Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia – Hero of the Arabic Spring of the 20th Century

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible” (T. E. Lawrence).

“Rebellions can be made by 2 percent actively in the striking force and 98 percent passively sympathetic” (T. E. Lawrence).

Chain of recent affairs of the Arab Spring brought public attention to the Middle East. While it is still much questionable if these events changed life of the ordinary people for the better or for the worse, there is no doubt that in many countries, the changes were quite significant.

Today, I would like to bring back memories of the historic figure, who played a noticeable role in the Arab World history at the beginning of the previous century, Lawrence of Arabia. May 19, 1935, 77 years ago, this legendary war hero, author, and archaeological scholar died, succumbed to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident six days before, at the age of 45.

 Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence was born at Tremadoc in Wales in 1888. He was the son of Sir Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet, who later changed his surname to Lawrence. Lawrence was born out of marriage - relatively rare in Victorian Britain. He was a very able pupil and could read at the age of four. He was also reading Latin at the age of six. Lawrence won a scholarship to Oxford University and developed a passion for reading - especially books on military history.

At Oxford University, Lawrence read History and gained a first class honors pass. While a student at Oxford, he travelled to the Levant where he visited Crusader castles. After gaining his degree, he joined an expedition by D G Hogarth to excavate Carchemish. He found that he had a natural affinity with the Arab people who he met. He learned their language and customs and spent time reading about their history.

When war was declared in August 1914, Lawrence tried to join the army but was turned down because he was too small. The minimum height set by the army was five feet five inches. However, he persevered and after several months he was given a commission. Lawrence joined the intelligence branch of the general staff. His knowledge of Arabic led to a posting to Egypt where he served in the 'Arab Bureau' at GHQ. Lawrence had an unorthodox approach to his commission. Ignoring the protocol in the British Army for smartness of uniform, he was seen as a very able but scruffy junior officer.

The British military campaign in the Middle East had not started well. The British had easily repulsed a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal but their pursuit of the Turks across Sinai ground to a halt near Gaza.  In other areas in the region, the Turks had been more successful, especially in Aden. The Ottoman Empire had swallowed a great deal of the Middle East and the Turkish overlords were not welcome in that region. On June 5th, 1916, the Arab Revolt started in the Hejaz - though some called it the Arab Awakening. Turkey was an ally of Germany, and the Great Britain has had a substantial interest in potential success of the Arab Revolt.

The revolt had some initial successes capturing Mecca, Jidda and Taif. But the Arabs failed to take the main rail line that ran through the region and the Turks were able to quickly send more troops there. Thus the revolt lost its original impetus. In October 1916, the British sent Ronald Storrs to investigate the revolt. He was accompanied by Lawrence. 

Lawrence was sent to meet the Amir Feisal whose tribesmen had been attempting to besiege Medina. Feisal was the son of Sherif Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz. Feisal and Lawrence developed an immediate rapport. Feisal's men were keen fighters but hopelessly ill-disciplined. Lawrence saw the potential of harnessing their commitment to their cause but in a different direction. He quickly realized that Feisal's men had no chance of capturing Medina. Lawrence believed that while the Turks controlled the rail line they would always have the opportunity to supply Medina. He therefore believed that Feisal's best chance lay in guerilla warfare against the rail line but away from Medina. Lawrence wanted to move their campaign north.

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The rail line was a single track affair that linked Medina to Damascus. Lawrence did not want to destroy the line as it would be needed after the Turks had been defeated. Instead, he wanted to harass the Turks along the route of the rail line so that they would have to use more and more troops to guard it along its length. As Lawrence and the Hejaz Arabs moved further and further north, they linked up with Trans-Jordan tribes who joined his campaign. On July 6th, 1917, Lawrence and his Arab followers captured Aqaba from the rear after defeating a whole Turkish battalion. Feisal moved his headquarters to Aqaba and placed himself and his men under the command of General Allenby, British commander in Palestine. Allenby planned to use the growing Arab revolt against the Turks to his advantage. He provided the Arabs with guns, ammunition and gold. Small numbers of British, French and Indian troops were sent to Aqaba to support Feisal's men. The Turkish Army had a number of conscripted Arab units in it and Allenby hoped that the success of Feisal would lead to them leaving the Turkish army en masse in a demonstration of Arab unity.

As the revolt became more successful, more and more Arab tribesmen joined it. This is what Allenby had hoped for. The Turks could barely cope with the revolt. However, in November 1917, the fortune turned its back to Lawrence. He was captured by the Turks while reconnoitering behind enemy lines in Arab dress and was tortured and sexually abused before escaping.

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On December 9th, 1917, Allenby's forces entered Jerusalem. Lawrence was with him. Both men got on with one another despite their different ranks. Allenby was quite happy for Lawrence to wear Arab dress - something other British officers could not tolerate. In January 1918, Lawrence led an attack on the Turks at Tafila in which a whole battalion was destroyed. The British had set a date for a massive attack against the Turks - September 19th, 1918. Lawrence was asked by Allenby to launch a diversionary attack on the Turks at an important rail junction at Deraa on September 17th. The attack was a great success as was Allenby's attack. Feisal entered Damascus in triumph and Lawrence took charge of civil and military order for several weeks. On October 31st, 1918, an armistice was concluded with the Turks.

Lawrence lived among those Arabs who fought the Turks. He lived the life of a Bedouin, always doing more than those he fought with - riding his camel further, pushing his body harder. He ate what they ate which led to a number of debilitating stomach ailments. But by doing this, he earned the respect of those who fought with him.

Arabia was liberated, but Lawrence's hope that the peninsula would be united as a single nation was dashed when Arabian factionalism came to the fore after Damascus. Lawrence, exhausted and disillusioned, left for England. Feeling that Britain had exacerbated the rivalries between the Arabian groups, he appeared before King George V and politely refused the medals offered to him.

In 1921 Lawrence joined the Middle East Department of the Colonial Office. He also served as special adviser on Arab affairs to Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary (1921-22). Both men visited the Middle East in an attempt to deal with the growing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

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After leaving the Colonial Office he changed his name to John Hume Ross and enlisted into the Royal Air Force. After four months reporters from the Daily Express discovered what he had done and he was discharged. In March 1923 he joined the Tank Corps as Private Thomas Shaw but only served until 1925.

His account of the Arab revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published privately in 1926. Later that year he rejoined the RAF and served for two years on the north-west frontier of India. He continued to write and other books by Lawrence include Revolt in the Desert, The Mint and a new translation of Homer's Odyssey.

From 1929 – 1935, Lawrence was engaged in the development of RAF high speed boats (RAF 200 Class), which played an important role in rescuing airmen from the English Channel during the Battle of Britain.

In February 1935, Lawrence was discharged from the RAF and returned to his simple cottage at Clouds Hill, Dorset. Several months after leaving the RAF, Lawrence was engaged in his favorite passion - riding his motor bike at speed. He had a specially tuned motor bike and he crashed it at 90 mph avoiding two boys who suddenly appeared in front of him. He was only 45 years old.

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After his death rumors circulated that Lawrence had been murdered by foreign agents. Another story emerged that the secret service faked his death so as to allow him to undertake, incognito, important work in the Middle East. The supporters of this story believed he died in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1968.

How important was the contribution of Lawrence to the campaign in the Middle East? Historians are likely to argue this question for many years. Before he arrived in the region, the British campaign had got bogged down. After his meeting with Feisal, the campaign picked up. Lawrence went out of his way to befriend the Arabs - something that not all British officers in the Middle East chose to do. At Deraa, he had a force of 3,000 Arabs but they tied down 50,000 Turks who could not help their comrades against Allenby. The Turkish High Command also spread their forces (150,000 men in total) thinly across the region making the British campaign that much easier.

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