The Biography of Lawrence of Arabia

Introduction

Lawrence of Arabia was an incredible military strategist who used unconventional tactics to succeed over an overwhelming number of Turkish troops and thus boost his nation’s efforts in the Middle East. Lieutenant Thomas Lawrence role in the British campaign in the Middle Eastern region has been debated for decades especially today. Some individuals assert that Lawrence’s presence could have been easily replaced by another army officer since he was in the right place at the right time. However, one simply has to look at the situation in the Middle East prior to commencement of the Arab Revolt. Things were not looking up for the British within that region but they immediately changed when Lawrence intervened. Furthermore, Lawrence strived to identify with the Arabs by interacting with them and embracing their culture. Under his leadership, the Arabs were able to claim victory over the Turks despite the fact that they started out small. In fact, estimates illustrate that the ratio of Arab troops to Turks was 3:17. Clearly, these accomplishments could not have been possible if Lawrence did not know what he was doing.

Competing views on Lawrence’s role in the Arab revolt

Asher (1999) explains that Lawrence’s ways were exceptional because he did something that other British Commanders rarely did; he empathized with the locals and started to live like them. He really wanted to understand the Arab way of life and the forces that would drive them against the Turks1. To achieve this goal, Lawrence ate like the Arabs did; he dressed like they did and even learnt their language. He was therefore empathetic of the locals even though he was a representative of the British Army. Nonetheless, this author urges readers to look beyond these actions and examine Lawrence’s motivations. Asher affirmed that Lawrence was utilizing this technique to gain control over the Arabs. The Lieutenant thought of Arabs as better than British because they were unblemished and untainted by the ways of the world. They were not as exposed as the British and this was the reason why foreigners in that land were often in privileged positions. Therefore, according to the author of “Lawrence: The uncrowned King of Arabia”, Lawrence was living and interacting with the people of Arabia so as to establish control over them. Consequently, this assertion attempts to take away any perception of Lawrence that makes him look like a hero to the Arabic people. Nonetheless, one can challenge this notion through Lawrence’s reaction at the end of the Arab Revolt. When the British Empire failed to deliver on its promise of a unified Arabian state, Lawrence became so frustrated that he quit his job. These cannot be the actions of someone who was acting selfishly for the British. Also certain individuals actually believe that Lawrence learned to ride the camel and the Arabian language in order to camouflage amongst his followers in the war. These assertions have rarely been negated or supported as Lawrence himself was a very controversial person. His motives may be unclear but what should concern historians is the effect that his actions had in the Middle East.

Other authors especially the well known Lowell Thomas have painted a legendary or heroic picture of Lawrence2. This writer was responsible for getting Lawrence’s story out there in the masses. British citizens read about his exploits in the Arab Revolt and therefore came to respect him as a national hero. He appeared to be a British Robin hood in the midst of troubling times for the British, Germans and the French. However, these assertions had painted Lawrence’s accomplishments in black and white. The issue was much more complex than that because he had so much to do in that region.

How Lawrence played an exceptional role in the Arab Revolt and WW1

His interactions with the locals

When Thomas Lawrence was elected as an intelligence expert in Arabia, he knew that this was going to be a challenging role. First of all, Britain’s interests in the Middle East were threatened and Lawrence could act as that crucial person to mend those relations. Furthermore, he knew that there was continual opposition against the Ottoman Turks. This had been brought on by the fact that many Arabs in the Ottoman Empire were continually oppressed. Most of them were discriminated against and even prosecuted. Their culture and language was different from the native Turks and its opposition is what led most of them to disapprove of Turkish rule. He could use this opposition as leverage against the Turks who had chosen to liaise with the Central powers. In this sense, he could strengthen the Allied powers’ positions and thus contribute towards their victory in the First World War. Given such adverse repercussions, Lawrence needed to liaise with individuals who would ensure success in the Arab revolt. In fact, in his biography “Seven Pillars”, Lawrence explained that he was awe struck by Sheik Feisal Hussein. He described Faisal’s physical appearance in the book and asserted that those qualities would be quite appropriate in his planned endeavors3. Lawrence further asserts that he knew at first glance that Faisal was the man that he had come to Arabia to look for as he had the potential to bring victory in the Arab revolt. This very statement illustrates that Lawrence had planned his exploits in the Middle Eastern region even prior to his arrival in that land.

Lawrence then wore Arab costume and started working hand in hand with Sheikh Feisal in order to stage a full Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. His task was much easier owing to the fact that he could speak the same language as the Sheikh. In this regard, he was able to tactfully build rapport with this individual and together, they curved out an efficient strategy. It should be noted that he did not just happen to fall into the presence of the Sheikh. Lawrence knew that Feisal’s tribesmen (Hejaz) were interested in seizing Medina. This was more or less the same goal that the Brits had against the Turks. Consequently, forging an alliance with Feisal would prove to be one of the wisest decisions made because Lawrence could harness this drive that Faisal’s men had to defeat the Turks. Lawrence relationships with the locals were rarely done haphazardly; he knew what he could gain out of them and that was why he went specifically to Feisal4. He knew that this person was his ticket to success in that region because he commanded a lot of respect from his people and had the potential to mobilize them for this Revolt. Also, Lawrence’s interactions with the locals allowed him to study and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. When trying to achieve this aim, Lawrence would do everything in the same way that the locals did. He rode camels with them and fitted into their lifestyles well. In fact, this approach won great admiration from them. Some of them even gave him an Arabic name – Al Auruns and regarded him as a prince amongst them. He endeared himself to the Arabs and therefore established a great degree of trust between them. He was also in a great place to understand them as they interacted. Once he understood them, he could then know the strategies that could work for him and the ones that would not. Thomas Lawrence was a tactician who forged critical alliances even with natives that other British commanders in the past tended to ignore.

Use of Asymmetrical tactics

Asymmetric warfare refers to a conflict that involves two unequal powers or countries where one party attempts to take advantage of the weaknesses of another using unconventional means. Usually, this involves a weaker party exploiting the weaknesses of the stronger party in order to make up for deficits in the quality or the quantity of the military prowess of that weaker team5. In a conventional war, two opposing sides will normally have the same quality and quantity of resources and forces. Usually, one group will defeat the other by controlling their forces well or by executing a better command of their Army. However, in asymmetrical warfare, better command may not necessarily be applicable; instead, what counts is the application of tactics. Sometimes, one group may possess a technological advantage in terms of military resources. On the other hand, a weaker team may use technological advances to undermine the morale of the stronger team. In the case of the Arab Revolt, Thomas Lawrence knew that the Ottoman side was much stronger that the Arab side. They had several technological advancements such as rail transport. Lawrence knew that the railway was vital to the economy of the Turks and if it was put down then their forces would be severely undermined. He therefore chose to use this tactic because he realized that as the Ottomans tried to guard or repair their railway line then they could not concentrate on attacking the Arabs in the war. Asymmetrical warfare also occurs when those concerned groups decide to use terrain to their advantage. In the Arab Revolt, this tactic was quite applicable because Lawrence moved away from Medina along the railway. He knew that Medina was a stronghold so he avoided it as much as possible. Parties may also use harassment as an effective way of defeating the stronger power. This method was highly applicable in the Arab Revolt because Lawrence would harass Ottoman troops from time to time and then move on. In asymmetric warfare, weaker powers are always willing to exploit their civilians in order to change the circumstances of the war and make it in their favor. This strategy was also employed by Lawrence and the Arab followers during the Arab Awakening. At that time, they had very small numbers, however, they kept on getting support from Trans Jordan Arab tribesmen who were not necessarily trained but did play crucial roles in keeping Ottoman powers in check. In the end, it can be said that this Revolt was the defeat of a stronger power – the Ottoman Turks, by a seemingly weaker power- the Arabs because of their asymmetrical tactical approach.

The most important contribution that Lawrence made to the British campaign in the Middle East was through his unconventional approach to the Revolt6. Initially, Britain had started pursuing the Turks within the Suez Canal. However, a direct confrontation proved not to be effective because at some point, their launch immediately came to a halt. The Ottoman Empire was quite vast and majority of the Middle Eastern region was dominated by these individuals. In fact, prior to the Arab revolt, Britain was immediately stopped when they reached the Gaza region. On the month of June 1916, the Arab Awakening or what is popularly known as the Arab revolt had just started. This revolt started without the presence of Lawrence and it had not gone very well. Britain had only succeeded in Jidda, Mecca and Taif but had not gone any further than that. Also, because they had not been successful in capturing the railway line, then the Revolt’s major successes got undermined. After the arrival of Lawrence these negative patterns were immediately altered. The apparent turnaround was mostly because of the unconventional or the asymmetrical approach that he chose7.

Lawrence and other British leaders were responsible for securing an Arab victory against the Turks. They carried this out through their strategic contributions as well as through their logistical support. Britain provided the Arabs with guns, ammunition and even gold in order give back up to these troops. Even a small number of troops from Britain, India and France did play a role in this campaign against the Turks. If Lawrence had not been there to mobilize the Arabs then Britain would not have participated in the Revolt as effectively as they did or they would not have offered their material and their men in order to build this campaign. In fact, it was through Lawrence’s leadership in collaboration with Feisal and Allenby that most Arab tribesmen began to identify with the cause. Turks started getting intimidated by the Arabs and were even overwhelmed by this campaign.

Asymmetrical warfare can also be analyzed in terms of British interests in the Middle East and the Ottoman-German alliance. The Arab Revolt was going to be pivotal to the British position in the First World War as well as that of the Allies. The Ottoman Army was capable of attacking the Suez Canal which was an instrumental aspect of the British Empire in that region. For that reason, Britain realized that they needed to hold down these Ottoman troops while they could carry out an offensive against the Turks. If the Brits did this when the Turks were already preoccupied with another war, then they had minimal chances of dealing with a counterattack from the Attacks. This was the reason why the British decided to support and even participate in the Arab Revolt. Lawrence was the persona that would be responsible for bringing into effect this Arab uprising. He therefore kept in mind the overall purpose for which the war was established and therefore became an important part of the campaign. Therefore, British support for the Arabs was another case of asymmetrical warfare owing to the tactics and motives for the British Empire’s involvement in the war.

The British had always been interested in the Middle East; especially Turkey. This was because the Ottoman Turks controlled a very important aspect of the region i.e. the Suez Canal. This was a crucial connector to India so Britons needed to safeguard that route. Initially, they collaborated with the Turks in order to ensure that this took place. However, after commencement of the First World War, Germany (a central power) was eager for alliances and it approached the Turks who easily accepted this hand of friendship. Britain realized that it needed to do something in order to prevent any losses. Prior to this friendship, the central allies were only composed of the Germans and Hungary8. However, now there were three countries in the enemy camp and Britain could not just sit there and watch this happen. They decided to undermine the effectiveness of the Turks in the First World War by backing up a Revolt against Ottoman ruling. This would ascertain that they were so preoccupied with the Revolt that they could not effectively participate in World War One. In other words, this was another instance of asymmetrical warfare because it would divert attention of one party to another issue while the main War would still be going on. Indeed Thomas Lawrence came in to implement this strategy because his was a mandate that would defend the position of the Britons in the World War. Most of his decisions were made with this fact in mind. For instance, when looking for a leader among the Hejaz Arabs, Lawrence settled for someone who was neither too brainy nor too subservient or cool headed. In fact when he had been given the intelligence position in Jeddah, he rounded up the entire Arab royal family9. He looked at all four sons of the Sheikh. Lawrence asserted that Abdullah (the second born son) was too smart for his own good. Abdullah disagreed with Lawrence on the Turks and even got into an argument with him. It is likely that he did not want to work with a smart person in order to hide the British strategy and intentions in the region. When he arrived he met the first born son and fourth born son, he quickly dismissed them as well because they were too cool and too organized. Finally when he met the third born son, Feisal, he realized that this would be the ideal individual because he was neither too argumentative nor was he too impassionate about leading an Arab uprising. This would be the individual who would mobilize his people against the Turks and sustain a Revolt against them such that the Turks would not be in a position to carry on actively with the Central powers in the World War. Also Lawrence realized that Feisal really believed in the Arab national movement and therefore had the capacity to carry forward this diversionary plan to the end.

Prior to the First World War, the Ottoman Empire went through a coup; it was invaded by a group known as the Young Turks in 1908. At that time, they decided that they would create a secular empire rather than a pan Islamic one. This meant that all non Turks would be discriminated against; the Arabs were first on their list. Teaching of their language was immediately prohibited and they also started persecuting them. The King of the Arabs two sons – Faisal and Abdullah had started championing a number of nationalistic causes. Nonetheless, most of their endeavors did not go well because several Arab nationals would be arrested in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans also constructed a railway that would get them into Mecca. This fact was quite dangerous because it meant that the Turks would now be in a position to dominate the Arabs. They needed to do something as soon as possible10. Also, the King of the Arabs was nursing an idealistic movement for Muslims. He wanted a united Islamic nation throughout the Middle East that would encompass a series of territories. He could not do this on his own since the Turks were already so strong. They welcomed support from the British because they knew their chances of achieving this Pan Islamic nation were higher if they fought against the Turks than if they were loyal to them. They did not go at it alone because they knew that Turkey was the stronger power. Asymmetrical war tactics would be that pivotal method that the Arabs would use in order to confront such a major power. Lawrence made them realize that launching a direct attack on the Turks was not going to be feasible but using other unconventional methods would be their only chance. They accepted this suggestion and it eventually led to their triumph.

Use of guerilla tactics

Lawrence realized that he was severely outnumbered by the Turks at the time when he had just arrived in the region. His relationship with the locals also brought out another potential problem for him; the fact that Sheikh Feisal’s men were undisciplined. If he utilized conventional methods of war, he would most likely fall into a huge trap. He knew that he had something to work with in the form of the drive and commitment to the Arab Revolt that Feisal’s men possessed. On the other hand, he also knew that there was another weakness on the Turk’s side; they heavily relied on the railway to transport supplies to Medina. Since the Arab’s major interest was Medina then they could use this aspect to their advantage. Lawrence asserted that the only way they could defeat such a vast number of Turkish troops was through the use guerilla warfare. His plan was to move along the railway line and get Turkish troops as he went along11.

This would prove to be a very wise move since several Arab tribesmen kept joining them along the way as the moved north. Their best move was to control this line in a way that would take the Turks away from Medina. It should be noted that this railway was not multi-tracked. Consequently, if Feisal’s men and the rest of the Arab troops concentrated on the track then they could reach a vast number of Turkish troops in minimal quantities. The Ottoman Empire sent troops to guard the railway line and the Arabs together with Lawrence kept on attacking them. As the Hejaz Arabs kept on moving, they would attract more and more Arabic supporters who would fight with them and then leave them to continue. Great moments of victory occurred from time to time such as the capture of Aqaba. When Lawrence reached this territory, they started at the back and then moved on to the front. Theirs was a very successful strategy because it immediately became Feisal’s headquarters. Straight away, Feisal placed himself under British Command through General Allenby. The latter individual would later prove to be a pivotal role in the success of the Arab Revolt. He got on well with Lawrence and the two of them curved out a strategy that would ensure success in the subsequent sections of the Arab Revolt.

Allenby, Lawrence and the Arab followers continued on and led an attack against Tafila. Lawrence once again illustrated his military prowess through the use of diversionary tactics in collaboration with Allenby. On the month of September 19th, 1918, they launched a large attack against the Turks. Allenby was supposed to be in charge of one group while Lawrence was to organize another diversionary attack at Deraa. Both launches proved to be very successful and they led to the instatement of Lawrence as a military and civil commander for Feisal12.

All these accomplishments were possible because of the strategic nature of the Arab revolt. Lawrence established a mechanism for spreading the Turkish defense thin. About one hundred and fifty thousand men under Turkish Command were defeated along the railway lines. Furthermore, his strategy brought together a severely disorganized and disunited group and thus made the British campaign that much more successful. The mobility of their guerilla tactics also contributed to their success because they would only take on what they were capable of handling. Also, the nature of the support they could garner from other Arab Tribesmen was sufficient because it was done only one step at a time. All these successes in the Revolt would not have been feasible if the Arabs were left on their own or if Lawrence did not work hand in hand with them to launch a huge revolt.

Conclusion

Lawrence of Arabia was a tactful and diplomatic individual because of the role that he played in the Arab Revolt and hence the First World War. First of all, his manner of interaction with the locals was heavily calculated. He lived like the Arabs in order to curve out a strategic alliance with them and also to camouflage amongst them in war. He chose to employ asymmetrical tactics in the war so that he could overpower the stronger Turkish Army. Additionally, Lawrence used guerilla tactics in the Arab Revolt because he knew the Arabs were fewer in number and lacked discipline. All these actions testify to the fact that Lawrence was a military strategist and incredibly intelligent man who took on challenges tactfully and with much insight.

References

Shariff Hussein Ali: King of the Arabs. Royal Hashemite Court Archives, n.d.

Lawrence, Thomas. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. NY: Doubleday Doran and Company, 1927.

Asher, Michael. Lawrence: The uncrowned king of Arabia. Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

Garnett, David. The Letters of T.E. Lawrence. NY: Avon Books, 1938.

Murphy, David. The Arab Revolt 1916-1918: Lawrence sets Arabia Ablaze. NY: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized biography of T.E. Lawrence. NY: Atheneum, 1990.

Arreguin Toft, Ivan. How the weak win wars: A theory of asymmetric conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Merom, Gil. How democracies lose small wars, NY: Cambridge, 2003.

Rum, Wadi. The Great Arab Revolt. Royal Hashemite Court Archives, 1917.

Record, Jeffrey. Beating Goliath: Why insurgencies win. Washington: Potomac Books, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. Asher, Michael. Lawrence: The uncrowned king of Arabia. Cambridge: CUP, 1999
  2. Asher, Michael. Lawrence: The uncrowned king of Arabia. Cambridge: CUP, 1999
  3. Lawrence, Thomas. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. NY: Doubleday Doran and Company, 1927
  4. Shariff Hussein Ali: King of the Arabs. Royal Hashemite Court Archives, n.d.
  5. Record, Jeffrey. Beating Goliath: Why insurgencies win. Washington: Potomac Books, 2007
  6. Merom, Gil. How democracies lose small wars, NY: Cambridge, 2003
  7. Arreguin Toft, Ivan. How the weak win wars: A theory of asymmetric conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
  8. Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized biography of T.E. Lawrence. NY: Atheneum, 1990
  9. Asher, Michael. Lawrence: The uncrowned king of Arabia. Cambridge: CUP, 1999
  10. Garnett, David. The Letters of T.E. Lawrence. NY: Avon Books, 1938
  11. Murphy, David. The Arab Revolt 1916-1918: Lawrence sets Arabia Ablaze. NY: Osprey Publishing, 2008
  12. Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized biography of T.E. Lawrence. NY: Atheneum, 1990