The East Versus The West

T.E. Lawrence and the Battle for the Arab World

One of my all-time-favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia. It is a sweeping epic that is one of the greatest movies of all time. It tells the story of the power of one man who makes all the difference by being at the right place, at the right time.

Thomas Edward Lawrence known as T. E. Lawrence, was a British Army officer. His liaisoned during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916–18.

He was at the center of the war in Arabia and was key in their war of liberation. In the end he would hate himself because he felt he had betrayed them.

The Man

Lawrence was a complicated man. He was charismatic, brilliant and utterly self-loathing. After World War I he would be called “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Uncrowned King of Arabia,” and “The Desert King of Arabia.” Despite all this fame he would go into hiding after the war.

He was only 5’6 tall but described by contemporaries as touched by the divine. Men would follow him to their deaths. He would never seek the glory he had won in war.

Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Chapman, left his first marriage when he fell in love with the family governess, Sarah Junner. His parents assumed the name of Lawrence and remained unmarried. He was the second of five illegitimate sons.

He was born in Tremadoc, Wales, in 1888. His illegitimate status liberated him from the traditional class system of England.

Throughout his childhood he wanted to prove himself. He would go without meals, cycle for dozens of miles and stay out all night. All this was to prove himself to be tough.

He was fascinated by all things medieval. He loved studying the history of the Crusades. His childhood was taken up with reading books about epic battles, codes of chivalry and legendary heroes.

The Scholar

His passion for medieval studies would take him to the Middle East. As a young undergraduate from Oxford he studied the design of the great Crusader castles that dotted the landscape of Jordan and Syria.

This was a dangerous and exotic destination for a student in the opening years of the 20th Century. In three months he walked more than 1100 miles without seeing another European face.

This gave him insight into the Arabs. He learned among the nomadic tribes of the Middle East that hospitality was something more than a name. They would give him food without taking payment.

His experiences and graduate thesis was seen as remarkable. He returned to the Middle East as an Archeologist. He would spend the next seven years there.

He became more and more fluent in Arabic. He spoke daily to the Arab workers and learned their deep resentment towards the Ottoman Turks that ruled Middle East.

Lawrence as a Scholar

In Egypt as a Archeologist  

The Ottoman Turks

For more than four centuries the Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East from Constantinople to Mecca. Over the last hundred years the empire was weakening. It was known as, “the sick man of Europe.”

Europe was heading towards World War I. The Germans offered to build a new railway to Baghdad in exchange for an alliance with the Turks. The railway was the key to increase commerce and success.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The book that recalls Lawrence wartime service with the Arabs is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” It is one of the most celebrated adventure books of the 20th Century.

The book also refers to a rock formation called “the seven pillars” of the Wadi Rum region of Jordan where Lawrence operated.

It is from his book we know what happens next.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Intelligence Officer

At his archeological site the railway was scheduled to pass through. He started his intelligence career by making notes on the survey of the railroad and feeding them to the British Foreign Office.

The Great Game was afoot. From his early efforts Lawrence learned tradecraft and the importance of the railway. Once World War I started he became an officer in the British Army.

The Arabs

At the beginning of the 20th Century the Arabs were a poor and desolate people. They were not far removed from the Native Americans of the North America in stages of developments. They were a nomadic people who moved across the desert landscape in caravans with camels and sheep.

They had started a small rebel army against the Turks. Their main forces were in the religious city of Mecca. The dream was to find an Arab nation. Their goal was to bring together the hundreds of feuding tribes under a single government.

The Arabs wanted self-vote, independence from the yoke of the Turks and unity. Brutality was a hallmark of Ottoman rule.

Staff Officer

At the start of the war Lawrence was working in the Intel Section of the Cairo Office of the British Consulate. He was a horrible soldier. He forgot his belt, his hair was too long and he was always late. Life was rough for him as a staff officer with his academic temperament.

Egypt was a strategic part of the British Empire. It overlooked the Suez Canal and gave access to land routes to India. Most important it gave access to oil.

Lawrence was bound to a desk making reports supporting Arab insurrection against the Ottomans.

In May 1915 his brother, Frank, died in the war. At this point the war was going badly for England. The British Army had been slaughtered and stopped at the Turkish port city of Gallipoli.

Turkish victory allowed the enemy to fight elsewhere. Turkish troops were shipped south threatening Egypt. The Brits decided to recruit Arabs to fight for England.

The Turks knew that if the Arabs united they could pose a problem. In Damascus, the Syrian capital, the Turks tried to appease the Arabs.

Call to War

In 1915 the Arabs were ill prepared and badly allied. Hussein bin Ali, was the Sharif and Emir of Mecca from 1908 until 1917. He initiated the Arab Revolt in 1916 against the Ottoman Empire.

Sharif wanted a guarantee of Arab independence from Britain in exchange of Arab help. If they fought they would get self-rule.

In spring 1915 the Brits hoped an Arab revolt would delay the Turkish advance south from Damascus into Egypt. That promise was a call to war.

Liaison Officer

Lawrence could see the macro view of the importance of the struggle of the national Arab movement. Early in the struggle that Arabs had a few victories. Within the weeks the tide turned.

The Turks, using German artillery and planes, began to win battles. The revolt became stagnant with little British support. The movement had only a few thousand tribesman, with no central command, and lacked modern weapons.

Many of the Brits thought the revolt was over before it had begun. Lawrence went to investigate if the Arab Revolt had a future. His fluent Arabic and knowledge of local customs made him a perfect fit for the mission.

This was a dangerous expedition. He had to contend with a fierce desert and a land full of bandits. After a few weeks he believed that the revolt could succeed if the movement had a real leader.

Lawrence met Emir Faisel one of the sons of the Sharif of Mecca. Lawrence impressed Faisel with his knowledge of Arab culture. Over the next few months he provided gold and guns. He acted as a combat multiplier for the Arabs.

Within a few weeks the revolt was on its feet again.

Other Allies

British support of the Arabs was not popular with the other European allies fighting in World War I. The French wanted Syria after the war. They were rivals with the British in that part of the Middle East. It was about the discovery of oil in the region.

The British and French made a deal. At the conclusion of the war the French would get Syria and the Brits would get Palestine (later Israel) and modern day Iraq. The modern borders of these nations were drawn up at this historic meeting.

Becoming Lawrence of Arabia

Faisel suggested that Lawrence dress like an Arab. Over the next couple of months he became one of them. Lawrence was a natural actor. He enjoyed playing the part. He got caught up in the romanticism of being a modern crusader.

In the end it worked. It allowed him to immerse himself.. Over the coming weeks he went from being a liaison to a combatant. He led raids and fighting with the Arabs and gained their trust and respect.

As the months passed Lawrence had limited contact with his British superiors but did find out about the deal. He decided not to tell Faisel.

In the end the British would not stick to the deal. This would led to a 100 years of deep anger that still haunts the modern Middle East. The message was well received- “We (the Arabs), are good enough to die for you (the Western World) in your war but not good enough to rule our own ancestral land.”

When ISIS talks about betrayal this is what they are talking about.

This lie would haunt Lawrence for the rest of his life. For him keeping the promise was a matter of personal honor. He knew for the British the deal with the Arabs was about getting rid of the Turks so Europe could take over.

In a last bid for Arab independence he came up with a plan.

 lawrence as a arab

Lawrence as an Arab


Audacious Plan

Lawrence planned for was for the Arab Army was to get to Damascus before the Allied armies. Looking at the map of the Middle East with Morocco in the west, Baghdad to the east Damascus is the heart of the prize.

On the coast of Jordan sat Aqaba. Aqaba was a Turkish-garrisoned port in Jordan. It threatened British forces operating in Palestine. The Turks had also used it as a base during their 1915 attack on the Suez Canal. Lawrence planned to use as a base to attack Damascus.

If the Arab Army could capture the city they could claim liberation. For Lawrence the greatest challenge was keeping the tribes together. Auda abu Tayi was a great warlord. He was a famed warrior. Faisel was the ruler but Auda was the knight errant that kept the tribes united.

Anthony Quinn Auda abu Tayi

Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi

My favorite scene in the movie of Lawrence of Arabia goes like this. T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) has offered Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) money to join him in the attack on Aqaba. The great reply sums up the Arab attitude, “Auda will not ride to Aqaba for the British gold, he will ride to Aqaba because it pleases him.”

The plan called for a small group to ride across the desert. The Arabs knew that the vastness of the 200 miles of desert was to their advantage. The capture of Aqaba was the future of the Arab Revolt.

In the end 200 Arabs attacked a heavily fortified Turkish stronghold. The Arabs only suffered 2 casualties. From here the Arab Army could attack into Syria or Iraq.

Return to Egypt

Lawrence returned to Egypt. He was recommended for the Victorian Cross (the British Medal of Honor) and a promotion to Major. He was deeply conflicted between his loyalty to the British and the Arabs.

Four months after Aqaba Lawrence returned. The capture of Aqaba transformed the war for both the British and the Arabs. The port could be used to support combat operations all the way to Damascus and from there into Turkey.

It was decided that the Arab Army would move north into Jerusalem. The Arabs took Jerusalem. The British followed right behind. For a medieval scholar to march into the Holy City with a Crusader Army and to free it from oppressive Turks must have been a crowning achievement for Lawrence.

A group of Zionist (Jewish homeland nationalists) approached the British about a Jewish homeland. These declarations flew into the face of the promises made to Sharif that Palestine would be an Arab Homeland.

Things fall apart

After the Arabs and Allies move the Damascus the Turks flee. The Arabs thought they would have an Arab King. Faisel was seen by the Arabs as the likely king.

With the war winding down the plans of the French and British began to emerge. Faisel walked out of the meetings as he saw began to see the final plans. The Arabs were only given a small part in the planning of the new Middle East.

Lawrence left Arabia. He writes that Britain was his wife and that Arabia was his mistress. He feels that he lied to the Arabs.

The Legend Begins

An American reporter named Lowell Thomas started writing about Lawrence of Arabia. His story is told through news reels and newspaper stories.

Lowell Thomas

Lowell Thomas

Back in England Lawrence a high profile campaign for the Arab cause. He writes “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” He publically turned down his medals in protest over the treatment of the Arabs.

In the end the Arabs were pushed south into the Arabian Peninsula. French got Syria and the British got Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Arabs refused to hand over their countries.

The Arabs ignored the final World War I Versailles Treaty. Faisel was crowned king of Arabia.

Five months later the French arrive. King Faisel was ordered to leave Damascus. The Arabs talk about revolting against yet another oppressor.

Lawrence was contacted by Winston Churchill to help sort out the Middle East. He went to Cairo to explain the Arab position. In Iraq the ousted Faisel was crowned king.

Arabs revolted again. The French and British Armies attacked and Damascus and Baghdad were bombed. In the end a compromise was made.

The same issues are still there a hundred years later. Almost nothing has changed. Zionism, fanatical tribesmen (Al Qaeda and ISIS), and Arab nationalists work to suppress the fanatics (Arab Spring in 2011).

Faisel only ruled for ten years. His sons were all killed in 1958 by Baathist Party members. One of them was a young Saddam Hussein.

In the end

In the end Lawrence had seen almost six years of constant tension and violence. Being so close to violence for which he took an exaggerated responsibility took its toll. He would spend his middle age in hiding.

He joined the Royal Air Force as an enlisted man under an assumed name. He wanted to be anonymous.

Lawrence real love was in motorcycles. In speed he was free from the world of the intellect. Going fast allowed him to stop thinking.

lawrence on a motorcycle

Lawrence on a motorcycle

At the age of 46, two months after leaving military service, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his motorcycle in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles. He swerved to avoid them, lost control, and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later on 19 May 1935.

The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road.

Lawrence memorial

The Memorial


He had been at the center of six crucial years that laid the foundation of many of our modern problems we face today.

His contribution to the West’s understanding of the Arab mind is still relevant today. It resonates with what we see going in Afghanistan and Iraq today. When western powers go to the deserts of Arabia bad things seem to happen to both civilizations.


Lawrence, T. (2013). Seven Pillars of Wisdom . CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform .





Skip to toolbar