Lawrence on the Move in the Arab Revolt
In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Thomas Edward Lawrence’s autobiographical account of his Middle Eastern activities during the First World War, Chapters 41 to 58 are bracketed by two important events in the Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire; the Hejaz war around Wejh, and the conflict in Akaba (Aqaba) (Lawrence).
The most vivid action of the story is the journey from Wejh to Akaba. The setting is largely what we now term Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, although borders have changed. The time frame is between the years of 1916 and 1918; mostly in 1917.
The narrator’s travelling and battle companions include Sherif Nasir, Auda and his kinsmen, Nesib el Bekri and his companion Zeki, and a guard or consort of 35 men under the leadership of Ibn Dgheithir. The Arab revolt helped by these people effectively overthrew the power of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in that region.
However, secret treaties and agreements left those countries vulnerable to later partitioning by the European colonial powers, and contributed to their long term disaffection for the non-Muslim world. The results of this underhanded behavior are visible even now, when the Middle Eastern countries still struggle with peaceful and democratic self-government and terrorism thrives in so many settings.
The major characters
T.E. Lawrence, a member of the British military intelligence service, had experience in the area, with language and cultural skills that stood him in good stead as a liaison between the Arab sheikhs and their followers, and the British High Command. It is tempting to infer from his Welsh background that he was peculiarly well fitted to blend in with another language and culture so thoroughly. As an outsider, from a distinctive linguistic community, considered by the English to be a different race, he was always ‘passing’ in an alien community.
A graduate of Oxford, he was working on an archeological dig before World War I erupted, so he had the appropriate academic background to analyze the historical tone and mood of the region. He served in the area starting in October 1916, and was back in England by 1919, writing up these memoirs.
Lawrence names as the leader of the travel group that set out from Wejh, Sherif Nasir, Emir of Medina (one of the holy cities of Islam). This was a natural leader who could command the loyalty of others. Auda ban Harb al-Abo Seed al-Mazro al-Tamame abu Tayi was someone who could help the revolutionaries to enlist the help of the Howeitat tribes of the eastern desert areas which today are part of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Nesib el Bekri was from Damascus, and was positioned to mobilize Syrian assistance for the effort.
The major players; who caused things to happen
On the larger world stage, the Turks had allied themselves with Germany against the Allies. In the Red Sea, the British were jockeying for position and shipping access to India. The European powers were interested in access and control in the region as well.
The time frame
This section of the book is dealing with an eight month period in 1917. At this time, Lawrence journeyed hundreds of miles with the Arab insurgents. This was in the last years of World War I.
Their journey took them from Wejh to Akaba, and around several countries in a giant quadrangle, touching on places such as Maan, and Wadi Sirhan, and Wadi Bair. In the Wejh area, Lawrence had helped to bother the Turks by blowing up train lines. The city of Akaba offered strategic advantages for transport and military defense and attack. Lawrence also took a discreet side trip into what we now call Syria to check out that area for strategic planning.
This guerilla success in Hejaz was a major inspiration for the Arab peoples to rise up against their discriminatory Turkish masters. They were also encouraged in this effort by the British, who had interests in the conflict. The Red Sea ports were critical for military and shipping access between Europe and the Indian Ocean. When the nascent Arab revolt began, the British sent in naval support. Fortunately, the Turkish army’s lack of good sense reflected some sort of inner decay or lack of management skill.
Lawrence’s trip took at least eight weeks. Along the way, Lawrence suffered miserably from boils and fevers.  Others in the group suffered as well from the thirst, the sun, and untreated snake bites. Food problems – from too little, too much, or the wrong kinds – troubled them all to some degree. Lice arrived with every contact with new people.
It was not a restful trip: they were attacked in the Wadi Sirhan. Nonetheless, this portion of the book has many vivid descriptions of striking desert landscapes, people, costumes, and customs. It also addresses what might be termed management issues addressed, as well; discipline problems solved, and relationships managed along the way.
The group encountered on their wandering route both local Arab and British characters, including an over-zealous surveyor named Newcombe, and Hornby, who together, were responsible for much rail destruction. In a region where modern transportation was so recent an innovation, such systematic sabotage of the train system must have been quite demoralizing. Lawrence blew quite a lot up himself on the way to Akaba, and in his efforts to distract attention towards Damascus instead.
They gathered help (accompanied by much ritual feasting) along the way from tribes swearing allegiance to the revolt, for example in Ageila. However, the best use of all these enthusiastic supporters was in question. Lawrence reports that he supported Akaba as the best target due to its potential for guarding the Suez and linking the Arabs with British arms and supplies. Others preferred Damascus.
Lawrence reports playing his companions against one another, finally successfully convincing the Arab leaders of the superior advantages of Akaba. As it transpired, the decisive battle occurred at Aba el Lissan, some miles inland from Akaba, and all sorts of help became available from the British commander, Allenby.
How these events affected the region and reverberate still today
Unfortunately, a secret agenda to which Lawrence was not privy, expressed in the McMahon pledges, the Sykes-Picot treaty, and the Balfour letter, would divide up the region amongst Russia, England, and France, and place Palestine under international administration. Lawrence reports being shamed by learning of or guessing the betrayal of promises made to people who had nothing but their honor.
He determined, as a result, to make the Arab revolt as successful, impressive, and self-sustaining as possible. This betrayal by the British and other European powers was the start or reinforcement of a deep distrust by Arab peoples of Europeans. This continues today, in the Palestinian refugee problem, and it can be asserted, the Islamist terrorist activities so troubling today.
This portion of Lawrence’s memoir captures a key moment in the evolution of the Middle East. In spite of Lawrence’s efforts to build trust and, according to his account, behave honorably, the European nations set in motion deadly resentments that persist today. The actions in Wejh and near Akaba loosed a revolution that, under different, more honorable circumstances, could perhaps have led to more democratic and tolerant governance today.
Lawrence, Thomas Edward. “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” 2012. gutenberg.net. 2012.
It is interesting to speculate whether he was in fact getting some sort of blood borne infection from these severe saddle sores.