CRF Blog

The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia

by Bill Hayes

In The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia, Smithsonian magazine looks at the World War I hero and how he is viewed today.

Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies — including one considered a masterpiece — over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication. As Gen. Edmund Allenby, chief British commander in the Middle East during World War I, noted, Lawrence was first among equals: “There is no other man I know,” he asserted, “who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”

Part of the enduring fascination has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to.

***

For the past several years, Sheik al-Atoun has assisted archaeologists from Bristol University in England who are conducting an extensive survey of the war in Jordan, the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP). One of the Bristol researchers, John Winterburn, recently discovered a forgotten British Army camp in the desert 18 miles from Mudowarra; untouched for nearly a century — Winterburn even collected old gin bottles — the find was touted in the British press as the discovery of “Lawrence’s Lost Camp.”

“We do know that Lawrence was at that camp,” Winterburn says, sitting at a Bristol University café. “But, as best we can tell, he probably stayed only a day or two. But all the men who were there much longer, none of them were Lawrence, so it becomes ‘Lawrence’s camp.’”

For most travelers, Highway 15, Jordan’s main north-south thoroughfare, offers a dull drive through a largely featureless desert connecting Amman to more interesting places: the ruins at Petra, the Red Sea beaches of Aqaba.

To GARP co-director Nicholas Saunders, however, Highway 15 is a treasure trove. “Most people have no idea that they’re traveling through one of the best-preserved battlefields in the world,” he explains, “that all around them are reminders of the pivotal role this region played in World War I.”

Saunders is at his desk in his cluttered office at Bristol, where scattered amid the stacks of papers and books are relics from his own explorations along Highway 15: bullet casings, cast-iron tent rings. Since 2006, Saunders has headed up some 20 GARP digs in southern Jordan, excavating everything from Turkish Army encampments and trenchworks, to Arab rebel campsites and old British Royal Flying Corps airstrips. What unites these disparate sites — indeed what led to their creation — is the single-track railway that runs alongside Highway 15 for some 250 miles: the old Hejaz Railway.

As first articulated by T.E. Lawrence, the goal wasn’t to permanently sever the Turks’ southern lifeline, but rather to keep it barely functioning. The Turks would have to constantly devote resources to its repair, while their garrisons, receiving just enough supplies to survive, would be stranded. Indications of this strategy are everywhere evident along Highway 15; while many of the original small bridges and culverts that the Ottomans constructed to navigate the region’s seasonal waterways are still in place — instantly recognizable by their ornate stonework arches — many more are of modern, steel-beam construction, denoting where the originals were blown up during the war. [more]