Thursday, March 10, 2011

World War One: Lawrence of Arabia

"I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time... We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will live in the annals of war... It will live in the legends of Arabia." - Winston Churchill

Thomas Edward Lawrence or 'Lawrence of Arabia', known professionally as T.E. Lawrence was one of the most iconic figures of the First World War. To this day, Lawrence has become a household name conjuring images of adventure, sweeping deserts and the image of a mysterious figure that has never been fully understood. Renowned for his liaisons with the warring Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire, Lawrence became one of the leaders of the Arab revolt which began in 1916.

Lawrence's image with the public was due in part to the great reportage of Lowell Thomas who, during the war, photographed and filmed Lawrence on campaign in Palestine. Following the war Lowell toured the world showing and narrating his film "Allenby in Palestine" and "Lawrence in Arabia", making both himself and Lawrence household names.

In the wake of Arab nationalists after World War 1, Lawrence used his newly gained public fame to further support the promises made to the Arabs during the First World War, which were then betrayed by imperial powers.

The Great War

In the summer of 1914, Lawrence was a university post-graduate who had travelled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire. In travelling across the Middle-East, Lawrence became known to Turkish and German officials. Furthermore Lawrence came into contact with German and Ottoman technical advisors who were building the Berlin to Baghdad railway, which was designed to unify and solidify the Ottoman Empire. This contact with Central Power officials and the railway was to be a significant advantage to Lawrence in the coming years.

Volunteering for the war effort, Lawrence was posted to the Intelligence Staff of the General Officer Commanding Middle-East based in Cairo. Lawrence's first-hand experience and travels of the Middle-East proved invaluable to the allies as the Foreign Office's Arab Bureau was set up to harness the resentment the native Arab tribes felt towards their Turkish overlords.

The concept of a guerrilla campaign supported and financed by outside powers, supporting violence and action against the Turks, would ultimately divert the efforts and materials of Turkey away from Great Britain and her allies. The Ottoman cost of subjugating unrest would far outweigh the allies cost of sponsoring it.

Between 1916 and 1918, Lawrence fought with and led Arab irregular troops, in extensive guerrilla operations against the forces of Turkey. Persuading the Arabs not to attack the Turks head on, Lawrence instigated Arab attacks on Turkeys supply route, the Hejaz railway. Lawrence's pre-war experiences with Turkey's vital railway allowed the Arab forces to maximise hit and run tactics which tied up Turkish troops, who were forced to protect the railway and its vital links.


In the spring of 1917, Lawrence envisaged a joint attack of Hareth Arab forces and Howetat Arabs who were under the command of Auda Abu Tayi against the strategically located but lightly defended coastal town of Aqaba. On 6th July, after a surprise and monumentally thought attack, Aqaba fell to Lawrence and his forces. The attack and taking of Aqaba was seen as a great strategic success as the Turks believed that Aqaba could only be taken from the sea as the desert around Aqaba was impassable. Following Aqaba, Lawrence was promoted Major and the new Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Edmund Allenby saw the value and utilised Lawrence and his tactics.

Following the war Allenby commented, "I gave him a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign."

Throughout the rest of 1917, the Arab forces in conjuncture with the EEF gradually pushed back and caused irreparable damage to Turkey's war effort in the Middle-East. Despite this, the winds of politics were beginning to blow against the Arabs and their cause.

In the final year of the war, Lawrence frantically sought to make good on the promises he made to the Arabs. The drive towards and capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war saw Lawrence promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and the creation of a provisional Arab government with Prince Feisal Ibn Hussein at its head.

Despite all of Lawrence's efforts, all of his and the Arab gains in the last year of the war would come apart. During the closing year of the war, Lawrence sought, with success and failure, to convince the British High Command that Arab independence was in Britain's interests. Further to this he reminded both political and military figures of the "Hussein-McMahon agreements" which were signed between the British Government and Arab officials in 1915. The agreement stressed that if the Arabs forced Turkey out of the Middle-East with support from the allies, then the allies would guarantee an independent Arab state.

The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain and subsequent Balfour Declaration signed between Britain and Jewish representatives contradicted earlier promises made to the Arabs and ended the promises of Arab independence.

The political and military upheaval strained all parties involved including Lawrence. Just prior to arriving at Damascus, the Arab army fell upon a retreating Turkish column and under orders from Lawrence massacred the Turks. Pictures of Lawrence taken in Damascus in 1918 show a physically and mentally strained man on the edge of sanity.

In the Post-War Years, Lawrence worked as part of the Arab/Allied delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Prince Feisal's rule as King of Syria came to an abrupt end in 1920 as French forces under the command of General Mariano Goybet defeated Arab forces and entered Damascus. France's actions forever broke Lawrence's vision of an independent Arab Arabia.

In the wake of the smash and grab of empires, the growth of Nationalism in Colonial empires and political dealings; Lawrence became embroiled in the Arabs determination to gain from the First World War. Between 1920 and 1922 both Lawrence and Gertrude Bell served as advisors to Churchill, who oversaw The Cairo conference which was organised to resolve factious issues between parties following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

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