Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 9 & 10: "But for fit monument, I shattered it, unfinished…"

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Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation in Wadi Rum, Jordan
by Tomobe03 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Some books, when you come to the end of them, leave you gaping inwardly.  Dejected and confused, you feel like you missed something critical, after “getting” everything that came before.   Seven Pillars of Wisdom ends just like Lawrence of Arabia, so I should have seen it coming. But after some whirlwind chapters, the ending came suddenly, doubly sobering as a first-person narrative.  Like so many real-life struggles, it hangs loosely together instead of being tied up neatly; you look for closure and find questions instead.

Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house,
                                              as a memory of you.
But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now
The little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
                                            in the marred shadow
                                                                     Of your gift.

9 & 10 – Balancing for a Last Effort; The House is Perfected

Emir Faisal; Lt. Colonel T.E. Lawrence - early 1918
Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence and Emir Faisal during World War I; Damascus.

Exasperated one night at G.H.Q., I had blurted out that to me 1918 seemed the last chance, and we could take Damascus, anyhow, whatever happened at Deraa or Ramleh; since it was better to have taken it and lost it, than never to have taken it at all.

Feisal…replied that he would try this autumn for Damascus though the heavens fell, and, if the British were not able to carry their share of the attack, he would save his own people by making separate peace with Turkey. (p. 571)

I begged him [Feisal] to trust not in our promises, like his father, but in his own strong performance. (p. 572)

It became a legitimate cause for care that the Arab Revolt continue to collaborate with Britain even till the last minute.  Lawrence sensed that they would fare badly – perhaps fatally – if they made motions counter to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which would split Ottoman Turkey between the European powers of England, France, and Russia.  He warned Feisal in advance of this treaty, and Feisal, hardly blind to the political deception of his “allies,” listened to Lawrence’s advice and went along with the British plan, which as the lesser of two evils would at least prevent his displacement altogether.  But, knowing as he did that his possession of the conquered territories was up in the air, Feisal listened to their promises with more than a grain of salt.

T. E. Lawrence, Herbert Samuel, Emir Abdullah - Amman 1921
On the Aerodrome at Amman:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935),
Sir Herbert Samuel (1870-1963),
and Emir Abdullah (Abdullah I of Jordan,

I think it is tempting, especially in the film, to view Feisal as the “king” of the Arab people, a monarch on the scale of George V or Nicholas II.  However, though he and his family were the symbolic power figures of the Revolt, it’s worth remembering that throughout the effort, there was plenty of conflict between the different tribes that he and Lawrence attempted to unite, and unity in war may not have been unity in peace.  It goes back to that telling quote – “fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it” (p. 100)  Perhaps his flexibility was a kind of realism, and he may have made certain choices based on survival, rather than ideals.

At this late point, I had supposed the most gruesome scene from the movie – “No prisoners” – to be mostly a Hollywood fabrication, but I was wrong.  It makes sense that it happened near the end of his career in Arabia, when Lawrence was struggling both mentally and physically through his self-proclaimed fraud that he so hated.  He, Auda, and his men come across the remains of a village that had a personal connection to a member of their group.  They find a child bleeding to death, women sadistically raped and killed, and the bodies of dead babies on the ground.  It is not hard to imagine that this hellish sight must have provoked the hellish response from Lawrence and his men, in their revenge on the retreating enemy.  “By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war…we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony” (p. 654).

There is nothing glorious in war.  This has to be one of the major themes of Seven Pillars – mankind’s most decorous and elaborate and stupendous undertakings are not unwed with devastation, even when you are on the “good” side.

Edmund Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby in 1916
Edmund Allenby, 1916.

Lawrence writes of the taking of Damascus matter-of-factly: British and Arabs are welcomed joyfully by the citizens, and, as shown in the film, there are numerous hiccups to the establishment of government, some humorous and some not.  Yet in the midst of the victory, photographs, and commendations, there is irony and sadness in the final words of his narrative.  The Syrian Government is established, albeit on shaky foundations, with Feisal and General Allenby jointly managing the city.  Lawrence’s “soldiering” was no longer needed.

It is worth pointing out that Lawrence had a great and sincere respect for Allenby, summing him up as “dreamlike confidence and decision and kindness” (p. 682).  There is no suggestion that there was any bad feeling between Lawrence, Feisal, and Allenby, as portrayed in the movie.  I think the purpose of that cinematic twist was to express how Lawrence felt, in the hands of British and French politicians, but it does a large discredit to Lawrence’s actual feelings about these two people at that time.

T.E. Lawrence, The dreamer whose dreams came true

Finally – for the third and last time, Lawrence asks to be let go.  For the first time, he is told yes, and feels instant pangs of regret.

Lawrence returned to England, where he wrote and published Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ultimately he returned to military service, this time as a humble aircraftman, “John Hume Ross,” in the Royal Air Force.  Feisal‘s power in Syria was challenged by the French, and his subsequent Kingdom of Iraq was one of mixed successes and even infamy, before his early death.  They were both only in their mid-to-late 40s when they died.

World War I history always leaves me with the question – why?  Here, in this book, is another echo to that why.  I cringe to hear the words “war” or “revolution” used flippantly, as they sometimes are by our politicians.  On paper or in speeches, the concept can sound good, desirable, or necessary, but if ever it is, hopefully we have measured its worth by the testimony of those who have fought wars, and through their tortured words tell us the human cost of war, in lives of “ordinary” men, women, and children.

by nav chatterji

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

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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)

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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)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 5 & 6: Marking Time; The Raid upon the Bridges

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III, Book IV

After the capture of Akaba, the Arab Revolt was again able to re-focus on its core strategy: destroying the Turkish railway in Hejaz.  This followed Lawrence’s philosophy of undermining Turkish resources instead of targeting their forces directly, following the priority of utilizing the Arab advantage – mobility and knowledge of terrain – and preserving Arab lives.

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The Hejaz Railway, 1908

With the help of British expertise and the leadership of Arab sherifs, Lawrence set this plan into reality, both leading and training the Arab fighters in a series of bomb attacks on the railway.  The most materially valuable points were the stations, full of loot for the men to take back to their tribes…the most vulnerable points were the bridges.

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T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59640

These two parts were rich with Lawrence’s insights on not only his own actions, thoughts, and struggles during this time, but also the geographical features he saw, the behavior and attitudes of other British officers (and the British Empire in general), and the behavior and attitudes of the Arab tribes and their leaders.  He wrote an entire section upon “Syria in 1915” – could he have known that so much of it is still relevant 100 years later?  His remarks on Western intervention in Middle Eastern politics are candid, self-reviling, and far from outdated.  It is both depressing and fascinating, one of the best parts in the entire book.

Arab Government in Syria, though buttressed on Arabic prejudices, would be as much ‘imposed’ as the Turkish Government, or a foreign protectorate, or the historic Caliphate.  Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic.  Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parcelled thing, ungrateful to a people whose instincts ever returned towards parochial home rule. (p. 344–345)

As I sit here, the West is still trying to “stabilize” the Middle East and still experiencing – yet hardly learning? – the lessons of a century ago.  Lawrence could have told us what to expect.

The fraudulence of my business stung me.  Here were more fruits, bitter fruits, of my decision, in front of Akaba, to become a principal of the Revolt.  I was raising the Arabs on false pretences, and exercising a false authority over my dupes…  In such conditions the war seemed as great a folly as my sham leadership a crime… (p. 387) 

It always came back to the War.  The War was Lawrence’s one justification, and even that at times left him cold and cynical of its priority, which was one of the elements – though perhaps not the only one – that set his conscience in a cruel balance.  Was he British first, or was he his own, undefinable self above all?  Were his actions reestablishing his character in a way he did not like or want?

There were Englishmen whom, individually, the Arabs preferred to any Turk, or foreigner; but, on the strength of this, to have generalized and called the Arabs pro-English, would have been a folly.  Each stranger made his own poor bed among them.

Though fluent in Arabic and living nearly as one of them, he still felt like a stranger.

At the end of book 6, Lawrence goes to the town of Deraa to investigate its layout prior to an attack.  Something that had confused me in the film was his confidence that he could pass for Arab, yet in the book this is supported, in several places, by instances when he successfully disguised himself, at least from a distance.  He succeeds in Deraa, but is apprehended by the Turks and conscripted into the infantry.

The film shows nothing as disturbing as what Lawrence describes.  The Turkish soldiers take him to the Bey (governor), who, in his position of power, satisfies his lusts using the most attractive officers.  He tries to rape Lawrence, and when Lawrence defends himself, the Bey orders him to be beaten.  The horrific flogging leaves him undesirable to the Bey, and he is finally released and sent to the soldiers’ quarters.

There he finds a suicide drug from the dispensary, takes it with him in case of recapture, and escapes without notice.  But the physical torture by the Turks becomes linked with his mental torture of guilt, and he writes that from that point “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost” (p. 456).

Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 4: Extending to Akaba

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III

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La forteresse d’Aqaba by Jean Housen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


This name, uttered by Peter O’Toole as a sleepless T. E. Lawrence, rings out as a revelation, the password to a quandary that only he can see.  In the fit of inspiration, he prevails upon his frenemy, Sherif Ali, to help him lead an attack on the Port of Akaba, without orders or consultation with his British superiors.  The script is not far from the truth – as soon as he decided to take Akaba, the real-life Lawrence was on his way, leaving his commander with a note and relying chiefly on the strength of Feisal’s men and his other Arab followers.

The Arabs needed Akaba: firstly, to extend their front, which was their tactical principle; and, secondly, to link up with the British.  If they took it the act gave them Sinai, and made positive junction between them and Sir Archibald Murray.  Thus having become really useful, they would obtain material help.  The human frailty of Murray’s Staff was such that nothing but physical contact with our success would persuade them of our importance.  (p. 281)

Akaba had guns facing the sea, but was more or less open on the land side, from which Lawrence proposed to attack.  First, before any chance of victory, they faced a long and dreary toil of a march.

It was in this part of the book that the dual nature of T. E. Lawrence really started to emerge.  He became, at once, both hero and anti-hero, and torn between the two he settles into a very real, human character.  The interesting thing is that this humanness is just as troubling as the film portrayal, yet in different ways.

In the movie, Lawrence turns back during the march to search for Gasim, whose empty camel saddle showed the man had gone missing.  Lawrence writes of his outright reluctance, “I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue” (p. 261).    When he does ride back, he feels angry with Gasim, who, as hinted in the movie, was apparently a troublesome character.

Lawrence is self-deprecating in this passage, but his actions aren’t devoid of heroism.  No one else in his party was particularly concerned about the missing man.  Lawrence went of his own initiative, with one compass, which was no small risk on a terrain that, so often windswept, left few camel tracks.  The rescue of Gasim is also contrasted by another disappearance, a slave who was later found dead of dehydration and heat.  Gasim would have lost his life in the same way if Lawrence had not gone back.

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Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe

Another theme that shows itself in Book IV is Lawrence’s self-consciousness of his differences, which oftentimes he considers to be weaknesses.  In the snake-riddled land of Sirhan, he is honest when he says he had “a shuddering horror of all reptiles” (p. 277).  When he joins up with the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi, Lawrence is pushed far out of his comfort zone, as honor from the Bedouins comes to him in the form of enormous, greasy, communal meals of lamb and rice, for days on end.  He lives in a strange, yet truly realistic struggle, feeling both his foreignness and his hybrid identity: an Englishman who treats the Arabs like equals, speaks their language, and lives much like a Sheikh.  He earns their trust and respect.

This trust haunts Lawrence, for he is still torn.  He is British by birth, serving the British government during wartime.  He draws on connections, rhetoric, resources, and his own blood to lead the Arab Revolt.  Already, however, he feels like a traitor, using the Arabs to aid the British against the Turks (and, thereby, also Germany).

So the Arabs…asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British Government.  I had had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which were both framed by war-time branches of the Foreign Office.  But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. (p. 282283)

Lawrence was one of the mouths that spoke those dead promises, and it began to torment him.  He could see not only Arab independence on the line, but the lives of the ordinary Arab people whom he was rousing to fight beside him. 

In revenge I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success…vowed to lead it so madly in the final victory that expediency should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs’ moral claims. (p. 283)

Was Lawrence a born leader, or too “unlike a soldier”…would he accomplish anything more for the Arabs than another British “advisor” might have done?

It remains to be seen.  But he, Auda, and the others of his force did succeed in capturing Akaba, and he still held his ideal of a free Arab nation.

Aqaba Beaches by Wolljuergen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 3: A Railway Diversion

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II

My precioussss paperback.  Fun fact: the cover art has seven layers of hills. 

In the previous part, T. E. Lawrence acquiesced to his general’s request and returned to the field, where he and Feisal took the port city of Wejh, a key victory on the western side of Arabia.  For most military men, this would have been a credit to their resume, but hardly the foundation for legend.  Lawrence, on the other hand, was just getting started – he was not a military man so much as he was a strategic thinker, and how he would build upon this success was, perhaps, no less important than the success itself.

Though the movie streamlines this part of the story quite a bit, in reality, a rather intricate thread of politics directed Lawrence’s next movements after Wejh.  Already he had his eye on Akaba, but his idea of attack – strictly from land and not sea, leading Arabs rather than French or English – was another point of contention between him and the French commander, Colonel Bremond.  Additionally, the British wanted to be at Medina, a city southeast of Wejh, from which the Turks were said to be evacuating and would apparently fall easy prey.  Lawrence, to be diplomatic, agreed to go to Abdulla, Feisal’s older brother, and try to recruit his support for this effort.

During this journey, Lawrence contracts a bad fever, and two significant things happen during this time.  First, one man in his group murders another, and Lawrence, as the only tribally neutral person, finds no ultimate alternative than to serve as the executioner.  In the film, he later confesses he “enjoyed” shooting the man, but in the book, he describes the scene somberly, and with little comment, except that in the page title (there is a “summary” title for each page in the book), he calls it “Another Murder.”  I’m not sure he didn’t think of himself as an executioner, doing what the situation called for, but his general tone implies he was bothered by it – there’s certainly no suggestion he enjoyed it.

“As I have shown, I was unfortunately as much in command of the campaign as I pleased, and was untrained” (p. 193).  The second thing that Lawrence did in his illness was perhaps one of the most important of his career.  While lying in his tent, miserable and immobile, he reexamined the Brits’ current plans more critically, using what he remembered from military books he had read in college.  He concluded Medina was not the best objective, and, in general, the slower and more cumbersome European style of fighting was not going to be the Arabs’ strength.  They must instead work with mobility, knowledge, and calculation, using the vast and hilly terrain to their chief advantage.

In Turkey things were scarce and precious, men less esteemed than equipment…  Ours should be a war of detachment.  We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked.  The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff…  (p. 199, 200)

This was the light-bulb moment that started his campaign to dismantle the Turkish railways.  He started work upon this soon afterwards, intent upon striking the Turks by taking away their resources, while attempting always to preserve Arab lives.

During the midst of this, Lawrence was becoming even more educated in the Bedouin culture, especially since meeting Abdulla.  Lawrence seemed less comfortable in Abdulla’s camp than he was in Feisal’s; personality-wise, they were much less alike than he and Feisal.  It was also difficult for him to appreciate the older brother’s hospitality – Lawrence was a self-professed loner, and, though patiently gracious, got tired of some of the highly social customs and having to live closely with others.  I could write a whole post on this part, but it was just an interesting piece of the whole, and, once again, something that was not really touched upon by the film.

In the end, his better judgment could not confine himself to the “official” plan of taking Medina.  So, with “a letter full of apologies” (p. 233) to General Clayton, Lawrence returned to his former scheme of focusing the attack on Akaba, and set off on his own initiative to make it happen.