Special Report

The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia

His daring raids in World War I made him a legend. But in the Middle East today, the desert warrior’s legacy is written in sand

The Middle East’s austere terrain lured Lawrence: “The abstraction of the desert landscape,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “cleansed me.” (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
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That attack was to be coordinated with Allenby’s sweep north through Palestine. It was Lawrence’s mission to cut off the Turks’ retreat at their most vulnerable spot: the railroad juncture of Deraa. Early on the morning of September 19, 1918, Lawrence and his followers began slipping out of Azraq castle, bound for the town where Lawrence had been tortured.

On September 27, after coming upon the village of Tafas, where the fleeing Turks had massacred many residents, Lawrence ordered his men to give “no quarter.” Throughout that day, the rebels picked apart a retreating column of 4,000, slaughtering all they found, but as Lawrence doubled back that afternoon, he discovered one unit had missed the command and taken 250 Turks and Germans captive. “We turned our Hotchkiss [machine gun] on the prisoners,” he noted in his battlefield report, “and made an end of them.” Lawrence was even more explicit about his actions that day in Seven Pillars. “In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”

Racing on to Damascus, Lawrence swiftly set up a provisional Arab government, with Faisal at its head. But when Allenby reached Damascus two days later, he summoned Lawrence and Faisal to the Victoria Hotel to inform them that, as outlined by Sykes-Picot, the city was to be placed under French administration. No sooner had a defeated Faisal left the room than Lawrence begged Allenby to be relieved of his command.

But Lawrence wasn’t finished fighting just yet. With the war in Europe drawing to a close, he hurried to London to begin lining up support for the Arab cause at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Acting as Faisal’s personal agent, he frantically lobbied prime ministers and presidents to uphold the promises made to the Arabs and to prevent a peace imposed along the lines laid out in Sykes-Picot. By that scheme, “Greater” Syria was to be divided into four political entities—Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria—with the British taking the first two, the French the latter. As for Iraq, Britain had planned to annex only the oil-rich southern section, but with more oil discovered in the north, they now wanted the whole thing.

Lawrence sought allies wherever he could find them. Surely the most remarkable was Chaim Weizmann, head of the English Zionist Federation. In January 1919, on the eve of the peace conference, Lawrence had engineered an agreement between Faisal and Weizmann. In return for Zionist support of a Faisal-led Syria, Faisal would support increased Jewish emigration into Palestine, tacitly recognizing a future Jewish state in the region. The pact was soon scuttled by the French.

But the most poignant what-might-have-been involved the Americans. Suspicious of the imperialist schemes of his European partners in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson sent a fact-finding commission to the Middle East. For three months, the King-Crane Commission toured Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and what they heard was unequivocal: The vast majority of every ethnic and religious group wanted independence or, barring that, American administration. Wilson, however, had far more interest in telling other nations how they should behave than in adding to American responsibilities. When the commission returned to Paris with its inconvenient finding, the report was simply locked away in a vault.

Lawrence’s efforts produced a cruel irony. At the same time that he was becoming a matinee idol in Britain, courtesy of a fanciful lecture show of his exploits delivered by American journalist Lowell Thomas, he was increasingly regarded by senior British officials as the enemy within, the malcontent who stood in the way of victorious Britain and France dividing the spoils of war. In the end, the obstreperous lieutenant colonel was effectively barred from the peace conference and prevented any further contact with Faisal. That accomplished, the path to imperial concord—and betrayal—was clear.

The repercussions were swift in coming. Within the year, most all of the Middle East was aflame as the Arab world, enraged at seeing their Ottoman masters replaced by European ones, rebelled. Lawrence was particularly prescient about Iraq. In 1919, he had predicted full-scale revolt against British rule there by March 1920—“If we don’t mend our ways.” The result of the uprising in May 1920 was some 10,000 dead, including 1,000 British soldiers and administrators.

Tasked to clean up the debacle was the new British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, who turned for help to the man whose warnings had been spurned: T.E. Lawrence. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, Lawrence helped to redress some of the wrongs. In the near future, Faisal, deposed by the French in Syria, would be placed on a new throne in British-controlled Iraq. Out of the British buffer state of Transjordan, the nation of Jordan would be created, with Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, at its head.

Gone forever, though, was the notion of a unified Arab nation. Vanished also was Lawrence’s spirit for the fight, or desire for leadership. As his collaboration with Churchill drew to an end, he legally changed his name and petitioned to re-enlist in the British military as a private. As he explained to a friend, he never wanted to be in a position of responsibility again.


On a country lane in the southwestern English county of Dorset sits a two-story cottage surrounded by rhododendron bushes. It is a tiny place, less than 700 square feet, consisting of two small rooms on each floor connected by a steep and rickety staircase, redolent with the smell of leather and old books. Curiously, it has neither a kitchen nor a toilet. Known as Clouds Hill, it was the last home of T.E. Lawrence. Not that this was how he was known to his neighbors; he was Pvt. T.E. Shaw, a reclusive serviceman rarely seen except when riding his beloved Brough motorcycle through the countryside.

After rejoining the British military in 1921, Lawrence spent most of the next 14 years in lowly military positions in bases scattered about Britain. While stationed in Dorset in 1929, he bought Clouds Hill as a place to go in refuge, to read and listen to music. In walking through the claustrophobic cottage, however, it is hard to escape the image of a broken and lonely man.

Along with the disappointment of seeing his dream for the Arab world slip away, the postwar Lawrence clearly suffered from what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder; throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, he suffered bouts of depression, cutting off contact with all but a handful of old friends. In 1935, at the age of 46, he decided to retire from the military—the only “family” he had known for 20 years—but this was a decision that also filled him with a certain dread, unsure of how he would fill his unregimented days. As he wrote to a friend on May 6, 1935, as he was settling into Clouds Hill permanently: “At present the feeling is mere bewilderment. I imagine leaves must feel this after they have fallen from their tree and until they die. Let’s hope that will not be my continuing state.”

It would not be. Precisely a week later, Lawrence had a fatal motorcycle accident near Clouds Hill. At his passing, Winston Churchill eulogized, “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again.”

In the Arab world, memory of Lawrence is far more mixed; indeed, the changing view of him there underscores the lingering bitterness still felt over the peace imposed nearly a century ago. That becomes clear when I ask Sheik al-Atoun in his reception tent in Mudowarra how Lawrence is regarded today. At first, he tries to tactfully skirt the question:

“Some people think he was really trying to help the Arabs,” he replies, “but others think it was all a trick, that Lawrence was actually working for the British Empire all along.” When I press for his opinion, the sheik grows slightly discomfited. “May I speak frankly? Maybe some of the very old ones still believe he was a friend of the Arabs, but almost everyone else, we know the truth. Even my grandfather, before he died, he believed he had been tricked.”

It was a comment that seemed to encapsulate the ultimate tragedy of both Lawrence and the Middle East —but there is a far more graphic illustration of that tragedy. It is to be found at Carchemish.

It was at Carchemish that Lawrence first came to despise the despotism of Ottoman Turkey, and to imagine an independent Arab nation with Syria at its heart; today, of course, Turkey is a democracy while Syria is in the grips of an unspeakably savage civil war. Karkamis, where the town’s sleepiness gives way to a tinge of menace, sits at the very dividing line between those two realities.

The hilltop sprawl of Hittite ruins is now a Turkish police post, off-limits to visitors, while at the base of that hill a 15-foot-high concrete wall topped with concertina wire has recently been erected. On the other side of that wall, in the Syrian town of Jarabulus, fly the black-and-white war flags of a rebel group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, an Islamic fundamentalist faction so murderous and extreme it has been disavowed by its former umbrella organization, al-Qaeda. In Karkamis’ grim little park, idle Syrian men who managed to escape tell of family and friends being butchered at the hands of ISIS, of how Jarabulus has become a ghost town.

A Syrian refugee in his mid-40s, unwilling even to disclose his name, tells me that he had planned to escape with his family six months earlier when, on the eve of their departure, ISIS had grabbed his teenage son. “I sent my wife and younger children on to Lebanon,” he says, “but I stayed behind to try and get my son back.”

He points to a teenager in blue jeans and a red T-shirt sitting on a brick wall a few feet away, gazing up at the canopy of trees with a placid, faraway smile. “That’s him,” he says. “After six days, I managed to get him back, but the terrorists had already destroyed him.” The father taps a forefinger against his own temple, the universal gesture to indicate a person gone mad. “That’s all he does now, smile that way.”

From the Turkish side could be heard the call to jihad wafting from the ISIS’s loudspeakers. Somewhere over that wall, a half-mile from the Carchemish ruins, sits Lawrence’s old research station, a former licorice storehouse that he lovingly repaired and converted into a comfortable home. Now, it is a place that no Westerner will likely see for a very long time to come.


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