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Gathering the Story

Sailing aboard the Steamer Ozarda through the Suez Canal, around Mt. Sinai and up the gulf of Akaba, Thomas shared the two-day journey with livestock and supplies to feed and transport the Arab army. Thomas usually exhibited a journalist’s reverence for facts. Research has shown that he was often a diligent double checker; his reputation for trustworthiness could, as he knew, easily be lost. But the script for “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia” diverges significantly from the facts of his transport. In the show as well as in Thomas’ articles and books, he describes going down the Nile to Khartoum, crossing the desert to Port Sudan, to embark then by boat for Akaba. Thomas did journey down the Nile to Khartoum but it was after he returned from Akaba to Cairo the way he initially went, via the canal.

Examination of the Show’s script found that this inconsistency was an exception. Bending the facts of his travel enabled Thomas to include his romantic films of the Nile and a sandstorm he encountered in Khartoum. But as the expanded journey to Akaba through Khartoum points out, like many an enthusiastic storyteller, Thomas occasionally would allow his plot and visual materials to get ahead of the facts.

The only correspondent to observe the Arab Revolt, Thomas recorded interviews with Lawrence, his fellow British officers, and general observations in his “Arabia” field journal. This journal has an Akaba itinerary that Lawrence set forth for Thomas for the two weeks he was there. Thomas faithfully followed the itinerary.

From the “Arabia Journal” we can see how Thomas pursued his coverage of Lawrence — not just meeting for a few interviews, but engaging him in late-evening discussions. At least from Thomas’ point of view there was a friendship, a bond between them, and he had a genuine admiration for Lawrence that was expressed in his performance given thousands of times throughout the English-speaking world. It was an admiration Thomas would hold all his life.

Since Lawrence’s modesty is often cited, it is interesting to see his stories as recorded in these journals often stress his own importance, but perhaps it is because even as early as the spring of 1918, Lawrence understood the value that publicity from Thomas’ coverage could offer him in name of the Arab cause. Manipulating the press in a way that favored Arab independence over colonial aims, Lawrence would say, might be a more effective method for the 20th century than any physical means.

“On it [influencing public opinion],we should mainly depend for the means of victory on the Arab front: and the novelty of it was our advantage. The printing press, and each newly discovered method of communication favored the intellectual above the physical, civilization paying the mind always from the body's funds. We kindergarten soldiers were beginning our art in the atmosphere of the twentieth century...”

—T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Certainly Thomas knew a good story when he found one and he diligently pursued it. From their first meeting, Thomas’ journal notes illustrate that he had Lawrence’s assistance. Thomas never made his journals public although they reveal the strength of his relationship with Lawrence. This relationship was at the heart of a controversy that arose when Lawrence denied helping Thomas and any complicity in his own celebrity.