T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ wasn’t just an enigmatic personality, he had 5 key ideas about how to conduct war that are still useful today.
While he is often considered an advocate of insurgency, his wartime practice was more akin to what we now call hybrid warfare. But we should remember that his insights were learned through bitter setbacks and hard-won experience.
1. Study military history to recreate decisions
Lawrence’s early life was spent studying the great works of military history, including the campaigns of Caesar, Napoleon, Marlborough and Maurice du Saxe. He tried to recreate how military leaders had made their decisions. His aim was to reach an instinctive level of experience:
‘Practice the strokes [of command, to sense opportunities, since] nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool.’
Yet his first attempts to apply these ideas in the deserts of the First World War were a failure.
Lawrence studied, listened, and rethought the problems that lay before him, drawing on his studies and adapted them to his new context.
The conclusion that he took from his study of war was that there were three elements: algebra (mass, numbers, scientific elements such as technology); bionomics (humans need to drink, eat, sleep, rest and be supplied), and diathetics (morale, willpower, the mind, perception). But how did he apply these insights?
2. Extend the flanks
The central problem he faced in Arabia was how to get the best out of untrained and irregular fighters. Britain’s allies late in this war, they were faced with an enemy armed with modern industrial technology, namely the experienced Ottoman Army, backed by its German partners.
Lawrence got a sharp lesson in modern warfare when the Arabs were defeated and routed at Wadi Safra.
Lawrence nevertheless observed that ‘armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm rooted, through long stems to the head.’ He therefore conceived of an ever-extending flank, to try and fix the Ottomans in static defence, an idea he derived from Napoleon. He wrote:
‘We faced ‘a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts.’
Initially Lawrence had hoped, like all his colleagues, to take Medina and liberate the Hejaz. But Ottoman General Fakhri Pasha held the city with a reinforced division and he was not dislodged throughout the war.
While Lawrence drew more Ottomans into defence as he hoped, he was not able to defeat his enemy this way. So Lawrence tried another solution to the problem, extending the flanks into the population itself.
3. Enable the locals
To encourage the Arabs, Lawrence joined Operation Hedgehog, the cutting of the Hejaz railway with explosives (which was to precede the capture of Medina).
Lawrence recognised that raiding gave the fighters a sense of purpose and this gave rise to his advocacy of ‘war without fighting’. He urged his Arab comrades to ‘be unseen’ and to conduct what he called ‘a war of detachment’.
By attacking only infrastructure, he could deny targets to the enemy, play on the enemy’s fear of the unknown, and stay mobile ‘like a vapour’. His objective was to encourage locals to join his revolt and make them the ‘algebra’ of his campaign.
4. Play on the mind of friend and foe
Lawrence made memorable observations on the importance of psychology in war. His raids were designed to make Ottoman soldiers afraid to enter the desert. On his own side, he claimed:
‘we had won a province when we had taught the civilians in it to die for our idea of freedom.’
Later he admitted that, in reality, this dedication was rare. Instead he was supported by:
‘a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority.’
Lawrence believed that morale was critical to the outcome of war. He and his commander, General Allenby, knew that the Arab forces could not be used to seize and hold positions. They were far more effective as a deception force and a screen for the British campaign in Palestine.
Allenby used Lawrence’s men to draw the Ottomans’ attention to Amman and their open eastern flank, while he orchestrated his own preparations for the final and decisive battle of Megiddo (September 1918).
Lawrence embraced the Arab way of war and turned it to his advantage. He rejected standard military discipline, romanticised his irregular comrades, and tried to avoid anything that might compromise their claim to independence after the war.
This created significant problems at the end of the campaign but leaves us uncertain on whether his observations about war have been distorted by his determination to prove that the Arabs deserved their independence through ‘conquest’.
5. Adapt to win
While Lawrence is seen as the thinker who created the modern form of guerrilla warfare, his ideas are more like the approach advocated today known as Hybrid Warfare.
This combines local forces (Peshmerga, Afghan northern alliance, Libyan rebels)– technology (Western air power, precise missiles, powerful communications, and satellite surveillance) – and deception.
When the Ottomans and Germans brought in airpower and started to interdict or defeat irregular forces, it was vital that the Arabs got the support of the British ‘Egyptian Expeditionary Force’ in Palestine.
This support came in the form of Royal Navy logistics, rations, munitions, armoured car companies, camel borne regular infantry, trained regular Arab troops, and, crucially, the air force. Lawrence therefore led a mixed force in the final stages of the campaign that ended his ‘wild man show.’
After the war, Lawrence’s ideas were taken up by others and the number of insurgencies that broke out during the twentieth century gave Lawrence’s thoughts continuing relevance.
He inspired Basil Liddell Hart with the concept of an ‘indirect strategy’ and advocacy of all forms of technology that could prevent any waste of lives.
His advice to his British colleagues in 1917 was to respect local sensibilities and his ‘27 articles’ were picked up by later generations who had to fight alongside locals. In Iraq in 2003-11, Lawrence’s ideas were invoked in the expression:
‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.’
Nevertheless, Lawrence’s ideas were rejected in the covert Second World War operations as being too specific to an era before airpower and an environment where surveillance had been easy to avoid.
In occupied Europe, SOE found their guerrilla campaigns far more difficult. The German armies were not ‘fixed’ and campaigns of reprisals deterred much resistance.
Lawrence remains more relevant for an information age. He noted with prescience that ‘The printing press is the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the modern commander.’
Lawrence has been associated with insurgency and counterinsurgency, but perhaps his observations on war and psychology, outside of the context in which he knew, have even stronger resonances
Dr Rob Johnson is the Director of the Changing Character of War (CCW) research centre at Oxford University (www.ccw.ox.ac.uk ). Rob’s primary research interests are in the history of war and strategy with a particular focus on the wider Middle East, but he is also concerned with how we conceive of future conflict environments and strategic thinking across the globe.
Rob is the author of a number of books on strategy and operations: Lawrence of Arabia on War (Osprey, 2020), The Great War and the Middle East: A Strategic Study (Oxford University Press, 2016) and a co-edited volume, The Great War in the Middle East: A Clash of Empires (2019).