Article abstract: Lawrence introduced striking innovations when he directed the operations of Arab irregular forces during the desert campaigns of World War I in 1917 and 1918; he then captured the imagination of much of the world by describing his exploits in memoirs that have been called “one of the greatest modern epics in the English language.”
The second of five sons, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Wales, on August 16, 1888, into a household sustained by what charitably could be called a bigamous union. His father, Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, from a landed family in Ireland, had previously married another woman, by whom he had four daughters, before he decided that life with her was insufferable. After a time, he ran off with Sarah Junner, the family’s governess; over the years they took up residence at various locations. The father sometimes used the surname “Lawrence,” and it was chosen for each of their children when birth certificates were prepared. It remains unclear precisely when any of the boys learned of the irregular circumstances surrounding their origins; certainly when it came, the knowledge was a burden to them in later life. It would seem that whatever influence was exerted by the parents came largely from their mother, who attempted with limited success to instill her religious precepts in her children.
A somewhat greater semblance of settled family life was achieved when they moved to Oxford in 1896. As a boy Lawrence received much of his early education at Oxford High School; evidently, he was also fond of strenuous exercise and liked pranks of every sort. He further conceived an interest in castles and military architecture, and beginning in 1906 he spent parts of three summers in France, where he went about by bicycle to visit historical sites. In 1907, he entered Oxford University, where he read modern history. Persuaded that the examples set by fortifications in Western Europe had influenced the development of such constructions farther east, he proposed a thesis on this topic, and in 1909 he traveled alone to Syria, Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East. In 1910, he was awarded first-class honors in his chosen field; in 1936, his thesis, with letters and other materials, was posthumously published in two volumes as Crusader Castles. He received a grant to facilitate further research and travel in conjunction with an archeological expedition supported by the British Museum. He also worked with Charles Leonard Woolley, an important specialist on the ancient Near East; much of their time was spent at a site on the northern course of the Euphrates, where artifacts of Hittite settlements were coming to light. Other work farther south was carried out under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Two volumes on work at these locations, published in 1914 and 1915, listed Lawrence as a coauthor. Much of the time, when he was not attending to excavations, Lawrence explored the countryside; at times he amused himself by devising odd provocations to arouse the suspicions of Ottoman officials and German agents in the region. Along the way, he acquired a passable knowledge of conversational Arabic, enough to make himself understood, though not with the fluency or grace of a native speaker.
Except in certain notable but indefinable respects, Lawrence did not present an imposing figure. He was about five feet, five inches, and seemed yet more diminutive as his head was disproportionately large in relation to his body. He had light blond hair and a fair complexion, which eventually became a reddish brick hue from prolonged exposure to the Levantine sun. He had a strong, pronounced jaw and a broad, curved nose; his lips were thick and sensuous. Many observers, however, testified to the uncanny character of his clear blue eyes, which at times suggested visionary or hypnotic qualities. On the other hand, he had a high-pitched voice which often turned into a sort of nervous giggle. Curiously enough, regardless of whether he ever actually was taken for an Arab, he was able to win acceptance among the peoples of the area with his seemingly indomitable stamina and his extraordinary aptitude for leadership.
After the outbreak of World War I in Europe, the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict on the side of the Central Powers, and in November, 1914, Great Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman state. British officials in Egypt established contact with al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, and offered to support some form of Arab national sovereignty in lands then under Ottoman control. In June, 1916, Husayn cast his lot with the British after he raised a force of Arab soldiers that expelled Ottoman troops from the holy city. The insurgents also achieved some advances on the coast. Their opponents held Medina, however, while efforts to dislodge them from other inland cities, or positions to the north, seemed to pose a daunting task.
At the outset of the war Lawrence obtained a commission in the Geographical Section of the War Office; he then worked with military intelligence in Egypt, where for a time he was involved in drawing up maps of the Sinai peninsula. The further effects of the world conflict were brought home to him when two of his brothers were killed in France in 1915. His work with Arab forces began in October, 1916, when with a British colleague he met ‘Abdallah ibn al-Husayn, the Sharif’s second son, at Jiddah on the Red Sea. Lawrence traveled on to the camp of Faysal ibn al-Husayn, the third son of their Arab ally; though the prospects there seemed far from hopeful, he counseled against the transfer of British ground forces to the region. Instead, Lawrence offered to act as an adviser and liaison officer alongside Faysal’s men.
There were other British personnel who at times had parts to play in the Arab campaigns; among the more notable were Colonel Pierce C. Joyce, Lawrence’s immediate superior, and Colonel Stewart F. Newcombe. Others assisted the Arabs by providing munitions and modern weapons. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that Lawrence consistently exercised leadership both in devising operations plans and in actually directing the efforts of Arab guerrillas in the field. Some of his accounts are of doubtful veracity, and it has been contended that Faysal and other Arab leaders in the end took many of the decisions that gave some coherence and shape to the desert campaigns. On the other hand, the tactical innovations employed against Ottoman forces bore the stamp of Lawrence’s conception of guerrilla warfare. Moreover, he believed that by appearing in Arab dress he would win acceptance more readily, and this additional, characteristic touch, preserved in many later portraits of Lawrence, further enhanced the impression he created among his followers. In January, 1917, he was on hand as Faysal’s soldiers surrounded and captured al-Wajh, on the Red Sea; Lawrence also was involved in plans for the Arab armies’ march on ‘Aqaba, opposite the Sinai peninsula, which was captured in July, 1917. As Ottoman forces obdurately continued to hold out in Medina, Lawrence supervised a series of demolition raids on the Hijaz Railway, to interrupt communications and transport. During the autumn, attacks on Ottoman positions were planned, so far as was possible, to coincide with the advance of Allied forces into Palestine under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby. In certain instances Lawrence himself set dynamite charges or other explosives on bridges or along railroad tracks; even with valiant efforts, however, he and his men failed to destroy a strategically located structure over the Yarmuk River in southern Syria.
Lawrence later gave out several different accounts of a visit to Dar‘a, a city south of Damascus; in all of them he maintained that, while reconnoitering the area, he was apprehended by Ottoman soldiers and brutally misused in the presence of the local governor. Some versions of the story suggest homosexual rape by various parties. Turkish materials, and the evidence provided many years later by others who were then in the area, cast doubt upon Lawrence’s story, though not to the extent that such an episode could be ruled out. It would seem that, reticent as he was on such a painfully sensitive issue, Lawrence had fewer reasons for exaggeration or the exercise of his imagination than in discussing his military exploits. Whatever happened, it is known that he returned to friendly forces and was present at General Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem, in December, 1917. In January of the next year, Lawrence led troops in a victorious pitched battle at Tafila, southeast of the Dead Sea. During the spring various raids succeeded in cutting the Hijaz Railway entirely at certain points.
The last phases of the desert campaigns, for which he held high hopes, were marred first during an engagement at Tafas, in southwestern Syria. There, according to Lawrence, he and his followers exacted bloody vengeance against enemy prisoners in retribution for Ottoman atrocities against the local population. On October 1, 1918, the day after Arab...
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