Lawrence of the Hejaz

MARCH, 1926

BY EDMUND CANDLER

I

WE shall have to wait a long time for the truth about Lawrence and his Hejaz expedition. The public edition of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom is to appear in 1927; the private edition, limited to a hundred copies, sometime in 1926. In the meanwhile the really zealous pilgrim may consult the original Oxford edition in the Bodleian, of which five copies exist, printed on a hand press. But he had better make haste, for the author’s tyrannous and exacting literary conscience has condemned these volumes to an auto-da-fé. I am not sure if the Bodleian copy is to be destroyed with the other four. It is to be hoped not, since the limited edition, which is to appear Phœnix-like out of the ashes, is not to be a complete resurrection. Some twenty per cent of the original text will be omitted. The revision is, I believe, regarded as an improvement from the technical point of view of unity and perspective, but I should be sorry to lose one of those hundred and forty chapters. The public edition will comprise a little more than a third of the Oxford text. Still, as it runs to 120,000 words, nobody will have a right to complain of short measure.

In the original text there are many books — a history, an intimate human document, a book of travel, a war book much more exciting than a novel, a code of philosophy, a manual of irregular desert-warfare. Which of the many books are going into the public edition I cannot say. I doubt if we find the real Lawrence in it, as we have pieced him together from inferences and confidences in the quarto. He is a quietist, a visionary, a scholar with a passion for the classics, a poet himself in his own medium, but ridden by a demon of self-criticism and self-distrust; and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom falls short of his standard.

He hates noise, and does not care a rush what people say or think of him so long as they leave him alone. One of the many legends about the liberator of the Hejaz I can vouch for as true — that for greater privacy and detachment he quitted his fellowship at All Souls to become a private in the Air Force under an assumed name.

Lawrence’s flight from the limelight, his refusal of decorations and rewards, his general self-effacement, have been attributed, by people who do not understand his shyness, to vanity — a subtle sort of self-advertisement. I saw him described the other day by the editor of a reputable London journal as a very vain boy who loved to dress up in Arab clothes. The article speciously discounted his Arabian achievement. Lawrence has been so obstinate in not coming out to receive his ovation — and worse, in locking up his book—that he has made a number of people impatient.

There is also a class of soldier — not Allenby and his Staff — that has misunderstood him. As an amateur and an irregular he was suspect of the professional. He broke all the rules. In appearance he is academic and aloof, not a comfortable or clubbable person. I confess to certain misgivings on my own part when I first saw him among soldiers in his stainless khaki Staff uniform in Mesopotamia. He had come over from Egypt on some chimerical political errand — which, incidentally, he detested. This was before his Hejaz campaign, and it never occurred to me that he could fight. And I doubt if it had occurred to him. He was not born a man of action, but had to cast himself in this clay.

That he was able to put himself into the Arab mould seemed, to all who were merely acquainted with him, a miracle. Physically he had been condemned as unfit for active service, but his body was driven by his spirit, and he became as efficient and enduring in the desert as his Bedouin companions. His habits of the recluse helped him here. He had always made it a rule to avoid rules in food and drink and sleep and rest — ‘not to regulate my life by hours and bells.’ Thus he was able to go dry between wells.

But this haphazard, unsociable hermit’s existence does not qualify one for command. Lawrence shrank from responsibility and action. Men were not his medium; he hated soldiering, and felt himself unfitted for it. True, he had dabbled in theory. As an undergraduate of catholic interests he had read the usual books — Clausewitz and Jomini, Mahan and Foch; he had played with Napoleon’s campaigns, worked at Hannibal’s tactics, and followed the wars of Belisarius, ‘like other Oxford men,’but without thinking himself into the mind of a commander. However, his studies in strategy and military history must have been more than an academic hobby. After he left Oxford, but before the war, he knew Syria exactly, and had the strategic geography of the Crusaders and the first Arab conquest in his head. Thus during a lull in the fighting, when he made a secret excursion in disguise behind the Turkish lines, he was able to adjust his knowledge of the terrain and its possibilities to the new factors in the game — the railways in Syria and Murray’s army in Sinai.

Lawrence probably knew as much about the technique of war as many professional soldiers. But he owed little to Foch or Clausewitz; he was not a book theorist, and he distrusted axioms. One detects a thinly disguised contempt for the text-crammed Staff College officer, not in his own sphere of shock tactics, but in his inability to understand Lawrence’s irregular guerrilla activities — a form of warfare which he invented, suitable to his material, reducible to no rules, but informed with an uncanny insight into the Arab’s temper and psychology.

An enthusiast was needed who was a specialist in Arabian affairs, and Lawrence alone had the sympathy, vision, imagination, the ‘touch’ with the Bedou; combined with, as it proved, an entirely unexpected genius for handling men, and, more unexpected still, a practical knack of making his dreams material. Thus he became one in the historical succession of England’s emergency men.

II

Lawrence enters the scene as a Staff captain in Sir Archibald Murray’s Intelligence section in Cairo. Here he prepared maps, reported on the distribution of the Turkish army, and edited the Arab Bulletin, the secret weekly record of Middle Eastern politics — an occupation for which he was, no doubt, eminently fitted, but one which he was not likely to endure long. The Arab Revolt was at this early stage discredited. Few of the Headquarters Staff believed in our Shereefian allies; and they had reason, for without Lawrence the Arabs would have continued an uneffectual mob. Lawrence, however, was regarded with equal suspicion. He was too much of a zealot in this Arab business, and marked as a dangerous man. A plot was hatched to get him out of the way, into some sphere other than Arabia, where he might rust harmlessly. But he met stratagem with stratagem.

His stratagem in Cairo was to make himself intolerable to the members of the Staff on the Canal. He irritated them by his literary airs, corrected the split infinitives in their reports, and pointed out their general incompetence for their job. ‘In a few days they were bubbling over on my account, and at last determined at no price to endure me longer as a colleague.’ When he took this strategic opportunity to apply for ten days’ leave to go for a joy ride on the Red Sea it was granted him.

Lawrence did not return from his joy ride. As soon as he had broken bonds he got himself transferred from the Foreign Office to the Arab Bureau, which was not directly under the Egypt command. His task now was to find a leader for the Arab Revolt. He visited the Shereef, Hussein, at Jiddah, and sounded him. He sounded Abdulla, Ali, Zeid, sons of the Shereef — all of whom, for one reason or another, he found wanting. But in Feisal he discovered the inspired prophet he was looking for, ‘the finest instrument which God ever made for the Orient — more than we had hoped for, more than we deserved in our halting course.’ Lawrence was drawn to Feisal at first sight. There was a great deal in common in their rich personalities. They were both dreamers, obsessed with one idea—Lawrence the driving power, Feisal the rallying-point. Lawrence was the stronger and more practical. He, now the man of action, seems to have established a complete ascendancy over Feisal, but he does not tell us this.

He found himself in virtual control of the Shereefian army very soon after absconding from his Staff work in Cairo, but for some time his position was undefined — a sort of liaison officer. Later he speaks of himself as Feisal’s chief-of-staff. When a British officer was put in command at Akaba, Lawrence served as his subordinate. At twenty-eight he was too young for command, though Akaba was really his private gift to Allenby. He was never nominally the leader of the Arab forces.

On his return to Headquarters Lawrence was surprised to find himself popular. The Staff was afraid that he was going to ask for troops and jibbed at the idea of crippling the main offensive in Palestine for his crazy side-show. But to everyone’s relief he declared strongly against the dispatch of a British force to Rabegh. His policy from beginning to end was to make the Arab movement self-supporting as far as practicable, except in material. Incidentally he believed that it would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm it inspired did not carry the Arabs on their own impulse to Damascus. This was his inward faith; but he had stronger reasons, of course, against landing Allied troops in Arabia. The Shereef could rally his tribesmen only in a national cause, and they would have melted away into the desert at sight of a khaki-clad British regiment.

We had always to take into account the Arab’s natural suspicion of foreigners. Even Feisal had his uneasy moments. ‘We should be more at ease,’ he once remarked to Lawrence, ‘if they (the English) were not such a disproportionate ally.’ And again: ‘Does the ore admire the flame that transforms it? Our race will have a cripple’s temper till it has found its feet.’ Lawrence gave his orders to the Arab troops through their own chiefs. He won their confidence, hypnotized them, and played on them as on wind instruments. He was indistinguishable from an Arab in his Mecca clothes. Feisal asked him to wear them because khaki would be suspect. The only wearers of khaki the Bedouin knew had been Turkish officers from whom they shrank with instinctive distrust. Until Lawrence adopted Arab dress Feisal had to explain his presence to every stranger. So we have the legend of the very vain boy who loved to dress up in splendid robes and preen himself as a prince of Mecca.

It is astonishing that any of the Staff should have seriously thought of landing British troops at Rabegh for the defense of Mecca — a movement which must have meant the complete shipwreck of the Arabian adventure. Possibly they would have been glad to be quit of it, and, having no great faith in the Arabs, were content to use them opportunely, without admitting them, as an organic and responsible part, into the plan. Or, more probably, they failed through ignorance to understand the Arab’s sensitiveness to the invasion of his sacred soil by the foreigners. The French, however, could not plead ignorance. It was their studied policy to discredit the Shereef by making him appear our puppet. They had no interest in the success of the Arab Revolt — very much the reverse. Thus their advice was dictated by political, not military, motives, with a view to colonial expansion in Syria after the war. They wanted to confine the Arab movement to the Hejaz, and even there to make the Shereef dependent on foreign aid, so that when Turkey was defeated the Allies could confer Medina on Hussein as his reward, leaving Syria to be exploited by France. It did not in the least suit their book that the Hejaz should deliver Damascus.

Naturally Colonel Bremond, the Chief of the French Military Mission, was loud in his insistence on landing an Allied brigade at Rabegh. Happily, however, Lawrence’s counsel prevailed, and the project was abandoned. This was the first of many intrigues against the Arab movement which Lawrence countered. He might have been of the prophet’s family, so single-minded was he in his determination that the movement should progress on its own feet, impelled by its own spirit; and, above all, that its success should be cumbered by no mortgages. His whole pride in the campaign was embittered by the fear, amounting almost to a conviction, that we were going to break our faith with the Arabs. The tribesmen trusted him, and no doubt believed, if they thought about it at all, that the Government he served had the same standard of honor.

Lawrence felt like a conspirator. One of the reasons why he consistently refused decorations was that he wrote his own dispatches, and so would be rewarded on his own evidence; but the main reason was that he was obsessed with the idea that he was playing a fraudulent part, play-acting, ‘exploiting the Arabs’ highest ideals,’ leading them on with false pretenses which, if we won the war, would be so much waste paper. But why? He was perfectly frank with Feisal. It touched his honor to disclose the conditions of the Sykes-Picot treaty, an agreement with France inconsistent with Sir Henry M’Mahon’s pledge of Arab freedom, and he persuaded him that it could be set aside only if the Arabs redoubled their efforts against the Turks. His hope, and Feisal’s, was to establish a fait accompli at Damascus, and thus be in a position to extract a fair settlement from the Powers in conference. Lawrence repeatedly urged Feisal to trust in his own performance and strength. The fact of holding would be the justification of his right to hold.

Lawrence had this justifying vision before his eyes through the whole campaign, and in the end was able to secure from Allenby assurance that the Arabs should be the first to enter Damascus and should there set up their own civil government. Lawrence’s directness with Feisal and old Nuri Shaalan would have put any other man on easy terms with his conscience. As for the simple unpolitical herd, he gave them their life’s desire, abundance of loot, and an opportunity of killing Turks of which they had never dreamed. Nor had they any spiritual cause against their leader. Lawrence himself admits: ‘By our swindle they were made heroes. We paid, and they profited by the deepest feeling of their lives.'

Lawrence’s part in the ‘swindle,’ if there ever was one, is not apparent. He kept faith with the Arabs and with his own country. Feisal accepted his advice, and the uncertainty of the settlement, and our possible— no doubt his mentor said ‘probable’ — ingratitude, with resignation. And Nuri Shaalan, advised always to accept the latest of our contradictory pledges, fought without illusions. Thus he and Feisal carried on the war in the Hejaz, and, later, on Allenby’s flank in Syria, to its honorable conclusion—Feisal ‘hidden in his tent, veiled to remain a prophet, to keep alive the fiction of his leadership,’ and Lawrence the inspiration. His part was synthetic. He ‘combined all these loose sparks into a firm flame.’

Nevertheless the sense of fraud continued to rankle and poison the cup of victory. We had incited the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government, and they looked to Lawrence for his endorsement of the written promise. Lawrence, of course, could never be sure. Even now he seems to regard himself as a successful trickster because he did not advise them to go home and not risk their lives in such an uncertain cause. So tender was his conscience on this point that he not only refused titles, rank, and decorations, but would not even touch his pay for the period of his service on the Arab front, though, as the event has proved, the promises have been fulfilled in both letter and spirit.

III

When Lawrence joined Feisal the Arabs had recaptured Mecca from the Turks and were looking toward Medina. But the Turks, reënforced, were again threatening Mecca. Feisal had suffered a reverse; he was for concentrating at Rabegh, the bulwark of Mecca, where there had been a question of sending a brigade, but he was persuaded by Lawrence and the others to move two hundred miles up the coast to Wejh, ignoring the main body of the enemy, to cut in on their communications. It was a bold move, as it risked the loss of Rabegh and Yenbo, and they had to march as a self-contained force with no base behind them and enemy country in front. But the Turks were taken by surprise, and the diversion justified itself.

The capture of Wejh by threatening the enemy communications with Syria by the Hejaz railway entirely altered the face of the Hejaz campaign. The Turks had to abandon their offensive against Mecca and fall back on an entrenched position covering Medina. There they remained, crippled for lack of transport, and with the one link which connected them with their base very much at the Arabs’ mercy, until the end of the war. The Headquarters Staff and all the strategic experts, as well as Feisal, Hussein, and the whole Arab contingent, were for evicting the garrison straightway. Lawrence, after a little reflection, saw that it would serve our purpose better to keep it there. This was entirely contrary to the manual and did not commend itself to his chiefs. Still it was sound strategy, as events proved.

It became Lawrence’s habit to return to Cairo with something big in his pocket, and he was the more welcome in that he never asked for troops. His tribesmen had to be armed, of course, and paid. They were not such keen nationalists as to fight for the ideal only; indeed fighting, except in tribal feuds and forays, is not in their nature. And the allegiance of many was doubtful. I think there has been a tendency to idealize the Arab movement as if it were some great permeating wave of enthusiasm like the Italian risorgimento. Lawrence undoubtedly idealized his Bedouin; he had to — otherwise he could have made nothing out of them. One feels that his tribute is the loyalty due from every successful leader to the material with which he works. When it comes to action, his sheiks and shereefs — Feisal and Nasir always excepted — seldom live up to the standard. Even old Auda — ‘that chivalrous name’ — could traffic with the enemy. Lawrence is scrupulously honest and accurate in the detail of his narrative. This honesty in the particular corrects the tendency to idealize in the general. So we get the balance in the end.

As had been anticipated, the capture of Wejh converted the whole of Western Arabia to the Shereef’s cause. The port actually fell to the guns of the Hardinge, which did not wait for the concerted land-attack, fearing that the Turkish garrison would melt away. The triumph, to Feisal, was moral rather than military. It was significant of the new spirit of service among the Bedouin tribes, and without a firsthand acquaintance with the Bedouin it is difficult to appraise it. Lawrence has described the Arab idea of nationality as the independence of clan and village, and the ideal of national union as ‘the episodic combined resistance to an intruder.’ Feisal’s irregulars were drawn from tribes traditionally hostile to one another, who were happiest when they were cutting one another’s throats. Now for the first time the Bedouin were falling into coherent units under their sheiks, and could be persuaded to leave their tribal boundaries and to fight in the same cause, often in the same unit, as their blood enemies. As Feisal moved north he could boast that there were no bloodfeuds behind him in the districts through which he had passed. This suspension of the normal, if it ever existed, was too good to last. The Bedou never forgot for long his joyous independence, or became a responsible or public-spirited person. The Hejaz and Syrian campaigns seem to have been fought with relays of Bedouin drawn from the changing scene of operations. The beginning of a system and a common ideal, and of at least the surface of unity, was the real triumph of Wejh. Lawrence admits that it was the first time within memory that the manhood of a tribe, with transport, arms, and food for two hundred miles, had left its district and marched into another’s territory without the hope of plunder or stimulus of blood-feud.

The initiative had now passed out of the hands of the Turks, who were confined to the passive defense of Medina and the railway. Obviously the next objective in our enveloping scheme was Akaba, the nearest port to the Hejaz railway, only seventy miles distant, as against the one hundred and fifty miles from Wejh. The great strategic importance of Akaba was that in the hands of the Turks it threatened Sir Archibald Murray’s right flank in Palestine. Also it commanded the only road open to wheeled transport between Egypt and the Dead Sea. And, what touched Lawrence more nearly, our holding of the port would mean the joining-up of his Arabs with the British army then in front of Gaza.

To Lawrence and Feisal, Akaba meant a step on the ladder to Damascus, which they must reach at the same time as the rest of the army, or before. If they were not active and tangible in the main battlefield they would certainly lose their share of the rewards of victory.

Indeed, there was very little division of counsel as to the necessity of Akaba as the new base, though there was some diversity of motive. The difficulty was in taking the place. Lawrence, who knew the terrain before the war, speaks of it as a natural defensive position of almost unequaled strength. To summarize his description: There was no covering-position to the beach, which could be shelled always from the hills. The enemy garrison was posted in these hills, in elaborate prepared positions, constructed one behind the other in a series, as far as the mouth of Wadi Itm. The Turks would be quite secure, for their line of communications with their railway base, seventy miles away, was up this very Wadi Itm, and so they would be able to increase their defending force or to change its disposition at their will.

The British would be able to deliver themselves from attacks only by forcing the twenty-five magnificently defensible miles of this gorge in the teeth of the enemy. The Wadi was from two to five thousand feet in depth, and often less than one hundred yards in width, and ran between fretted hills of granite whose sides were precipices hundreds of feet in height. The hundred-yard width of the bed was so encumbered by rocks that in places camels could pass only two abreast.

Lawrence increased his popularity at G. H. Q. by advising against the dispatch of British troops to Akaba. He saw that the only hope of taking the place was a surprise attack from an Arab irregular force descending the Wadi Itm from the east. The Turkish defensive positions were prepared against an advance from the sea; the idea of an attack from inland appeared to them impossible. And it was essential too to raise all the tribes in the area without letting the Turks know that they were being raised. It should be remembered that, in the case of a British landing, these tribes would have stood by and left the regulars to do the work, or possibly would have attacked them. That was one good reason, apart from the economical one, that raids and doubtful offensives should be left to Lawrence and his ‘scallywags.’ Regular troops were of little use to him. What counted most in his success was the favor of the sheiks in whose tribal area he was fighting, and this could be secured only by Feisal.

Lawrence thought Akaba was worth trying. Needless to say, he was not officially charged with the adventure, but slipped off Bedou-like into the blue, as on the occasion when he applied for ten days’ leave for a joy ride on the Red Sea.

IV

In the meantime the Staff was preparing to attack Medina. Lawrence had his own ideas about that, and they were entirely opposed to those of the regular soldier. Medina was the enemy’s railhead, advance base, headquarters in the Hejaz, and their strongest garrison, and it was hanging on to Damascus by the precarious eighthundred-mile thread of a single line. Nor must we forget its sentimental and political importance as one of the two Holy Places, second only to Mecca.

The Arabs naturally were with the strategists. To leave Medina in the hands of the Turks was unthinkable to them. To Lawrence, however, nothing could be more undesirable than its surrender — except, of course, its evacuation before attack. In that case the release of the garrison, with all the intermediate posts on the railway, would increase the enemy’s strength on the Beersheba front, where it was least desirable, by from twenty-five to forty thousand regulars, mostly Anatolian troops, with guns. It was due to Lawrence’s irregulars that they were pinned down in the desert, five hundred miles from anywhere, until the Armistice. For all practical purposes they were our prisoners for two years, but we were spared the cost of guarding and feeding them, while their supply trains fed us. Competition to join a raid was high.

Lawrence thought it all out on his sick bed at Wadi Ais, immobilized with dysentery and fever. What on earth was the good of Medina? Its harmfulness when we had been at Yenbo was patent. The Turks in it were going to Mecca. But the move on Wejh had countered all that.

And as he pondered it dawned on him that we had already won the Hejaz war. Out of every one thousand square miles nine hundred and ninetynine were now free. ‘If we held the rest the Turks were welcome to the tiny fraction on which they stood until peace or Doomsday showed them the futility of clinging to our windowpane.’ And this ‘tiny fraction’ was the one spot the holding of which every soldier trained in regular warfare pronounced essential.

He calculated the area the Arabs wished to deliver. A hundred thousand — or, say, a hundred and forty thousand — square miles. ‘And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners; but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? . . . It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only on what he sat, and at what he could poke his rifle.’

Then he calculated how many men the Turks would need to sit on all this ground and save it from our attack in depth. A fortified post every four miles was his estimate, and a post could not be less than twenty men. If so they would need 600,000 men to meet the raids of the Bedouin and his irregulars. Lawrence’s campaign then would be a war, not of contact, but of detachment. His plan was to liberate the Hejaz by making it untenable for the enemy, at a minimum cost of life to his Arabs. ‘Many Turks on our front had no chance all the war to fire at us, and correspondingly we were never on the defensive except accidentally and in error.’ It suited his plan exactly to give the enemy the freedom of Medina for the duration of the war.

Why, one wonders, were the Turks so demented as to stay. The German High Command, seeing the danger of envelopment, repeatedly urged them to evacuate and to abandon the line south of Maan, but Medina was the last remnant of Turkish sovereignty in the Holy Places. To hold it meant that the Caliph was still the guardian of the Prophet’s tomb. Happily sentiment won the day.

And one wonders still more why our British military advisers wanted to evict them. Lawrence’s strategy appears not only sound but obvious, — after the event,— but we have no record that he ever converted the Staff. One wonders if Lawrence ever opened his heart about Medina to Allenby direct. Probably not. He had great tact, when tact was needed. So he gave the Staff to understand that he and his daredevil Bedouin were too poltroon to cut the line about Maan and keep it cut. In the end, however, deception was unnecessary; his scallywags destroyed so much of the enemy’s rolling stock that evacuation became impossible.

Lawrence did not disobey orders. As a matter of fact he had no orders — only options and requests. He just slipped away from the railway scheme to discuss his private plan for the Akaba offensive with Feisal and Auda ibn Tawi. All he withdrew from the Medina operations was his person, but that seems to have been enough.

He brewed a plan with Auda to march to the Howeitat in their spring pastures in the Sirhan, and from there to raise a mobile camel-force with Rualla and Sherarat contingents, and with their help to rush Akaba without guns or machine-guns, which could not be carried on the long and difficult desertroute. Auda was hopeful about raising the tribes. Indeed, he thought that with money and dynamite all things were possible.

To stimulate keenness they carried a purse of £22,000. Nasir, a shereef of Medina, the pioneer of every precarious advance, was their leader. He and Auda, — an even bigger name, — who went with them to rally the tribes and lead them in battle, are the best of Lawrence’s portraits, if we except Feisal. Nasir’s mare was bespangled with enemy decorations, the spoils of a raid, a headdress of gaudy clanking Turkish medals, a panache characteristic of the élan and challenge of the modern Saracen. But the richest color in the scene will be associated with Auda, a sort of Arab Rustum — a terrible and ruthless old man, given to uncontrollable impulses and passions, yet jolly and lovable, capable of freakish humors, half savage, half poet.

His coming in to Feisal was a turning-point in the campaign. Lawrence describes how, when they were dining together that night, Auda scrambled to his feet and flung out of the tent with a loud ‘God forbid!’ They went out to see what was amiss and found him bent over a great rock pounding his false teeth to fragments with a stone. ‘I had forgotten,’ he said. ‘Jemal Pasha had these made for me. I was eating my Lord’s (Feisal’s) bread with Turkish teeth.’ Poor old Auda went about half-nourished after this until we had taken Akaba, when Sir Reginald Wingate sent him a dentist to make him an Allied set.

The astonishing thing is that Lawrence was able to reconcile and control these untamed spirits, and to compel them, without ever letting it appear that he assumed authority, to move according to his suggestion. Constantly it was a matter of life or death to check their follies. Auda and Nasir, reënforced by the tribes, became heady with enthusiasm, and wanted to leave Akaba, an uncontained enemy-base, in their rear and attack Damascus, which they could not have held for six weeks at this stage, even if they had taken it. And to lose Damascus after capturing it would cost them the support of the tribes. Then Nesib wanted to raise a Syrian rebellion, independent of Feisal, under his own leadership. Lawrence in his dealings with the unstable Syrians showed the wisdom of a Solomon. He headed off Nesib, and he was able to persuade Auda and Nasir that Akaba was the only door by which they could unlock Syria. At the same time he whispered to Auda that in the Damascus objective all the cash and credit would go to Nuri Shaalan.

They started from Wejh in the summer heat. It was a tremendous turning movement on which they were embarking, involving a desert march of six hundred miles to carry a trench line within sight of our ships at Akaba. At the end of three weeks, after long endurance of sun and thirst and hunger, and a plague of snakes, they reached the Howeitat in the Wadi Sirhan. Another fortnight was spent in resting or replacing their camels. Their first essential objective was Aba el Lissan, sixteen miles from Maan, where there was a large spring at the head of the great pass, Naqb el Shtar, down which the road dipped from the Maan plateau. With the Arabs in command of the pass and astride the road between the railway and the sea, the Turkish garrison would be starved out, and the hill tribes, hearing of their success, would come flocking down to wipe out the local posts. But it would have to be done before Turkish reënforcements could come down in strength from Maan to dislodge them.

Lawrence’s plans were so well laid that the Turks were still unsuspicious. He bluffed them into thinking he was going to attack farther up the line and had designs on Aleppo and Damascus. They believed the Shereefian force was in Wadi Sirhan on the road to Jebel Druse, and sent out cavalry to intercept it. They were not anxious about Maan, since they had blown up all the wells on the desert road, leaving the Arabs no camping-ground. The surprise to the Turks was so complete that Maan would have been a negligible threat if it had not been for an accident which might have upset the whole scheme, and which forced Lawrence into one of his few ‘imperative’ battles. It happened, on the morning when news came through to Maan of an Arab attack on a local post, that a relief battalion of new troops from the Caucasus arrived in the station on its way south. The troops were detrained with their transport, and formed into a punitive force with pack guns and a detachment of cavalry. Thus battle was forced on Lawrence. He could not go forward to Akaba with this battalion in undisputed command of the pass.

While the Turks slept in the valley the Arabs split into sections and, unobserved, crowned the hills round about them. The Bedouin poured lead into the Turks all day, but they could do nothing valid in return. ‘We were no targets for their rifles, since we moved with speed eccentrically.’ The shells of their little mountain-guns burst behind the Arabs harmlessly. In the evening Auda, with fifty horsemen, charged down the slope into the Turkish infantry, huddled together under the cliff ready to cut their desperate way out to Maan at the first sign of dusk. They began to sway in and out, and finally broke before the charge. Then the camelry plunged down the hill on the flank to cut into the head of the rout, at a terrific uncontrollable pace, four hundred of them, extending right and left when the ground widened, and shooting into the Turkish brown — Lawrence among them, until his camel fell and hurled him like a stone from a catapult into the middle of the Turks, where happily the carcass of his beast formed an island which diverted the fugitive stream to either side of him. He lay there half-stunned, waiting for the Turks to finish him, but when he came to himself he saw the battle already won, and the Arabs driving together and cutting down the last remnants of the enemy. They took one hundred and sixty prisoners, many of them wounded; and some three hundred dead and dying lay scattered over the valley.

The Arab dead were two. Lawrence deplored these casualties. He aspired to win a campaign without any.

At the cost of two Bedouin killed he won Akaba, which would have taken three divisions of British regular troops to carry from the coast. For Aba el Lissan gave him his objective. The Turkish garrison between Maan and the coast, seeing itself cut off from support and supplies, surrendered with little resistance. Lawrence’s Arabs entered one empty post after another. The main defensive position to which the Turks retired at the mouth of Wadi Itm was now hardly tenable, with the hill tribes occupying the peaks all round and firing down into the gorges. The Turks had not considered an attack from the interior; not one of their posts or trenches faced inland.

Lawrence, of course, gives all the praise of Aba el Lissan to Auda, but one may be quite sure that the tribesmen would never have attacked without him. By themselves they were disorganized by victory and looked only to the momentary advantage. Lawrence held them in leash, and loosed them on the essential quarry.

V

The Hejaz campaign was finished, but there was no rest at Akaba. Five hundred irregulars, seven hundred prisoners, and two thousand allies (as Lawrence courteously terms the Bedouin who rush to the succor of the winning side, and expect their reward) had to be fed, and there was nothing to feed them on except the tough and sinewy camels which had carried them to victory. So, after making dispositions for the defense of the Maan-Akaba line, he started the next morning to ride across the Sinai peninsula, one hundred and fifty miles, waterless save for one well, to Suez. He made the journey in forty-nine hours. Not a bad finish to fourteen hundred miles on a camel in four weeks in the Arabian dogdays. Lawrence felt that he deserved a bath and a change, — his clothes were all sticking to his saddle sores, — and a long drink with ice tinkling in the glass, and something more revivifying to eat than camel sinew. And incidentally, as we have mentioned, he had Akaba in his pocket, which would have taken three divisions of regulars to capture. But he was refused a launch across the Canal by the Inland Water Transport.

That sort of thing was constantly happening to Lawrence. He just escaped being arrested by an Australian private as he was entering his own Damascus, and in the city he received a blow from an Australian officer, but preserved his temper and incognito. Lawrence carries himself obscurely. He does n’t explain himself. I believe he liked going about, unremarked and feeling that nobody knew who he was or what he had done. If he has a weakness, it is in doing big things and assuring himself and other people that he is indifferent to them, or that they are not big. Lawrence, I think, would deny that he is modest, but what vanity he possesses is his pride in his modesty, the last infirmity of genius. The dozen or more British officers who contributed to the victory on the Arab flank receive their full share of praise.

Lawrence is not what you might call a hero-worshiper, but in his eyes Allenby is something like a superman. In Cairo, Allenby sent for him. I have omitted to mention that Lawrence has an individual and elfish sense of humor, uncommon in men of such a quixotic and crusading spirit. He watched Allenby weighing him. He could see the problem working behind Allenby’s eyes, as the latter sat in his chair looking at him — not straight, as was his custom, but sideways, puzzled. Allenby, ‘physically large and confident, and morally so great that the comprehension of our littleness was not easy to him,’was hardly prepared for ‘anything so odd as myself, a little barefooted, skirted person, preaching a Willeson strategy of communications, offering to hobble the enemy by preaching, if given stores and arms and a fund of two hundred thousand sovereigns to convince and control the converts.’

When Lawrence had finished explaining, Allenby looked at him, put up his chin, and said, ‘Well, I will do what I can.’ Men with the slightest experience of the Commander-in-Chief knew that this meant everything.

Lawrence was now a tooth in the big machine, no longer an independent adventurer forcing events, dropping in unexpectedly at Headquarters with chunks of liberated Arabia in his hands.

Akaba was practically the finish of the campaign in the Hejaz. Wejh was closed down. Feisal was transferred from Hussein’s command to Allenby’s. The Arab forces became Allenby’s right flank, only a hundred miles from his centre. Akaba faced north, it must be remembered, to Damascus. Mecca was left behind; the Turks still hung on to their absurd exposed position at Medina.

The new part Lawrence and his Arabs had to play was in the Dead Sea campaign. Allenby wanted them to march north and link up with the British on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, to prevent the Turks getting round and attacking them in the rear; also to cut off the enemy’s food-supplies up the Dead Sea to Jericho. Lawrence’s programme was carried out precisely according to plan. Tafileh was isolated by raids on its communications and surrendered to the Arabs, who had no casualties. The Turks then counterattacked unexpectedly and were routed, losing all their guns and machineguns, with six hundred killed and two hundred and fifty prisoners; a bare fifty survived. This was Lawrence’s second ‘imperative’ engagement. Then the Arab cavalry, by a surprise attack, destroyed the Turkish flotilla at Kerak on the Dead Sea, one of the few engagements in history between horse and ships. The crews were sleeping unsuspectingly on the beach and in the reed huts near by. The destruction of the Dead Sea transport was Lawrence’s second objective; his third, the junction with the British at the mouth of the Jordan, would no doubt have been effected had not Zeid, Feisal’s younger brother, in command on this front, diverted to his own uses the gold necessary to pay the tribes through whose country they were fighting. Lawrence resigned in disgust, but Allenby refused to let him go.

The Arabs, whether as a fighting force or as political allies, had their limitations. Lawrence does not emphasize these, but from time to time we are reminded of them incidentally, as when he had to explain to Allenby that they could not attack or defend a place — meaning, I suppose, that they could not in the dogged, dependable way of troops trained in shock tactics. Nor could they stand overhead risks, or indeed casualties of any kind; with much bombing they would break up and go home. And inaction demoralized them; even Feisal fell to pieces when nothing was happening. A serious reverse would have nipped the Arab movement in the bud, and victory, in its local reactions, often had the same effect. After a successful foray they became no longer an organized raiding party, but ‘just a baggage caravan stumbling along loaded to breakingpoint with all the household goods needed to make rich an Arab tribe for years.’

Then they were torn by internal dissensions. Feisal could not long keep up his boast of the abatement of bloodfeuds. Lawrence reminds us that the conduct of the war in France would have been harder if each division, almost each brigade, had hated every other with a deadly hatred, and fought when they met suddenly.

One feels that what little idealism or national spirit the Arabs had Lawrence himself pumped into them. ‘Their minds wore my livery.’ He admired their simple virtues, but he knew exactly how far these would carry them. ‘We were dealing with one of the shallowest and least patient races of the world.’ And he knew how the Arabs owed their strength to being ‘geographically beyond temptation.’ The shade of a tree or running water is a luxury to the Bedouin, and with too much comfort they become corrupted. They owed their virtues, continences, and endurances to their hard, uncompromising struggle with nature. There were times when Lawrence found it difficult to raise a party for a hazard like the demolition of the Yarmuk bridges. Wealth had spoiled the men and made life too precious.

VI

Such was the material Lawrence had to work on, and it must be admitted that he made the most of it. The Bedou is a brave, hardy, enduring person, who believes he is the salt of the earth; but he has not learned discipline, and probably never will, and so in mass fighting he is of very little use. But in nobility and endurance he is unequaled. On camels Lawrence’s irregulars were independent of supplies for six weeks. They left their base with half a bag of flour, forty-five pounds in weight, strung to their riding-saddles, and half a pint of water only. Some of them never drank between wells. In summer the camels would do about two hundred and fifty miles after a watering. Thus, starting from their base with six months’ rationing, they could cover a thousand miles out and home. When their flour failed them they had two hundred pounds of potential meat under each saddle. They halted and killed their worst camel.

They rode light. It was an army independent of labor or communication corps. Every unit served in the line of battle. Through economy of ammunition they were able to move without led camels, though they carried a quantity of high explosives. Most of them were qualified by rule-of-thumb lessons in demolition work. Lawrence evolved methods of his own for rapid destruction under fire. Before the end of the war he had destroyed seventy-nine bridges and culverts, apart from track and rolling stock, with his own hand.

The Arabs’ part in this last phase was to keep the Turks busy on the Hejaz railway, to confirm them in their idea that the coming offensive was to be there, to prick and irritate them by continual raids, but not by any premature offensive or cumulative attrition to drive them on to the other flank where Allenby was preparing to break through. Then, when the final thrust was delivered, to cut the railway behind them at the junctions, isolating them on all three lines from their food and ammunition bases, to seize Deraa and Damascus, and to create a rising of all the tribes in their rear.

To achieve this Lawrence, or Feisal, moved northward step by step, using the newly converted tribes as his ladder, as in the march to Akaba. His aim was to occupy more territory, not to force battle or to kill Turks; and for his purpose he depended on the tribes through whose country he fought. They knew the terrain best; also more might be expected of them, as they were defending their homes and crops. The Bedouin did not fight so well as the Arab regulars, but it was they, and not the troops, who would win the war. Feisal’s regulars Lawrence defines as ‘our static side, the means of securing the fruits of tribal opportunity.’

One virtue of this system was mobility in pursuit. The ranks were refreshed by the manhood of the new clan through whose territory they were passing. Another advantage was the wide, but economical, distribution of energy. They would be fighting in one district on Monday, in another on Tuesday, and in a third on Wednesday. This fluidity of movement was the virtue of a defect, since it was difficult to combine the tribes in a raiding party on account of their suspicions and jealousies. One could not use the men of one territory in another. Lawrence characteristically discovers advantages in these limitations. ‘In a real sense maximum disorder would be our equilibrium,’ he remarks, and explains how the absence of any formal system of units must confuse the enemy’s intelligence and make it hopeless for him to gauge the Arabs’ strength at any point.

Here are a few of Lawrence’s axioms, the equation of his reading with his experience. His fighting-tactics were ‘always tip and run, not pushes but strokes, never to maintain or improve an advantage, but to move off to strike again somewhere else, to use the smallest force in the quickest time in the farthest place.’ ‘If our action continued until the enemy had changed his dispositions to resist it, we should be breaking the spirit of our fundamental rule of denying him targets. If the enemy brought us to action we should be disgraced technically.’ ‘Our target was the line anywhere. The Turks defended a myriad points to cover it all, for every yard of it mattered to them. To us these points were alternatives. A few of them we wanted to take, but there was not one of them we must take. The ease, the deliberation, the freedom, were ours.’

Lawrence had not pictured himself as a commander in the field, but he became what he had to become— strategist, diplomatist, guerrilla leader, and, among other things, expert camelmaster, trained engineer, competent electrician, wise in explosives and the intricacies of demolition. His trainwrecking chapters alone contain enough thrills and hairbreadth escapes to supply a writer of books of adventure with material for a lifetime. There is nothing so intriguing as the bookworm who suddenly puts on chain armor to lead a crusade, unless it is the crusader who rests under the shadow of a rock to study the Logos and the early metaphysicians. And Lawrence was both. His Bedouin, of course, knew nothing about this, but they regarded him as a sort of superman, and they were not far from the mark.

The Turks also learned his value. After the capture of Akaba they put a price on his head — £20,000 alive or £10,000 dead. He strengthened his bodyguard to ninety — free lances from nearly all the tribes, many of them blood enemies; but feuds were set aside as in a Pathan company of an Indian regiment. This gave him spies, or guides to precede, accompany, or inquire for him wherever his business lay at any point of the compass. They were a loyal and proud crew — outlaws, men with no family ties, ready to engage in any uninsurable occupation. Sixty of them died for him. Lawrence says they developed ‘a professionalism almost flamboyant.’ He discovered that they had a tribunal of their own, like the prefect system in the English public schools, which flogged offenders and all who flinched. It must have been exhilarating to ride out with his singing Bedouin dressed like a bed of tulips in all imaginable colors except white, which was his own wear and therefore presumption in his bodyguard — a poet on the right and a poet on the left, among the best singers, so that their ride might be musical. ‘It hurt them that I would not have a banner like a prince.’

His physical frailty made the achievement the more wonderful. He had to live up to his bodyguard, riding a thousand miles each month on camels, tempering the body, learning to walk barefoot, hardening the feet over sharp, pebbly, burning ground, often near breaking-point with fever and boils and thirst. He learned to lie on his belly in times of enforced fasting, for ‘that prevented the inflation of foodlessness.’ His weight was less than seven stone after the fatigues and privations of the Akaba march. In the summer the heat stabbed. When they started on a raid in September the temperature was 123° in the shade of the palm gardens of ‘cool Akaba.’ But it was in his trial of strength with the winter climate of Edom that he excelled his bodyguard. Many of them, and their camels, died of cold and overstrain.

Lawrence obtained his leadership by being entirely one with his men, conforming even to their excesses and abstinences, drinking too much at wells and too little between them. Men of his school argue that the Bedouin will not understand a stranger or open their hearts to him. The least slip in etiquette, or understanding, or even in dialect, or in the knowledge of social relations between clans, may be fatal to confidence. If one cannot behave like a shereef, one is cut off from esteem. Lawrence was always one of the family. The last thing he wanted, or could afford, was a badge of distinction setting up a barrier between himself and his men.

The Bedouin do not understand distinctions. Lawrence, if he had any consciousness of class or race distinctions, did not show it. He kept a little aloof from his Arabs in manner, never in spirit. A display of even unconscious condescension would have estranged them. Most of the British who had dealings with them were officials. ‘The veil of office, as subtle and impermeable as our veil of flesh, lay between them and the people.’ Lawrence knew exactly what an Arab felt when confronted with them. The first time he met an Englishman when he was disguised in his Mecca clothes he was chilled by ‘that awful blankness in his eye which saw not a fellow man, but landscape or local color.’ He endured the beastliness of the fetid and promiscuous life among the Bedouin, gave up his privacy and his books, was bored and vermin-ridden, that he might banish from his eye this very blankness.

As he worked his way north keeping step with Allenby — it was essential that he should not be half a day too early or too late — the tribes flocked in to Feisal’s standard. They did not want the Turks, but they were not going to show their hand before they were certain that the offensive was not a raid merely, but an occupation. The Syrian peasantry are a settled people, not like the Bedouin; they have no desert into which to evaporate after a reverse; their families and properties lie open to reprisals. That is why, earlier in the year, when he might have got into Damascus independently of Allenby amid a general rising, and the sheiks were urging him to move, Lawrence held back. He doubted if he could hold the city until Allenby broke through, and to capture and abandon it would have involved the population in the most ruthless massacres. Lawrence recognized that there could be only one rising, and that that must be decisive.

At the end, when the tribes of Syria entered Damascus in the Arab triumph, people turned to one another and said: ‘Here is Feisal’s army. They have come in at the finish when all is over’ — not knowing that these late comers were the last rung of the ladder of tribes by which Feisal, independently of Allenby, had been climbing for two years from Yenbo to Damascus.

VII

Lawrence saw his Arabs through, and then returned to his cloister, or hangar. He stayed only a few days in Damascus, just long enough to evolve order out of chaos, counter the intrigues against Feisal, and establish a de facto Arab government and the nucleus of an army. Then he asked Allenby to let him go— the only personal request he ever made of him. It was characteristic, this last slippingaway at the end. And on his return All Souls was not quiet enough for him, and he chose to spend his days in a seclusion less penetrable — a numbered human unit, cleaning aeroplanes for cadets to learn to fly in.

The Seven Pillars ought to be a triumphant book, but it is filled with a sense of the futility of achievement. To Lawrence victory is a sort of death; before the fruits of it were in his hands he wanted to reject them. Arabia was a great experiment, but its unimagined success killed the enjoyment of it. His delight was in the race, not in the cup. That old copybook maxim was never better illustrated than in Lawrence’s first night with his victorious Arabs in Damascus.

‘The Muadhins began to send their call through the warm, moist night over the feasting and the illuminations of the city. From a little mosque quite near there was one who cried into my open window, a man with a ringing voice of special sweetness, and I found myself involuntarily distinguishing his words. “God alone is great. I testify there is no god but God, and Mohammed the Prophet is of God. Come to prayer. Come to security. God alone is great, there is no god but God.”

‘At the close he dropped his voice two tones, almost to speaking level, and very softly added, “And He is very good to us this day, O people of Damascus.” The clamor beneath him hushed suddenly, as one and all seemed to obey the call to prayer for this first night in their lives of perfect freedom; while my fancy showed me in the overwhelming pause my loneliness and lack of reason in their movement, since only for me of the tens of thousands in the city was that phrase meaningless.’

So all is vanity and disillusion. In the next paragraph he speaks of ‘this false liberty drawn down to them by spells and wickedness.’ One is never really persuaded that he believes in his Arabs, or in their power to hold the freedom he gave them.