Lawrence of Arabia Review: Dreams of Empire

From The Wall Street Journal:

The British explorer Ranulph Fiennes is the first person to have crossed Antarctica on foot and the only living person to have circumnavigated the planet by its poles. In 2000 he fell through the ice while walking solo to the North Pole, leaving the fingertips of his left hand severely frostbitten. When he got home, Mr. Fiennes, a veteran of the elite Special Air Service, trimmed the fingertips with a saw, saving himself £6,000 in medical expenses and, he says, considerable pain.

In 2003 Mr. Fiennes had a heart attack and a bypass operation, then completed seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. In 2009 he reached the summit of Mount Everest on the third attempt. His other feats of endurance include writing more than 30 books, including biographies of the polar pioneers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, handbooks for ultrarunners and travelers with weak hearts, and the perhaps inevitable family history “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

Mr. Fiennes (pronounced “Fines”) is a classic English type, the diffident hero and driven adventurer. He is the square peg who inspires irregular soldiers in inhospitable places. He crosses deserts, forests and frozen wastes, facing down danger and the limits of human endurance, death included.

The rarest such figure, combining all these characteristics of imperial legend with lasting historical significance, was T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935). Dubbed Lawrence of Arabia in his lifetime and immortalized twice over, once by himself in his 1926 memoir “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and again by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lawrence played a crucial but thwarted role in the shaping of the modern Middle East.

In 1916 Britain was at war with Germany’s Ottoman Turkish allies. Lawrence, an archaeologist turned intelligence officer, helped organize the Arab tribes of the Hejaz (today’s western Saudi Arabia) into a guerrilla army and led the Arab Revolt that, in October 1918, displaced the Turks from Damascus. The revolt raised hopes for a unified, self-determining Arab nation, but Lawrence’s political masters and their French allies connived at frustrating that ambition. After the war, the British and French took over from the Turks and created new borders and nations. The events of that era still complicate today’s local and global politics.

Mr. Fiennes’s “Lawrence of Arabia: My Journey in Search of T.E. Lawrence” is a casually elegant biography and an expert reflection on the kind of irregular warfare that Lawrence pioneered and Mr. Fiennes experienced as a young officer fighting a Marxist insurgency in the mountains of Oman in the late 1960s. Lawrence’s example, Mr. Fiennes writes, preceded him and “often inspired me to victory in life-or-death situations.” But Lawrence was also his companion in facing “impossible military and political odds, as well as confronting personal scars.”

The second of five sons, Lawrence grew up in a villa in Oxford. Fascinated by military history, especially the Crusades and Napoleon Bonaparte, he was pushed by his mother to achieve greatness. Lawrence’s motives in risking his life, Mr. Fiennes writes, were not just “his attachment to the Arabs and his hatred for the Ottomans.” He was not who he claimed to be or who he wanted to be. “Lawrence” was an assumed name. His father, an Irish baronet named Thomas Chapman, had eloped with the family maid. When Chapman’s wife refused to grant a divorce, he and his mistress adopted a new name and pretended to be married. Lawrence’s mother saddled him with the “burden that he was special” and a mission to “redeem the family.” Raised a strict Christian, Lawrence was 10 years old when he discovered his illegitimacy.

He became a feted student at Oxford, then cultivated the English romance with tribal life while digging at ancient Carchemish, north of Aleppo, Syria, from 1911 to 1914. “I am Arab in habits and slip in talking from English to French to Arabic unnoticing,” he wrote home. When war broke out in 1914, the British army needed Arabic speakers with local knowledge. Lawrence’s old Oxford tutor, now an intelligence officer, summoned him to Cairo as a mapmaker and adviser. But Lawrence already had a plan to redraw the map by unifying the Arab tribes against the Turks. “I want to pull them all together,” he wrote in 1915, “and roll up Syria by way of the Hedjaz” in the name of Hussein Ibn Ali, the Emir of Mecca.

Meanwhile Hussein and his four sons secretly planned their own revolt, but needed weapons and support. The British could not spare soldiers, but they sent Hussein money and antique rifles, as well as a promise from Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, to recognize Hussein’s rule from Aleppo to Aden if the revolt succeeded.

In July 1916, Hussein’s followers expelled the Turkish garrison from Mecca but, lacking heavy weapons, they were repulsed at the ports of Jidda, Yenbo and Rabegh. In October, with the revolt stalled and British confidence faltering, Lawrence sailed from Egypt for Jidda. From there, he disguised himself in Arab robes, crossed roughly 100 miles of desert by camel through sandstorms, bearing the heat and weeping saddle sores, met Hussein’s son Feisal at the rebel camp and launched his legend.

Lawrence said he preferred “the Arab untouched” to the “perfectly hopeless vulgarity of the half-Europeanized Arab.” In Feisal he found his ideal partner, tall and white-robed, with a “strange still watchfulness” and an “almost regal” bearing that reminded Lawrence of Richard the Lionheart and the young Napoleon. Returning to Cairo, Lawrence secured explosives, the support of Royal Navy ships and British advisers “to train Arab bands,” and a supply of gold.

The Turks controlled the Red Sea ports of the Hejaz via their new Damascus-Medina railroad. Lawrence soon saw that the Arabs could not match well-drilled Turkish troops and their German-supplied artillery. Inland, however, Lawrence believed that the tribesmen’s mobility, small numbers and familiarity with “one of the most trying countries in the world for civilized warfare” made them “the most elusive enemy an army ever had.” Lawrence convinced Feisal to adopt an indirect strategy: disrupt and pin down the Turks by sabotaging the railroad line, then bypass and isolate the Turkish garrisons at Medina and the Red Sea ports and push northward to Syria.

In November 1917, Ottoman troops captured Lawrence, disguised as a peasant, as he spied out the railroad junction of Deraa. He was brutally beaten and raped by the Turkish governor and his men. The shame he felt after that episode was only multiplied at the end of the war: After he entered Damascus on Oct. 1, 1918, in a Rolls Royce, he had to watch as the British commander Edmund Allenby informed Feisal that Britain and France did not intend to honor McMahon’s promises of a unified Arab kingdom.

Damaged by his experiences in Arabia and disenchanted by the political aftermath, Lawrence became a celebrity when “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” appeared in 1926, then did his best to disappear, enlisting in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name. He died in a motorbike accident in 1935.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Lawrence is in the second row on the right below