April 25, 2015

Finest Hour 119, Summer 2003

Page 32


“Instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.”


On George Bernard Shaw’s advice this “introductory chapter” of Seven Pillars was suppressed in the editions during and shortly after Lawrence’s lifetime. It was released in 1939 by TEL’s brother and has been included in subsequent printings.

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Seven Pillars of Wisdom was first written out in Paris during the Peace Conference from notes jotted daily on the march, strengthened by some reports sent to my chiefs in Cairo. Afterwards, in the autumn of 1919, this first draft and some of the notes were lost. It seemed to me historically needful to reproduce the tale, as perhaps no one but myself in Feisal’s army had thought of writing down at the time what we felt, what we hoped, what we tried. So it was built again with heavy repugnance in London in the winter of 1919-20 from memory and my surviving notes. The record of events was not dulled in me and perhaps a few actual mistakes crept in—except in details of dates or numbers—but the outlines and significance of things had lost edge in the haze of new interests.

This isolated picture throwing the main light upon myself is unfair to my British colleagues. Especially I am most sorry that I have not told what the non-commissioned of us did. They were inarticulate, but wonderful, especially when it is taken into account that they had not the motive, the imaginative vision of the end, which sustained the officers. Unfortunately my concern was limited to this end, and the book is just a designed procession of Arab freedom from Mecca to Damascus. It is intended to rationalize the campaign, that everyone may see how natural the success was and how inevitable, how little dependent on direction or brain, how much less on the outside assistance of the few British. It was an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.

My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs, was never in charge of the British mission with them. Wilson, Joyce, Newcombe, Dawnay and Davenport were all over my head. I flattered myself that I was too young, not that they had more heart or mind in the work. I did my best. Wilson, Newcombe, Joyce, Dawnay, Davenport, Buxton, Marshall, Stirling, Young, Maynard, Ross, Scott, Winterton, Lloyd, Wordie, Siddons, Goslett, Stent, Henderson, Spence, Gilman, Garland, Brodie, Makins, Nunan, Leeson, Hornby, Peake, Scott-Higgins, Ramsay, Wood, Hinde, Bright, Maclnow, Greenhill, Grisenthwaite, Dowsett, Bennett, Wade, Gray, Pascoe and the others also did their best.

It would be impertinent of me to praise them. When I wish to say ill of one outside our number, I do it, though there is less of this than was in my diary, since the passage of time seems to have bleached out men’s stains. When I wish to praise outsiders, I do it, but our family affairs are our own. We did what we set out to do, and have the satisfaction of that knowledge….

In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement, but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt.

We were fond together, because of the sweep of the open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves; yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep; and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

This I did. I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dreampalace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events; but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French colonial policy ruined in the Levant.

I am afraid that I hope so. We pay for these things too much in honour and in innocent lives. I went up the Tigris with one hundred Devon Territorials, young, clean, delightful fellows, full of the power of happiness and of making women and children glad. By them one saw vividly how great it was to be their kin, and English. And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.

The only need was to defeat our enemies (Turkey among them), and this was at last done in the wisdom of Allenby with less than four hundred killed, by turning to our uses the hands of the oppressed in Turkey. I am proudest of my thirty fights in that I did not have any of our own blood shed. All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman.

We were three years over this effort and I have had to hold back many things which may not yet be said. Even so, parts of this book will be new to nearly all who see it, and many will look for familiar things and not find them. Once I reported fully to my chiefs, but learnt that they were rewarding me on my own evidence. This was not as it should be. Honours may be necessary in a professional army, as so many emphatic mentions in despatches, and by enlisting we had put ourselves, willingly or not, in the position of regular soldiers.

For my work on the Arab front I had determined to accept nothing. The Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw in me a free agent of the British Government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises.

So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward. In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.

It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff; but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims.

In other words, I presumed (seeing no other leader with the will and power) that I would survive the campaigns, and be able to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council-chamber. It was an immodest presumption; it is not yet clear if I succeeded; but it is clear that I had no shadow of leave to engage the Arabs, unknowing, in such hazard. I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

The dismissal of Sir Henry McMahon [who first represented British promises to the Arabs] confirmed my belief in our essential insincerity: but I could not so explain myself to General Wingate while the war lasted, since I was nominally under his orders and he did not seem sensible of how false his own standing was. The only thing remaining was to refuse rewards for being a successful trickster and, to prevent this unpleasantness arising, I began in my reports to conceal the true stories of things, and to persuade the few Arabs who knew to an equal reticence. In this book also, for the last time, I mean to be my own judge of what to say.


“Forever it will reveal all that is most characteristic of the Arab race. “


Churchill’s review of Seven Pillars shows his skill as a reviewer and thus as a sensitive reader of books, a side of him that is relatively unknown compared to his talent as a writer. It first appeared in The Daily Mail for 29 July 1935, and appeared in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. 3, Churchill and People, London: Library of Imperial History, 1975, pp. 241-42. It is reprinted here by kind courtesy of Winston S. Churchill and the Churchill literary estate. —P. A.

The executors of the late Colonel Lawrence have acted rightly in giving to the public the full, unexpurgated edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The remarkable popularity of its woefully abridged version Revolt in the Desert was unwelcome to the author. He allowed it to be published only to pay the expenses of the limited edition of Seven Pillars.

The cost of producing this work was enormous. The author lavished the thought and labours of many months merely upon the typography and illustrations. He reconstructed many of his sentences so that every paragraph should end about half-way through the line.

He gave away a large part of the edition to his friends and to persons of high consequence of whom he approved. He chose various beautiful bindings for these copies and delivered many of them personally on his motor-bicycle.

The few subscribed copies that came on the market were found to be worth many hundreds of pounds. Even the skeleton Revolt in the Desert brought in such large sums, especially in the United States, that the publisher of Seven Pillars was soon indemnified, and before Lawrence could stop the sale a surplus of many thousands had flowed in, which he made haste to assign to Air Force charities.

The many who had read Revolt in the Desert clamoured for the full account. The few who possessed copies of the limited edition could not allow such a precious possession to be spoiled by passing through the hands of many readers. Thus there is no doubt that the handsome volume, now at last liberated to meet a pent-up demand, will find an honoured place in every library, and draw to itself an immense proportion of the reading public.

Seven Pillars is a tale of war and adventure and a profound epitome of all that the Arabs mean to the world. It will take its place at once as an English classic. The richness and energy of the theme, the quality of the prose, the sense of the mystic, immeasurable personality lying behind it, raise the work at once and decisively above the level of contemporary productions. It ranks with Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels as a model of lucid, forcible, fascinating narrative.

Yet intense as is the interest of the story, we feel that many will study it even more closely for the intimate access which it offers to a wonderful and still largely inscrutable man, indifferent to the ordinary prizes of human life and gifted differently and far beyond the normal standards of mankind.

We will not say that those who read Seven Pillars will know Lawrence; but, reading with a sympathetic eye, they will know as much as anyone will ever know. For it was into this record of his life-effort in the Great War that he wished to put all that was left in him at its close, and this book was to be, as it surely will be, a lasting monument of his work.

Careless of life or comfort, scornful of wealth or pleasures, having cut out of himself all ambition, all love of power and fame, he nevertheless thirsted for recognition from the generations which he would not see. That he has achieved his purpose cannot be doubted. His book will be read as long as the English language is spoken. Forever it will revive the memories, aye, and the passions, of armageddon; forever it will reveal all that is most characteristic of the Arab race and all that is most vital in war.

We have no intention here of even attempting to retell the tale. Its outlines are well known. Its episodes must be read in the original. No extract or quotation could convey the atmosphere which the reader will breathe. The vastness of the desert, the weight of the sun, the awful weariness of the long camel marches, the scraps of food and drops of water which taste like feasts of the gods, the fierce, rigid tension of the ambuscades, the cruel, merciless fighting, the great operations of war in which this fighting played a notable part, the annihilation of the Turkish column, the rupturing of the Turkish communications, the forlorn attempt with a handful of irregulars to bar the retreat of a Turco-German army 80,000 strong, the triumphant entry into Damascus—all those present an inexhaustible series of pictures arresting to the mind and stirring to the soul.

The story is told with unrelenting candour. Nothing in Edgar Allan Poe exceeds in horror some of its pages. The description of Lawrence’s torment when he fell unknown into the hands of the Turks is a terrifying, a shocking, and at the same time a necessary passage which enables us to realize better than anything else the war injuries which he sustained, and from which he never completely recovered. We have to think of him in the twenty years that followed as a man seared in body and spirit by the sufferings he had undergone for his country’s cause.

Still, in the main and for all its shadows, this book is a joyous book, and those who read it will not only be instructed and startled but also enthralled and delighted. Reading it again for the third time, I found the interest as fresh and everflowing as at the first perusal. Indeed, the more carefully it is read, the stronger and more inspiring is the impression received.

Lawrence of Arabia is a name that will live in history and in legend. It will never be forgotten during their lifetime by his Arab or his English friends.


“President Bush and Mr. Blair need to read this book”


The cinema version of Lawrence of Arabia, produced by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, was a masterpiece, but placed too much emphasis on the protagonist. Lawrence himself is far more honest and insightful in his book. Even today much of his insight into Arab psychology would help leaders come to grips with the challenges of the Middle East.

The film leaves viewers with the impression that Lawrence almost singlehandedly forged the Arab alliance against the Turks. Lawrence, in chapter XXIX, gives the bulk of the credit to Feisal, who became king of Syria, then, ousted by the French, the first king of Iraq.

One wonders what might have become of Arabia had Feisal remained in command in Damascus. Without French and British meddling, it is possible that Feisal would have united all Arabia into one nation, which was his goal.

One wonders also, now that regime change has been effected in Iraq, whether the present tenuous state of affairs will give way to democracy, or rule by ideology, or simply return to 20th century tribalism. Surely if the West attempts to impose an inflexible system, all controlled from a centralized government, only failure can result. Occupation, even by white knights, is doomed. Lawrence notes the failures of such a system, practiced by the Turks 85 years ago, in chapter XXXIII.

Throughout the book I found tremendous nuggets of wisdom regarding the Arab mind. As a Westerner himself, Lawrence’s vision was imperfect. It was, however, the clearest vision among all Westerners of his day and, likely, more acute than most present-day writers.

This is a must book for those wanting to understand Arab psychology and, to almost as great an extent, military history as applied in a hostile environment in a guerrilla fashion. Entrepreneurs could also benefit. It belongs alongside Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Seven Pillars is important today not for the military campaigns it describes but for the advice it offers concerning the governance of Middle Eastern peoples. The battle today has turned from conquest to ideas. Great powers must assert their position only at critical control points. In that sense, it is Westerners who must fight a guerrilla campaign, not become a fixed target for one.

Some may question comments such as these in a book review, but I am merely summarizing the comments of T. E. Lawrence himself. That is the beauty of his book, and the contribution of his genius. Lawrence’s battlefield accomplishments may or may not have been momentous. His literary skill may or not have been the equal of Clausewitz. His insight into the Arab mind, at a time when it was already becoming complicated by oil wealth, is of the utmost value. President Bush and Mr. Blair need to read this book.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph has hardly if ever been out of print. The current version is by Anchor Paperbacks, 784 pages, $18.95, available from Amazon.com and retail bookshops.

Mr. Anderson, of Arlington, Virginia, writes reviews for Amazon.com. In 1970 he joined the Navy to become a chef, emerging in 1980 as a nuclear welding inspector. With $22, he started a magazine that later won an award from a library journal. He worked as a quality control and safety manager in Cairo, returned home to become a newspaper correspondent, and is now writing a book about how to start a bakery on a shoestring—truly a man of endeavor and adventure who would, we suspect, have been welcome at Chartwell.

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