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T. E. Lawrence: from dream to legend

This paper was written for a T. E. Lawrence conference held in Oldenburg, Germany, in October 2009. It has been published in German translation, as 'T. E. Lawrence: Vom Traum zur Legende', in the catalogue to the exhibition Lawrence von Arabien; Genese eines Mythos (Mainz, Philipp von Zabern, 2010 pp. 17-26). This revised English version was posted in the Castle Hill Press subscribers' newsletter on 2 December 2011.

This paper is about T. E. Lawrence. It will seek to understand why he did what he did - by examining his abilities, his values, his motives, and his self-judgements. It will not attempt to label him or explain his actions in terms of theories such as Orientalism or Imperialism.

This choice of approach may require some justification. So let's look briefly at the merits and shortcomings of theories about history.

Their merit is that they provide a structured basis for looking at the past. If you take a theory as your starting point, people and events can seem to fall neatly into place. You feel you have a better understanding of what happened. Theories provide a convenient basis for writing student essays.

In reality, however, behavioural theories such as Orientalism are always too simple. When applied to Lawrence, they usually focus on just a few aspects of his background or character, silently ignoring other elements which, collectively, could have been far more influential. Theories implicitly assume that both conscious and subconscious motivation is logical, constant, and mechanically interlinked. Their proponents tend to focus on evidence that 'fits', and to present historical context in ways that favour their argument.

When theorists start talking about groups of people, things get even worse. If you visit The National Archives in London and read original documents about Britain's policy towards the Middle East between 1914 and 1921, you will find vivid evidence of differences in personality, background, viewpoint, objectives and ability among staff in the various departments concerned. No manageable theory of behaviour could account for all these individuals, let alone the subtleties of their inter-relationships. Human interactions are a bad subject for theory. For example, a man may normally be rational, thorough and co-operative; but does 'normally' mean 'always'? Suppose he discovers one day that his wife is having an affair with a colleague? or that he arrives to work with bad toothache, or drank too much last night, or has flu? Human behaviour is not constant, therefore human inter-relationships cannot be constant. Moreover, 'horse trading' plays a big part in real-world decisions: "We will give you what you want in this matter, if, in exchange, you give us what we want in another matter" - and the other matter is completely unrelated. No theory can predict the effects of horse-trading.

More generally, one of the greatest barriers to understanding why decisions are taken is over-simplification. Audiences - especially the wider public - quickly lose patience with complex explanations. So it is always tempting to say: "Lawrence did X because of Y". The truth is more probably that "Lawrence did X because of A, B, C, D, E and F, and possibly also P, Q, and R..." In real life, both motivation and reasoning are multi-factorial. Just think of major decisions in your own life. How many were taken for a single reason? More difficult, can you say with certainty that all your motives were conscious and thought-through. Can you list them by order of influence?

That kind of stricture applies equally to the content of this paper. We may set out to discover the factors that influenced Lawrence's decisions, but we will surely fail to discover them all. There will be no way to measure the extent of our success.

That said, we must try to understand the motives that led to historical decisions, not least in order to expose false interpretations.

Also, the task is fascinating.

- - -

Thomas Edward Lawrence, the second of five sons, was born in August 1888. When Queen Victoria died in January 1901 he was already 12. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was 26. Eight years later, when he ceased to be involved with Britain's role in the Middle East, he was 34. He achieved fame, therefore, while he was still young. The values he brought to soldiering and diplomacy were values acquired and developed during his youth, not the values of a seasoned old-timer. If, therefore, we hope to understand the motives of 'Lawrence of Arabia', we need to look at his life before August 1914.

Historical context is - or should be - the starting-point for any study of biography. Lawrence was born more than 120 years ago. He grew up in a very different society to the one we know today. What might this context tell us about him?

Of course, one can't assume that someone who grows up in a particular period adopts all its values (would that be true today?) But we need to be aware of that environment, if only to distinguish between values that were commonplace at the time and values peculiar to Lawrence.

Parts of the historical context between 1888 and 1914 seem particularly relevant:

  • Britain was a Christian country. Many more people than today attended church regularly. Schools taught Christian ethics. Conduct was generally judged by Christian standards.
  • Britain was a great Imperial Power. British leaders expressed their sense of moral responsibility to provide colonial peoples with competent and just government. In terms of Christian ethics, fulfilling this obligation was the only obvious justification for imperial rule.
  • French imperial rule tended to replace the indigenous social structure and culture in its colonies with French structure and culture. By contrast, British colonial rulers practised 'indirect rule'. They tried to work through existing structures, maintaining the status of local chiefs. As a consequence, they left much local society and culture in place.
  • Overt British patriotism was at its zenith. Upper- and middle-class young men were educated to help rule and defend Britain's immense and diverse empire. They were taught the virtue of leading by personal example. Organisations such as the Empire Day movement promoted dedication to Britain's imperial calling. Lawrence was one of many young men to volunteer for the Officers Training Corps when it was founded in 1912.
  • The obligation of personal excellence extended beyond values and attitudes to physical fitness and outdoor activities. Athletic prowess was encouraged and admired. Lawrence was an officer in the Church Lads Brigade. (When the Boy Scouts movement was founded in 1907, too late for Lawrence, it quickly flourished.)
  • Women had very different expectations from men. In England, women were still denied the right to vote. Few entered higher education, and that denied them entrance to high-status professions (except in art and music). There were brilliant exceptions, but in most cases women could not interact with men on truly equal terms. Girls and boys were brought up with different interests and educated at different schools. Outside the family, friendships based on shared interests were usually with members of the same sex.
  • Sexual abstinence was the only effective form of contraception, while sexually-transmitted disease was prevalent and virtually untreatable. So middle- and upper-class young men were taught that sexual activity of any kind - outside the hallowed context of marriage - was immoral and almost certainly a threat to health. In retrospect, many of these teachings seem absurd - but the alternative was uncontrollable infection and large numbers of unwanted babies. To further minimise these risks, society did its best to prevent single boys meeting single girls without a chaperone.
  • A corollary was devastating life-long social rejection of anyone known to be illegitimate.
  • Victorian England was adventurous and inventive. The industrial revolution had launched the ever-accelerating advance of technology that we now take for granted. During Lawrence's youth, engineering was still an exciting novelty. Its achievements were celebrated as triumphs. He lived in a world only recently transformed by railways and steam-ships. Motor-cars and aeroplanes were in their infancy. Yet, while all this was taking place, a much older social structure still survived. Outside the great cities, the agricultural hierarchy extended from aristocratic landowners to servile labourers, as it had for centuries.
  • Today, we tend to think of the Middle East as war-torn and oil-rich. Neither was true before the First World War. Palestine, lost to Christendom in the thirteenth century, had long been part of the Turkish Empire. In England it was revered as the Holy Land. It was known mainly through travellers' accounts and exotic images such as the lithographs by David Roberts published in the mid-19th century. Oil was first produced commercially in Iran in 1911, and before the First World War was also known to be present in parts of Iraq (then Mesopotamia). It was not discovered in commercial quantities in Bahrain until 1932, and in Saudi Arabia until 1938. During the period that Lawrence was involved, the prospect of oil discovery played no part in British policy towards areas of the Middle East outside Iran and Mesopotamia.

This historical context is the background to more personal factors affecting one young middle-class Englishman, T. E. Lawrence. What kind of person was he?

Looking more closely at Lawrence, I will focus in turn on:

  • His family, then
  • Lawrence himself, then
  • His development during the years 1910-14.

The Lawrence family had a middle-class income, assumed by acquaintances to come from investments, since Mr. Lawrence did not work for a living. Instead, he enjoyed gentlemanly pastimes such as shooting and, in Lawrence's earlier years, sailing. He was also a skilled amateur photographer, using a professional-standard camera (now in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science) to pursue his interest in church architecture. He was a keen cyclist - cycling being at that time a popular middle-class sport. Like many men with a private income, he was fairly indifferent to money - if not contemptuous - as he was towards the world of commerce. His sons inherited that attitude.

Lawrence's mother was strong-willed and practical. He once described her as a fanatical housewife. With five sons, she may have needed those qualities! The family employed resident maids.

Both parents were deeply religious. The Lawrences attended St. Aldate's church in Oxford and said prayers daily at home. St. Aldate's was renowned (then as now) for its strongly evangelical approach.

Apart from church-attendance, Mr and Mrs Lawrence each had their own activities and friends, which was not unusual at the time. Lawrence noted, however, that they rarely went out together.

It seems that the five boys enjoyed a happy childhood, though Lawrence later mentioned that personality-conflicts between his parents could cause tension. The boys, too, were unlike one another. Lawrence, who by common consent was the leader, was closest to his younger brother Will.

He was intellectually gifted. The mark-sheets of the public examinations he took at the ages of 16 and 18 survive. They show high scores across a wide range of subjects, and exceptional ability in English and religious studies. His results put him among the best of several thousand contemporaries who sat the Oxford Local Examinations. He went on to win an Exhibition (a form of minor scholarship) to Jesus College, Oxford. In 1910 he graduated from Oxford University with First Class Honours in Modern History. He then took up a postgraduate award at Magdalen College, Oxford. After the war, he would be elected to a Research Fellowship of All Souls College.

Relatively few Englishmen achieve such academic distinction, yet there are different types of intellectual ability. Lawrence had an original, observant and creative mind with a quick grasp of practical questions. He could absorb large amounts of complex information and draw interesting conclusions. Yet he had little taste for rigorous intellectual disciplines like mathematics or philosophy. Like many born leaders, he seemed to form instinctive judgements about people, knowing how they might react and what he could trust them to do.

Unlike some intellectuals, he also had strong practical gifts. He quickly rejected the idea of becoming a professional academic. He admired fine craftsmanship and derived creative satisfaction from manual work. While a student at Oxford he came to revere the fine printing of William Morris. This led to one of his lifelong ambitions - to run a fine press of his own.

To look at, he was not impressive - at least at first glance. He was only 1m 66 tall, and his head seemed rather large for his body. Short stature was a disadvantage in competitive school sports, which he disliked. Instead, he developed his prowess as a cyclist. He avoided all forms of competition, but was proud of his strength and fitness and the distances and speeds he achieved on his bicycle. These often-solitary exploits reflected one of the most remarkable facets of his personality. He had inherited from his mother an iron will-power. It extended his physical endurance far beyond the point where most people would give up. Later, it would help him to be courageous in the face of danger.

By all accounts his eyes were remarkable. Many people found them commanding. When he cared to use it, he had astonishing persuasive power.

He learned photography from his father, who was also probably responsible for his initial interest in architecture. He studied the design and construction of mediaeval castles and used photographs to record interesting details. For the same reason he took drawing lessons from E.H. New, a noted architectural draughtsman. His mind was naturally inquisitive. For instance, he admired sculpture and, in order to appreciate it better, tried sculpting. Throughout his life, his writing shows the observation skills acquired during his youth, and his wish to understand the underlying structure and mechanism of what he saw.

With so much in his favour, Lawrence's short stature may seem a relatively slight disadvantage. Yet taller people, who have no reason to think of their height, almost certainly under-rate its influence. Lawrence was conscious of his "littleness" throughout his life. In his own mind, it helped to set him apart from other people. Perhaps it also spurred him to achievement (Napoleon and Margaret Thatcher were both short). His letters contain ample evidence of ambition, though in the pre-war years he seemed to lack any goal except writing and travel.

Small stature may also have prompted an irritating trait he recognised in himself: a tendency to seek attention through eccentric behaviour, particularly when dealing with strangers. Victims of such treatment often resented it. At least one of his wartime superiors felt that non-conformity was a serious handicap in Lawrence's relationship with the military hierarchy.

There was, however, a far greater handicap to Lawrence's career. During his childhood he discovered a shaming family secret: he was illegitimate. It is not certain exactly what he knew before his father's death in 1919, but he certainly knew enough to grasp the implications.

His father, whose real name was Thomas Chapman, was an Irish aristocrat who had made an extremely unhappy marriage. Finally, he had eloped with his children's governess, leaving behind his wife and four daughters. Using the assumed name 'Lawrence', the couple had lived successively in Wales (where Lawrence was born), Scotland, Brittany, and Hampshire. They finally settled in Oxford. Chapman's wife refused a divorce, so the Lawrences could never marry.

As T.E. Lawrence reached the age where most boys develop career ambitions, he must have realised how many doors were closed to him. The stigma of illegitimacy - if the facts one day became public - would bar him from respectable society and from any profession where social status was significant. It would also prevent him marrying almost any woman from a respectable family. The more publicly successful he became, the greater and more damaging would be the risk of exposure.

Despite caution about attributing career decisions to single causes, some factors are strong enough to be decisive. For Lawrence, illegitimacy may have been such a case. Relatives of his father knew about the scandal. They preferred silence to family disgrace. Robert Vansittart of the Foreign Office was both a friendly acquaintance and Lawrence's illegitimate second cousin. When Lawrence became famous even King George V was briefed about the family circumstances.

Lawrence must always have feared that the secret would come out. With hindsight, we can see that he chose to spend most of his life in occupations where the potential damage would be minimal. He did not marry, and in private said that his parents should have had no children.

More than this, he knew that he really was an outsider - someone who might at any moment be rejected by the very people who praised his achievements. As a result, he stood apart from British society and its conventions. He was his own judge of what was right and wrong, of what was worth doing and what was futile. He would never feel obliged to conform to an official policy he disagreed with.

As an illegitimate child, abhorrent to his father's family, there were no influential relatives to help his career. To succeed, the young Lawrence would have to build a pedestal of his own, and he alone would be qualified to judge whether the achievement was worthwhile.

The career - perhaps pastime would be a better word - that Lawrence first chose was archaeology. His mentor was D. G. Hogarth, Keeper of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. In 1910, shortly before Hogarth and Lawrence met, Macmillan published Hogarth's memoir Accidents of an Antiquary's Life. In it, he wrote: 'Your true Antiquary is born, not made. Sometimes an infirmity or awkwardness of body, which has disposed a boy to shun the pursuits of his fellows, may help to detach the man for the study of forgotten far off things; but it is essential that there be inborn in him the type of mind which is more curious of the past than the present, loves detail for its own sake, and cares less for ends than means.' The description fits Lawrence, who had immersed himself in mediaeval history since boyhood.

The final section of this paper traces Lawrence's involvement with the Arab world.

First, a reminder of the different stages of this period.

  • In 1909 Lawrence spent the summer in Syria and Palestine, visiting crusader castles for his Oxford thesis.
  • In December 1910 he went to Jebail to improve his Arabic, before joining the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish, near Jerablus on the River Euphrates. He worked at Carchemish until the spring of 1914.
  • In December 1914 he was posted to Cairo, where he joined the Intelligence Department. During the next two years, his personal interest in the region was further developed through research and work on maps and intelligence reports. He quickly became the department's expert on Syria, and was keenly interested in the prospects of an Arab revolt.
  • In October 1916 he was sent on an Intelligence mission to the Hejaz. This led to a permanent attachment as British liaison officer with the irregular Arab army commanded by Sherif Feisal. He remained with these forces until the fall of Damascus in October 1918.
  • During 1919 he was attached to Feisal's staff at the Paris Peace Conference, where he worked closely with Feisal to promote the cause of Arab self-determination.
  • In 1921-2 he worked at the British Colonial Office as adviser to Winston Churchill on Arab Affairs. He advocated the settlement of Iraq agreed at the Cairo Conference in March 1921. He also helped negotiate the agreement that ultimately made Sherif Abdullah ruler of TransJordan. He failed, however, to persuade King Hussein of the Hejaz, nominal head of the Arab Revolt, to accept the terms of a treaty under which Britain would have guaranteed the kingdom's independence.

In the 'Epilogue' to Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence suggests that his motives during the Arab Revolt were mainly personal, and gives a list. The reality was surely more complex. What else formed him during these years?

In his early years he travelled and lived among ordinary people. During part of his childhood, while living in France, he had attended a French school and spoken French with other children and their families. Later, as an Oxford student, he had toured France on a bicycle much as a French student might have done. On the same principle, he learned enough colloquial Arabic before his first visit to the Middle East in 1909 to travel on foot and stay, like an Arab traveller, in the homes of villagers.

In addition to photography and cataloguing pottery, his main responsibility at Carchemish was managing the locally recruited workforce. In the eyes of the villagers he was a civilian employer. That was a very different status to that of an army officer or imperial official. His experience employing and motivating Arab peasants at Carchemish was to be invaluable during the Arab Revolt.

Returning to Jerablus from a walking tour between digging seasons in 1911, Lawrence became extremely ill. Two villagers who worked on the excavations nursed him back to health. He believed that he owed them his life. Afterwards, he made the more intelligent of the two, a boy nicknamed Dahoum, his personal assistant.

It is evident from Lawrence's letters that he was strongly influenced in those first years by the idea of the 'noble savage'. He felt that Europeans had much to learn from the simpler lifestyle of the Arab peasantry - and even more from the life of the Bedouin. He made a conscious effort, in the years before the war, to explore Arab life and culture. Only later, during the war, did he lose this kind of idealism.

At Carchemish he gained both understanding and respect for the people among whom he lived and worked. He saw how the corrupt Turkish officials exploited them, and wished they could be free to govern themselves. There was, he felt, a big enough educated class in both Syria and Mesopotamia to provide Arab administrations.

The war brought this issue into focus. What would happen to the Arab provinces of the Turkish Empire, if Turkey were defeated? For Lawrence, the ideal solution would be self-determination. He advocated that policy consistently throughout the war, at the Peace Conference, and during his time at the Colonial Office.

Of course, he was a realist. He did not believe in Arab unity - there seemed little likelihood, in the short or medium term, that the elites of Damascus or Baghdad would accept rule from Mecca or any other Arab centre. Also, an independent Arab administration would need a greater Power to guarantee its frontiers, or it would not keep its independence for long. New states would need to call on outside expertise to assist their development. Nevertheless, in the inland areas behind the Mediterranean littoral, no Power other than Turkey could have any rational justification for imposing a colonial administration.

The French did not agree. France had long-standing imperial ambitions in the Middle East, and seemed to believe that adding huge areas of desert to its Empire would be a fit reward for its wartime sacrifice in Europe. To Lawrence, replacing Turkish rule with French would make the situation worse not better. He consistently opposed these French ambitions. In the end, France did impose colonial rule in inland Syria, though that triumph was short-lived.

The other would-be imperialist was the British Government of India, which wished to colonise Mesopotamia on the pretext that its fertile plains would solve to the problem of Indian famines. In 1921 Churchill, advised by Lawrence, put an end to that ambition.

Lawrence withdrew from Middle East affairs in 1922. Later letters show that he continued to believe that self-rule was better than imperial rule, and that great powers should not deprive another people of self-government - even if that self-government was far from perfect.

Copyright ©  Jeremy Wilson 2009, 2011



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