On 19 May, 1935, Thomas Edward Lawrence passed away following a week of remaining in a coma caused by a motorcycle crash in Dorset, England. The British Arabist, linguist, author of one of the most acclaimed works in the English language and military strategist, who had a senior role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, left a lasting legacy on the contemporary Middle East.
Born in Wales on 16 August, 1888, and settling down in the city of Oxford, Lawrence took an interest in the region of the Middle East, its archaeological history and the medieval architecture of its Crusader castles from an early age. Throughout his youth, he travelled around the region, particularly in the areas of Syria and Palestine, as part of his studies and to work on his thesis, eventually landing him the opportunity to set out on an expedition for excavations along the Euphrates River from 1911 to 1914. He spent these years acquainting himself well with the land, its people and its languages – both modern and ancient – preparing him for the essential role he would soon play.
He also set out on further exploratory journeys such as along the Ottoman border in Sinai and the Suez Canal which he claimed were for “scientific” intentions, but which has been revealed to have been for map-making reconnaissance purposes that would soon serve the British army in World War One.
Throughout the beginning of the war, he worked in military intelligence in Cairo under the British Protectorate, where he and his team planned and analysed strategic methods of pushing back the Ottoman Empire which had allied itself with Germany. He was then sent to the Arabian Peninsula, however, where the British discovered a more liable and ripe opportunity in the Sharifs of Makkah – the Hashemite of the Prophet Muhammad – who held influence over the Hijaz region and had tensions with the Ottomans who ruled them when the emir of Makkah, Hussein Ibn Ali, had declared a revolt against the Turks a few months prior in June 1916. After negotiations between the British and the Sharifs, Lawrence conducted a further search into Arabia and the revolt and found the emir’s son Faisal Ibn Hussein to be the true potential figurehead of this revolution. He, therefore, persuaded the British to provide gold and guns to the tribes for the effort.
With his knowledge of the Arabs and their language, Lawrence immersed himself in the tribes leading the Arab Revolt who largely came to welcome him as their own, and he propagated the concept of a united Arabia and a united Arab world – reviving to greatness as they once did when ruling from Persia to Spain. This was the romantic imagery Lawrence created in their minds, recognising the power of an idea and ideology, in this case, the start of Arab nationalism.
As he described in his book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, the Arabs were a “manufactured people” whose “name has been changing in sense year by year”, only united by “a language called Arabic”. This concept of Arab nationalism, he predicted would stick and drive the revolt forward, as they were “incorrigibly children of the idea” who “could be swung on an idea as on a cord.”
Over the next two years, Lawrence would accompany the revolt, sometimes leading raiding parties and sometimes serving as an advisor to Prince Faisal, as well as training the Arab fighters to operate explosives in order to blow up Ottoman Hejaz railway lines that ran from Damascus to Madinah. The methods he employed in the operation of the Arab forces was that of guerrilla warfare against the more organised Ottoman army, and this strategy coupled with the vision of a united Arab kingdom held preference over an “immobile, firm-rooted” army. Instead, he wrote: “Our kingdom lay in each man’s mind.”
Throughout this period, the revolt also attracted Arab officers and figures of higher rank who were formerly in the Ottoman military and administration – many of whom would serve in the future governments of Iraq and Jordan – helping the campaign to gain traction until this irregular Arab army fought its way to reach Damascus by the end of September, 1918. This was also achieved with the assistance of British army units such as Desert Mounted Corps.
The Arabs under Lawrence’s command successfully entered the city and held essential areas of it, while dealing with the chaos of the Ottoman withdrawal and the sectarian strife which emerged, particularly with the troublesome Algerian exiles and the crazed Druze population. Lawrence even managed to set up a makeshift administration in the city. This victory did not last long, however, as the control was then taken out of the Arab hands by British and French colonial powers who had already agreed on the foundations of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, the Anglo-French plan to carve up the former Ottoman territories.
This betrayal of the Arabs and their cause was to haunt Lawrence for the remainder of his life, and he later repeatedly cited his regret of leading them to an end of colonial exploitation. Though he did not fully know of the details of the plan, he was aware of some inklings of it, but deemed it too late to turn the tide of the revolt. Over the resulting peace process and conference following the end of the First World War, he attempted to make up for some of that betrayal by assisting Faisal in negotiating for power in what remained of his former territory, after being defeated by the French in Syria.
The Sharif was then permitted to rule the British Mandate of Iraq, being named as king and establishing a monarchy in the country he had not formerly known, while his brother Abdullah Ibn Hussein was given the land of Transjordan. Faisal’s kingdom was destined to collapse under a military coup in 1958, while the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains to this day.
The full extent of Lawrence’s importance and his role in the Arab Revolt has long been debated, but one thing that can be agreed upon is that his contribution in driving the revolt and its ideology forward, as well as in establishing the contemporary borders of the Middle East, had lasting effects. Although his promise to Faisal and the Arabs of a united Arab Kingdom stretching from southern Arabia to Syria – bordered by Persia and the Mediterranean – ultimately failed, it set in motion the unsuccessful Pan-Arabist efforts to create a united Arab nation that has since been taken on by several Middle Eastern dictators and leaders.