If you aspire to become a member of the Special Operations Forces community, then the name T.E. Lawrence should be one you become intimately familiar with. Commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, he was one of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century.
Lawrence was an accomplished archaeologist, British military officer, a foreign diplomat as well as a writer. During World War I, he was a British officer who helped raise a guerrilla army known as the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Turkish Empire during the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns.
He later chronicled his story of the revolt in his book, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica an article on Guerrilla Warfare for the 14th Edition in 1929. He used his time fighting the Turks during the war as the basis for it.
Lawrence died in 1935 as a result of a motorcycle accident in England.
Beginnings in the Middle East: Lawrence was working as an archaeologist after studying Arabic in the Middle East in 1910. The British sensed a war coming in the summer of 1914 and co-opted Lawrence and Leonard Woolley into the British Army for the purpose of mapping the Negev Desert, an area the Ottoman Turks would have to cross if they were to attack Egypt.
Under the guise of an archaeological dig, the two men meticulously mapped the area and made note of all of the military significant features including the valuable water sources in the region.
When the British became involved in the war Lawrence enlisted with a commission and was assigned to the Arab Bureau of Intelligence in Cairo. There he became involved with a growing Arab nationalist movement. The Arabs were willing to revolt against the Ottoman Turks but insisted on a British guarantee of an independent Arab state including the Hejaz, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Such an independent Arab state would be beneficial to the British and would ensure the Suez Canal would remain open.
The Arab Revolt: After initial successes, the revolt bogged down and there was the danger that the Turks would recapture Mecca. In October of 1916, Lawrence was sent to survey the situation and evaluate the three sons of Sharif Hussein’s sons: Ali, Abdullah, and Faisal to see which one would be best suited to lead the revolt.
Lawrence deemed Faisal as the one. He became a permanent part of Faisal’s staff at Faisal’s request to the British. He would remain there until the fall of Damascus in October of 1918.
From Wikipedia: Lawrence took part in several operations participated personally in several military engagements:
- 3 January 1917: Attack on an Ottoman outpost in the Hejaz.
- 26 March 1917: Attack on the railway at Aba el Naam.
- 11 June 1917: Attack on a bridge at Ras Baalbek.
- 2 July 1917: Defeat of the Ottoman forces at Aba el Lissan, an outpost of Aqaba.
- 18 September 1917: Attack on the railway near Mudawara.
- 27 September 1917: Attack on the railway, destroyed an engine.
- 7 November 1917: Following a failed attack on the Yarmuk bridges, blew up a train on the railway between Deraa and Amman, suffering several wounds in the explosion and ensuing combat.
- 23 January 1918: The battle of Tafileh, a region southeast of the Dead Sea, with Arab regulars under the command of Jafar Pasha al-Askari. The battle was a defensive engagement that turned into an offensive rout and was described in the official history of the war as a “brilliant feat of arms”. Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership at Tafileh and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The Arabs took the lives of 400 Turks and captured more than 200 prisoners.
- March 1918: Attack on the railway near Aqaba.
- 19 April 1918: Attack using British armored cars on Tell Shahm.
- 16 September 1918: Destruction of railway bridge between Amman and Deraa.
- 26 September 1918: Attack on retreating Ottomans and Germans near the village of Tafas; the Ottoman forces massacred the villagers and then Arab forces in return massacred their prisoners with Lawrence’s encouragement
Lawrence continued serving on Faisal’s staff but his liaison activities for the British curtailed while he took a more active role in intelligence gathering and conducting raids of the Turks. While Faisal wanted to begin attacks as a conventional force, Lawrence talked him out of this strategy and convinced the Emir that their role was best served as a guerrilla force. He later wrote about the Bedouins as soldiers:
“The value of the tribes is defensive only and their real sphere is guerilla warfare. They are intelligent and very lively, almost reckless, but too individualistic to endure commands, or fight in line, or to help each other. It would, I think, be possible to make an organized force out of them…The Hejaz war is one of the dervishes against regular forces-and we are on the side of the dervishes. Our textbooks do not apply to its conditions at all”.
“The value of the Arab army depended entirely on quality, not on quantity. The members had to keep always cool, for the excitement of a blood-lust would impair their science, and their victory depended on a just use of speed, concealment, accuracy of fire. Guerrilla war is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”
In July of 1917, Lawrence led an attack of the Arab guerrillas against the town of Aqaba on the Red Sea. They deftly attacked the Turks from behind and captured the town on July 6th. His British commander General Sir Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force wrote a glowing recommendation of Lawrence’s strategy with Faisal after the war.
“I gave him a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign. He was the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners, and their mentality.”
Lawrence was heavily involved in the planning of the attack on Damascus at the end of the war. He tried to lobby the British government on the merits of having an independent Arab state. After the fall of Damascus, he assisted Faisal in the establishment of a provisional Arab government in Damascus.
However, the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain, which would give the French a colony of Syria went completely against the promises of independence that he had made to the Arabs and left him frustrated. He returned to Britain as a full colonel.
After the war, he worked for the British Foreign Office and was an adviser to Winston Churchill in the Colonial Office. But he found the work tedious and boring after being a guerrilla freedom fighter in the war. He joined the RAF as a lowly enlisted man in an attempt to live quietly and privately. He developed a taste for motorcycles and owned several of them.
It was riding one of these, a Brough Superior SS100 in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham where he was fatally injured. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he saw them too late and swerved to avoid them. He then lost control of the motorcycle and was thrown over the handlebars, suffering severe injuries. He died six days later on May 19, 1935. Lawrence was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas’ Church, Moreton.
Seven Pillars: In 1926 he first published his memoirs of the war and the Arab revolt with the title Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The title comes from the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 9:1): “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars”
In it, he described not only his part in the Arab Revolt with Faisal but essays on military strategy, Arabian culture and geography, and other topics. It was a high-priced popular book but he refused to take any royalties from it. Instead, offering his proceeds go to the RAF educational trust fund for the children of pilots who lost their lives in the line of duty.
He later wrote an article for Encyclopedia Britannica on Guerrilla Warfare in conjunction with Sir Basil Liddell Hart in reflections of irregular warfare in a piece that was originally published in the Army Quarterly. It can be found here:
Photos: British War Office Archives