Veterans – History in the Making 14
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
On 13th May 1935 a 1000cc Borough Superior motorcycle whilst being ridden at speed along a back road near Bovington Camp in Dorset had an altercation with two school boys on bicycles that had been out looking for birds eggs. One was knocked off his bike during the collision but not injured. The rider, a Colonel in the British Army, as well as being an archaeologist, author and diplomat died at the scene of the crash. The Colonel’s body along with the motorcycle were hurriedly removed from the crash scene and taken to a secret location. The whole area was sealed off by local police and within hour’s men from a mysterious and little known-about organisation at the time called MI5 appeared and took control.
In the lead up to the first Gulf War following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq forces a number of high level military meetings took place in Washington as plans were put in place with a view to the liberation of the Gulf State by coalition forces. At one such meeting one of the senior US General’s mentioned a book he had been studying which despite having been written in 1922 discussed tactics for fighting in the Arab States and went into detail of how a method of guerrilla warfare had been developed and used to great effect during the First World War between the Arab Nation and Ottoman Empire (now known as Turkey). The book was an autobiographical account by a British Army Colonel who had been involved in the Arab conflict and was called the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The man who died in the crash in 1935 was one of the greatest military strategists of his time and although he had been withdrawn from public life since 1922, he was well known in that part of the world by the name Lawrence.
The author of the book that would be referred to in great detail over fifty years later was Thomas Edward Lawrence CB DSO. Better known by most, as the almost legendary Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence started his career with the Government in January 1914 when as an archaeologist who had trained at Oxford he was co-opted by the British Army. Under the guise of archaeology he was sent to the Negev Desert to carry out a secret survey on behalf of and funded by the Palestinian Exploration Fund. The plan was that he and another would map the desert area in terms of strategic importance. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914 Lawrence held back from enlisting until October when he took a commission and was summoned later that year to discuss his thoughts on the issues affecting the Arab Nations. There was an uprising in the Arab nationalist movement within the Arab speaking Ottoman nation. Any action by the Arabs against the Ottomans was seen as favourable by the British Government in terms of taking control of the Suez Canal and so the weight of British support would always be on the Arab side and Palestinian nation.
During 1915 Lawrence prepared maps and strategic data for the British Government and continued to tour the Arab nation as part of his intelligence work. Then in June 1916 he was sent to meet three possible leaders for the Palestinian revolt, all sons of the head of the nation and selected one, Faisal as the best to lead any revolt. In November and December of the same year due to there being no one more qualified to properly support any uprising Lawrence was sent directly to liaise with Faisal. He immediately repositioned the Arab forces, which were heavily outnumbered by the Ottomans. Strategic target areas such as the Syrian railway had to be protected and as well as that, there was a long borderline between the opposing forces with the Arabs having fewer men. Faisal insisted when Lawrence was going to be replaced by a more senior officer that he would only work with Lawrence who remained by his side until August 1918.
Lawrence saw that the only way to create issues with a small force against a larger one would be to create small teams who would attack small pockets along a line, create havoc and quickly withdraw, thus creating what would appear to be a major attack. And these were carried out on specific highly strategic targets, such as bridges, railway lines and logistical targets. Designed to be short, sharp and coordinated. This was not a new tactic, the likes of which had been developed in part by the Romans, centuries earlier, but this was new to modern warfare, thus creating a guerrilla style offensive that was to prove to be highly effective.
Lawrence took part in a number of major battles alongside Faisal and led some including Tafileh, a region south east of the Dead Sea early in 1918. The battle was a defensive engagement but due to the effective fighting and strategies used it developed into an offensive rout. In official history records this battle was described as a brilliant feat of arms under the direct leadership of Lawrence. Despite being outnumbered the Arabs took around 400 lives and 200 Turkish prisoners. Lawrence was awarded the DSO and promoted to Lt Col.
There are always two sides to every person and this was to show for Lawrence. While the German and Turkish forces were retreating from the Arabs after a battle in September 1918 near the village of Tafas they massacred all the people in the village. And in turn, as retaliation and with Lawrence’s encouragement, the Arabs massacred all the prisoners they had captured during the battle.
In the Summer of 1918 Turkey offered a substantial reward for the head of Lawrence, seeing him as the main enemy of their state. Meanwhile Lawrence, who now wore the typical Arab clothing instead of the British military uniform, continued to liaise between Faisal and the British intelligence. The Arab nations finally captured Damascus, their main objective, just prior to the end of the War.
There were many in Britain who did not like Lawrence, due to the Arabic leanings. And he was said to be hated in France due to his involvement of allegedly trying to stir a revolt of Syrian forces against the French occupying nation. Following his departure from the Arab States at the end of the war he was troubled man. In 1922, having written his autobiography of the Arab conflict, Lawrence joined the RAF as an aircraftsmen, under a false name, John Ross. But within months his true identity was exposed and he left. He changed his name this time to T E Shaw and joined as a Private into the Tank Corps before moving back to the RAF years later. He was posted in 1926 to India with the RAF but due to alleged espionage activities he was supposed to have been involved with returned to Britain.
He finally left the Service in March 1935 and died two months later.
David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole which brought the story of this remarkable man to life for most people was nominated for ten Oscars and won seven including Best Picture.
The reason Seven Pillars of Wisdom was called into question in the lead up to the Gulf War was because the same tactics that had been developed and used during the First World War and Arab Uprising, were, and are still being used by Arab forces in the Middle East and by terrorists around the world even to this day. And the world has Lawrence, in part, to thank for that.
Were any of your relatives involved in the Arab uprising in 1916 – 1918? Or do you have thoughts about this remarkable man? If so we would like to hear from you. Contact us at Forgotten Veterans UK.