Research & Discussion
Foreword to Seven Pillars of Wisdom
2-volume paperback edition (Salisbury, J. and N. Wilson for T.E. Lawrence Studies, 2014)
by Jeremy Wilson
Between 1909 and 1914 T. E. Lawrence travelled and worked in the Middle East. As a young Oxford-educated archaeologist who had learned to speak Arabic, he seemed set for a career in archaeology, travel and writing. Of these, writing was perhaps his strongest ambition.
Then, in August 1914, the Great War broke out. In late October Turkey, the principal imperial power in the Middle East, took up arms on the German side. To do so was a gamble which, if lost, would lead inevitably to the break-up of the Turkish Empire. Those who now accuse Britain and France of fragmenting the Muslim Middle East should remember that it was Turkey's entry into the war that precipitated the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.
In November 1914 Lawrence was posted to the Cairo Intelligence Department. He arrived in mid-December and stayed throughout 1915 and much of 1916, working on maps and trying to interpret inadequate - and often conflicting - reports of Turkish activity. During this period he became the Cairo department's specialist on the Hejaz and Syria (which included what is now Jordan). In this role he strongly advocated the benefits of an Arab uprising.
At little cost to the Allies, a successful Arab revolt would diminish or even remove the Turkish threat to the Suez Canal – the first responsibility of the British force in Egypt. It would also re-open Mecca to Muslim pilgrims from the British and French empires. A revolt would reduce the resources Turkey could deploy on other fronts, and assist a future British advance through Palestine. For Lawrence personally there was another objective. France, Britain's ally in Europe, had long-standing imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Lawrence, on the contrary, believed that the Arabs could and should be allowed to govern themselves. A successful revolt would leave Syria in the hands of an armed Arab administration, claiming the right to self-government from a position of strength.
After some protracted diplomacy Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, fired the first shot in the Arab Revolt on 10 June 1916. Initially, things went well; but after seizing Mecca and the nearby Red Sea ports, the uprising seemed to stall. The Turks were holding out in Medina, from where they launched a counter-offensive. By autumn there was a growing risk that they would recapture Mecca and crush the revolt.
The British in Cairo were sending money and supplies, but knew little about what was really happening, or how best to help. In late 1916 Lawrence went down to the Hejaz with instructions to find out more.
That is the point at which Book I of Seven Pillars – the real story – begins. The Introductory Book that precedes it is not essential to Lawrence's narrative (he omitted it from his popular abridgement Revolt in the Desert). The nine introductory chapters do, nevertheless, contain an interesting essay on the history of Arabia and the character of its peoples, as Lawrence saw them.
The quality of Lawrence's reports from the Hejaz and his evident ability to mix with the Arab leadership led first to a temporary, and then a permanent, liaison role. From early 1917 he was attached to the Arab force led by Emir Feisal, third son of the Sherif of Mecca.
He was not the only British officer who served in the revolt but, as the campaigns developed, he spent more time than any of the others with Bedouin irregulars in the field. He also covered a wider area, often far behind enemy lines. The official British Military Mission tried to channel Arab effort into conventional operations. Lawrence, by contrast, encouraged the Bedouin to adapt their ancient raiding tactics.
The Hejaz Railway ran 800 miles from Damascus to Medina. Much of the route was through desert, and therefore vulnerable to raiding. It was the lifeline of the Medina garrison, and to defend it against scattered guerrilla attacks the Turks had to divert men from other fronts. Blowing up trains - especially locomotives, which could not be replaced in wartime - would gradually cripple Turkish logistics.
Also, the Turkish telegraph wires ran alongside the railway. By cutting them frequently the Arabs forced the Turks to send military messages by radio. These were intercepted and deciphered by the British - an immeasurable benefit to the Palestine campaign.
While drafting Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence fully expected that other British liaison officers would write their memoirs of the revolt. In the event, though, they published very little. Seven Pillars was destined to be the only substantial account.
As Lawrence pointed out, Seven Pillars describes mainly the events in which he was involved. Without additional material much of the revolt went unrecorded, so there was historical imbalance.
It was not until the late 1960s, more than forty years after Seven Pillars was written, that the British Government began opening its First World War archives to researchers. It then became possible to see Seven Pillars in a wider context and to check Lawrence's narrative against contemporary records.
Before the papers were released, some biographers had claimed that Seven Pillars was historically inaccurate, and that Lawrence had greatly exaggerated his role. The documents showed that both suggestions were wrong. Considering the length of the book, and the fact that Lawrence had written much of it from memory, Seven Pillars is (as he forecast it would be) remarkably consistent with reports written at the time.
Some literary critics have made similar suggestions. More familiar with fiction than history, they assume that Lawrence invented here and there to increase the drama. I have found no evidence of this, though occasionally he used false names to disguise someone's identity. There can be no doubt that he intended Seven Pillars to be a true story of real events.
The archives show that Lawrence understated his personal role, rather than exaggerating it. The military historian Basil Liddell Hart reached a similar conclusion in the 1930s, after interviewing other British officers who had served in the revolt. Lawrence had a purpose in playing down his role, and also in failing to spell out the extent to which the revolt depended on outside support. Yes, the elements of support are mentioned, but nowhere in Seven Pillars is their contribution weighed against the contribution of the Arabs. Without British (and some French) funding, supplies, training, transport and military back-up the revolt would have failed at an early stage.
A century later there is no reason to conceal these benefits of military alliance. However, Lawrence was writing during the 1919 Peace Conference, where die-hard imperialists from France and the Government of India joined forces to deny the Arabs the self- government they had fought for. In Seven Pillars Lawrence spelled out the contribution and sacrifice that underpinned the Arab claim to freedom. Those who say he was an imperialist can know little about him. 'Do make clear,' he told a lecturer 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.'1 Whatever the external support, the overwhelming majority of men and leaders who fought in the revolt were Arabs. They, not their allies, are the heroes of Seven Pillars.
Why, so long after the event, do Western and Arab historians still disagree about Lawrence's role? I think one reason is the manner in which he brought his influence to bear. We have included as an appendix to this edition his essay 'Twenty-seven Articles', written in mid-1917 to help British officers serving with the revolt. One of the key principles he set out is that advice should be given only to the Arab leaders, and in strict privacy. There was no place for Christian strangers in the Arab chain of command. The fighting men must believe that their orders came from Arabs. Lawrence practised what he preached. Memoirs by Arab participants suggest they had little idea of his role. They thought the British who accompanied their raids were useful, but mainly because they were trained to handle explosives.
The reality of the situation was quite different. Britain, which financed and supplied the revolt, was in an overwhelmingly strong position to influence its conduct. In 1917 Feisal's Northern Army was placed formally under Allenby's command. British influence was channelled through Allenby's liaison officers. Wartime documents from early 1918 show that in British eyes the liaison staff were, de facto, in control of the Arab forces.2
Confusion also reigns about Lawrence's ambitions for the Arabs. It is often claimed that he dreamed of a united Arabia. He did not. 'I never, to my knowledge, suggested it . . . the physical difficulties alone make it a plan too wild for me. Remember I have always been a realist and opportunist in tactics: and Arab unity is a madman's notion - for this century or next, probably. English-speaking unity is a fair parallel. I am sure I never dreamed of uniting even Hejaz and Syria. My conception was of a number of small states.'3
Other statements amplify this view, for example: 'When people talk of Arab confederations or empires: they talk fantastically. It will be generations, I expect - unless the vital tempo of the East is much accelerated - before any two Arabic states join voluntarily. I agree their only future hope is that they should join but it must be a natural growing-together. Forced unions are pernicious: and politics, in such things, should come after geography and economics. Communications and trade must be improved before provinces can join.'4
The accuracy of Seven Pillars shows that Lawrence took seriously his duty as historian. Yet in his description of the capture of Damascus he let his standard fall: 'I was on thin ice when I wrote the Damascus chapter and anyone who copies me will fall through it, if he is not careful. S.P. is full of half-truth, here.'5
His account exaggerated the role of the Arabs in what was really a joint operation by all the forces in Allenby's vanguard. Again, in the context of the 1919 Peace Conference, Lawrence had reasons for this distortion. The negotiations around the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1915 had produced a requirement that the Arabs must contribute to victory before they could claim any degree of self-government in Syria. It would not do for Lawrence to suggest that their presence in the final advance was irrelevant. Moreover, doing so would belie the part they had played in Allenby's success.
For the Arab cause the capture of Damascus, one of the great historic centres of the Arab world, held deep symbolic value. On 25 September 1918 Allenby wrote to Feisal, 'There is no objection to Your Highness entering Damascus as soon as you consider that you can do so with safety.'6 The following day Allenby ordered his other forces to keep out of the city. Thus, special instructions to the Australian Division on 29 September read: 'While operating against the enemy about Damascus care will be taken to avoid entering the town if possible . . . Unless forced to do so for tactical reasons, no troops are to enter Damascus.'7 In other words, Allenby and his advisers thought it right for the Arabs to take Damascus, just as the Allies would give the Free French the honour of liberating Paris in 1944.
What actually happened was that the Turks pulled out of Damascus, leaving various Arab elements vying to fill the power vacuum. Doubtless many of the inhabitants feared that Feisal's advancing army would plunder the city. Before his forces could enter, an Australian unit passed through in pursuit of Turkish forces. It was warmly welcomed.
For Britain and for the Arabs, the capture of Damascus was politically sensitive. In Seven Pillars Lawrence chose neither to stress the role of the Australian Light Horse in the British advance, nor to endorse Australian claims to have been 'first in'. His version of the entry as an Arab triumph is consistent with Allenby's intention; but in the heat of battle things hadn't quite gone to plan.
In relation to the war in Europe the Arab Revolt was, as Lawrence said, a 'sideshow of a sideshow'. In relation to the history of the Middle East it was probably much more than that, but its legacy is not obvious.
Clearly, the post-war boundaries imposed by the Allies were based on the Sykes–Picot map, drawn up in 1915 before the revolt began. In the post-war negotiations, this imperial carve-up prevailed over the very different boundaries that Lawrence proposed in November 1918.8 So what did the Arab Revolt achieve, beyond short-lived independence for the Hejaz and, in the longer term, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan?
To address this, one needs to answer a different question. If the revolt had not happened, or had been crushed in its early stages, what would have been the balance of military strength in the Middle East?
For the Turks, as things turned out, defending the Hejaz railway, keeping it running and trying to contain the Arab Revolt became large-scale military commitments. Without those distractions and the attrition caused by Arab attacks, they could have put far more resource into the defence of Palestine.
To defeat a far stronger Turkish defence, Britain would have had to divert more men and materiel from the Western Front. Such a decision would have been extremely unlikely. Then, with little prospect of victory in the Middle East and the outcome in Europe uncertain, the on-going secret negotiations for a separate peace with Turkey might have borne fruit.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement presupposed a clear-cut Turkish defeat. Without that, the history of the Middle East would certainly have been different.9
More generally, after the Arab Revolt a series of concessions led, albeit slowly, to self-government and independence. During the next hundred years such movements would transform the world.
Seven Pillars is more than a work of history. For Lawrence, who had always hoped to become a writer, it was also an opportunity. As he said to a friend, 'The story I have to tell is one of the most splendid ever given a man for writing.'10 He had always dreamed of writing a great book, and Seven Pillars might be a masterpiece. 'Do you remember my telling you once that I collected a shelf of "Titanic" books . . . and that they were the Karamazovs, Zarathustra and Moby Dick. Well, my ambition was to make an English fourth. You will observe that modesty comes out more in the performance than in the aim!'11
Other writers have discussed Seven Pillars as war literature, as travel writing, as military theory and as autobiography. It offers all these things and more. Long before David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia, it was a best-seller, translated into many languages.
I have written elsewhere12 about the relationship between this 1922 'Oxford Text' and the abridgement Lawrence made for the lavish subscription edition he issued in 1926. I will repeat only the conclusion here:
The creative drive that inspired and shaped Seven Pillars gave out in 1922. Its achievement was the Oxford Text. That was the version which Bernard Shaw described in a letter to the Prime Minister as 'a masterpiece, one of the few very best of its kind in the world'.13 Shaw had tried repeatedly to persuade Lawrence to leave it alone: 'You have something to say; and you say it as accurately and vividly as you can: and when you have done that you do not go fooling with your statement with the notion that if you do it over again five or six times you will do it five or six times better.'14
It may be that the Oxford Text fell short of Lawrence's ambition. Yet meddling with it in his spare time - while tired, depressed and in a wholly different frame of mind - was never likely to improve it. Until 1997, when the Oxford Text was published for the first time, few readers could judge it against the subscribers' abridgement. Safe from comparison, the abridgement became a world classic, enjoying huge success for nearly seven decades. But is it much more than a literary curiosity? Yes, many sentences were improved; but overall, the tightened prose seems to hinder the narrative, not help it. The thousands of changes made to prettify the typesetting of the subscribers' edition served no literary purpose - no purpose at all when the text was re-set for later trade editions. In the rush to end the task, Lawrence left out much that is of interest. A literary scholar might choose to read both versions. But if you have time to read only one, almost all the arguments point to the fuller text.
1. T. E. Lawrence to D. G. Pearman, 1928, David Garnett, ed., The Letters of T. E. Lawrence (London, Jonathan Cape, 1938) p. 578.
2. See for example A. C. Dawnay to Chief of General Staff, G.H.Q. 15 February 1918, FO141/668/4322, cited in Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography (London, Heinemann, 1989) pp. 479–80.
3. T. E. Lawrence, note to B. H. Liddell Hart, T. E. Lawrence to his Biographer Liddell Hart (London, Faber and Faber, 1938) p. 101.
4. T. E. Lawrence to D. G. Pearman, op. cit. p. 577.
5. T. E. Lawrence, note to Robert Graves 3 August 1927, T. E. Lawrence to His Biographer Robert Graves (London, Faber and Faber, 1938) p. 104.
6. Allenby to Feisal 25 September 1918, WO157/738, quoted in Jeremy Wilson, op. cit. p. 555.
7. Special instructions issued by the General Staff, Australian Mounted Division 29 September 1918, WO95/4371, quoted in Jeremy Wilson, op. cit. p. 556.
8. See Lawrence's memorandum to the Cabinet, Reconstruction of Arabia 4 November 1918, David Garnett, ed., op. cit. pp. 265–9. In 2006 a newly discovered map showing the proposed boundaries was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum.
9. The preceding paragraphs summarise the conclusions of a discussion on the T.E. Lawrence Studies List in December 2011, notably the argument put forward by James Brown.
10. T. E. Lawrence to Vyvyan Richards c.1922, quoted in Vyvyan Richards, Portrait of T. E. Lawrence (London, Jonathan Cape, 1936) p. 186.
11. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett 26 August 1922, David Garnett, ed., op. cit. p. 360.
12. Jeremy Wilson, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Triumph and Tragedy, privately printed 2004; the online text is revised.
13. Bernard Shaw to Stanley Baldwin 31 May 1923, Jeremy and Nicole Wilson, eds, T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw 1922–1926 (Fordingbridge, Castle Hill Press, 2000) p. 41.
14. G. B. Shaw to T. E. Lawrence 4 January 1923, Jeremy and Nicole Wilson, eds, op. cit. p. 31.
Copyright © Jeremy Wilson 2014
Editors' Note to the paperback edition
The first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text (Castle Hill Press, 1997) contains an editorial appendix. It sets out in detail the basis for this 'best text', derived from Lawrence's manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and from amendments he made in his master copy of the 1922 Oxford Times proof printing.
Lawrence's punctuation in the Bodleian manuscript is erratic and often inadequate. The Oxford Times proof was heavily repunctuated by the typesetter, presumably in Oxford Times house style. For publication we used the punctuation of the manuscript as a starting-point, and revised it where necessary.
To avoid needless distraction, we have eliminated inconsistencies in capitalisation and in the spellings of Arabic words.
We are particularly grateful to Richard Westwood, who helped prepare the 1997 edition, to Michael Carey of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust, to the staff of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and to the late St. John Armitage for his comments on the Arabic names queried by Hazel Bell during her work preparing the index. St. John Armitage, our daughter Emily Charkin, Marcus Fletcher, Lawrie Hooley, Jonathan Mandelbaum, Peter Metcalfe, and our sons Edward and Peter all read the book in proof.
We would also like to thank Sjaak Commandeur, Marcus Fletcher, Tasumi Tuneo and Yagitani Ryoko for their suggestions for further amendments in this edition, notably to the index.
The maps are reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.
The cover illustrations, from the 1926 subscribers' edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, are:
Volume 1 front cover, Emir Feisal by Augustus John; back cover, Ali ibn el Hussein by Eric Kennington.
Volume ii front cover, Auda Abu Tayi; back cover, Matar, both by Eric Kennington.
Jeremy and Nicole Wilson
North Leigh, 2014
T. E. Lawrence chronology
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