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"Lawrence of Arabia" or "T. E. Lawrence"?

This article about Lawrence's reputation was written in 2010 for the inaugural issue of Military Times (subsequently renamed Military History Monthly).


As newcomers to the field quickly discover, there are two Arabian Lawrences in the public consciousness. One is a media 'enigma', characterised by sensational speculation. The other is a well documented historical figure.

It seems extraordinary that these alternative images should have survived so long. Nearly 50 years ago, a French researcher wrote: 'By a paradox which is not without logic, the very mystery of Lawrence's case provoked both research and testimony. As a result, we know far more about him than we do about people who were never thought to be mysterious.'

Since then, the British Government has opened its secret files about the First World War and the Middle East settlement; the embargo has expired on the T. E. Lawrence papers in the Bodleian Library; relevant collections of private papers have become available; the National Archives has released the 'personal files' from Lawrence's post-war service years; and so on. Yet, despite this mountain of high-quality evidence, there seems no end to the flow of shallow, sensational, and often 'controversial' mass-market articles and biographies.

Hence, three questions. Why are there so many myths about Lawrence? Why are they not quickly exposed and dismissed? Will the myth-making ever end?

On one level, there are some simple answers. On another level, the answers are more intriguing. I will start with the simple ones, which might be summarised by the 14th century proverb ou chat na rat regne - 'where there is no cat, the rat is king'.

In most fields of historical study, the academic world provides the 'cat'. All non-fiction writers run the gauntlet of scholarly review. In Lawrence's case, however, academic scholarship is, at best, fragmented. There is no holistic study of Lawrence in universities because his career crossed too many academic demarcation lines (archaeology, Middle East studies, war studies, English Literature, and so on). Professional academics are specialists. They shy away from topics that extend outside their field. So, in Lawrence's case, the academic world rarely imposes any quality control. Popular writers can get away with publishing nonsense.

Why do they do that? Because it pays. The media sells us dramatic stories about heroes and villains as escapist entertainment. It builds up celebrities through glamour and over-stated praise, then hacks them to pieces through denigration and shocking revelations. The cycle pays from start to finish. One of the largest advances for a Lawrence biography (over £200,000 in today's money) went to Richard Aldington, for a vitriolic book claiming that Lawrence had invented his own legend.

Unless there is enduring substance behind a celebrity reputation, it is unlikely to survive more than a single cycle. During the past 90 years, the Lawrence legend has survived several.

You find more interesting drivers in the Lawrence legend if you peel away the layers, continually asking 'why?' If a statement is wrong, why did someone make it? Or did they just repeat someone else's error? If so, whose was the error, and why was it repeated?

The answers can be unexpected. Opinions about Lawrence often reflect unspoken agendas - deeply held convictions about issues such as imperialism, social propriety, Zionism, sexuality, or war. Often the use of his name is purely promotional: if you want someone to publish your story, claim that it somehow involves Lawrence. Inventions, once published, are often repeated by later writers who have not done their own research.

I could extend this list and fill many pages with examples, but my aim here is to open up discussion. The right place to do that is surely the beginning.

Today, many people first encounter myths about Lawrence through David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia; but Lean and his scriptwriters were following an example set long before. In March 1918, a young American journalist called Lowell Thomas spent a few days at the supply base of the Arab Northern Army at Akaba. This was a scoop: no other Western journalist went to the Arab base.

After the war, Thomas devised an entertaining two-part 'travelogue', With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. Illustrated with slides and film, it was a huge success, running for several months in London and the provinces during 1919-1920. The script contained a fantastically romanticised account of Lawrence's role in the Arab Revolt, crediting him with far too much of its success.

On that basis, many argue that Thomas invented the Lawrence legend. But did he really invent, or did he merely embellish what others had told him? Contemporary records show that he did both. Certainly, he cared more about a good story than the truth. A 1919 article he wrote for Asia Magazine describes how Lawrence arranged for him to accompany a dynamiting expedition to the Turkish-run Hejaz Railway, far behind enemy lines. He writes about the expedition in vivid detail - but it never took place. Thomas's diaries, together with other contemporary documents, show that he and Lawrence were together for only a day or two in Akaba, during one of the quietest periods in the Arab campaign.

Not everything, however, was invention. Thomas's enthusiasm reflects the kind of stories about Lawrence that circulated in Cairo and Akaba during 1917-1918. There is ample evidence of this, and not just in official documents. In January 1918, for instance, an Australian pilot wrote in a private letter home: 'There is a wonderful Englishman here ... He is Major Lawrence ... He is only about 27 and not very big, but is a real life superman of the variety novelists like to invent ... One day he will be around with his red tabs as Staff Major and the next in Bedouin dress - bare feet, flowing robes, and headdress ... Goes out with a few of his dusky cutthroats and a few camels loaded with gun cotton and blows up trains and the line to Mecca. The Arabs stop him in the street to kiss his robes.'

Why this admiration and sense of mystery? Again, the answers are complicated. Few Europeans or Australians in Allenby's Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) spoke Arabic. Many held views about Arabs that we would now think objectionably racist. Some had commanded units of the Egyptian Army, but very few indeed served in liaison or advisory roles with the rebel Arab forces. Even among these, hardly any accompanied Arab forces inland. Of those who did, Lawrence was unquestionably pre-eminent. Stewart Newcombe, a regular officer sent as an adviser, had tried and failed to play a similar role. He could neither adapt to Bedouin ways nor cope with the necessary subtlety of command. Others, such as Pierce Joyce and Hubert Young, confined their efforts to Egyptian or European units and the small force of Arab regulars. Only Lawrence seemed able to 'go native'.

Yet these expeditions inland, and the unaccompanied Bedouin expeditions they inspired, achieved results. By cutting Turkish telegraph wires at every opportunity, the Arab rebels forced the Turks to communicate by wireless. The British intercepted and decrypted these messages - gaining an incalculable military advantage. Bedouin attacks on the Turkish railway tied down thousands of Turkish troops in defensive garrisons - troops who would otherwise have been available to hinder Allenby's advance in Palestine. Under war conditions, the narrow-gauge Turkish railway trucks and locomotives that the Bedouin destroyed were virtually irreplaceable. This loss of rolling stock affected the entire enemy railway system south of Damascus, part of which supplied the front in Palestine. By the last stages of the campaign, the railway was barely functioning.

One feat was even more spectacular. In June 1917, Lawrence, with a group of Bedouin tribesmen, captured not only Akaba but the route inland through Wadi Ithm to the Ma'an plateau. (The EEF had considered attempting this in 1916, but aerial photographs showed Turkish defences in the narrow gorge of Wadi Ithm that made it almost impregnable.) Allenby's staff were quick to grasp the military significance of the Arab victory, which made it possible to extend the insurgency northward to Damascus and beyond.

While those who had heard of Lawrence thought he was exceptional, little was known about him, or about his activities behind enemy lines. Relatively few people had encountered him in 1915-1916, when he worked in the Military Intelligence office in Cairo. After his transfer to liaison duties with the Arab Army, he made only occasional visits to GHQ, where his dealings were with senior staff and intelligence colleagues. Hardly anyone saw his secret reports. Those who did knew better than to talk about them. So, from the outset, Lawrence was both a celebrity and a mystery.

On 24 September 1918, a French newspaper, the Echo de Paris, broke the silence, announcing that 'The name of Colonel Lawrence, who placed at the disposal of the British leader his experience of the country and his talent for organisation, will become historic in Great Britain.'

The Admiralty, War Office, and Press Committee in London immediately issued an instruction to editors: 'The Press are earnestly requested not to publish any photograph of Lieutenant-Colonel T E Lawrence, CB, DSO. This officer is not known by sight to the Turks, who have out a price upon his head, and any photograph or personal description of him may endanger his safety.'

The combination of mystery and celebrity hampered all Lawrence's early biographers. Usually, the stages in a celebrity career leave behind a trail of public evidence which journalists and historians can follow. But when Lawrence suddenly became famous, little was known about his past, and it was difficult to find out more. In wartime Cairo, Thomas had gathered what little information he could. Where there were gaps, he was happy to invent.

Thomas doubtless hoped that Lawrence would correct any errors. Journalists developing a long-running story expect that to happen. But in 1919 Lawrence found publicity a useful weapon in his political campaign against the post-war settlement in the Middle East. He could not be seen to be helping Thomas, so his help was selective. He corrected some errors but passed over others. When anyone protested to him, he shrugged his shoulders and said it was not his affair.

So Thomas's legend thrived, making a large amount of money. It was the launch-pad for Thomas's career. If not quite the origin, it was certainly the first growth of the Lawrence legend.

What happened after that is harder to understand. Lawrence himself, after a spell advising Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office, disappeared from view. To the astonishment of his friends and the public alike, he changed his name and spent the next 12 years serving in the ranks. He gave very limited help to two of his early biographers, but in general ignored what people wrote about him. Such a radical withdrawal from public life left the Lawrence of Arabia legend with no owner except its inventors, to survive as long as it was profitable.

Lawrence wrote an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and fully expected others of his wartime colleagues to do the same. In the event, most of them wrote nothing. The secret wartime documents that would prove or disprove the accuracy of Seven Pillars stayed under embargo until the late 1960s, while the T.E. Lawrence papers placed by his executors in the Bodleian Library were embargoed to all but a handful of readers until 2000. In the absence of collateral evidence, critics began to argue that Seven Pillars exaggerated his role.

When the contemporary sources at last became available, popular writers rifled through the most obvious files looking for something new and sensational. It is taking far longer for scholars to work through the thousands of documents, many in obscure files with titles that escape attention. Even today, there are important finds from time to time.

One conclusion is evident. Lawrence's account in Seven Pillars is astonishingly accurate, though, as he said himself, it is mainly an account of his own experiences. A second conclusion, now that we have so much more information, is that the Arab Revolt was a larger affair than most readers of Seven Pillars would imagine.

Scholars and popular writers publish in different places, and popular biographers rarely have time to hunt down scholarly articles and theses. Most simply rely on previous biographies. For the present, despite the authority of scholarly accounts based on contemporary sources, much of the fantasy lives on. That said, its days are surely numbered.

Copyright © Jeremy Wilson 2010 

 



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