At the start, he was the most unpromising of military heroes: small, intellectual, shy, noted for his slovenly dress and a lack of regard for military hierarchy or status. But TE Lawrence invented a new kind of warfare, played a pivotal role in the First World War and emerged from the deadliest conflict in history as – probably – the greatest and most celebrated public hero of the age.
There was something almost mythical about him. One story illustrates it. When Allied troops stormed the Ottoman stronghold of Aqaba – with Lawrence at the head of an Arab force – tensions flared between British soldiers and their ostensible Arab allies. The British – believing themselves under attack – were about to retaliate. The consequences would have been catastrophic.
Suddenly, a figure dressed in white robes stepped into the mayhem, and raised his hand. Instantly, the tension subsided. TE Lawrence – an Englishman who had, from his mid-teens, immersed himself in the language, culture and traditions of the Arab world – saved the day.
The British, believing the Ottoman Turks represented a threat to the control of Egypt, encouraged the Arabs to rise against their Turkish colonial masters, arming and supplying them.
“The capture of Aqaba is the most magnificent illustration of his philosophy,” says writer and Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who walked across Iran and Afghanistan, immersing himself in the languages and traditions of a profoundly non-Western culture. Aqaba, he says, demonstrates Lawrence’s mastery of guerrilla warfare, in which a small insurgent force can inflict damage on a much larger, conventional army and then melt back into the local population.
“It was an extraordinary flanking manoeuvre across hundreds of miles of desert, moving through occupied territory and attacking a garrison town in the heart of the Ottoman empire from the most unexpected direction. It showed imagination, speed, risk: Aqaba is the real symbol of Lawrence’s brilliance.”
Lawrence isn’t known to have had any intimate relationships – male or female – with his compatriots. Yet he dedicated his 1926 book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “To S.A.”, with the words “I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands/and wrote my will across the sky in stars/To earn you Freedom…” It’s not clear who the mysterious SA was, but scholars point to a young man called Selim Ahmed, who had worked with him on an archaeological dig, and died in 1918.
The keys to his relationship with the Arabs with whom he fought are described in his famous Twenty Seven Articles, where he states, “Learn all you can… Get to know their families, clans and tribes, friends and enemies, wells, hills and roads. Do all this by listening and by indirect inquiry. Do not ask questions. Get to speak their dialect of Arabic, not yours. Until you can understand their illusions, avoid getting deep into conversation or you will drop bricks.” Lawrence immersed himself so profoundly that he acted, spoke, thought and lived as an Arab.
Rory Stewart, who a decade ago served as a deputy provincial governor in Iraq during the US-led occupation, became disillusioned with the West’s attempts to remake the Arab world in its own image. “Lawrence is brutally honest about the realities of occupation,” he argues. “He identifies how unpopular it can be. We imagine ourselves as well intentioned. But the basic lesson of Lawrence is humility.
“He understood the limitations of what Western powers could do. He had faith in other peoples. He believed in Arabs as an impressive, intelligent, honourable people, who had an extraordinary civilisation. He believed interfering foreigners would make things not better, but worse. He was right.”
Lawrence’s dream was that he would become the prophet of a movement that would deliver independence to the Arabs. Even as he was fighting in the desert, this dream was betrayed and Britain and France conspired to partition liberated Arabia into their respective spheres of influence. Lawrence raged: “We asked them to fight on the basis of a lie.”
By the war’s end, he was, reluctantly, a celebrity. Millions went to see Lawrence of Arabia, the David Lean film about his exploits, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. He was lionised in the USA. After a war that had sent a generation of young men to futile deaths, Lawrence became the hero that the British empire craved. But his warnings – that Britain’s Arab allies had been betrayed by the postwar settlement – went unheeded and to this day cast a shadow over the West’s relationship with the Arab world.