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Rejected Legend

Lawrence James on the Deraa episode
by Jeremy Wilson

The comments below were published as an appendix to the 'Concise Edition' of Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography (New York, Collier, 1992). They are posted here with further amendments.

Some months after Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography was published, a new 'controversial' biography of Lawrence appeared: The Golden Warrior, by Lawrence James (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990).

An advance press release informed reviewers that James 'provides documentary evidence that Lawrence concocted the story of his homosexual rape and torture at Deraa'. 

If true, this discovery would have had great importance, bearing out the accusations of dishonesty made by a succession of controversial biographers since the mid-1950s.

The Golden Warrior duly appeared, and readers found on page 214 the following statement by James: 'It seems absolutely certain that Lawrence fabricated the incident at Dera'. 

It turned out, however, that this assertion rested on a single piece of documentary evidence: the service diary of the 10th Motor Section of the Royal Field Artillery, a British unit at Akaba.

According to James, the diary records that on 21 November 1917 (the Seven Pillars date for the Deraa incident) Lawrence and Colonel Joyce were taking part in an armoured car reconnaissance up Wadi Itm, many miles from Deraa.

A closer look at this 'documentary evidence'

The war diary of the 10th Motor Section is crucial to James's case, but he does not reproduce it. What kind of a document is it? 

  • War diaries were normally written-up while the events were taking place. However, this RFA diary was put together after an interval of six months, on 1 May 1918. It is not, therefore, a 'contemporary document'. This is important, not least because other documents exist that really are contemporary.

The first page of the diary gives a description of the formation of the unit and its departure from Suez on board the SS Ozarda, which arrived at Akaba, according to the diary, on 21 November 1917. 

  • This first date is wrong. The log of the Akaba guardship HMS Humber - an impeccable contemporary source - shows that the SS Ozarda reached Akaba at 7.25a.m. on 20 November, and began unloading at once. As this is a day earlier than the date given by Lt. Brodie in the RFA diary, it gives the lie to James's argument (page 386) that 'the dates of embarcation and disembarcation are most unlikely to have been forgotten'. 

  • Such an error, written after only six months, casts doubt on the accuracy of another Brodie recollection cited by James. This was written by Brodie twenty years later, for T. E. Lawrence by his Friends (London, Cape, 1937). There, Brodie stated that he had first encountered Lawrence on the morning of his second day at Akaba (which we know would have been November 21). Contemporary documents (see below), show that this is impossible. However, Brodie's slip of memory is not exceptional after such a long interval.

At the head of the second page of the RFA diary, as was usual, Brodie repeated the last date on the previous sheet. This was 21-11-17, the alleged (but incorrect) date that the unit arrived at Akaba. Written alongside this date there are eight lines of text describing not one, but a whole series of operations, as follows: 'Carried out reconnaissance with Col P. Joyce and Col Lawrence, up Wadi Yetm. Carried out reconnaissance with Major Maynard in Wadi Araba towards Dead Sea. We reached a point five miles S.W. of Ain Gharandel and returned . . . Cars were used for transport of stores and personnel, including Sherif Fasil, to el Guierra, up Wadi Yetm and Maziaa . . . A working party was in Wadi Yetm making a road'. 

After this block-entry, the NEXT date given in the diary is more than a month later, '25-12-17 approx', when the RFA section left Akaba bound for Feisal's advance headquarters inland.

  • Beyond any possible doubt, Brodie's diary record for the initial period at Akaba is a summary of a whole month's activities. No objective reader could interpret it in any other way. To do that, you would have to postulate that all the operations described in the first eight lines of text took place on a single day - November 21 - after which the unit did nothing at all for the rest of the month. That interpretation - not only absurd but physically impossible - is essential to the conclusions that Lawrence James draws from the document.

  • The reasonable view is that this retrospective section of the diary lists the operations that took place between the RFA unit's arrival at Akaba on November 21 (approx.) and its departure on December 25 (approx.) Military historians I have consulted all agree that after a sea voyage by freighter the unit would have needed several days to establish itself ashore before embarking on any kind of operation. It is therefore extremely unlikely - if not impossible - that the unit could have been ready to begin a reconnaissance up Wadi Itm on the day after SS Ozarda arrived at Akaba. There was, moreover, no urgency whatsoever about this exploratory expedition.

Truly contemporary evidence

1. T. E. Lawrence's diaries
The date of the Wadi Itm reconnaissance can be established with certainty by looking at other records that are truly contemporary with the events. Lawrence's pocket diary (now in the British Library) may have been written up in arrears on occasion (because he probably left it for safety at base camp). However, that argument cannot apply at Akaba. It shows that he returned briefly to Akaba from his ill-fated northern expedition on November 26. He spent the nights of 27-29 November there, and the subsequent nights in Wadi Itm and Wadi Hawara. He was back at Akaba on December 3. What had he been doing in the interval? He wrote to his family on December 14 that he had spent 'a few days motoring, prospecting the hills and valleys for a way Eastward for our cars'. 

  • This information tallies with the RFA war diary, except that instead of the single date '21-11-1917', the reconnaissance in which Lawrence took part is shown to have begun on November 30 (by which time the unit would have had time to establish itself ashore) and ended on December 3.

2. The papers of Colonel Joyce, Senior British officer at Akaba
These dates for the reconnaissance do not rest on Lawrence's evidence alone: the absence from Akaba is borne out by the fact that Colonel Joyce, who accompanied him, dispatched no telegrams during that period. Indeed, the regular telegrams sent by Joyce to Cairo and Jidda provide absolute proof that Lawrence had not returned to Akaba by November 21. Lawrence's superiors in Cairo were extremely anxious for news of him, as his expedition northward behind enemy lines had been regarded as little short of suicidal. Clayton had written to Joyce on November 12: 'I am very anxious to get news of Lawrence to hear that he is safe'. If, as James argues, Lawrence had returned to Akaba by November 21, Joyce's daily messages on November 22 and 23 would certainly have mentioned the fact. However, they contain nothing more than a report from Arab sources that Lawrence and Ali ibn Hussein had attacked the railway somewhere between Deraa and Jerusalem. The first definite information Joyce could send was on November 24, after Lieutenant Wood, the Royal Navy officer who had taken part in the northern mission, had returned to Akaba, probably bringing Lawrence's detailed report to Clayton. Joyce's telegram read: 'L[awrence] left at Azrak. Found original objective impossible. On Nov 7 L[awrence] destroyed one train with two engines. Reported considerable casualties to Turks.'

  • This message bears out Lawrence's diary dates and the chronology of his account in Seven Pillars. It can be found in file WO 158/634 at the Public Record Office - a file which James evidently consulted, since his references cite it as the source of several other documents.

  • Joyce was a highly responsible officer. If, as James asserts, he had spent November 21 with Lawrence, he would have responded to Clayton's request by telling him that Lawrence was safe. In that case, the information from Wood that Joyce sent to Cairo on November 24 would have been superfluous, and the Arab Bulletin of December 5 would not have recorded in its 'Late News' section that 'Major Lawrence returned to Akaba at the beginning of December'. 

  • Only one conclusion is possible: the interpretation that James put on Lt. Brodie's RFA diary, written-up six months after the event, is proved to be incorrect by documents that are truly contemporary with the events.

How could James be so wrong?

James's publishers stressed his university education: according to the dust jacket of The Golden Warrior he was 'a founder member of York University, where he read History and English, and subsequently he undertook a research degree at Merton College, Oxford.' Likewise, Phillip Knightley wrote in the Sunday Independent on 19 August 1990: 'Lawrence James is an unlikely iconoclast. He is a historian, educated at York and Oxford, whose previous books have been meticulously researched histories of Imperial Britain'.

But how could any serious historian put forward such evidence as the basis for a damning claim that his subject was a liar? The answer may be given in Phillip Knightley's article: 

'James says he was always interested in Lawrence. "I was born in the West Country and over the years I came to know quite a lot of people who'd met him. I started to wonder where the truth lay, and, once I had read enough to realise that Lawrence was the only man this century to have made himself into a legend, I knew that one day I'd have to write a book about him."'

'The key episode in Lawrence's life', Knightley continues, 'that struck James as false was the homosexual rape at Dera . . . "I felt that Lawrence's account did not ring true. But I saw no way of taking the argument any further." Then, ploughing through war diaries and intelligence reports for the period, James hit paydirt...' 

Could this mean that, from the outset of his research, James was utterly convinced that Lawrence had invented the episode? If so, did this preconception so blinker his research that, by the time he saw the RFA diary, he was incapable of seeing that his interpretation was incredibly unlikely? That sounds unlikely - but in that case what is the explanation?

An enormous number of operational records from the First World War survive, and it is always rash to base startling conclusions on a single document. A less eccentric interpretation of the diary shows that, despite its initial date error, it is consistent with surviving contemporary records. Far from proving that Lawrence gave a false account of his movements during November 1917, it adds detail to what is known from other sources. 

It also draws attention to something else, which James might have spotted if he had been less intent on proving Lawrence's dishonesty. Years later, Lawrence would write that it was in 1917 that he had decided, nebulously, to join the ranks, and that the 'friendly outings with the armoured car and air force fellows were what persuaded me that my best future, if I survived the war, was to enlist'. Might it not be significant that his first contact with British forces after the Deraa episode was an expedition with the armoured car and RFA units from Akaba? 

Later comments:

The second page of the RFA War Diary is reproduced in facsimile in J. N. Lockman, Scattered Tracks on the Lawrence Trail (Whitmore Lake, Falcon Books, 1996, p. 59).  

Anyone still tempted to believe James's version should note that Michael Asher, a more recent and equally 'controversial' biographer, whose Lawrence, The Uncrowned King of Arabia (London, Viking, 1998) adopts many of James's theories, chose to ignore James's alleged RFA Diary 'evidence'.


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