The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia’ (presented by Rory Stewart in 2 parts, BBC 2010)

With Lawrence in Arabia’ by Lowell Thomas (1924)

The BBC have just broadcast a two-part documentary film hosted by Rory Stewart, a highly intelligent 35-year old ex Etonian already co-opted by the Tories to stand for a safe Lakeland/Borders constituency in the forthcoming election.  Stewart is certainly a colourful character; his USP appears to be to trek on foot (perhaps he ‘yomps’?)around his potential constituency, much of which is wild moorland.  This will no doubt play well among the isolated rural communities still recovering from the winter floods.

 Prior to circumnavigating the Lake District, Stewart was based in Kabul.  Known locally as Lawrence of Belgravia, his role in Kabul was to try to preserve what is left of the city’s old buildings for posterity.  Heaven knows what the Afghans made of this tousle-haired boy-man with his cut glass accent and rumpled suits – frequently abandoned in favour of native garb.  Before taking on this role in Kabul, Stewart had already walked across Afghanistan in the footsteps of Babur, one of the Mogul emperors, so trekking round Cumbria clearly didn’t present too many problems.

Rory Stewart – ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’? 

And there’s more on his overcrowded CV – until 2004, Stewart worked for the Foreign Office and was acting Governor of an Iraqi province in the wake of the invasion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of his heroes is T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who pretty much wrote the book (literally & figuratively) on Brits going native in the Middle East.  The fact that it is Stewart rather than some dull but worthy Oxford don who has been selected to present this show is not without significance.  As the picture above suggests, Stewart, too, is not blind to the potential propaganda gains of ‘going native’ and he  has no doubt acquired a whiff of glamour by association as we are invited to see him as a 21st century reincarnation of Lawrence.  A surefire vote-winner up in the Borders, no doubt.

Given his involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stewart’s  fascination for Lawrence is hardly to be wondered at.  Many Englishmen over the years have bought into the whole Lawrence saga and Stewart will not be the last to do so.

However, his particular interest in Lawrence arises out of yet another Allied invasion of the Middle East which, like the one in which Lawrence was embroiled, has brought highly dubious results to the area in political terms.  Hardly surprising therefore that those compelled to spend time out in the Gulf are studying Lawrence’s writings as never before – indeed, as Stewart himself points out, these days, US soldiers are fully expected to read some, if not all, of Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (or perhaps the abridged version: ‘Revolt in the Desert’) .

Myself, I am currently reading Lowell Thomas’ ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’, published in 1924 as a companion piece to his narrated ‘son et lumiére’ piece, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’ with which Thomas toured the world and which featured incense burners and exotic dancers cavorting before murals of the Pyramids as well as filmed footage shot in Arabia and Syria by Thomas and his cameraman, Harry Chase. 

 Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

In 1914, as war engulfed Western Europe, Thomas was a reporter based in Chicago.  He was deputed by President Woodrow Wilson as one of a number of journalists whose official task was to ‘compile a history of the conflict’, but whose real mission was to find stories in the European theatre of war that would whip up enthusiasm for the War in the USA.  Thomas’ plan was to use the exciting new medium of film to record the story of the War.  However, the US Government balked at his budget and he instead recruited the financial support of a consortium of Chicago businessmen (they owed him a favour or two, but that’s another story) to finance his trip – it is to them that ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’ is dedicated.

 Thomas found little in Flanders to thrill his American readers & viewers, so he travelled on into Italy, where he first heard about Lawrence and his exploits in the desert from an Australian naval officer.  Thomas swiftly gained accreditation as a war journalist and travelled to Jerusalem where he first met up with Lawrence.

 In a series of skilful newsreels and written pieces, Thomas set about creating the romantic image of the white-robed adventurer who was leading the wild Bedouin tribesmen of the trackless wastes of Arabia in an extraordinary revolt against the moribund Turkish Empire.  American (and British) audiences bought into this amazing saga with huge gusto, propelling their country towards war.

 ‘The uncrowned King of Arabia’

Of course, it wasn’t quite that straightforward.  In reality, Lawrence was having to pay out huge quantities of gold to the tribesmen in order to dissuade them from returning home to their desert camps.  Their view of the conflict was purely tribal; only Lawrence and the Royal Family represented by Emir Faisal appeared to have a real belief in an independent Arabia governed by Faisal and his descendents.

 Elsewhere, the French and the British were already quietly planning to carve up the post-war  Middle East along colonial lines with the French assuming control of Northern Iraq and what we now refer to as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, whilst the British would take control of Arabia, Palestine and Mesopotamia as well as retaining their foothold in Egypt.

 Those principally responsible for this were a French bureaucrat called Picot and a minor Tory MP and Yorkshire baronet, Sir Mark Sykes.  Sykes was (somewhat laughably) considered to be an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and, as Rory Stewart points out, had published several books on the Middle East, including one where it’s possible to find the following index entry; ‘Arab, character of – see Treachery’

 Lawrence was well aware of these clandestine moves and was clearly enough of a romantic to have a greater loyalty to Feisal than to the British authorities.  He felt that if he could get the ‘Arab Army’, as it was now called, into Damascus before the Allies got there, then Faisal could claim the symbolic secular capital of the Arab world for the Arabs and the Allies would have to respect that claim.

 He succeeded as well, though in the end it was a futile gesture.  Allenby just waited for the putative ‘Arab Government’ of Damascus to fragment into a series of tribal squabbles before graciously accepting Faisal’s desperate plea to assume control of the city.  Lawrence left Damascus for the UK the following day and never returned to the desert.

 However triumphant his successes against the Turks, Lawrence was to find that his next opponents – his own government and associated allies like the French – were to be far more obdurate.  Lawrence attended the Versailles Peace Conference as a special envoy to Emir Faisal who was there to press his claims for an independent Arab state even though he was worldly enough to understand that the British and French were unlikely to co-operate. 


 Emir Faisal (front centre) at the Versailles Conference with his staff.  Lawrence is to his immediate right.

Has there ever been a Peace Conference more guaranteed to set down markers for multiple future conflicts? Versailles must surely stand as a watchword for the kind of bumbling incompetence and vainglorious, short-sighted bureaucratic stupidity which has subsequently fuelled the comic creations of everyone from the Goons to Monty Python, except there was little humour for those who struggled to cope with the complete lack of understanding displayed by Sykes, Picot and their cohorts.

 The maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn to suit the imperial pretensions of the victorious powers without any regard to the feelings of the vanquished or, apparently, some of the Allies.  After all, the Bedouin had fought at Allenby’s side to free themselves of one imperial infestation, only to immediately be saddled with another.  Lawrence had promised all who fought alongside him an Arabia for the Arabs, but thanks to the bureaucrats, the maps of the Middle East were redrawn by men who had no conception of the tribal boundaries or loyalties that Lawrence had wrestled with as he pushed the Arab Revolt northwards.  Lawrence & Faisal struggled in vain to overcome the tides of red ink that were carving the Middle East into parcels for either the French or the British to administer as they saw fit.

 In the end, Faisal the pragmatist took the Mesopotamian olive branch the British offered him, becoming King of Iraq in 1921.  Lawrence the dreamer, the idealist, the romantic – he attempted to retreat from public life altogether, trying to lose  himself in academia or in the anonymity of services life just as Lowell Thomas was turning him into one of the 20th Century’s first media-constructed celebrities.  However, unlike Valentino, Chaplin and Lillian Gish, Lawrence was by no means always  a willing accomplice to his own public persona. 


 Lawrence initially retreated into the academic world in order to write ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, but then enlisted in the fledgling RAF in 1922 under an assumed name.  His cover was soon blown and he then enlisted in the Tank Corps where he spent 2 unhappy years before returning to the RAF in 1925.  The publication of ‘Revolt in the Desert’ in 1926 brought a further surge in public interest and Lawrence was posted to a series of obscure RAF bases in modern-day Pakistan….and so the unhappy tale continues until Lawrence finally left active service in early 1935.   

 After the War came the peace, but not for Lawrence.  Like many before and since he found that war had defined his life whether he wanted it to or not. He died in a motorcycle crash near his Dorset home just a few weeks after becoming a civilian for good.  He was 46 years old.

 Amongst the many papers Lawrence left behind was a map now housed in London’s Imperial War Museum showing his vision for a post-war Middle East.  Significantly, the colonial influence of all the Great Powers – especially the French- is diminished.  Lawrence had also envisaged a separate homeland for the Armenians and British influence extending along the Tigris/Euphrates valleys.  It’s tempting to suggest that Lawrence’s vision for the post-war Middle East would have proven less of a disaster than the Sykes/Picot version, but of course, second-guessing history can be a dangerous game.

 Lawrence’s map of the Middle East as he hoped it might be after the War

My fascination with Lawrence is in itself, of course, a media-fuelled vision.  The main impact was created by David Lean’s magnificent ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) where Peter O’Toole’s tormented adventurer storms unforgettably across the screen , re-igniting the whole Lawrence saga for another generation. Even Lowell Thomas gets in on the act as ‘Jackson Bentley’ in the film, played to good effect by Arthur Kennedy.  Had it not been for this film, Lawrence might just have been seen as another British eccentric like Sir Richard Burton. 

 What might Burton’s reputation be today if Lean had made a film of his extraordinary life?  One of the first ‘infidels’ to visit Mecca, discovering Lake Tanganyika and one of the sources of the Nile…it’s every bit as compelling as Lawrence’s exploits…..

Sir Richard Burton 

And then of course, there’s Indiana Jones; surely Steven Spielberg’s hybrid blend of Humphrey Bogart and T.E. Lawrence…..

 Meanwhile, Rory Stewart wanders the desert pensively or discusses Allied policy with Iraqi shopkeepers whilst reflecting on how right Lawrence was to try to prevent xenophobic pen-pushers like Sykes getting their hands on the keys to the map room. 

 Too late, Rory; that die was cast before you and I were even born…..


4 responses to “The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

  1. I don’t generally reply to articles but I’ sure will in this case. Seriously a big thumbs up for this one C CLass IP hosting!

  2. I love the “tousle-haired boy-man” description. Very apt and fetching.

  3. Pingback: 50 years of ‘Lawrence’ – plus an Intermission | Learning to say nothing

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