Lawrence of Arabia captures Damascus

Year
1918
Month Day
October 01

A combined Arab and British force captures Damascus from the Turks during World War I, completing the liberation of Arabia. An instrumental commander in the Allied campaign was T.E. Lawrence, a legendary British soldier known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence, an Oxford-educated Arabist born in Tremadoc, Wales, began working for the British army as an intelligence officer in Egypt in 1914. He spent more than a year in Cairo, processing intelligence information. In 1916, he accompanied a British diplomat to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, had proclaimed a revolt against Turkish rule. Lawrence convinced his superiors to aid Hussein’s rebellion, and he was sent to join the Arabian army of Hussein’s son Faisal as a liaison officer.

Under Lawrence’s guidance, the Arabians launched an effective guerrilla war against the Turkish lines. He proved a gifted military strategist and was greatly admired by the Bedouin people of Arabia. In July 1917, Arabian forces captured Aqaba near the Sinai and joined the British march on Jerusalem. Lawrence was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In November, he was captured by the Turks while reconnoitering behind enemy lines in Arab dress and was tortured and sexually abused before escaping. He rejoined his army, which slowly worked its way north to Damascus. The Syrian capital fell on October 1, 1918.

Arabia was liberated, but Lawrence’s hope that the peninsula would be united as a single nation was dashed when Arabian factionalism came to the fore after Damascus. Lawrence, exhausted and disillusioned, left for England. Feeling that Britain had exacerbated the rivalries between the Arabian groups, he appeared before King George V and politely refused the medals offered to him.

After the war, he lobbied hard for independence for Arab countries and appeared at the Paris peace conference in Arab robes. He later wrote a monumental war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) under an assumed name to escape his fame and acquire material for a new book. Discharged from the RAF in 1935, he was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident a few months later.

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Lawrence of Arabia dies

Year
1935
Month Day
May 19

T.E. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, dies as a retired Royal Air Force mechanic living under an assumed name. The legendary war hero, author and archaeological scholar succumbed to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident six days before.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadog, Wales, in 1888. In 1896, his family moved to Oxford. Lawrence studied architecture and archaeology, for which he made a trip to Ottoman (Turkish)-controlled Syria and Palestine in 1909. In 1911, he won a fellowship to join an expedition excavating an ancient Hittite settlement on the Euphrates River. He worked there for three years and in his free time traveled and learned Arabic. In 1914, he explored the Sinai, near the frontier of Ottoman-controlled Arabia and British-controlled Egypt. The maps Lawrence and his associates made had immediate strategic value upon the outbreak of war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in October 1914.

Lawrence enlisted in the war and because of his expertise in Arab affairs was assigned to Cairo as an intelligence officer. He spent more than a year in Egypt, processing intelligence information and in 1916 accompanied a British diplomat to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, had proclaimed a revolt against Turkish rule. Lawrence convinced his superiors to aid Hussein’s rebellion, and he was sent to join the Arabian army of Hussein’s son Faisal as a liaison officer.

Under Lawrence’s guidance, the Arabians launched an effective guerrilla war against the Turkish lines. He proved a gifted military strategist and was greatly admired by the Bedouin people of Arabia. In July 1917, Arabian forces captured Aqaba near the Sinai and joined the British march on Jerusalem. Lawrence was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In November, he was captured by the Turks while reconnoitering behind enemy lines in Arab dress and was tortured and sexually abused before escaping. He rejoined his army, which slowly worked its way north to Damascus, which fell in October 1918.

Arabia was liberated, but Lawrence’s hope that the peninsula would be united as a single nation was dashed when Arabian factionalism came to the fore after Damascus. Lawrence, exhausted and disillusioned, left for England. Feeling that Britain had exacerbated the rivalries between the Arabian groups, he appeared before King George V and politely refused the medals offered to him.

After the war, he lobbied hard for independence for Arab countries and appeared at the Paris peace conference in Arab robes. He became something of a legendary figure in his own lifetime, and in 1922 he gave up higher-paying appointments to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF) under an assumed name, John Hume Ross. He had just completed writing his monumental war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and he hoped to escape his fame and acquire material for a new book. Found out by the press, he was discharged, but in 1923 he managed to enlist as a private in the Royal Tanks Corps under another assumed name, T.E. Shaw, a reference to his friend, Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. In 1925, Lawrence rejoined the RAF and two years later legally changed his last name to Shaw.

In 1927, an abridged version of his memoir was published and generated tremendous publicity, but the press was unable to locate Lawrence (he was posted to a base in India). In 1929, he returned to England and spent the next six years writing and working as an RAF mechanic. In 1932, his English translation of Homer’s Odyssey was published under the name of T.E. Shaw. The Mint, a fictionalized account of Royal Air Force recruit training, was not published until 1955 because of its explicitness.

In February 1935, Lawrence was discharged from the RAF and returned to his simple cottage at Clouds Hill, Dorset. On May 13, he was critically injured while driving his motorcycle through the Dorset countryside. He had swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. On May 19, he died at the hospital of his former RAF camp. Britain mourned his passing.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

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T.E. Lawrence reports on Arab affairs

Year
1916
Month Day
November 26

On November 26, 1916, Thomas Edward Lawrence, a junior member of the British government’s Arab Bureau during World War I, publishes a detailed report analyzing the revolt led by the Arab leader Sherif Hussein against the Ottoman Empire in the late spring of 1916.

As a scholar and archaeologist, the future “Lawrence of Arabia” traveled extensively in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and parts of Turkey before beginning working formally with the British government’s bureau on Arab affairs in 1916. At the time, the Arab Bureau was working to encourage a revolt by the Muslim and Arabic-speaking population of the Ottoman Empire in order to aid the Allied war effort. The leader of the planned revolt would be Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, ruler of the Hejaz, the region in modern-day Saudi Arabia containing the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Hoping to remain neutral and collect bribes from both sides, Hussein remained undecided in the war until April 1916, when he learned Ottoman leaders were sending a German-Turkish force to depose him. Wanting to strike first, Hussein declared a revolt in the Hejaz sometime between June 5 and 10, seeking the protection of the British Royal Navy along the coast of the Hejaz.

Around that same time, at Lawrence’s suggestion, the Arab Bureau published its first informational bulletin, featuring the observations and insights of the hopeful British organizers and backers of Hussein’s revolt. It soon became clear, as documented by the Arab Bulletin, that the British considered Hussein’s revolt to be a dismal failure. In his report of November 26, 1916, Lawrence gave his analysis of the situation: “I think one company of Turks, properly entrenched in open country, would defeat the Sherif’s armies. The value of the tribes is defensive only, and their real sphere is guerrilla warfare…[they are] too individualistic to endure commands, or fight in line, or help each other. It would, I think, be impossible to make an organized force out of them.”

Despite his derisive view of Hussein’s troops, Lawrence made clear his admiration for the sherif himself, as well as for his three elder sons, Ali, Feisal and Abdullah, praising them as “heroes.” He became close to Feisal in particular, and by early December 1916 he had joined Arab troops in the field, where he spent the rest of the war attempting, with varying degrees of success, to organize the disparate tribesmen into fighting units that would pose a real threat to the Ottoman enemy.

At the post-war peace conference in Paris in 1919, the victorious Allies failed to grant full independence to the various Arab peoples, instead placing them under British and French control according to the mandate system imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. While his son, Feisal, was crowned king of the new state of Iraq, Hussein himself ended up losing control of Mecca and the Hejaz to the rival Saudi clan in the 1920s. Meanwhile, T.E. Lawrence–who had accompanied Feisal Hussein’s Arab delegation to Versailles–resigned from his post in Britain’s colonial office in the Middle East, disgusted by the Allies’ failure to fulfill their promise of Arab independence. He lived much of the rest of his life in obscurity, dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

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