LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, HIS
INFLUENCE ON THE ARAB REVOLT
While the massive, mechanised armies of Europe were bogged down in the mud of the French trenches during the First World War, a young English captain, T.E. Lawrence, was criss-crossing the desserts of Arabia on his camel. To the war-weary British, Lawrence rapidly became a hero - “Lawrence of Arabia” - the man who seemed a gallant brother to the Arabs as they fought to gain their freedom from their Turkish overlords.
But Lawrence’s motives were by no means so clear cut as the legend suggests. He was far less interested in the freedom of the Arabs than in the future of Britain as a Middle Eastern power, a fact of which his Arab allies, the Hashemites, were unaware. After the war, the Arab territories were cold-bloodedly divided into areas of British and French interest and although the British set up three Hashemite as Kings of the Hejaz, Iraq and Transjordan, only Transjordan, now simply called Jordan, has managed to survive under Hashemite rule.
On May 21, 1935, the East Dorset Coroner and jury decide that “Thomas Edward Shaw, an aircraftsman retired,” had died accidentally two days before of wounds received after crashing on a motor cycle. The unfortunate motor-cyclist was better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” a national hero since his exploits in the First World War.
Famous statesmen and writers who had been captivated by his mercurial personality crowded his funeral.
Though Lawrence had deliberately chosen to live an obscure life in the Army and Air Force after those heady days in the Middle East, his legend lived on. He was the subject of countless school lectures and scores of books (which are still coming out today), while his own account of the Arabian campaign, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was to become an acknowledged masterpiece.
In the minds of every English schoolboy Lawrence was the man who, in the guise of an Arab sheikh, had led - with incredible skill and daring - a successful Arab revolt against Germany’s ally, Turkey, and so helped to win the First World War. But those Arabs who remembered him at all did so at best with puzzled irritation and at worst with angry resentment. The real story of Lawrence was much more complex.
The reasons why a young blue-eyed Englishman had led his wild Bedouin allies against the Turks are complex: for one thing, this pro-Arab activity was a complete reversal of Britain’s policy towards Turkey for, throughout the 19th Century, Britain had been Turkey’s staunchest ally.
Britain had been interested in the Middle East since the time when India had become part - indeed, the central part, of the British Empire, for the area straddled that traditionally touchy lifeline of Empire, the overland route to India. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the establishment of a quick sea route to India, it became even more important that affairs in the Middle East remained stable.
Since the early 16th Century all the Balkans and most of the Arab lands - excluding Morocco had been part of the Empire of the Ottoman Turks. But, by the 1840’s the empire was in decay. It now became vital for Britain to protect the route to India from the French, Russians or any other imperial interference. To this end in a series of treaties during the 19th Century Britain bolstered up Turkey, supporting her against the territorial claims of other great powers.
In the late 19th Century, Britain’s traditional relationship with Turkey began to change. The rising power of imperial Germany eager for allies, held out the hand of friendship to Abdul Hamid II, Sultan of Turkey. Germany’s ambitions received an unexpected boost when Britain, horrified by the brutal massacre by the Turks of their Christian Armenian subjects in 1896, headed Russia and France in an attempt to force reforms on the Sultan. When that happened, the German Kaiser’s hand seemed well worth grasping. Abdul Hamid invited Germany to help him train the Ottoman army and to build a railway eastwards from Constantinople to Baghdad. The forces that would soon lead to open Arab revolt were gathering.
Abdul Hamid as a traditional oriental despot, who ruled his empire with a blend of intrigue and intimidation. Corps of spies and agents provocateurs, rumoured to total at least 30,000 among his 22 million people. His territories included present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and western Arabia. He also exercised a much looser control over Yemen and central Arabia. One of hi methods of keeping his Arab subjects contented was to build a railway from Damascus to the Hejaz to assist Muslims making the Pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Sultan was ruthless in dealing with opposition, but there were certain people who were too important to simple ‘disappear ‘ One was Sheikh Hussian Ibn Ali, a prominent member of the House of Ben Hashem, the noblest of the Arab families, who traced their decent in the male line from the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima. The Sultan kept this strongly independent character with his wife and four sons under careful watch in Constantinople from 1893 to 1908.
In 1908, the Sultan’s rule was overthrown by an elite group of army officers known as the “Young Turks.” One of their first decisions was to appoint Hussian to be the Grand Sharif of Mecca and Keeper of the Holy Places of Islam. By long tradition, the Hashemites were entitled to this position of immense spiritual significance in the Islamic World.
It was a fateful decision for the future of the Ottoman Empire and indeed, the future of the entire Middle East, for this was the man who was to forge the link between the British and the Hashemites. That alliance led to Lawrence’s leadership of the Arab Revolt and ultimately to the creation of three Hashemite kingdoms, or “Anglo-Arab” monarchies” as they have been called. Although it was not immediately apparent, it was their misfortune to be founded under Britain;s aegis at a time when the power of the British Empire was in decline. Of the three, only one Jordan has perilously survived through a combination of special circumstances and the pertinacity of its Hashemite rulers.
As soon as Hussain arrived back in Mecca, he began to show his independence by reviving the Grand Sharif’s prerogatives which previous holders of the office had allowed to lapse, asserting himself against the local Turkish governor and restoring the hegemony of the Sharifate over the tribes of the Hejaz.
In the spring of 1914, the Young Turks ere regretting his appointment and had secretly decided that he must be deposed. It was then that the Sharif’’s second son, the 30 year-old Amir Abdullah, called upon Lord Kitchener in Cairo cautiously to sound out Britain’s reaction in the event of an open breach between Arabs and Turks. Abdullah did not want to commit himself to Britain at this stage, so hoping to merely make his interest known on a social rather than a political level, he decided to call upon Kitchener at a time when the overlord of Egypt should not have been at home. But he was.
Kitchener too, did not want to be tied down. The British government’s policy was still to preserve the Ottoman Empire. Although war with Germany was generally expected, it was by no means certain that Turkey would be the Kaiser’s ally, and it was of the greatest importance to Britain that war with Turkey should be avoided - India contained 70 Muslims who still regarded the Ottoman Sultan as the Caliph, or Ruler of the Faithful, and no one could be sure if , in the event of war with Turkey, they would fight against the Sultan-Caliph on behalf of his Christian Majesty King George V. A new factor had to be considered -oil. This had first been discovered in large quantities in southern Persia in 1908. In this uncertain situation, the wary friendship between Abdullah and Kitchener prospered.
In August,Britain, France and Russia were finally at war with Germany and Austria. In November, Turkey joined the Central Powers.
Immediately, the Grand Sharif found himself in a very delicate situation. He was beginning to cherish the ideal of an independent Hashemite Empire, uniting the whole of the Middle East. Now war had been declared he could gain his ambition in one of two ways. Either he could stand with Turkey and gain the rewards of loyalty or he could throw in his hand with the British and use their help to mount a full-scale rebellion.
The decision had to be made when the puppet Sultan-Caliph who had succeeded Abdul Amid issued a call to all the faithful for a “jehad”, or holy war, against the infidel. The potential effect on Muslims in India, French North Africa or the Russian Empire was incalculable.
Of Hussain’s sons, Abdullah was in favour of throwing in the Hashemite lot with the British, though his third son Feisal, urged caution.
Kitchener had been recalled to London to join the War Cabinet in 1914 but he sanctioned an initial response to Sharif Hussain’s overtures. Clandestine negotiations through secret emissaries took place.
At the outbreak of war all Kitchener had offered in a cable to Abdullah was: “If the Arab nation assists Britain in this was, Britain will guarantee that no intervention takes place in Arabia and will give Arabs very assistance against all forms of external aggression.”
In his first letter Hussain b]proposed that Britain should back an area of Arab independence embracing the whole of what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the entire Arabian peninsula excepting Aden (a British colony). In the ensuing correspondence the Sharif made a few reluctant and imprecise concessions: he accepted that Britain’s treaties with certain Arabian chiefs should remain and agreed to a temporary British military occupation of Iraq (where British and Indian troops had already landed at Basra and were fighting the Turks). He neither accepted nor refused but postponed his decision on a British demand that parts of Syria “lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Allepo” be excepted from the proposed area of Arab independence.
The failure to clarify all these points - especially the last - was a major cause of future trouble. British statesmen (including those involved) and historians have disputed ever since whether the exception of western Syria was meant to include Palestine.
But while the wily Sharif thought he would make his own terms with the British since they were clearly desperate for his help, he did not realise that the British had a much deeper motive for wanting to start the revolt than simply defeating the Turkish Sultan: Britain was looking to her own future in the Middle East and was secretly negotiating with France on the future of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat even while Sir Henry McMahon, High commissioner for Egypt was corresponding with Hussain. The result was the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement concluded in the spring of 1916. This effectively divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control or influence. Unfortunately the Tsarist Government in Russia were a minor party to this agreement and after the October revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks hastened to expose this “imperialist plot to the embarrassment of the British, the dismay of the Arabs and the delight of the Turks.
However, all this still lay in the future. On June 10. 1916, the still unsuspecting Sharif finally launched the Arab Revolt by symbolically firing a rifle at the Turkish barracks in Mecca. First Mecca then Jeddah on the coast fell to the insurgents, but the Turkish garrison in Medina continued to hold out against the Sharif’s ill-trained and ill-equipped troops. Though the Arabs fought boldly against lightly armed garrisons, they often ran away from artillery.
In October, 1916, Ronald Storrs arrived in Jedda from Cairo to see what could be done to pull the Revolt together. He was accompanied by a slim, blond and very untidy young temporary captain in the intelligence service - T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence was one of five illegitimate children sons of an Irish baronet and a governess. The Baronet had employed the governess to mind his legitimate children and had then run away with her and set up another home. At school Lawrence showed outstanding intelligence and was sent to Oxford, where he came under the influence of the tall black-bearded D.C. Hogarth, author, don and archaeologist, who was also an expert in the Middle East and a powerful behind-the-scenes member of the British Establishment.
He was strongly influenced by the ideas of the “think-tank” of Edwardian Imperialism, Lord Milner’s Round Table, which was the name of both a periodical and a study group. Hogarth chose Lawrence as a young man capable of disseminating these somewhat impractical ideas for imperial federation.
With Hogarth’s approval Lawrence spent the immediate pre-war years travelling in the middle East, studying the Arabs and their language as well as military tactics and medieval history, and on occasions carry out some part-time spying on the Turks and Germans. During these years Lawrence gained a detailed knowledge of, although, contrary to legend, no particular affection for the Arabs and an abiding hatred of the Turks and the French who were Britain’s biggest rivals in the Middle East.
When war broke out in 1914 Lawrence’s special knowledge of the Middle East was clearly going to be useful, and Hogarth used his influence to get his 26 year-old protégé into Military Intelligence. Lawrence was posted to Cairo, where he recruited agents. In January 1916, Colonel Clayton set up his small but influential Arab Bureau in Cairo with a staff (including Hogarth) who became responsible for the British involvement I the Arab Revolt. Lawrence succeeded in attaching himself to the Bureau and went to Jeddah with Storrs.
Lawrence’s British colleagues and superiors were either captivated by his dynamic and impish independent personality or infuriated by his arrogance and indifference to authority. No one remained neutral towards him. His emotional; make-up was highly complex and remains mysterious even today, in a large part due to the fact that he was a compulsive liar and it is impossible to take anything he said or wrote at face value. But from the conflicting mass of evidence emerges a character shy and self-advertising at the same time. In spite of hid tormenting self-doubts, he was an astute judge of character and an indefatigable asset to British operations.
When this as yet obscure young captain arrived in Jeddah, he soon summed up the Sharif family. Abdullah (the second son) was too clever; Ali (the first son) too clean, Zeid (the fourth son) too cool. Then he rode up country to Feisal (the third son) and found him the leader with the necessary fire.
Feisal had splendid presence and was more sophisticated, in a Western sense, if less intelligent than Abdullah, who remained at heart a Bedouin chieftain. At Lawrence’s first meeting with Hussain’s family, he clashed with Abdullah. When Lawrence discussed the Turkish position, Abdullah exclaimed somewhat irritably “is this man God, to know everything. There was no doubt that Feisal was chosen by Lawrence as the ideal instrument for maintaining British control over the Arab national movement and ultimately for achieving Lawrence’s personal objective of an Arab “brown dominion” within the British Empire. For his part Feisal trusted Lawrence entirely, in the firm belief that he would help the Arabs achieve complete independence under Hashemite rule.
Lawrence attached himself to Feisal, and for a while the relationship was an open and honest one. But soon Lawrence learned, through the Arab bureau, of the Foreign Office’s plans to carve up Syria and Iraq between Britain and France after the war.
Hogarth and Lawrence were appalled - but not because they believe in the Arab right to independence : the two imperialists simply wanted the hated French to have no share in the Arab world. Consequently, they set out to undermine the Sykes-Picot agreement. Although they ultimately failed, Lawrence did manage to keep the terms of the agreement from Feisal until he was totally dependent on Britain and unable to withdraw from the British-backed uprising.
Lawrence soon became the acknowledged leader of the Arab revolt and also, much to his satisfaction, succeeded in overriding the views of his French counterpart in the Hejaz, Col. Edouard Bremond. By mastering irregular guerrilla tactics, wearing Arab dress and learning to ride camels superbly, Lawrence turned himself into a Bedouin warrior With Auda “the Hawk”, a famous tribal leader, he captured the important town of Aqaba in July 1917. Afterwards, in a series of daring raids, he pursued his attacks on Turkish supply lines, especially the Hejaz railway.
It was from this period that the Lawrence legend was derived. On the Arab side there can be no doubt of the devotion of his Bedouin followers to
“al Orens,” as they called him. They admired his courage, devotion and skill as a guerrilla leader. But they were few in number and are now dead. For the Arabs, the short-lived Lawrence myth was lost in the squalid betrayal of the post-war settlement.
For the British on the other hand, the myth flourished much longer. At a time when the British French and Germans were monotonously killing each other in the mud of Flanders, the romantic, individualistic character of Lawrence’s desert guerilla campaign had an irresistible appeal It was easy for the British public, encouraged by able propagandists such as the American journalist, Lowell-Thomas , who depicted Lawrence as a blue-eyed Robin Hood of the desert, to believe that he had led the Arabs virtually single-handed to victory
In military terms the Arab Revolt immobilised some 30,000 Turkish troops along the Hejaz railway,prevented a link-up between the Turkish forces in Arabia and the Germans in East Africa and generally helped to weaken the Turkish armies . But the central responsibility for defeating the Turks lay with Britain’s General Sir Edmund Allenby. Known as “the Bull,” he was a military administrator and strategist of genius who in the autumn of 1917, launched a successful offensive from Sinai, sweeping up into Palestine to occupy Jerusalem in December 1917.
Allenby’s advance was delayed by the severe 1917-18 winter and stubborn Turkish resistance, but in the following summer he advanced, with Feisal and Lawrence on his right flank, to victory, taking Damascus on October 1, and Beirut on the 8th. The British were doing well, too, in Iraq. The Anglo-Indian force had advanced from Basra and, after an initial disaster in 1916, when 8,000 of them surrendered to the Turks at Kut, had gone on under General Maude to capture Baghdad in March 1917. By the end of 1918, virtually all of what is now Iraq was in British hands. On October 30, 1918, Turkey signed the Mudros armistice and the war in the Middle-East came to an end.
The allied forces and the Arabs made a triumphant entry into Damascus, capital of Syria. The Arabs of Syria, although subdued by Turkish repression and decimated by famine, went wild with enthusiasm at their liberation and the prospect of independence.
But the leaders of the Arabs already had good reason for doubts about the future. Two years before, in November 1916, Sharif Hussain had proclaimed himself King of the Arab lands. Britain and France however, recognised him only as king of the Hejaz and he had had to be content with that. Then, at the end of 1917, came the Balfour Declaration stating Britain’s views on the future of the Jews in Palestine and the revelations about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Even though the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, had assured Hussain that the Jews did not aim to set up their own government in Palestine and British representatives told him that Sykes-Picot had now been superceded, Hussian remained doubtful- and with good reason.
Britain also tried to calm the fears of the Arabs with a series of well publicised policy declarations made before the war ended. All these said, in effect, that the Allies fully supported the famous principals of “self-determination” and “consent of the governed” which had been enunciated by the American President Woodrow Wilson, and had so raised the expectation of all subject peoples. In reality, Britain and France had already agreed to divide between them all of Turkey’s former Arab provinces that were of political interest to them.
During his two years of desert warfare, Lawrence became a folk hero to the British. A nation sickened by the slaughter of the French trenches seized on the romantic picture of “al Orens” , galloping at the head of his Bedouin troops in their revolt against their Turkish overlords. Few, least of all Arabs, were aware that he was far more interested in gaining British dependencies than freedom for the Arabs. But whatever his motives, no one questioned his military skill: he swooped on Turkish troop trains supplying southern territories along the Hajaz railway, organised an attack on the Turk’s red Sea port of Aqaba and marched triumphantly into the city of Damascus.
In a letter to fellow officers describing one of his daring raids on a Turkish train, Lawrence vividly captures the excitement he felt fighting in the desert. The train, he wrote, “had two locomotives and we gutted one with an electric mine. This rather jumbled up the trucks , which were full of Turks shooting at us. We had a Lewis and flung bullets through the sides. So they hopped out and took cover behind the embankment and shot at us between the wheels at 50 yards.Then we tried a Stokes gun, and two beautiful shots dropped right in the middle of them. They could not stand that (12 died on the spot) and bolted away to the East across a 100-yard belt of open sand into some scrub. Unfortunately for them, the Lewis covered the open stretch.
“The Turks then nearly cut us off as we looted the train, and I lost some baggage and nearly myself. My loot is a super-fine red Baluch prayer-rug. I hope this sounds the fun it is. The only pity is the sweat to round them up and the wild scramble while it lasts. It’s the most ...Buffalo-Billy sort of performance, and the only people who do it well are the Bedouin.”
Lawrence’s most dramatic military achievement was his attack on the vital town of Aqaba in July, 1917. This was the last port the Turks held on the Red Sea and its loss meant that the Arab army could join up with the imperial army in Egypt to complete Turkey;s defeat.
With an independent and fierce old desert chief “Auda” 33 camel-men armed with rifles, and saddle-bags full of gold, Lawrence set out to march 200 miles north from Wjec on the Red Sea over the most arid desert in the world.
The gold and Auda’s reputation attracted some 500 local tribesmen and the band attacked the pass commanding the route to Aqaba on July 2. The outcome was both superb and comic: In a wild camel charge, Lawrence accidentally shot his mount and was knocked out as the animal fell. When he came to, the battle was over, with 460 Turks dead or captured for the loss of two Arabs. The most undefended town fell easily. Lawrence returned to Cairo in triumph, the was against the Turk in Arabia nearly over.
After the British under General Allenby had launched a brilliantly successful offensive from Sinai, with Lawrence and his Arabs sweeping up the right flank, they occupied Jerusalem in December 1917. From there Allenby planned his assault on Damascus to end 400 years of Ottoman domination over the Arabs. Nine months later, on September 30, the final push brought the allied troops to the gates of Damascus.
Now Lawrence hoped to realise a long-standing ambition: to make Feisal the King of Syria under British protection, thus “biffing the French out of all hopes of Syria.” Ignoring the fact that the Australians had already arrived, he arranged for the Arabs to march in triumph into the city and ensure that an Arab was governing there.
But Lawrence’s and Feisal’s hopes were rapidly dashed. Allenby summoned Feisal to the Victoria Hotel and informed him - through a discomfited Lawrence acting as interpreter - that Syria was to become a French protectorate and Feisal was to have no real power. Lawrence’s attempt at king-making had failed. Soon he left for Britain, a broken man.
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