Lawrence of Arabia and Britain’s War in the Desert, 1916-1918

Lawrence of Arabia and Britain’s War in the Desert, 1916-1918

To mark the centenary of the capture of Aqaba, Dr Rob Johnson and Dr John Peaty brought together some colleagues and friends to discuss Lawrence and Britain’s desert war at Pembroke College, Oxford. The speakers were John Peaty, Dr Neil Faulkner, Gp Capt John Alexander, Maj Dr Paul Knight and Dr Rob Johnson. The event was part funded by the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre and the Society for Army Historical Research.

The assessment of Lawrence and the revolt might easily be broken down into the three logical elements of his personal contribution, the Arab forces, and the British armed forces. There is no doubt that Lawrence was personally courageous, from his early intrepid travels to the daring raids deep behind Ottoman lines in the war. Lawrence seemed suited to desert warfare, although, despite his obvious individualism and preference for freedom of action, he praised others in Seven Pillars of Wisdom and claimed it had been a team effort. He was embarrassed by Lowell Thomas ‘booming’ him, and he evidently suffered a profound loss of confidence at times, and especially after the war. A deeply-flawed man, he was also an evocative writer. It seems clear that he suffered a form of post-traumatic stress, and his reclusiveness, not least at Cloud’s Hill, his home in Dorset, underscored that. Even his portraits show a haunted, troubled image. But he was clearly enamoured by his experiences with the RFC and the armoured car companies in 1918 which informed his choice of service as ‘Ross’.

Neil Faulkner gave an excellent exposition of Lawrence’s motivations, and we were treated to the fruits of his archaeological work which verifies his raiding activities. The matching of paragraphs in Seven Pillars with actual locations and artefacts found at the site demonstrates that Lawrence’s account is accurate in many details.

We concluded the revolt would not have been a success without the British and Indian armies, the cover of the Royal Air Force or the efforts of the Royal Navy. The Ottomans had demonstrated that they could overpower Arab forces if they caught them, but Lawrence made a virtue of their elusive quality in the vastness of the desert. Arab disunity, which sabotaged the achievement of taking Damascus, and which was later blamed on outsiders, had been a significant problem for Lawrence as he identified in Seven Pillars. We were treated to excellent visual presentations of armoured car and air support by Group Captain Alexander.

Paul Knight explained more of the little known period of Lawrence’s time in Mesopotamia, including the negotiations over the fate of the Kut garrison in 1916. John Peaty gave a detailed account of the portrayal of Lawrence, especially the movie moguls, contrasting that with the real Lawrence and his actual war service.

The day gave us a rather balanced verdict on the Revolt and Lawrence’s achievements. Aqaba was a turning point in many ways but Ottoman efforts almost wrecked the advantage gained. Continued setbacks to the Arab irregulars meant that Britain had to commit more significant resources to sustain Feisal’s force. This included the hard materiel of war and regular personnel. There were further problems, yet none of the setbacks to these causes in any way diminishes the extraordinary ride of Lawrence in that war. He cannot be faulted for trying or risking all for what he regarded as a just cause.

John Peaty has also written recently on Palestine in John Wilson’s edited volume commissioned by the British Army entitled Forgotten Fronts.[1]

Rob Johnson is the author of The Great War and the Middle East (OUP, 2016) which briefly set Lawrence and the British operations in Palestine in their strategic context.

[1] John Wilson, (ed.), Battlefield Guide, vol 2: The Forgotten Fronts (Andover: Army Headquarters, 2016). See also Robert Johnson, ‘Mesopotamia’, in the same volume.