Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 2: Opening the Arab Offensive

Previously: Introduction, Book I

Soldiers in the Arab Army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, carrying the Arab Flag of the Arab
Revolt and pictured in the Arabian Desert.

Against his adamant protests and self-doubt, Lawrence is sent back to Arabia by his superior officer, General Clayton, who believes the bookish journalist-cartographer will be an excellent substitute until the professional military advisors arrive. “I was unlike a soldier: hated soldiering” writes Lawrence point-blank (p. 114).  Having no alternative, he surrenders to necessity and returns to Feisal’s base, finding the Arab leader no less resolute for suffering early betrayals and mixed successes.  Together, and with the aid of diverse allies, they endeavor to unify the contentious Arabic tribes into an anti-Turkish force, with the immediate objective of taking Wejh, a port city in the north under control of the Turks.  Lawrence is impressed with Feisal’s ability to gain a following, learns more of the psychology of the Arab people, and becomes increasingly wary of the maneuverings of some of their European, military “supporters.”

There was a lot packed into this part, even though, plot-wise, it mostly covered their trip to Wejh.  I think what I took from it was the human element: all the striking details, changing behaviors, and cultural mores.

For instance, early on, Lawrence was asked to adopt the Arab attire instead of his British uniform; this was both to facilitate desert travel and also to prevent his khaki from being mistook for Turkish.  Feisal happened to have brand-new, white-and-gold clothes sent to him by his great-aunt; it was actually a wedding outfit he had never needed to wear.  So he gave it to Lawrence, who at that time – little did he know – was being drawn in, “wedded” if you will, to the Arab Revolt.  I thought it was strangely appropriate (and would have been an interesting point to make in the movie).

Another recurring human theme is, a little surprisingly, slavery.  On the one hand, it was culturally expected to treat slaves fairly “decently,” to the point some even lived in a kind of community.  On the other, they were still slaves, and fared probably the worst of anyone on a camel trip.  Lawrence writes about these things matter-of-factly, in more or less journalistic style.  At this time, he appeared to adopt the practice of accepting the Arab culture as-was and did not attempt to intervene, except in cases where the bickering of various tribes would weaken their fighting strength as a whole.

This “whole,” was, indeed, composed of men from many tribes.  The effect was greatly a psychological one: Lawrence did not anticipate heavy fighting at Wejh; the point was, rather, to gain popular support for Feisal as a unifying figure, as well as to send a formidable message to the Turkish opponents.  Once again, Lawrence’s self-professed lack of “soldiering” seems to have been his strength.  He had the gift of empathy, and through it, his tactical vision acquired a clarity and creativity that other outsiders could not quite achieve.  

“In sum…the Arab Movement would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm of it did not carry the Arabs into Damascus” (p. 131).  There were some in the Allies’ military leadership who were not eager for a definitive, serious force of Arab nationalists.  Part of this attitude was genuine doubt, and part of it was political self-interest.  It was still early in the Revolt, but Lawrence looked forward to seeing the Arabs reach Damascus, disproving the misgivings of both enemies and allies.

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

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About Me

Hi, I’m Marian—sharing a fondness for classics and other books here and on my YouTube channel. I’m a Christian, designer, and avid tea drinker, and my home is the beautiful Pacific Northwest, US.


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