Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia: A Conjunction of Two Bright Stars

Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia: A Conjunction of Two Bright Stars

Excerpt­ed from “Great Con­tem­po­raries: T.E. Lawrence,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text and more illus­tra­tions, please click here.

Churchill and Lawrence

If the Almighty dab­bles in the cre­ation of indi­vid­u­als, He must have chor­tled when He con­jured up Lawrence of Ara­bia. For here was the ide­al advis­er, foil and friend of Win­ston Spencer Churchill. To para­phrase WSC’s apoc­ryphal quip, Lawrence pos­sessed none of the virtues Churchill despised, an all the vices he admired.

He was “untram­meled by con­ven­tion,” Churchill wrote, “inde­pen­dent of the ordi­nary cur­rents of human action.” Arabs loved this fair-haired West­ern­er who helped wrest their home­land from the Turks in World War I. Then Lawrence wrote a book about it, of the same grandil­o­quent style as Churchill him­self. An admir­ing Churchill leaned heav­i­ly on him after the First World War, and mourned his loss as the Sec­ond World War approached.

Lawrence claimed to care not a fig about his rep­u­ta­tion, changed his name twice to stop it pur­su­ing him. Yet Churchill thought that “he had the art of back­ing uneasi­ly into the lime­light. He was a very remark­able char­ac­ter, and very care­ful of that fact.” Lawrence for his part nursed that unqual­i­fied admi­ra­tion for Churchill which was com­mon among WSC’s friends. Churchill’s daugh­ter Mary recalled his roman­tic image. “He would arrive at Chartwell of an after­noon, a short, non­de­script, sandy-haired air­man rid­ing a motor­cy­cle. Then he would dress for din­ner, pre­sent­ing him­self in the flow­ing robes of a Prince of Ara­bia.” God sim­ply couldn’t have invent­ed a per­son Win­ston Churchill would have liked more.

Thomas Edward Lawrence…

…was born in North Wales in 1888 and began trav­el­ing in the Mid­dle East while still an Oxford under­grad­u­ate. Obtain­ing a first class degree in his­to­ry in 1910, he engaged in Mid­dle East arche­ol­o­gy, explor­ing the Negev Desert before join­ing the Geo­graph­i­cal Sec­tion of the War Office in 1914. When the Arabs rebelled against the Turks, Britain saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to secure a vital ally against the Cen­tral Pow­ers. Lawrence was sec­ond­ed to Ronald Storrs as a British rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Arabs. He became suc­ces­sive­ly liai­son offi­cer, advis­er, friend and pro­mot­er of the Emir Feisal, whom Churchill ulti­mate­ly placed on the throne of Iraq. Feisal and his son ruled, unen­light­ened but in the main mod­er­ate­ly, until the rev­o­lu­tion of 1958, which ulti­mate­ly pro­duced Sad­dam Hus­sein.

The sig­nif­i­cance of Lawrence in the Arab revolt is a mat­ter of dis­cus­sion among his­to­ri­ans. What is unar­guable is that Lawrence wrote one of the best books to come out of World War I. A clas­sic of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, his Sev­en Pil­lars of Wis­dom was sub­ti­tled A Tri­umph. Among the tri­umphs were his sur­prise cap­ture of Aka­ba in July 1917 and the con­quest of Dam­as­cus in Octo­ber 1918.

When he sat down to write the book, Lawrence worked large­ly from wartime notes. Then he lost the man­u­script along with many notes, and began writ­ing anew from mem­o­ry. In 1926 he issued a pri­vate print­ing to a lim­it­ed cir­cle of sub­scribers includ­ing Churchill. A com­mer­cial edi­tion called Revolt in the Desert fol­lowed, but it was an abridge­ment. Not until after his death did the full unabridged work appear, achiev­ing posthu­mous­ly his last­ing fame.

Advocate for Arab justice

Lawrence accom­pa­nied Feisal to the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence in 1919-20 with strong fore­bod­ings. He had for some time doubt­ed Britain’s promis­es of inde­pen­dence if the Arabs helped win the war. Paris did not alter his doubts. Two years lat­er, Churchill per­suad­ed him to return from seclu­sion to join the Mid­dle East Depart­ment of the Colo­nial Office.  In 1921, Lawrence joined Churchill at the Cairo Con­fer­ence, con­vened to fix the bor­ders of the Mid­dle East. For bet­ter or worse, those are the bor­ders we still know today. At Cairo, Churchill argued vain­ly for a sep­a­rate Kur­dish home­land, “to pro­tect the Kurds from some future bul­ly in Iraq.” The For­eign Office thought his fears groundless.

The year before, France, feel­ing enti­tled to spoils of vic­to­ry, had acquired League of Nations “man­dates” in Syr­ia and Lebanon. “Man­date” was polite short­hand for oppor­tunis­tic colony grab­bing, but Churchill sym­pa­thized. A nation “bled white by the war,” as Churchill put it, would tol­er­ate noth­ing less. Britain received man­dates in Pales­tine and Iraq. Though Iraq gained nom­i­nal inde­pen­dence in 1932, Britain con­tin­ued to reap the ben­e­fit of the vast Iraqi oil fields. France, by con­trast, ruled her man­dates with her cus­tom­ary iron hand into World War II. Some ana­lysts of French resis­tance to the 2003 Iraq War traced France’s atti­tude back to 1920, which left France with Syr­ia, Lebanon, and no oil.

“The old men took our victory”

Lawrence nev­er lost faith in Churchill, and thought he had addressed most Arab desider­a­ta at Cairo. He was, how­ev­er, pro­found­ly dis­ap­point­ed by the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence. A new world had beck­oned, he wrote. Then “the old men came out again and took our vic­to­ry to re-make in the like­ness of the for­mer world they knew.” Embit­tered, he reject­ed an hon­or by King George V at the moment of its pre­sen­ta­tion. Churchill rebuked him. It was “unfair to the King as a gen­tle­man and gross­ly dis­re­spect­ful to him as a sovereign.”

Lawrence renounced his past, enlist­ing in the Roy­al Air Force as “J.H. Ross” in 1922. A year lat­er he joined the Roy­al Tank Corps as “T.E. Shaw.” In 1925, still as Shaw, he rejoined the RAF. He retired in 1935, short­ly before his death on his Brough Supe­ri­or motor­cy­cle near his bun­ga­low, Cloud’s Hill in Dorset. Vis­i­tors will find the cot­tage lov­ing­ly main­tained by the Nation­al Trust, and a Lawrence Soci­ety exists to keep his memory.

Lawrence in retrospecct

Reflect on the time, now near­ly a cen­tu­ry ago, when he and Lawrence set out for Cairo. Their sim­ple mis­sion was to set­tle affairs in the Mid­dle East. Today with clear hind­sight we judge the mis­takes and fail­ures of that mis­sion. It was not so clear at the time. Churchill wrote in Great Con­tem­po­raries:

…we had recent­ly sup­pressed a most dan­ger­ous and bloody rebel­lion in Iraq, and upwards of forty thou­sand troops at a cost of thir­ty mil­lion pounds a year were required to pre­serve order. This could not go on. In Pales­tine the strife between the Arabs and the Jews threat­ened at any moment to take the form of actu­al vio­lence. The Arab chief­tains, dri­ven out of Syr­ia with many of their followers—all of them our late allies—lurked furi­ous in the deserts beyond the Jor­dan. Egypt was in fer­ment. Thus the whole of the Mid­dle East pre­sent­ed a most melan­choly and alarm­ing picture.

The mod­ern equiv­a­lent of £40 mil­lion is $2 bil­lion. The U.S. alone spent $750 bil­lion in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. The UK spent £4.6 bil­lion. Many more than 40,000 sol­diers have been involved, and the pic­ture is still melan­choly and alarm­ing. Arab chief­tains, many our late allies, lurk furi­ous in the deserts. Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man reflect­ed: “the only thing that’s new is the his­to­ry you don’t know.”

What may we learn…

…from Lawrence’s and Churchill’s ardent but ulti­mate­ly failed efforts to pro­mote Mid­dle East peace? That those who ignore the lessons of the past are doomed to relive it? That Arabs are not the stereo­typed gag­gle of cut­throat fanat­ics some pro­claim them to be? That some yearn for jus­tice and a peace­ful life? That the Twice-Promised Land—Lawrence to the Arabs, Bal­four to the Jews—is a bur­den his­to­ry has thrust upon us?

All of these, assured­ly. But there is some­thing more. And that is the innate decen­cy and sense of fair­ness which ani­mat­ed Churchill and Lawrence. Some of that may glim­mer in the recent Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain peace agree­ments. Those are qual­i­ties which will be need­ed in our states­man­ship, if the lands Lawrence loved are ever to be placid and free.

“He was not in complete harmony with the normal”

The read­er should turn now to Churchill’s Lawrence essay in Great Con­tem­po­raries. I will not quote it at length, because such beau­ti­ful writ­ing deserves to be savored as a whole. But Churchill’s sum­ma­ry view is appro­pri­ate and true:

Lawrence in Aka­ba, 1917. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Those who knew him best miss him most; but our coun­try miss­es him most of all, and miss­es him most of all now. For this is a time when the great prob­lems upon which his thought and work had so long cen­tred, prob­lems of aer­i­al defence, prob­lems of our rela­tions with the Arab peo­ples, fill an ever larg­er space in our affairs. For all his reit­er­at­ed renun­ci­a­tions, I always felt that he was a man who held him­self ready for a new call. While Lawrence lived one always felt—I cer­tain­ly felt it strongly—that some over­pow­er­ing need would draw him from the mod­est path he chose to tread and set him once again in full action at the cen­tre of mem­o­rable events.

It was not to be. The sum­mons which reached him, and for which he was equal­ly pre­pared, was of a dif­fer­ent order. It came as he would have wished it, swift and sud­den on the wings of speed. He had reached the last leap in his gal­lant course through life.

“All is over! Fleet career,
Dash of grey­hound slip­ping thongs,
Flight of fal­con, bound of deer,
Mad hoof-thun­der in our rear,
Cold air rush­ing up our lungs,
Din of many tongues.”*

* From “The Last Leap” by the Aus­tralian poet Adam Lind­say Gor­don (1833-1870), who died by his own hand, nine years younger than Lawrence.

One thought on “Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia: A Conjunction of Two Bright Stars

  1. Two of my absolute heroes: and great writ­ers, too. Lawrence’s Sev­en Pil­lars of Wis­dom is as mag­nif­i­cent as Churchill’s Marl­bor­ough. Epic, elo­quent works by bril­liant, moti­vat­ed men at the height of their cre­ative genius, both of whom wield­ed the pow­er of pen and sword, who could inspire armies and nations. Their mutu­al respect for each oth­er, and par­tic­u­lar­ly their writ­ing, is abun­dant­ly and reas­sur­ing­ly clear in the cor­re­spon­dence they exchanged. ✌🏻🗡✒️📚

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