The secret agent of the desert

The secret agent of the desert

Lawrence of Arabia, the secret agent of the desert

The secret agent of the desert: Zealous British intelligence officer or true lover of the Middle East? A shadow hangs over the real motivations of the man who helped the Arabs in their rebellion against Ottoman rule.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, born in Wales in 1888, was an introverted teenager. Around 1905-1906, he entered Jesus College, Oxford. It was here that his interest in archaeology and the Near East gradually grew. From 1909 onwards, he traveled extensively in the Arab world, then under the Ottoman Empire, visiting Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt.

A specialist in the Arab world

By the time the First World War broke out, Lawrence was already an expert on the geography and ethnography of these territories. He had learned Arabic, even knowing several dialects, and had internalized Arab customs and mentality. In 1914, he was recruited by the Arab office of British intelligence and came into contact with Sherif Hussein Ben Ali. A member of the Hashemite family, he was a descendant of the Prophet and protector of the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, making him the highest religious authority in the Sunni world after the Ottoman sultan. The British and French promised Hussein a great Arab kingdom, if he could get his compatriots to rise up against the Turks, and Germany’s allies, and even hinted at the possibility of supporting the Sherif’s candidacy for a future caliphate.

Hussein was in direct contact with the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Henry McMahon. Together, they decided to create a contingent of volunteer Arab fighters, including several Bedouin tribes, for which Lieutenant Lawrence – promoted to captain, then colonel – was to act as a political officer (“military advisor”). On June 10, 1916, Hussein issued a proclamation to the Arab people calling for rebellion against Mehmed V. The proclamation was echoed by Ottoman attempts to force the assimilation of the peoples of their empire into their culture, including the imposition of the Turkish language.

Guerrilla warfare against the Empire

Thanks to the courage of the insurgents, Sultan’s armed forces were defeated in less than a year: in March 1917, General Frederick Maude entered Baghdad victorious at the head of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force; in July, Arab rebels conquered Aqaba on the Red Sea and, in December, General Edmund Allenby took Jerusalem at the head of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, while Faisal, one of Hussein’s four sons, made a triumphant entry into Damascus.

All the while, Lawrence was acting as adviser to Faisal, the only one of the siblings with the charisma to lead the revolt. Things were not easy for this small – he was 1.66 m tall – but robust British officer, who, dressed in Arab costume and riding a dromedary, harassed the Ottomans with guerrilla tactics. These mainly consisted of attacks on the Hedjaz railroad, which links Damascus, the intellectual and political capital of the Arab world, to the sacred city of Medina and constitutes a strategic link for the mobilization of Ottoman troops in Arabia.

Rallying the warring tribes

The secret agent of the desert: In its early stages, after Lawrence had joined Faisal’s forces in October 1916, the war stagnated. On the one hand, traffic on the Turkish rail network in the Hedjaz, which had been constantly interrupted, was still being restored; on the other, the chiefs of the rebellious Bedouin tribes were constantly clashing. Lawrence had to come to terms with each and every one of them, and it was not easy to make them understand that they were the protagonists of the conflict, as the British high command seemed to have little interest in the military theater of the Hedjaz.

Lawrence needed a success that would give him importance; he found it in the spectacular conquest of the port of Aqaba on July 6, 1917. Although this action did not cause much damage to the Ottoman military structure and was not considered important by the British high command, it had a great impact on the Arab world: thanks to it, Lawrence won the esteem of the Bedouins and became a veritable myth. For a time, he almost eclipsed Faisal’s popularity among them.

But quickly, things started to go south. A period of bad weather hit the region, with sandstorms delaying or preventing operations. Conflicts between the sheikhs resumed, with many of them playing a double game, receiving money from both the British and the Turks. This behavior reinforced their reputation as thieves in the eyes of the Ottoman government. Hussein and Faisal’s war for a free and united Arab state could not really be theirs. The Bedouin sheikhs fought not out of duty or ideals, but for glory, money, for pleasure, for loyalty to the princes they loved and admired, for the well-being of their tribe. In this context, Lawrence realized that the capture of Aqaba had been useless, and asked to be assigned another mission. But General Allenby, who had assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in June, considered that Lawrence had done an excellent job and sent him back to Faisal.

With uneven success, Lawrence tried to coordinate the Arab attacks and the advance of Allenby’s troops northwards. It was during this period, in November 1917, that the Turks captured him while he was on a reconnaissance mission around the Deraa railway junction, south of Damascus. He managed to escape after being tortured and apparently sexually abused. Although no one ever knew what had happened,

Lawrence was indelibly marked by it. In a letter to Charlotte Shaw, wife of the writer George Bernard Shaw, he wrote: “In order […] no longer to experience the pain that drove me mad, I sold the only thing one possesses when one comes into the world: physical integrity. It’s unforgivable and irreparable, and it’s what made me give up living normally and exercising my talent and intelligence, which are not totally despicable.

Entering Damascus

The secret agent of the desert: Lawrence’s humiliation has been linked to what happened at Tafas 12 months later, in September 1918. There, the Turks murdered women and children and finished off wounded Arab fighters. When the insurgents defeated them, they mercilessly massacred the captured Turks. Lawrence gave the order to take no prisoners, perhaps driven by a desire for personal vengeance that merged with the desire for vengeance of his Arab comrades.

Shortly after the Deraa episode, on December 11, 1917, Allenby entered Jerusalem at the head of British troops and Arab factions. Having conquered the Holy City, time was running out: it was time to head for Damascus, the intellectual heart of the Arab world. This is what Faisal’s forces do, while Lawrence devotes himself to sabotaging the Turkish railroad. On October 3, 1918, Hussein’s son entered Damascus. At this point, things became even more complicated.

In May 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreements, the French and British had secretly divided up the Ottoman Empire: the former reserved Syria (including Damascus) and Lebanon for themselves; the latter, the territories further south. The Hashemites – the dynasty of guardians of Islam’s Holy Places, then embodied by Sherif Hussein and his sons Faisal and Abdallah – could govern under their tutelage.

Faisal was an undisputed military leader; he spoke perfect English, and military advisors treated him with respect. But many things were kept from him, not least the agreements between the French and the British. As a result, Faisal will never be able to lead the great state that the Arabs had hoped to obtain as a reward for their rebellion against the Ottomans, a kingdom whose crown was to be his, and whose borders were to extend from Arabia to Syria. In Damascus, Faisal proclaimed himself king on March 11, 1920, but the French ruthlessly expelled him from Syria.

“Lawrence the Devil

The secret agent of the Desert: What was Lawrence’s situation? As an intelligence officer, he had to know everything. For some, he had long since stopped thinking like a Westerner, let alone a British officer: his heart was with the men of the desert. For others, he had always been in the service of intelligence; if his convictions wavered and his behavior lacked transparency, this was rather due to his unstable character.

The Bedouins, when they admired and feared him – and even when, disappointed, they began to doubt him (today, in the Arab world, many still consider him a hypocrite and a traitor) – called him Aurans Iblis, “Lawrence the Devil”. Opinions differ on Lawrence’s behavior in the immediate post-war period. Many biographers describe him as sad, frustrated, and aware that the Arabs saw him as an accomplice in the betrayal suffered at the hands of the British. Others, on the contrary, believe that he was playing a role: he had always respected what he considered to be his duty as a British officer and civil servant and knew how to keep his feelings to himself.

In 1919, sometimes dressing like an Arab, he took part in the Paris Peace Conference as a member of the Faisal delegation, whose political demands were rejected by the victors of the war. He then returned to England, where for a time he made the most of his fame, publishing articles and photographs, and emphasizing his relationship with General Allenby. Later, he worked with Winston Churchill as an advisor to the British government’s Colonial Office, although he disliked administrative work. He also took charge of Syria, which had already entered the French colonial orbit. But here again, his attitude lacks clarity. He loves France and knows French well. But perhaps, as a friend of Faisal, he has not forgotten the way in which the Hashemite prince was expelled from Damascus; in response, according to some, he fomented the Syrian revolt against the French.

A fatal passion for motorcycles

The secret agent of the desert: It seems, however, that he didn’t feel very comfortable during this period. The British services no longer needed him, and the suspicions surrounding his character made him inoperable in the Middle East. For these reasons, he tried to disappear for a while, enlisting as an RAF pilot under the pseudonym John Hume Ross.

However, even under this identity, he was recognized and dismissed in 1923. Again, he changed his name to Thomas Edward Shaw and served a year in the Royal Tank Corps. In 1925, he was readmitted to the RAF and sent to India, but had to return to England in 1928, accompanied by a contradictory reputation: on the one hand, his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was a great success; on the other, it seems he was accused of espionage activities. He retired to a small property he owned in Chingford and remained in the RAF until his dismissal in March 1935. One of his main interests was medieval chivalric literature.

Another of his passions was motorcycling, to which he owed his tragic death: he died on May 19, 1935, following an accident in Dorset, aged 46. His death is not without doubt: according to some reports, he had become close to English nationalist politicians, which might suggest that the accident was provoked in order to eliminate a would-be leader.



Thomas Edward Lawrence is born in Tremadoc (Wales) on August 16, the son of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner.


After studying at Oxford, he travels as a historian and archaeologist to the Near East, where he studies architecture and excavates at Karkemish.


As a British intelligence officer, he collaborated with Faisal in the Arab revolt against the Turks.


He supported Faisal, without success, in the creation of an Arab state. In 1922, he ceased to advise his government on the Middle East.


Serves in the RAF and the Royal Armored Corps under an assumed name. He publishes The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), in which he recounts the Arab revolt.


He died on May 19 in Moreton (Dorset), following a motorcycle accident while trying to avoid two young cyclists.

The daring conquest of Aqaba

The secret agent of the desert: On May 9, 1917, 50 Arabs left the port of Al-Wadjh on the Arabian Peninsula, Fayçal’s base. Lawrence accompanied them, carrying 22,000 sovereigns (British gold coin) to buy the help of the Bedouins on their way to their goal: the port of Aqaba. He planned to conquer it by surprise, crossing the desert and attacking a Turkish garrison unannounced. To achieve this, he counts on the help of Aouda Abou Tayi, Sheikh of the Howeïtat. Gold swelled the ranks of the attackers: they were already around 500 strong when, on July 2, they took the fort of Aba el-Lissan, which protected access to Aqaba, and conquered four days later. His mission accomplished, Lawrence crossed the Sinai desert to Cairo, where he announced his victory to the British command, requesting supplies, weapons, and money for the rebels.

The glory of the desert warrior

Shortly before Lawrence returned to England in 1918, Lowell Thomas, an American war correspondent, spent eight days with him and the Arab insurgents, gathering material for one of his chronicles. Based on some of the incursions he heard about, he wrote a series of spectacular reports for several magazines after the conflict. These articles, revolving around the idealized figure of Lawrence, whom Thomas dubbed “the uncrowned king of Arabia”, were received with relief and enthusiasm by a public saturated with bloody chronicles of the trenches of Europe. Later, in a series of illustrated lectures, the journalist’s account moved listeners who filled halls in the United States and Great Britain, eager to learn more about Lawrence of Arabia.

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