Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 7 & 8: The Dead Sea Campaign; The Ruin of High Hope

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59157
Sherif Nasir

The Arab Revolt as led by Lawrence was not a solely independent effort.  Money and reinforcements came from Britain, and in return the Arab tribesmen and leadership collaborated with General Allenby against the common enemy.  The Dead Sea Campaign came after Allenby had taken Jerusalem, and would benefit both Arab and British objectives: 

“The Arabs were to reach the Dead Sea as soon as possible; to stop the transport of [enemy] food up it to Jericho before the middle of February; and to arrive at the Jordan before the end of March.” (p. 465)

This seemingly moderate plan became a source of extreme frustration for Lawrence.  Part of this was circumstantial, playing out in the alternate taking and retaking of the town of Tafileh, a tiresome and unpleasant part of the campaign.  Some of it, too, was the challenge of working with Zeid, Feisal’s younger brother, who like Feisal’s older brother and father was not of one mind with Lawrence’s methods.

At one point, for example, Zeid spends a large quantity of the money apportioned for the campaign.  He spent it in payments to recruits, but it was prematurely paid, and not all of it went to the right people.  This is the breaking point for Lawrence – without the money, he is unable to back up Allenby as promised.  He sees nothing but failure and himself as part of the problem.  Once again, Lawrence returns to his superiors and begs for reassignment:

I complained that since landing in Arabia I had had options and requests, never an order: that I was tired to death of free-will, and of many things beside free-will.  For a year and a half I had been in motion, riding a thousand miles each month upon camels: with added nervous hours in crazy aeroplanes, or rushing across country in powerful cars. (p. 514)

But his release was not to be.  Lawrence was once more requested to stay: Jericho was taken without his help, yet British Headquarters still wanted his leadership, in the final push for Damascus that would wrest it from Ottoman Turkey decisively.

“There was no escape for me.  I must take up again my mantle of fraud in the East.  With my certain contempt for half-measures I took it up quickly and wrapped myself in it completely.  It might be fraud or it might be farce: no one could say that I could not play it.” (p. 515)

Jericho P1190715
Jericho – City of the Moon, City of Palms – in a rainy day 
by Deror_avi [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that makes Seven Pillars of Wisdom an extraordinary memoir is how the themes, political and personal, are countered by the intricate, sometimes poetic, “travelogue” side of the story.  Though his self-deprecation and cynicism continue to increase, Lawrence still recounts these other moments of his journey, when he is fighting against time or the elements, not human strength or weakness.  It is really a memoir of survival, sometimes of wits and sometimes of body.  My favorite part of these two books was when he was riding his camel, Wodheiha, in the snow, and, weighed down by both gold and fatigue, she got stuck in heavy drifts.

So I carved her a beautiful little road, a foot wide, three deep, and eighteen paces long, using my bare feet and hands as tools.  The snow was so frozen on the surface that it took all my weight, first to break it down, and then to scoop it out.  The crust was sharp, and cut my wrists and ankles till they bled freely, and the roadside became lined with pink crystals, looking like pale, very pale, water-melon flesh.

Afterwards, I went back to Wodheiha, patiently standing there, and climbed into the saddle.  She started easily.  We went running at it, and such was her speed that the rush carried her right over the shallow stuff, back to the proper road. (p. 509)

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