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Sifting the sands of history

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/8/2013 (1473 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the early years of the First World War, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) was a junior officer in the British army, stationed at a desk job in military intelligence in Cairo.

By the end of the war, however, he would be famous as Lawrence of Arabia, the leader of an inspired Arab guerilla campaign against Britain's enemy in the Middle East, the Ottoman Turks.

An image from the promotional poster for the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.


An image from the promotional poster for the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.

A photo of T.E. Lawrence and his compass, watch and cigarette case


A photo of T.E. Lawrence and his compass, watch and cigarette case

The subject of numerous biographies, eventually he would be immortalized in director David Lean's epic 1962 biopic, making him a household name in the English-speaking world.

How did T.E. Lawrence become Lawrence of Arabia? Scott Anderson, a veteran American war correspondent, attempts to answer this question, and much else, in this admirable work of popular history. And his story has relevance to the contemporary Arab world, relevance that Anderson explains toward the end of his narrative.

Indeed, this book has several different facets: it is part biography of Lawrence, and part history of British policy in the Middle East during and after the First World War.

While Lawrence is the central figure, Anderson also recounts the careers of three other figures involved in military intelligence in the Middle East: the American William Yale; the German Curt Prufer; and the Jewish scientist Aaron Aaronsohn.

It should be emphasized that Lawrence accomplished his spectacular military feats and acts of leadership in Arabia and Syria without a single day of military training.

Rather, Lawrence was steeped in a classical humanities education, first at the Oxford High School for Boys, and then at Oxford University.

Lawrence's main academic interest was medieval military history, and he wrote a thesis on this topic based on original research in Syria, where he studied fortifications of the Crusades.

His thesis was awarded first-class honours.

Lawrence's exploits in Arabia demonstrated the value and utility of an education in the humanities. He frequently drew on his historical studies when planning his military campaigns.

Indeed, there were several parallels between warfare in early 20th century Arabia and 14th century Europe. Lawrence's grounding in the latter made the former instantly familiar.

In addition to his academic training, Anderson notes, Lawrence "seemed to possess an instant affinity for the East, and in that affinity an almost instinctive appreciation for how its culture worked."

Another aspect of his youth that would prove useful in Arabia was a penchant, begun in early adolescence, for testing the limits of his endurance -- for example, seeing how far or fast he could ride a bicycle or how long he could go without food or sleep or water.

It is not surprising, then, that Arabs found that Lawrence "could work in the blazing heat for hours without pause, could walk or ride for days without complaint, soldiered through bouts of dysentery and malaria with the composed resignation of a local."

When a segment of the Arabs rose up in revolt against their Ottoman rulers, Lawrence, with his fluency in Arabic, was attached as a liaison officer to one of the Arab leaders.

Originally, it was only intended to be a temporary posting, but Lawrence made himself invaluable to the Arab cause, and his posting lasted the duration of the war.

Anderson describes Lawrence's guerilla campaigns, in particular his conquest of the strategic village of Aqaba, "a feat of arms still considered one of the most daring military exploits of modern times."

Lawrence came to identify deeply with the Arabs, who were fighting under British sponsorship for their independence from Turkey. The Arabs had reason to believe that Britain would support them in their quest for an Arab state encompassing virtually the entire Arab world.

But British diplomacy was marked by duplicity: the British and French had, in a secret treaty in 1916, carved up the postwar Middle East between themselves, leaving little room for an Arab state.

Complicating these territorial matters, the British, with their Balfour Declaration of November 1917, pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the goal of the Zionist movement.

Increased Jewish emigration to Palestine was likely to be fiercely resisted by the Arab inhabitants of the region.

Lawrence, now identifying more with Arab aspirations than his own government, urged the Arabs to take their revolt to Syria -- French territory under the terms of the Anglo-French agreement. He believed that an actual Arab presence on the ground might nullify the treaty.

But when a British and Arab army marched into Damascus in October 1918, French hegemony in Syria was confirmed.

Lawrence did not give up his struggle for Arab independence. He attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, lobbying British politicians and writing editorials on behalf of the Arabs. But, as Anderson writes, "Lawrence's usefulness to the British government had ended." His diplomatic credentials were revoked, and he was barred from further participation.

That Lawrence was treated so shabbily was not entirely surprising. He habitually alienated his military superiors with his disregard for protocol. Lawrence did not conceal his disdain for military culture.

Laurence's non-conformity may have been rooted in his sexuality. Some writers have maintained that Lawrence was a "severely repressed homosexual," according to Anderson, and his sexual orientation remains a matter of controversy to this day.

The events of the First World War and British policy during that conflict, Anderson argues, shaped the modern Middle East.

The West cannot be blamed for the entire troubled history of the region throughout the 20th century. But ever since the First World War, Anderson says, Arab society has defined itself by what it opposes: colonialism, Zionism and Western imperialism.

Arab dictators have stoked this "culture of opposition" in order to divert attention from their own misrule, keeping their populations focused on a perceived external threat.

But this pattern of Middle East politics may be changing. Anderson is hopeful about the Arab Spring movement that began in 2010 and has overturned unpopular dictatorships in several Arab states.

If the Arab Spring results in genuine democracy and self-determination, it will finally realize the vision of the Arab world held by Lawrence a century ago.

Anderson's book is a remarkable achievement. He evokes the brilliant, enigmatic Lawrence, showing his impact on the Middle East and placing his career within the context of British diplomacy during the First World War. In doing so, he illuminates the current politics of the region, providing the historical background to today's headlines.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.


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