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The Taking of Syria

Damascus was the next goal for British and Australian troops advancing north, and for the Arab forces protecting their eastern flank. Lawrence, who had been promoted yet again, was with the Arabs as usual. On the way to Damascas, Lawrence had another experience that he found deeply disturbing. The Arab forces took a town and after finding evidence of enemy atrocities, they murdered some Turkish and German prisoners. Lawrence saw himself as complicit in these murders, though exactly how complicit — like much in this story — is a matter of dispute. Was this in part, some of his biographers ask, an effort at revenge for whatever the Turks had done to him in Deraa?

The British had promised Arab leaders — in contradiction to their promises to the French in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement — that the Arabs could govern after the war the territory they had captured during it. Lawrence and the Arabs, consequently, wanted to be the first into Damascus, which the Turks were already fleeing. The British and Australians were first to enter Damascus but the Arabs were certainly there with Lawrence for or right after the Turkish surrender, and British General Allenby initially gave the Arabs control of the city’s provisional government. That seemed to mean that Lawrence was in control for a while — a short while.

Lawrence must have been exhausted. He likely was disgusted by the looting and senseless killing he had seen, including in the early hours after the Arabs took control of Damascus. He undoubtedly was upset by Allenby’s announcement to Prince Feisal in Damascus that the French, not the Arabs, would have ultimate authority in Lebanon and Syria. Lawrence left Damascus with Allenby’s permission on October 4, 1918 — just a few days after the city had fallen. That was the end of his military involvement in the Arab Revolt and World War I. The Ottoman Empire capitulated by the end of October. Two of Lawrence’s brothers had been killed in the war, which ended 11 days into November.

“The application of his varied gifts in the service of the Arab Revolt, while they resulted in extra- ordinary accomplishments and furnished the ingredients of a peculiarly contemporary heroic example and legend, included for Lawrence personally a series of shattering experiences, the psychological impact of which he was forced to contend with for most of the remaining years of his life.”

—John E. Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder