T.E. Lawrence and the Desert Bromance That Sold America on a War
Two guys have fun together blowing up trains and help to shape a new Middle East. A century later, nobody seems any wiser.
It was bromance at first sight. The young American journalist was alone, walking along Christian Street in the Old City of Jerusalem. A group of Arabs approached, “their faces, half hidden, swarthy and bearded. All but one…I could see that this one, though dressed like the rest, and even with his face beaten by the weather and burned by the sun, was different. He was smaller, clean-shaven, his features more finely wrought, his eyes were a startling blue.”
Lowell Thomas didn’t realize it at the time but he had found the biggest story in the Middle East, centered on another young man that he would adulate with an astonishing outpouring of purple prose and, in the process, make himself a small fortune.
Thomas’s 25th birthday fell on the day America declared war on Germany, April 6. He was a rookie journalist on a Chicago newspaper whose travel writing had caught the eye of Interior Secretary Franklin Lane. He was called to Washington where Lane told him, “Our people are not ready for this war.”
Lane’s idea was that Thomas should go to France, where the British and French armies were suffering horrendous casualties in stalemated trench warfare against superior German forces. He would hire a cameraman and together they would report on the arrival of American troops and on their hoped-for success in turning the tide, helping to silence those back home who thought Wilson should have stayed out of the war.
One look at the carnage of the trenches was enough for Thomas to realize that there was no uplifting message there and, with his photographer Harry Chase, he moved to the Italian Alps where the Italians were fighting a combination of the German and Austrian armies, assisted by a few American airmen. This battle was also going badly and offered no scope for sunny propaganda.
Then, in Venice, Thomas saw a military bulletin announcing that the British had appointed a new commander to their Middle East army, General Sir Edmund Allenby. Thomas knew little about this other war, where the British and Australians were attempting to end centuries of domination by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He knew that most Americans were equally unaware that a conflict was taking place in a setting of such great contrast to the quagmire of Europe—the exotic orient where Chase’s camera would find much more promising vistas.
At first Thomas hit a bureaucratic wall. The British military didn’t see any value in the help of somebody as green about war as Thomas. But Thomas was personable and pulled strings in Washington and from there contacts were made in London. The British propaganda chiefs were anxious to do anything to stimulate America’s commitment to the war, and suddenly Thomas found himself in Cairo with access to Allenby…just as Allenby made his first big assault on the Ottomans and liberated Jerusalem.
As the British army paused and regrouped in Palestine, Thomas, taking his walk through the old city of Jerusalem, spotted the “blue-eyed Arab” —noting that he wore the short curved sword of a prince of Mecca. Thomas thought he might be a Circassian, a Muslim from the Caucasian Mountains. The British told him that he had probably seen a young British officer called Thomas Edward Lawrence who was working clandestinely with the Arab armies—and had a price of $500,000 on his head offered by the Turks for his capture or death.
Lawrence’s desert campaign had already been going on for more than a year, but had gone unnoticed in the British press. Thomas couldn’t believe that knowledge of it was still confined to a small circle of military officers and Lawrence’s intelligence handlers in Cairo.
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia recast the Lowell Thomas role as an American reporter named Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy and much older than Thomas. This removed from the movie what must have been very apparent at the time—that Lawrence and Thomas were of the same generation and were both, in very different ways, adventurers out for fame and found it in this mutually reinforcing saga. As propaganda it was to far outshine and outlive anything that emerged from the charnel house of Europe.
Up to his meeting with Lawrence, Thomas had been a pedestrian travel writer, given to lazy stereotyping, as in this account of his arrival at Luxor, on the Nile:
“One old Arab said sadly: ‘American tourist he come no more. All we guides starve. Oh, woe! My guide here thirty-five years. Only real tourist in the world is you Americans. The Inglisse (English), German and French spend all their time counting their centimes. If American want something he say How much? You tell him, and no matter what price is, he say, All right, wrap her up.’”
The effect of Lawrence and his singular personality on Thomas’s prose was not corrective. The material was so original and vivid that Thomas lost any control he might have had of hyperbole. Thomas never really understood the inner torments and depths of his hero. He sweeps along on the surface of things, in partnership with Lawrence on the greatest of military adventures, ramping up the drama, inventing and embellishing where he fancies it is needed.
In the following passages I have used Thomas’s original text (and spellings and punctuation) as it appeared in a series of magazine pieces at the time. Standard Western prejudices about Arabs and the orient are evident. Later, given more perspective and attaining more maturity Thomas revised his descriptions (although he never lost the original fever). Here is his introduction to Lawrence:
“At the Gulf of Akaba we found Lawrence and Emir Feisal. The setting was so fantastic and full of color, and these Arabs so picturesque in their flowing beards, their gorgeous robes and peculiar head-dress, that it all seemed like some bizarre Oriental pageant. Lawrence was wearing an even more gorgeous costume than the one I had seen him wearing in Jerusalem. It was of pale green embroidered with beautiful gold figures. Nearly always he wore beautiful robes of pure white. To insure that what he wore should be clean, he carried three or four changes of clothing on a spare camel.”
This moves on to a morning in Feisal’s camp where Thomas describes Lawrence’s hypnotic gifts:
“One morning a young Bedouin was brought in charged with an evil eye. Feisal was not present. Lawrence told the young Arab to sit on the opposite side of the tent and look at him. For ten minutes Lawrence regarded him with a steady gaze, his steel blue eyes boring a hole right through him. At the end of the ten minutes Lawrence dismissed the Arab with the verdict that he had driven off the evil eye.”
As Thomas gets into the spirit of the desert campaign there is a rising celebration of their shared bloodlust:
“He was telling me about his archaeological work when suddenly he broke off to remark ‘Do you know, one of the most glorious sights I have ever seen is a trainload of Turkish soldiers going up in the air, after the explosion of a mine?’ I suggested to Lawrence that it would be a good idea for him to arrange a little dynamiting party for my benefit.”
There follows a scene of almost erotic symbolism that appears in the Lean movie, although in a different form:
“The train carried some 400 Turkish soldiers on their way to the relief of Medina…one of the Turkish officers recognized that the lone Arab was the mysterious Englishman for whom a reward of $500,000 had been offered. Lawrence allowed the Turks to get within about twenty paces of him, and then with a speed that would have made an Arizona gunman green with envy he whipped out his long barreled Colt’s automatic from the folds of his gown and shot six of the Turks in their tracks.”
Thomas wrote that the Arabs, however, are not to be trusted with explosives:
“The Bedouins were entirely ignorant of how to use dynamite; and so Lawrence planted nearly all his own mines and took the Bedouin along with him merely for company and to help carry off the loot. In 1917 he blew up 25 trains…and seventy-nine bridges.”
Occasionally, Thomas makes an effort at a more sober appraisal:
“Many times when we were trekking across the desert he told me that he thoroughly disliked war and everything that savored of the military.
“What was the secret of Lawrence’s success? He not only lived as an Arab, but thought as one. At the same time his brilliant mental gifts enabled him to achieve far greater results than any Arab leader could have attained.
“He made a special study of the camel. Lawrence is the only European I have met who possesses ‘camel instinct’ a quality that implies intimate acquaintance with the beast’s habits, powers, tendencies and comparative worth.”
Thomas becomes totally unmoored with the biggest scene of the story—the fall of Damascus, and Lawrence’s entry:
“The twenty-eight-year-old commander-in-chief of the greatest army that had been raised in Arabia for five centuries, this five-foot-three, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, peerless young archaeologist, who in less than a year had made himself the most powerful man in Arabia since the days of the great Caliph Haroun-el-Raschid, this quiet young Oxford graduate who had been made an Emir of Arabia, made his official entry into Damascus, the city which was the ultimate goal of his whole campaign, at seven o’clock on the morning of October thirty-first. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Arabs, including the entire population of Damascus, the oldest city in the world which remains standing, and thousands and thousands of the wild Bedouin tribes from the fringes of the desert packed the street that is called straight and jammed the bazaar section as Lawrence rode through the city, dressed in the garb of a Prince of Mecca. Howling dervishes ran in front of him, dancing and sticking knives into their flesh, while behind him came his flying column of picturesque Arabian knights. As Lawrence passed the gates of Damascus the inhabitants in that ancient Arab capital, which was once the most glorious city in the east, realized they had at last been freed from the Turkish yoke.”
The correct date was October 1, and at 7a.m. that morning Lawrence was not riding into Damascus at the head of his column of Arabian knights. With another officer he had stopped by a small stream to wash and shave. They were found by a patrol of Bengal Lancers, part of Allenby’s army, and because they were both in Arab robes they were arrested. The Lancers spoke only Urdu and could not understand Lawrence’s explanation of who he was. Prodded by bayonets they were taken as prisoners and released only when discovered by a British patrol.
Allenby and an Australian General, Sir Henry Chauvel (a name misspelt by Thomas), were aware that Feisal and the Arab commanders knew that Damascus had already been promised to the French, in a backroom deal that gave them Syria after the war, and they did not want to inflame the Arabs any more by having any British officer, Lawrence included, parading as the conqueror. Chauvel in particular had a subtle understanding of the politics and was opposed to any theatrics from Lawrence.
Of course, the fake story was far better as propaganda than the rather ignominious predicament that Lawrence found himself in at the end of the adventure that would, with Thomas’s help, make him the most famous man in the world for a while.
In New York the silent film footage that Chase shot was cut into a documentary with a commentary delivered by Thomas. It ran for eight weeks at Madison Square Garden to packed audiences. In America it had the effect of making the war look better because the Allied victory went beyond just European interests: the liberation of Jerusalem from the Ottomans had enormous religious appeal for both Christians and Jews.
Lawrence emerged as a matinee idol, a robed wraith in the service of Christendom, finally avenging Saladin’s 12th century humiliation of the Crusaders.
That was the real beginning of the Lawrence legend but the same narrative did not play in London. There it was received as a reassuring display of Britain’s imperial power, executed in part by a highly unorthodox military upstart. Realizing this, Thomas rewrote his script to give more space to Lawrence. The new show was a smash hit at the Royal Opera House. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, saw it and said, “In my opinion, Lawrence is one of the most remarkable and romantic figures of modern times.”
Lawrence himself slipped unseen into a performance and sent a note to Thomas:
“I saw your show last night and thank God the lights were out!”
This should not be taken too literally. Lawrence was a master of backing gently into the limelight. He understood that the more elusive a hero is the more famous he becomes.
Thomas had done the job he was sent to do, romancing the war beyond what anyone had thought possible and making it look like a noble and disinterested act by Wilson in the cause of world peace. Until that time, America had no interests or involvement in the Middle East, and for the moment it made perfect material for a diverting fairy tale.
However, later Thomas did record a conversation with Lawrence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where Lawrence had to witness how, in his words, “the old men came out again” and fixed the Middle East map according to their own interests, including the creation of Syria as an entity ruled by France. Lawrence’s words serve to show that what was true nearly 100 years ago remains disastrously so today:
“In history, Syria has always been the corridor between sea and desert, joining Africa to Asia and Arabia to Egypt. It has been a prize-ring for its great neighbors, the vassal of Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia and Mesopotamia. When given a momentary independence because of the weakness of its neighbors, it has at once resolved itself into northern, southern, eastern and western discordant kingdoms; for if Syria is by nature a vassal country it is by custom a country of agitations and rebellions. Autonomy is a comprehensible word: Syria is not.”
Clive Irving wrote the story for A Dangerous Man, Lawrence After Arabia, an Emmy winning TV movie starring Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence.