'Lawrence of Arabia' -- 70 years on
The British archaeologist-soldier, TE Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", died 70 years ago this year, and Britain's Imperial War Museum is marking the occasion, writes David Tresilian in London
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TE Lawrence photographed in Arab robes in the Hijaz in 1917 (left); Feisal (above), third son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arab forces, 1917-18, king of Iraq, 1921-1933, painted by Augustus John in 1919 and included by Lawrence as the frontispiece to the 1926 edition of his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Tucked away in south London in premises once belonging to the famous Bethlem ("Bedlam") mental hospital, Britain's Imperial War Museum is playing host to a major retrospective exhibition on the life of TE Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", who died in a motorcycle accident in England 70 years ago.
While the Lawrence legend, the story of a maverick British officer involved in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the final years of world war one, is still well-known, the details of it have been given less publicity. Perhaps they have been lost among the epic performances lavished on the story by the cast of British director Sir David Lean's glamorous 1962 film account, Lawrence of Arabia. While the present exhibition does not fail to make reference to this film, among other things the vehicle by which Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (as Sherif Ali) broke into the international film circuit, the details of Lawrence's life turn out to be at least as interesting as the cinematic legend. It seems likely that the present exhibition will be the only place where these are put on show, possibly for another generation, and it gives an ideal overview of Lawrence's unusual career.
Lawrence was born Thomas Edward Lawrence into a sturdy middle-class British family counting four other sons in 1888. There were some doubts concerning his mother, a governess with whom his father had eloped, but this piece of late-Victorian scandal behind them, the family settled in Oxford where TE Lawrence began a promising academic career as an archaeologist and historian of the Middle East before world war one. He made a study of crusader castles in Syria and Palestine, drawings from which are included in this exhibition, and from 1911 to 1914 he worked on archaeological excavations in Syria under the direction of the distinguished archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, later known for his work at Ur.
The outbreak of war in 1914 found Lawrence well- placed to spy on Ottoman military installations, something he had already been doing since at least early in 1914, and he spent the next two years at the British government's "Arab Bureau" in Cairo, lending his skills to the British war effort against the Ottoman Empire. The war in the eastern Mediterranean was not going well for Britain at this time, marked by disastrous campaigns such as that at Gallipoli in 1915, and in late 1916 Lawrence travelled to the Hijaz, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to meet Hussein Ibn Ali, the Ottoman Sherif of Mecca, and his four sons Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zeid.
Hussein had already declared his intention to lead an "Arab revolt" against Ottoman rule, and Lawrence helped to persuade the British authorities in Cairo to support this, seeing in it a way of tying down Ottoman forces in the Hijaz and perhaps the Levant more generally and thereby aiding the British war effort.
It was at this point that TE Lawrence, hitherto an obscure lieutenant with the British forces in Cairo, became "Lawrence of Arabia" and the self-styled leader of a nationalist revolt. Instead of occupying the modest role set out for him as British liaison officer with the incipient Arab forces, Lawrence upstaged his superiors and the Arab forces with which he worked by donning Bedouin robes, leading guerrilla-style attacks against the Ottoman-controlled Hijaz railway, and, if his own later account in his florid memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) is to be believed, almost becoming the Arab national leader that the Arabs themselves had not yet got, even as he was schooling Hussein's third son, Feisal, to play this role.
As the accompanying book to this exhibition, written by the Lawrence specialist Malcolm Brown, puts it, though there may not at first have been any obvious hint of "manifest destiny" in Lawrence's activities as kingmaker to what he seems to have hoped would be an Arab kingdom covering what is now Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, he did devise "an overall strategic plan that promoted the concept of a war without battle, avoiding head-to-head encounters, and thus not incurring the heavy casualty counts of normal warfare". He enjoyed an unusually close friendship with Feisal, and he helped the Arab forces to win some significant victories, such as that at Aqaba on the Red Sea in 1917, as well as promoting a form of guerrilla warfare, paid for by the British, that was later successfully copied elsewhere.
Yet, Lawrence's activities, together with those of the Arab forces he led, were little more than a sideshow in the larger scheme of things, which had already been decided by the colonial powers in London and Paris. Brown says in his book that Lawrence was present only "in the background of the official newsreels" when the British general Sir Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917, as were the Arab forces he had engaged to lead, and the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire had already been carved up by the European powers long before Allenby entered Damascus, with Feisal and Lawrence behind him, in December 1918. The Ottoman state was to be broken up, France was to control what is now Syria and Lebanon, and Britain was to add the rest, under varying constitutional forms, to the zone of influence it controlled from Cairo.
Lawrence was disappointed that the promises he had made to Feisal had thus come to nothing, and Brown notes that from 1917 onwards he had begun referring to himself in letters as "the chief crook of our gang", forced to resume "the mantle of fraud in the East". However, in what Brown describes as a "portent", Lawrence met the American journalist Lowell Thomas in Jerusalem in the same year. Thomas was in search of an "uplifting war story", and from 1919 onwards, first in the United States and then in Europe, he was "the man who would turn this ...unknown archaeologist-soldier into 'Lawrence of Arabia'" through film spectacles, technologically advanced for the time, entitled "With Lawrence in Arabia and With Allenby in Palestine".
Allenby was later dropped, leaving Lawrence's image alone to fill the screen as a kind of early matinee idol and as evidence, as Thomas's publicity put it, of "the most amazing revelation of a personality since Stanley found Livingstone", an earlier American media coup this time managed by the New York Herald. Barely two years after the war ended, TE Lawrence was thus well on the way to immortality as "Lawrence of Arabia".
All this makes for promising exhibition material, and the Imperial War Museum's sober presentation does not disappoint. Here one can find fascinating original documents and other materials from the period, which illuminate not only Lawrence's own life and involvements, but also the history of the region as a whole. Lawrence's Bedouin robes, given him by Feisal, are on display, as are articles and memoranda he wrote on the "Arab question" first for the British Arab Bureau in Cairo and then as part of his work at the 1919 Versailles Conference, which settled the post- war order in Europe, and at the 1921 Cairo Conference, which drew up the map of the post-war Middle East.
Flags flown by Feisal's Arab forces are here, as is the flag he raised over his house in Damascus in December 1918, keeping it flying until evicted by the French colonial authorities some months later. Designed by Sir Mark Sykes, this flag reveals both the British involvement in Arab nation-building and the country's betrayal of it, for, aside from designing this flag, Sykes also negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement with France in 1916 that divided up the post-war Middle East. There is a laconic British cabinet memo in this exhibition saying that the British government would have "no objection" to this arrangement, despite the influence it gave to France in Syria, provided that the French government cleared it with the Russians first.
Public documents of this sort, scattered throughout the exhibition amid items from Lawrence's private life, testify to the extent and limits of his involvement and the ways in which what seems to have been for him a private fantasy -- "a big game, and at last one worth playing" -- either coincided or failed to coincide with the wishes of his political masters.
As is well-known, Lawrence felt that he had "betrayed" the Arabs after the war, or, less grandly put, that the undertakings he had apparently given them had not in fact been authorised, or, if they had been, that the British government had no intention of carrying them out. Thus, Lawrence was already saying in print as early as 1920, in a newspaper article included here, that the post-war settlement of the Middle East and the ex-Ottoman Arab territories was "a disgrace", imposed, he claimed, on a supine British government by France.
Having failed to get Feisal a hearing at Versailles or Cairo, and seeing him evicted from Damascus and himself implicated in the eventual settlement as a member of the British staff, Lawrence settled instead for brokering the installation of Feisal as king of the newly created kingdom of Iraq, formerly the Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia, and his brother Abdullah as king of Trans-Jordan, created out of bits of the ex-Ottoman Levant. All this map-making seems to have been a rather hit-and-miss affair, the exhibition including sketchy maps with "Feisal" or "Abdullah" scrawled across them by Lawrence, as well as, in other parts, large question marks.
There is a fascinating memo here, written by Lawrence in Cairo in 1921, explaining why Feisal, having lost Damascus, should now be considered for Iraq. The Sunni minority, "High Church" according to Lawrence in a bizarre appropriation of the language of the Oxford Movement, would accept him as the son of the Sherif of Mecca, and the Shia, "mainly Persian", would do so because of what Lawrence described as their love of hierarchy.
The last part of the exhibition concentrates on the remaining 15 years of Lawrence's life, as well as on the prodigious afterlife he has since enjoyed. One learns, for example, that the original manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was lost at Reading railway station and has never been found and that Lawrence was obliged to write the whole thing again from scratch. He had an unusually large circle of friends, from George Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves on the literary side to Winston Churchill on the political, his former boss at the British Colonial Office. Lawrence's own instincts were for anonymity and he invested efforts, to no avail, into trying to escape the "Lawrence of Arabia" legend; "backing into the limelight" his American promoter called it. He was several times painted by the leading society portraitist of the time, Augustus John, also responsible for a magnificent portrait of Feisal included here, and even before his death plans were afoot to film his life, eventually realised in 1962 with Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, a travesty according to his surviving friends, and Alec Guinness as an unlikely Feisal.
Finally, Lawrence seems to have felt that his foray into power politics had been a mistake, compromising his sense of himself even as it defined the outside world's perceptions. He conformed to a familiar British ruling type of the period, even if his ambiguous origins would have been enough to exclude him from the real centres of power. Unable to find a stage for his ambitions on the grey stage of English society, he projected them outwards elsewhere. Yet, Lawrence's interest in the peoples whose lives he helped to organise does not appear to have lasted beyond 1921, raising the suspicion that he was most concerned to save not the Arabs to whom he gave his efforts but himself.
Brown almost says as much in his remarks on the security that the highly regulated, all-male world of the British Royal Air Force apparently gave Lawrence in later life, something like the camaraderie he had earlier found among Feisal's Arab forces in the desert. Though this exhibition contains some marvellous images and fascinating documents drawn from British archives, it seems a pity that the curators have not also paid attention to what the peoples of the region through which Lawrence blasted his way might have thought.
Lawrence of Arabia, the Life, the Legend, 14 October 2005 -- 17 April 2006, Imperial War Museum, London.