T.E Lawrence was a quiet studious young man, born in Wales and raised in Oxford, who would probably have been known as an unmarried eccentric with a fascination for old crusader buildings if the earth-shattering events of World War 1 had not changed his life. Instead, he has earned undying fame as a glamorous and sympathetic explorer of the middle-east, and a war hero who lead charges of screaming Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.
Born out of wedlock in 1888, Lawrence’s first obstacle in life was the social attitudes that such a union produced in the late Victorian era. Like many a lonely child before him, he spent a lot of his early life exploring as his outcast family moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood before finally settling on Oxford in 1896. The young man’s love of ancient buildings appeared early, and one of the first memorable trips of his life was a cycle ride with a friend through the picturesque countryside around Oxford, where they studied every parish church they could get their hands on and showed their findings to the city’s famous Ashmolean museum. As his schooldays came to an end, Lawrence ventured further afield, studying, photographing, measuring and drawing Medieval castles in France for two consecutive summers before being accepted to study history at the prestigious University of Oxford in 1907. After the French trip, he had developed a fascination with the impact of the east on Europe – particularly its architecture – after the Crusades, and was allowed to finally visit Ottoman-controlled Syria in 1909. In an age before widespread automobile transport, the tour of the region’s Crusader castles took three months of walking under a punishing desert sun, and this length of time allowed him to develop a fascination for the area and a good command of Arabic.
The thesis Lawrence penned on Crusader architecture earned him a first-class degree from Oxford, cementing his status as a rising star of archaeology and middle-eastern history. Almost as soon as he left university he was invited to join the British Museum sponsored excavations of the ancient city of Carchemish, which lay on the border between Syria and Turkey. Ironically, the area was much safer on the eve of the First World War than it is today, and the young Lawrence was able to enjoy a pleasant stay in Beirut and complete his Arabic education en route. The excavation of the impressive city was unfinished by 1914, in which time Lawrence had been introduced to the famous explorer Gertrude Bell, who might have had an influence on his later exploits. Over these years international tensions grew with the Balkan wars in eastern Europe, and a series of violent coups and convulsions in the ageing Ottoman Empire. Given the Ottoman connection with the powerful German Empire which was locked in an arms race with Britain, it was decided that more knowledge of their lands – in order to plan possible campaign strategies – was needed. As a result, in January 1914, Lawrence was co-opted by the British military, who wanted to use his archaeological interests as a smoke-screen for an extensive mapping and surveying of the Negev desert, which the Ottoman troops would need to cross in order to attack British-held Egypt.
In August the war finally broke, and the Ottoman alliance with Germany brought her at odds with the British Empire, whose many colonial possessions in the area made this theater of war almost as crucial as the western front, where Lawrence’s brothers were serving. His knowledge of Arabic and Ottoman territory made him an obvious choice for a position as a staff officer, and he arrived in Cairo to serve as part of the Arab bureau in December. The Bureau, after a mixed start to the war on the Ottoman front, believed that one option open to them was the exploitation of Arab nationalism. The Arabs – custodians of the holy city of Mecca – had been chafing under Turkish Ottoman rule for a while, and Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, was in contact with the British promising to lead an uprising that would tie down thousands of Ottoman troops in order for the promise of an independent Arabia after the war. There was heavy opposition to this from the French – who wanted Syria as a lucrative colonial possession, and the colonial government in India, who also wanted control of the Middle East. As a result, the Arab Bureau dithered until October 1915, when Hussein demanded an immediate commitment to his plan. Otherwise, he would throw all the symbolic weight of Mecca behind the Ottoman cause, creating a pan-Islamic jihad that would be extremely dangerous to the British Empire with its millions of Muslim subjects. In the end, the plan was agreed and the Arab revolt began.
Lawrence, meanwhile, had been serving the Bureau faithfully, by mapping Arabia, interrogating prisoners and producing a daily bulletin for the British Generals in the area. He was a fervent advocate of an independent Arabia, like Gertrude Bell, and fully supported Hussein’s scheme. By the Autumn of 1916, however, the revolt had become bogged down, and there was suddenly a great risk that the Ottomans would capture Mecca. The go-to man of the Bureau, Captain Lawrence, was sent to try and shore up Hussein’s revolt, and he started by interviewing the Emir’s three sons, and concluded that Faisal – the youngest – was the best qualified to become the military leader of the Arabs. It was initially meant to be a temporary appointment, but Lawrence and Faisal built up such a rapport that the Arab Prince demanded that the British officer remain with him. From here, the latter became directly involved with the fighting alongside the legendary Arab cavalry, and was quickly held in high esteem by Hussein and his government. By 1918, he had a £15,000 price on his head, but no-one handed him to the Ottomans, and one Arab officer described him as having been given the status of one of the Emir’s sons.
One of his most successful moments came at Aqaba on the 6th July 1917. This small town on the red sea in modern Jordan was an important strategic capture for the Allies, but was currently in Ottoman hands. Its coastal location meant that it was heavily defended on its seaward side against a British naval attack, but Lawrence and the Arabs agreed that it might by taken by a lightning cavalry assault from the land. He set off across the desert on this campaign in May, and carefully avoided telling his superiors about the plan – knowing that they would object as it took the Arabs into territory that had been secretly promised to the French after the war. Like many of his fellow officers on the ground in Arabia, he was disgusted by this planned duplicity after the earlier promises to Hussein. With a small and irregular force at his disposal, Lawrence’s cunning as an exploring officer was needed. Departing alone on a supposed reconnaissance mission, he blew up a bridge and left a false trail in an effort to convince the Ottomans that Damascus was the target of the rumoured Arab advance. Auda abu Tayeh, the Arab leader of the exhibition, then lead a cavalry charge against the misled Turkish infantry guarding the landward approach to Aqaba, and managed to scatter them superbly. In revenge for Turkish killing of Arab prisoners, over 300 Turks were killed before Auda put a stop to the massacre.
As a group of British ships began to shell Aqaba, Lawrence (who nearly died when he was unhorsed in the charge) and his allies secured the surrender of the town, after its defences had been comprehensively outflanked. Delighted by this success, he galloped across the Sinai desert to alert his command in Cairo of the news. With Abaqa taken, the Arab forces were able to link up with the British further north, and the fall of Damascus in October 1918 – which effectively ended the Ottoman Empire – was made possible. The revolt had succeeded, and saved the flagging British efforts in the region, but Hussein would not get his wish. Though he was granted an unstable independent kingdom in western Arabia, Syria and Palestine were divided between the French and British Empires, and the 1917 Balfour declaration guaranteed that the latter would become a new home for the exiled Jews. British support for Hussein’s unstable kingdom was withdrawn after the war, and the old Emir’s territory fell to the imperialistic Saud family, who set up a new kingdom of Saudi Arabia that was much more anti-western and in favour of Islamic conservatism that Hussein had been. After all these deals and struggles, the region remains a mess, exactly 100 years after the fall of Aqaba promised a new dawn for the Arabs. As a result, the history of Lawrence of Arabia – who died in a motorcycle crash in 1937 – is more interesting and relevant than ever.