.E. Lawrence 1888-1935
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset