Augustus John, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1919)

Good man fallen among imperialists?

Chris Gray recalls the contradictory elements in the politics pursued by Lawrence of Arabia.

Thomas Edward Lawrence CB, DSO, archaeologist, army officer and diplomat, was undoubtedly a very talented individual.

He was an accomplished linguist: having learnt Greek, Latin and Syriac, he also spoke French, German, Turkish and Welsh. Crucially, he also learnt Arabic, and that enabled him to play a key role in the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule, which took place during World War I. Finally he excelled as a writer, and his full-scale account of military operations in Arabia, The seven pillars of wisdom (originally published in 1926), and its abridged version, Revolt in the desert, are full of vivid description.

Lawrence was born at Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, in 1885. His parents were not legally married. His father, an Anglo-Irish nobleman from County Westmeath, Sir Thomas Chapman, left his wife and family to live with a Scots governess called Sarah Junner (they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence). In the summer of 1896 the family moved to Oxford.

Thomas Edward was the second eldest of five sons. He attended the Oxford High School for Boys from 1896 to 1907, after which he read history at Jesus College. Graduating with first-class honours in 1910, he wrote a thesis entitled ‘The influence of the crusades on European military architecture’, based on visiting mediaeval castles in France and crusader castles in Syria. Following on from this, Lawrence obtained a grant for field archaeology at the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish in Syria. Whilst engaged in this work, he travelled among the Syrian Arab population, and became acquainted with their living conditions. As his biographer, Alistair Maclean, writes,

he had seen and understood the fear of the Syrian Arabs, witnessed for himself the oppression and brutality they suffered at the hands of their Turkish overlords … Thus it was only a short step … to become convinced of the need for a modern crusade - a crusade to free the Arabs from their conquerors.1

One young Arab impressed him in particular. This was Selim Ahmed Dahoum (1896-1918), who was employed at the Carchemish excavation site to carry water and run errands for the archaeologists. Most of those employed in such a capacity were illiterate, but Dahoum was able to read a little Arabic - a talent which Lawrence encouraged. Furthermore, when Lawrence fell ill with dysentery and was laid up at the house of Sheikh Hamoudi, the site foreman, Dahoum came to visit him every evening. Between them, Hamoudi and Dahoum probably saved his life, and Lawrence did not forget that. It appears that the dedicatory verses at the beginning of The seven pillars of wisdom were written in Dahoum’s memory.2

When World War I broke out in 1914, Lawrence volunteered for service, and was posted to Egypt, joining the Arab Bureau intelligence unit, which was headed by General Gilbert Clayton and overseen by the high commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon.3 Lawrence’s job was to prepare maps, produce a daily bulletin for British generals operating out of Egypt, and interview prisoners.

UK and Turkey

The situation was ripening for an anti-Turkish movement of the Arabs, which the British imperialists had an obvious interest in supporting. They found a potential ally or agent in Sherif Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz, whose realm included the great cities of Mecca and Medina.4 Lawrence himself describes Hussein’s position in 1915:

The outbreak of war made trouble in the Hejaz. The pilgrimage ceased, and with it the revenues and business of the holy cities. There was reason to fear that the Indian food ships would cease to come (since the Sherif became technically an enemy subject); and, as the province produced almost no food of its own, it would be precariously dependent on the goodwill of the Turks, who might starve it by closing the Hejaz railway. Hussein had never been entirely at the Turks’ mercy before; and at this unhappy moment they particularly needed his adherence to their ‘Jihad’, the holy war of all Muslims against Christianity.

To become popularly effective this must be endorsed by Mecca; and if endorsed it might plunge the east in blood. Hussein was honourable, shrewd, obstinate and deeply pious. He felt that the Holy War was doctrinally incompatible with an aggressive war, and absurd with a Christian ally: Germany. So he refused the Turkish demand, and made at the same time a dignified appeal to the Allies not to starve his province for what was in no way his people’s fault. The Turks in reply at once instituted a partial blockade of the Hejaz by controlling traffic on the pilgrim railway. The British left his coast open to specially regulated food vessels.5

Sherif Hussein decided to fight the Turks, and Lawrence seized the opportunity to make a visit to the Arabian peninsula in the company of Sir Ronald Storrs, oriental secretary to the Cairo residency. Cairo was impressed with Lawrence’s report, and Clayton decided to send him back to Arabia and the company of Hussein’s son, Emir Feisal, who had become the effective leader of the revolt. Feisal asked Lawrence to dress as an Arab, and he readily agreed.6 Lawrence, however, had to deal as best he could not only with the opposing Turkish forces, but also with his various imperial masters. He puts it starkly in The seven pillars:

The Arab Revolt had begun on false pretences. To gain the Sherif’s help our cabinet had offered, through Sir Henry McMahon, to support the establishment of native governments in parts of Syria and Mesopotamia, ‘saving the interests of our ally, France’. The last modest clause concealed a treaty (kept secret, till too late, from McMahon, and therefore from the Sherif), by which France, England and Russia agreed to annex some of the promised areas, and to establish their respective spheres of influence over all the rest.

Rumours of the fraud reached Arab ears, from Turkey. In the east persons were more trusted than institutions. So the Arabs, having tested my friendliness and sincerity under fire, asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British government. I had had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which were both framed by wartime branches of the Foreign Office. But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. Had I been an honourable advisor, I would have sent my men home, and not let them risk their lives for such stuff. Yet the Arab inspiration was our main tool in winning the eastern war. So I assured them that England kept her word in letter and spirit. In this comfort they performed their fine things: but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.7

The various promises made by British government agencies to the Arabs and other interested parties were convoluted, and overlapped. The overarching framework was provided by the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 16 1916, negotiated by and named after a British and a French diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, which conveyed a large slice of Greater Syria as follows:

The agreement effectively divided the Ottoman provinces outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence [save for bits promised to tsarist Russia and Italy]. The British- and French-controlled countries were divided by the Sykes Picot line. The agreement allocated to Britain control of what is today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre to allow access to the Mediterranean. France got control of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon … Russia was to get western Armenia in addition to Constantinople and the Turkish Straits already promised under the 1915 Constantinople agreement. Italy assented to the agreement in 1917 via the agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, and received southern Anatolia. The Palestine region, with smaller boundaries than the later mandatory Palestine, was to fall to ‘international administration’.8

It is necessary to note the various parties jostling for position in all this. The British Foreign Office seems to have wanted to keep the French government onside; meanwhile the British authorities in Cairo were eager to foment an Arab revolt. The British authorities in India played their own game, attempting to enlarge their footholds in the Arabian peninsula - they controlled the port of Aden, and they had understandings with a number of peninsular Arab rulers, including the notorious Ibn Saud.9 They also had interests in Mesopotamia, regarding the area as essentially a granary for India.10 This seems to have been a case of empire-building - literally.

The French, meanwhile, wanted something to offset the terrible battering they had received from the Germans during the war, and may have revived a mediaeval attachment to the Maronites in the Lebanon, posing as heir of the Franks, who were supporting them as Catholics even after the overthrow of the crusader states on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard.11 Oil was also probably a factor in imperialist calculations - the first concession in Iran was negotiated. (Winston Churchill arranged in June 1914 for the purchase of a 51% stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in order that the Royal Navy had ready access to oil).12

The Arabs had the most to gain - and the most to lose. First of all, the Cairo authorities realised that they had to come to some kind of agreement with Sherif Hussein, lest in desperation he should go over to the Turkish side:

McMahon therefore proposed that Britain should accept the principle of Arab independence over a large area, while making carefully worded reservations to cater for French and Anglo-Indian interests. Lawrence’s idea of Arab autonomy in inland Syria was an integral part of the scheme; at the western boundary the independent area would include “the purely Arab districts of Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs”.13

The non-Arab districts of Mersina and Alexandretta were excluded; Beirut, Lebanon and Palestine likewise (p215). Further,

In order to appease the government of India the reply [to Hussein] also drew attention to its existing treaties with certain Arab chiefs, and suggested that “special administrative arrangements” would be needed to protect British interests in the provinces of Basra and Baghdad (p214).

Complicating the picture still further, we have the “‘Seven Syrians of Cairo’. These gentlemen claimed to represent secret Arab committees in Damascus. They asked for complete independence for Arabia, Syria and Mesopotamia.”14 The proposal was referred to Sir Percy Sykes, who, in reply, divided the Arab areas as follows:

  1. Areas free and independent pre-war;
  2. Areas freed from Turkish rule by Arabs during the war;
  3. Areas occupied by Allied forces during the war;
  4. Areas still under Turkish control.

Sykes carefully phrased his text so as to allow for the second category to mean “areas freed by Arabs during the war until now” (ie, at the date of issue of the document). Hence British officials could argue that Syria and the Lebanon were still under Turkish rule and therefore excluded from category 2.


Then there was the Balfour Declaration (November 1917), with its careful phrasing, allowing the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine without prejudice to the interests of the existing inhabitants. This later obliged Lawrence to work alongside Sir Herbert Samuel, who had been promoting the idea of a British protectorate over Palestine as far back as 1915.15

Finally there was Lawrence himself. His entire guerrilla strategy, excellently summarised by Alistair Maclean, was to get Arab troops into Damascus ahead of any other Allied combatant force, and set up a locally-backed administration. Jeremy Wilson quotes a letter to one DG Pearman in 1928, when he was preparing a series of lectures on the Arab revolt:

Do make clear ... that my objects were to save England, and France too, from the follies of the imperialists, who would have us, in 1920, repeat the exploits of Clive or Rhodes. The world has passed by that point. I think, though, there’s a great future for the British empire as a voluntary association.16

In this regard, the Arab Revolt was a resounding success, and Lawrence was able to set up an Arab authority in Damascus:

First - and most necessary of all - he formed a police force. Secondly, he restored the water supply and the electrified services from the power stations. After that, gangs of street cleaners and scavengers were set up to clear away the appalling mess left behind by the Turks. For there was a very real danger of pestilence breaking out.

Then came the formation of fire brigades, the cleaning up of long neglected hospitals, the bringing in of desperately needed food from abandoned Turkish stores and the surrounding countryside. Railroad and telegraph services were restored and new currency was printed and issued.17

Lawrence worked almost virtually non-stop for three days at restoring quiet to Damascus. When General Allenby and Prince Feisal arrived on the third of October [1918], he was able to hand over to them an ordered and settled city.18

Naturally, post-war frontiers and administration were subjects of intensive negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Lawrence attended - officially as interpreter for the Hejaz delegation, but in practice as advisor - and pushed for an independent Arab state. Not only that, but “In 1918, before leaving for the conference he had presented an alternative map of the region, which included a Kurdish state and boundaries based on local sensitivities rather than on imperial interests.”19

The resulting Paris settlement was something of an unsatisfactory mess, to put it mildly, given that various promises had been made to different ‘stakeholders’, so to speak, which were not fully compatible with one another, together with the predominating imperialist interests. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the remarks of General Gilbert Clayton, as recorded by Jeremy Wilson:

A. We are bound by the principles of the Anglo-French Agreement of 1916, wherein we renounced any claim to predominant influence in Syria.

B. Our agreements with King Hussein … have pledged us to support the establishment of an Arab state, or confederation of states, from which we cannot exclude the purely Arab portions of Syria and Palestine.

C. We have definitely given our support to the principle of a Jewish home in Palestine and, although the initial outlines of the Zionist programme have been greatly exceeded by the proposals now laid before the Peace Congress, we are still committed to a large measure of support to Zionism.

The experience of the last few months has made it clear that these three policies are incompatible [what a surprise! - CG] … and that no compromise is possible which will be satisfactory to all three parties:

a. French domination in Syria is repudiated by the Arabs of Syria, except by the Maronite Christians and a small minority among other sections of the population.

b. The formation of a homogeneous Arab state is impracticable under the dual control of two powers whose system and methods of administration are so widely different as those of France and England.

c. Zionism is increasingly unpopular both in Syria and in Palestine, where the somewhat exaggerated programme put forward recently by the Zionist leaders has seriously alarmed all sections of the non-Jewish majority. The difficulty of carrying out a Zionist policy in Palestine will be enhanced if Syria is handed over to France and Arab confidence in Great Britain undermined thereby.

It is impossible to discharge all our liabilities and we are forced, therefore, to break, or modify, at least one of our agreements.20

Lawrence was unhappy with the outcome of the conference, and wrote letters to The Times giving his advice. International deliberations continued at San Remo in Italy. Lawrence remarked: “The Sykes-Picot treaty was absurd, in its boundaries, but it did recognise the claims of Syrians to self-government, and it was ten thousand times better than the eventual settlement.”

Meanwhile, an Anglo-Indian administration was developing in Mesopotamia (Iraq). A rebellion broke out there on May 26 1920. Lawrence made some trenchant criticisms:

The government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70% of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people. In Turkish days the two army corps in Mesopotamia were 60% Arab in officers, 95% in other ranks. This deprivation of sharing the defence and administration is galling to the educated Mesopotamians. It is true that we have increased prosperity - but who cares for that when liberty is in the other scale? They waited and welcomed the news of our mandate, because they thought it meant dominion self-government for themselves. They are now losing hope in our good intentions.22

He recommended adoption of Arabic as the government language (which would give Arabs government jobs), two divisions of Arab volunteers to be raised, and the withdrawal of British troops: “we should then hold of Mesopotamia exactly as much (or as little) as we hold of South Africa or Canada”. Evidently Lawrence was not thoroughly conversant with the situation in those countries.

The French drove Feisal from power in Syria on August 8 1920, and Lawrence raked the Mesopotamian administration for setting them an example to follow.23

His involvement in these unsavoury power struggles might have ended at this point, but in January 1921 Winston Churchill became colonial secretary and invited Lawrence to join his team as advisor on Arab affairs. Lawrence tried to insist that Britain’s wartime promises to the Arabs be honoured, but Churchill refused. Instead he offered free access to his own person whenever TEL wanted it, and “a free hand, subject to his [Winston’s] discretion”. Lawrence agreed, and Winston declared to his wife that he had “got Lawrence to put on a bridle and collar”.24 By early May Lawrence felt he had made some progress:

In Mesopotamia, the administration was taking the steps necessary to ensure that Feisal would be chosen by the people as their ruler, while in Transjordan ‘we kept our promises to the Arab Revolt and assisted the home rulers [sic] to form a buffer principality’. The India Office victory of 1919 has been overturned.25

Negotiations with Sherif Hussein did not go well, but the British were on better terms with his sons, Ai and Zeid.26


Despite the wealth of insight conveyed by Jeremy Wilson’s “authorised biography”, I cannot help feeling that his conclusion is a bit lame. Wilson records Feisal as king of Iraq until his death in 1933, the installation of Abdullah as ruler in Transjordan (he took the title of king in 1946) and Hussein’s ejection from Mecca by the forces of Ibn Saud in 1924, thanks to lack of British material support. (Was it really wise to let in Ibn Saud in this way?) Wilson does emphasise that

French rule in Syria encountered increasing difficulties, and one administration after another collapsed in the face of local opposition. Eventually, in 1936, France set up an Arab administration on the lines that Lawrence and Churchill had initiated in Mesopotamia.27

As it stands, this is surely a bit too partial to the Brits. There is total silence about the Iraqi Kurds, who as early as December 1 1918 had requested a united and independent Kurdistan under British protection.28 Faced with a refusal on the part of the British, who were reluctant to allow a possible anti-British pole of attraction for the rest of Iraq to develop, the Iraqi Kurds under Sheikh Mahmud Barzani staged two revolts - on in 1919, and another in 1922-24.

Meanwhile TE Lawrence had achieved celebrity status (which he hated), thanks in part to the activities of a laudatory journalist called Lowell Thomas. Hence at a meeting in London in 1929, apparently called by the League Against Imperialism, at which Shapurji Saklatvala and Ronald Bridgeman spoke, an effigy of Lawrence was burned.29

Lenin famously described George Bernard Shaw as “a good man fallen among Fabians”. You could perhaps call Lawrence a good man fallen among imperialists.


1. A Maclean Lawrence of Arabia New York 2006, p22.

2. The title, Seven pillars of wisdom, is a reference to the Book of Proverbs, xi, 1.

3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._E._Lawrence.

4. ‘Sherif’ signifies a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

5. TE Lawrence The seven pillars of wisdom London 1962, p49.

6. “The tribesmen would then understand how to take me. The only wearers of khaki in their experience had been Turkish officers, before whom they took up an instinctive defence” (Seven pillars p129).

7. Ibid p283.

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sykes-Picot_ Agreement.

9. See J Wilson Lawrence of Arabia New York 1990, p613.

10. The mandarins of the India Office wanted Mesopotamia to be a British colony, which they would run.

11. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanon.

12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill. See also J Wilson op cit p152.

13. Ibid p212.

14. Ibid pp518, 519.

15. https;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Samuel_1st_Viscount_Samuel.

16. J Wilson op cit p149.

17. A Maclean op cit p145.

18. Ibid p146. The contrast with Paul Bremer in Iraq at a later date is striking.

19. www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Paris_Peace_Conference. See also J Wilson op cit p579.

20. Quoted in J Wilson op cit pp601-02.

21. Ibid p631.

22. Quoted in ibid p639.

23. Ibid p640.

24. Ibid p645.

25. Ibid p651.

26. Ibid pp655-63.

27. Ibid p663.

28. https://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Iraqi_Kurdistan.

29. See P Gopal Insurgent empire London 2019, p268.