Lawrence's unhappy legacy still casts a shadow over the Middle East
Late in the morning on May 13, 1935, a middle-aged motorcyclist swerved to avoid two cyclists in a leafy Dorset lane. He lost control, flew over his handlebars and hit the road headfirst. Six days later - 70 years ago today - he died, having never regained consciousness. The motorcyclist was T E Lawrence, the hero of the Arab Revolt, the causes and consequences of which have an ongoing significance today.
When the Ottomans joined the Germans' side in the First World War, the Ottoman Sultan proclaimed a jihad against Britain. Chilled by this underhand appeal to their 100 million Muslim subjects, the British approached Sherif Husein, a direct descendant of Mohammed, who also ruled Mecca, and encouraged him to revolt. They hoped that a dissonant rebellion against the Ottomans in Islam's capital city would drown out the Sultan's call to Holy War.
Won over by a vague promise of an empire encompassing Arabia, modern Israel, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, which Britain never anticipated having to honour, Husein agreed. When his uprising began, in June 1916, the Ottomans were ejected from Mecca. But the momentum of the revolt quickly evaporated in the ferocious summer heat and in London a fierce debate ensued over whether troops should be sent to prevent the Ottomans recapturing Mecca, which they feared might trigger Islamic unrest around the Empire. Later that year Lawrence, then a 27-year-old intelligence officer who had learnt Arabic as an archaeologist in the region before the war, was sent in by the opponents of direct intervention and asked to produce a partisan report supporting their cause.
Having travelled into the jagged Hejaz mountains that separated Mecca from the Ottomans' remaining foothold in Medina, Lawrence argued that the Bedouin were ideal guerrillas whom the British should support, but with only advisers, weapons and ammunition. Regular Army officers were sceptical: Britain always fought against insurgents, not with them. It was Lawrence's other argument that won them over. The French, he claimed, wanted to send foreign troops into such a sensitive region precisely because they feared the Arabs might deny them Syria - which they had always coveted - and wanted the revolt to fail.
Lawrence was one of a handful of officers who were then sent into the Hejaz to help the Arabs. They were the first of a now familiar strain of sun-glassed "advisers" who pop up today in insurgent conflicts around the world, armed with satellite telephones and boxes full of money. Bereft of modern technology, the British officers had to screw up their eyes against the sun and go for weeks without contact with their colleagues in lonely forays into unmapped, mountainous country. Their main target was the railway between Medina and Damascus. They attacked trains carrying not only soldiers, but civilians escaping the deteriorating conditions inside Medina, with devastating effect. Go to the serrated landscape of the Hejaz today and you can still see the consequences of their work: a rust-brown steam engine half sunk in the sand, thrown by a mine 10 yards clear of the track; skeletal carriages, their wooden sides long since plundered for firewood; tumbledown bridges along the line of the long since vanished track.
Lawrence discovered guerrilla warfare almost by accident. He helped to popularise - not pioneer - its techniques. With hindsight he laid out a philosophy for this impromptu war in his cathartic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But his hit-and-run tactics simply reflected the tribesmen's limitations. They would never stand and fight, preferring to run but live to raid another day. In fact the tribesmen's unreliability made Lawrence increasingly prefer to use stripped-down Rolls-Royce cars and British soldiers instead of camels and tribesmen for raiding work. Petrol was a new weapon in modern warfare, decisive in the desert where mobility and access to water were crucial, and Lawrence was among the first to recognise its power. He remained fascinated by speed to the end of his life. In the Western Desert in the Second World War, the Long Range Desert Group - the forerunners of the modern SAS - would take up where Lawrence left off.
Halfway through his campaign, Lawrence also discovered the diplomatic wrangling that had preceded the revolt. Expedient British promises of land to the Arabs, then Syria to France, and subsequently Palestine to the Jews, astonished him. By the time he reached Damascus, in October 1918, Lawrence was embittered: he realised that by fighting for Britain, he had been complicit in the transfer of power from the Arabs to the French, whose influence in the Middle East he had always hoped to reduce. He also foresaw that the Jews - far better organised than the Arabs - would rapidly take control of Palestine.
In a letter he wrote to Sir Mark Sykes, the Conservative MP and author of the agreement that secretly conceded Syria to the French, Lawrence acknowledged the dilemma which had led Britain to put the French first: "You know I'm strongly pro-British, and also pro-Arab. France takes third place with me: but I quite recognise that we may have to sell our small friends to pay for our big friends, or sell our future security in the Near East to pay for our present victory in Flanders... we are in rather a hole." He concluded: "Please tell me what, in your opinion, are the actual means by which we will find a way out."
On the advice of a colleague who wrongly thought Sykes's agreement would not outlive the war, Lawrence never sent the letter. Perhaps his final question was unanswerable.
Britain's failure to honour its initial promise to the Arabs created a reservoir of deep resentment on which opponents of the West have regularly drawn. In his first public statement after September 11, Osama bin Laden reminded the world that "our nation has been tasting humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years". Today, the legacy of the campaign Lawrence fought with the tribesmen of north-west Arabia remains indelibly imprinted on the modern Middle East.
© James Barr 2013