On the morning of October 30, 1918, Colonel Thomas Edward Law- rence received a summons to Buckingham Palace. The king had
requested his presence.
The collective mood in London that day was euphoric. For the past four years and three months, Great Britain and much of the rest of the world had been consumed by the bloodiest conflict in recorded history, one that had claimed the lives of some sixteen million people across three continents. Now, with a speed that scarcely could have been imagined mere weeks earlier, it was all coming to an end. On that same day, one of Great Britain’s three principal foes, the Ottoman Empire, was accept- ing peace terms, and the remaining two, Germany and Austria-Hungary, would shortly follow suit. Colonel Lawrence’s contribution to that war effort had been in its Middle Eastern theater, and he too was caught quite off guard by its rapid close. At the beginning of that month, he had still been in the field assisting in the capture of Damascus, an event that heralded the collapse of the Ottoman army. Back in England for less than a week, he was already consulting with those senior British statesmen and generals tasked with mapping out the postwar borders of the Middle East, a once-fanciful endeavor that had now become quite urgent. Lawrence was apparently under the impression that his audience with King George V that morning was to discuss those ongoing deliberations.
He was mistaken. Once at the palace, the thirty-year-old colonel was ushered into a ballroom where, flanked by a half dozen dignitaries and a coterie of costumed courtiers, the king and queen soon entered. A low cushioned stool had been placed just before the king’s raised dais, while to the monarch’s immediate right, the lord chamberlain held a velvet pillow on which an array of medals rested. After introductions were made, George V fixed his guest with a smile: “I have some presents for you.”
As a student of British history, Colonel Lawrence knew precisely what was about to occur. The pedestal was an investiture stool, upon which he was to kneel as the king performed the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony—the conferring of a sash and the medals on the pillow, the tap- ping with a sword and the intoning of an oath—that would make him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
It was a moment T. E. Lawrence had long dreamed of. As a boy, he was obsessed with medieval history and the tales of King Arthur’s court, and his greatest ambition, he once wrote, was to be knighted by the age of thirty. On that morning, his youthful aspiration was about to be fulfilled.
A couple of details added to the honor. Over the past four years, King George had given out so many commendations and medals to his nation’s soldiers that even knighthoods were now generally bestowed en masse; in the autumn of 1918, a private investiture like Lawrence’s was practically unheard of. Also unusual was the presence of Queen Mary. She normally eschewed these sorts of ceremonies, but she had been so stirred by the accounts of T. E. Lawrence’s wartime deeds as to make an exception in his case.
Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor.
There followed a moment of confusion. Over the nine-hundred-year history of the monarchy, the refusal of knighthood was such an extraor- dinary event that there was no protocol for how to handle it. Eventually, King George returned to the lord chamberlain’s pillow the medal he had been awkwardly holding, and under the baleful gaze of a furious Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.
TODAY, MORE THAN seven decades after his death, and nearly a century since the exploits that made him famous, Thomas Edward Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia,” as he is better known—remains one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures of the twentieth century. Despite scores of biographies, countless scholarly studies, and at least three movies, including one considered a masterpiece, historians have never quite decided what to make of the young, bashful Oxford scholar who rode into battle at the head of an Arab army and changed history.
One reason for the contentiousness over his memory has to do with the terrain he traversed. Lawrence was both eyewitness to and partici- pant in some of the most pivotal events leading to the creation of the modern Middle East, and this is a corner of the earth where even the simplest assertion is dissected and parsed and argued over. In the unend- ing debates over the roots of that region’s myriad fault lines, Lawrence has been alternately extolled and pilloried, sanctified, demonized, even diminished to a footnote, as political goals require.
Then there was Lawrence’s own personality. A supremely private and hidden man, he seemed intent on baffling all those who would try to know him. A natural leader of men, or a charlatan? A man without fear, or both a moral and physical coward? Long before any of his biographers, it was Lawrence who first attached these contradictory characteristics—and many others—to himself. Joined to this was a mischievous streak, a story- teller’s delight in twitting those who believed in and insisted on “facts.” The episode at Buckingham Palace is a case in point. In subsequent years, Lawrence offered several accounts of what had transpired in the ballroom, each at slight variance with the others and at even greater variance to the recollections of eyewitnesses. Earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe.
Among writers on Lawrence, these contradictions have often spurred descents into minutiae, arcane squabbles between those seeking to tarnish his reputation and those seeking to defend it. Did he truly make a par- ticular desert crossing in forty-nine hours, as he claimed, or might it have taken a day longer? Did he really play such a signal role in Battle X, or does more credit belong to British officer Y or to Arab chieftain Z? Only slightly less tedious are those polemicists wishing to pigeonhole him for ideological ends. Lawrence, the great defender of the Jewish people or the raging anti-Semite? The enlightened progressive striving for Arab inde- pendence or the crypto-imperialist? Lawrence left behind such a large body of writing, and his views altered so dramatically over the course of his life, that it’s possible with careful cherry-picking to both confirm and refute most every accolade and accusation made of him.
Beyond being tiresome, the cardinal sin of these debates is that they obscure the most beguiling riddle of Lawrence’s story: How did he do it? How did a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of military training become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolu- tionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come?
The short answer might seem somewhat anticlimactic: Lawrence was able to become “Lawrence of Arabia” because no one was paying much attention.
Amid the vast slaughter occurring across the breadth of Europe in World War I, the Middle Eastern theater of that war was of markedly secondary importance. Within that theater, the Arab Revolt to which Lawrence became affiliated was, to use his own words, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” In terms of lives and money and matériel expended, in terms of the thousands of hours spent in weighty consultation between gener- als and kings and prime ministers, the imperial plotters of Europe were infinitely more concerned over the future status of Belgium, for example, than with what might happen in the impoverished and distant regions of the Middle East. Consequently, in the view of British war planners, if a young army officer left largely to his own devices could sufficiently organize the fractious Arab tribes to harass their Turkish enemy, all to the good. Of course, it wouldn’t be very long before both the Arab Revolt and the Middle East became vastly more important to the rest of the world, but this was a possibility barely considered—indeed, it could hardly have been imagined—at the time.
But this isn’t the whole story either. That’s because the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East found reflection in the other great warring powers. As a result, these powers, too, relegated their military efforts in the region to whatever could be spared from the more important battlefields elsewhere, consigning the task of intelligence gathering and fomenting rebellion and forging alli- ances to men with résumés just as modest and unlikely as Lawrence’s.
As with Lawrence, these other competitors in the field tended to be young, wholly untrained for the missions they were given, and largely unsupervised. And just as with their more famous British counterpart, to capitalize on their extraordinary freedom of action, these men drew upon a very particular set of personality traits—cleverness, bravery, a talent for treachery—to both forge their own destiny and alter the course of history.
Among them was a fallen American aristocrat in his twenties who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation’s postwar policy in the region, even as he remained on the payroll of Standard Oil of New York. There was the young German scholar who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers, and who would carry his “war by revolution” ideas into the Nazi era. Along with them was a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish home- land in Palestine.
If little remembered today, these men shared something else with their British counterpart. Like Lawrence, they were not the senior gener- als who charted battlefield campaigns in the Middle East, nor the elder statesmen who drew lines on maps in the war’s aftermath. Instead, their roles were perhaps even more profound: it was they who created the con- ditions on the ground that brought those campaigns to fruition, who made those postwar policies and boundaries possible. History is always a collab- orative effort, and in the case of World War I an effort that involved liter- ally millions of players, but to a surprising degree, the subterranean and complex game these four men played, their hidden loyalties and personal duels, helped create the modern Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the world we live in today.
Yet within this small galaxy of personalities there remain at least two compelling reasons why T. E. Lawrence and his story should reside firmly at its center. The modern Middle East was largely created by the British. It was they who carried the Allied war effort in the region during World War I and who, at its close, principally fashioned its peace. It was a peace pre- saged by the nickname given the region by covetous Allied leaders in war- time: “the Great Loot.” As one of Britain’s most important and influential agents in that arena, Lawrence was intimately connected to all, good and bad, that was to come.
Second, and as the episode at Buckingham Palace attests, this was an experience that left him utterly changed, unrecognizable in certain respects even to himself. Victory carries a moral burden the vanquished never know, and as an architect of momentous events, Lawrence would be uniquely haunted by what he saw and did during the Great Loot.