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A Questionable Role

After the war began, Lawrence entered the British Army as a second lieutenant, working on maps of the Middle East. His knowledge of Arabic and of the area won him a position in military intelligence and a quick transfer to Cairo, where the British forces that would take on the Ottoman Empire were headquartered. Lawrence — a scruffy officer, never particularly respectful of military hierarchies and procedures — began pressing his superiors to support Arab forces in their own nationalistic rebellion against the Turks. And he began lobbying to get closer to that rebellion.

T.E. Lawrence, now a captain, first met Prince Feisal in Arabia on October 23, 1916. Lawrence then formulated — or perhaps helped to formulate — the plan for an attack on Akaba by land, across the desert. He persuaded — or helped persuade— Feisal of its merits.  The centrality of Lawrence’s role would later become the subject of controversy.  In T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View, Suleiman Mousa insists, as an extreme example, that “the whole expedition was … planned with no reference to Lawrence, despite his post-war claims that he had been its leader and its inspiration.” Akaba certainly appeared to earn Lawrence the astonishment and respect of his British superiors. He was promoted to major and given a continuing role helping coordinate the Arab Revolt.

T.E. Lawrence (right) at Akaba with Damascene Nesib el Bekri (center), who was part of the original band that set forth to capture the strategic port.
Image: 12 TEL
Image: 12 TEL

“This debate about Lawrence will go on for centuries. He was the sort of person around whom legends grow.”

—Lowell Thomas

Lawrence spent most of the succeeding months based in Akaba, leading — or perhaps helping to lead — a series of raids on the Turkish rail line. These were intended to keep the Turks from attempting to take back Akaba and to weaken them in anticipation of an upcoming British move north into Palestine. Most of these efforts to blow up tracks and trains were audacious, and most were successful. Lawrence, however, seems to have been haunted by a particularly daring raid that failed: an attempt, important to British General Edmund Allenby, to destroy hard-to-repair Turkish rail viaducts in a ravine at Yarmuk. Lawrence’s biographers begin to talk of depression when describing these months based in Akaba.

Despite controversies, all accounts agree that Lawrence (in the center, on Prince Feisal’s left), was a valued adviser serving Prince Feisal and the Arab Revolt.
Image: 13 TEL
Image: 13 TEL

Audio

Clip 6

Tom Beaumont of the Arabian Armored Car Company characterizes Lawrence as a spy.

Lawrence worked with a British staff, Naval support, troops, armored cars and gold sovereigns to pump up the Arab Revolt.
Image: 14a TEL
Image: 14a TEL
Image: 14b TEL
Image: 14b TEL
British officers surveying wrecked rail bridge over the Yarmuk after it was finally blown by retreating Turks.
Image: 15a TEL
Image: 15a TEL
Image: 15b TEL
Image: 15b TEL