T.E. Lawrence: The World War One Defeats That Made an Imperialist Swindler


“By our swindle they were glorified…The more we condemned and despised ourselves, the more we could cynically take pride in them, our creatures…They were our dupes, wholeheartedly fighting the enemy.” T.E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”[1]

The enemy Thomas Edward Lawrence (a.k.a. “Lawrence of Arabia”) is referring to in the above quote is none other than Turkish Ottoman Empire. The people who were ‘swindled’ and ‘duped’ are the Arabs who were convinced and manipulated to take up arms and rise up in an ‘Arab Revolt’ a hundred years ago, against their Turkish overlords in support of the British Empire’s war effort during World War One.

The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in November 1914. In the United Kingdom, many thought the war would end quickly and everyone would be home for Christmas because the British populace were weaned on stories of imperialist heroics administering the natives of Asia and Africa a military beating in a surprising short amount of time. Unsurprisingly, millions immediately enrolled to fight Germany to only find that they too were shockingly fighting with the latest military technology.To overcome the stalemate that quickly transpired on the western front i.e. the war in Europe, the British came up with a supremely cunning idea of prioritising the defeat of Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire in the hope of hastening a quick and decisive victory.[2]On this basis, the primary and most important military strategy was an attack through the Strait of Dardanelles to capture Istanbul, the seat and capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, put the idea forward of a naval expedition to sail through the Strait of Dardanelles and capture Istanbul at a British war cabinet meeting on 13th Jan 1915.[3] However, an argument has been made that the idea, in the event of war, to launch an attack on the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles,can be traced back to 1906.[4]Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War (cabinet position which is precursor to today’s Defence Secretary)thought that the Turks would automatically flee at first sight of His Majesty’s naval forces entering and sailing up the straits without the British requiring to land or fight elsewhere:

“Kitchener felt that the Ottoman garrison on the Gallipoli Peninsula would flee and surrender without requiring the landing of British troops.”[5]

This military assumption was understandable as Kitchener had gained his reputation by scoring courageous military victories against indigenous populations in Africa and Asia who had limited (if any) technological hardware to defend themselves. This was also why there was such a popular clamouring for his appointment to the British war government at the outbreak of war from his previously held position as the Proconsul of Egypt.

Arrogantly,British imperialism had not anticipated the Ottomans would put up a defence largely because they had convinced themselves the Turks were a lesser breed to themselves, a‘master race’ with an Empire upon which the sun did not cast its shadow.More so, the Ottoman Empire was constantly referred to before the war as the “sick man of Europe” and, as we know, sick people are too weak to put up a defence. Accordingly, it was with “some relish” that the British Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith “contemplated the prospect of war against Turkey.”[6]“Few things” he stated“would give me greater pleasure than to see the Turkish Empire finally disappear from Europe”.[7]

The British Empire’s Royal Navy attack on the Straits began in February 1915 and was quickly considered a failure in March 1915. Therein, the campaign morphed from a solely navy into an amphibious expedition.[8] As the London Times was to explain during the centenary commemoration in 2015, “The land assault was launched after the failure of a campaign to force the Dardanelles by sea power alone.”

The new re-organised campaign in the Dardanelles was an enterprise led by the British Empire with contributions from Irish, Australians, New Zealand and Indian battalions as well as French.

On April 25th 1915, the British Empire led forces landed on Cape Helles, while Australian and New Zealand troops landed at ‘Anzac Cove’ on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Both landings were fended off by Ottoman forces. Other attempts by the British Empire were easily repelled by the Ottomans in May and June,[9]forcing Churchill to resign in May 1915. Throughout the summer, small scale clashes continued but a new offensive was launched by the British Empire in August 1915 to capture Istanbul.The new campaign was headed by General Sir Federick Stopford, an extremely great Britisher of strong repute who like Kitchener had earned his reputation during the Boer war against a rag-tag militia army. This attack was launched on the 6th August, successfully repelled on the 10th and the good “General Sir” was delivered an imperial royal boot and sacked on the 15th August. Over the next four months the fighting “petered out” as one historian put it.[10] However, the truth is that the British government couldn’t face informing its own population,the British Empire had been defeated in southern Europe by non-Europeans. British imperialist bureaucrats in London, Delhi and Cairo, “all feared for the consequences of British rule were they seen to have been defeated by an ‘Asiatic’ enemy.”[11]

As the complete failure of the Dardanelles campaign dawned on British imperialism, British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey informed the war cabinet that they were “practically bankrupt of prestige in the East.”The decision to finally throw in the towel at Gallipoli was made on the 22nd November 1915.

Two other military defeats in 1915 also need to be noted to fully appreciate T.E. Lawrence’s ‘swindle’.

Firstly, just before the Dardanelles campaign was launched, British imperialism encouraged its protégé, the so-called Emir of Najd (an area in centre of the Arabia Peninsula), Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and his fanatical Wahhabi-jihadi henchmen to attack the Ottoman Empire’s ally, Ibn Rashid in the north of the Arabian Peninsula.

Grey despatched a certain William Shakespear as “Political Officer on Special Duty” on October 9th 1914, to re-establish communication with the Emir of Najd, with a view that in the “event of war with Turkey, to make certain of Arab goodwill.”[12]Shakespear set out to join Ibn Saud on 12th December 1914 and arrived, via Kuwait, at his side on 31st December 1914.

Several days later, Shakespear wrote to Gertrude Bell(the Orientalist and the architect of the Middle East’s first ever 96% election victory), that Ibn Saud “is making preparations for a big raid on Ibn Rashid with a view to wiping him out practically and I shouldn’t be surprised if I reached Hail in the course of the next month as Bin Saud’s political adviser.”[13]

Ibn Rashid was a Turkish ally from Hail, a town in northern Arabia.Unfortunately, it was Shakespear that was “wiped out” with a bullet in his head when battle occurred on the 24th January 1915. Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi fanatics were defeated.

It wasn’t until almost two months later that the British establishment officially acknowledged Shakespear’s death. In an editorial, the London Times noted that Shakespear “is believed to have succumbed to wounds received” in the battle, alongside the “Anglophile Ibn Saud.”[14]Anglophile here clearly means being a British backed puppet and not a man of letters as Ibn Saud was simply not noted for having any interest in literature, Arabic or English.

However, the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Colonel William Grey attempted to depoliticise Shakespear’s death claiming thatit was caused by a “stray bullet in a small tribal skirmish.”[15] And it is this lie that Lawrence poetically regurgitates in his monumental‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ when he claims Shakespear was “killed in battle by the Shammar in a set-back which the champions of Nejd had suffered during one of their periodic wars.”[16]

This defeat almost brought an end to Ibn Saud’s rule in Najd and certainly knocked“him out of action for a year”.[17] But his military stock was quickly replenished by the British to the extent that he was able to quash local uprisings of tribes that had never accepted the British puppet.Therefore, when the Middle East expert, Professor Eugene Rogan of Oxford University states that “Ibn Saud had no interest in fighting the Ottomans in Arabia” he is far from being correct.[18]

Secondly, the main intention behind Shakespear’s failed mission was to complement the British Empire’s campaign in the Persian Gulf.[19]The Empire successfullyinvaded and captured Basra, in what is now southern Iraq, on 21st November 1914. By the summer of 1915 the entire province of Basra had been captured. However, the British wanted a “glittering success” to offset the inevitable announcement of defeat at Gallipoli or rather undo any “perceived damage to imperial prestige.”[20]It was decided to occupy Baghdad. According to the British Empire’s viceroy in Delhi,

“the capture of Baghdad would create an immense impression in the Middle East, especially in Persia, Afghanistan, and on our frontier, and would counteract the unfortunate impression created by the want of success in the Dardanelles.”[21]

The British advance to Baghdad was halted at Ctesphion in November 1915, thirty kilometres south-west of the city.Thereupon they retreated to Kut al-Amara which they had captured in September 1915. There they were besieged by the Ottoman forces or as Lawrence writes, “abruptly checked. We fell back, dazed; and the long misery of Kut began.”[22]The British Empire did attempt to reinforce its army by sending two infantry divisions from France and one from the Dardanelles to relieve the situation but it was all to no avail as the forces of the British Empire succumbed to the siege and surrendered on 29th April 1916.

This left the British imperialists with no other option but to rely upon the correspondence with the Sharif of Mecca in the Hijaz, the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. The new correspondence between the British agent in Egypt, Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca, Husain bin Ali began in July 1915 and came to an end in January 1916.

The idea of utilising Arab aspirations for independence from the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to early 1914 and Lawrence credits Kitchener as the main driver behind this strategy:

“Some Englishmen of whom Kitchener was chief, believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turkey would enable England while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat her ally Turkey.”[23]

The Sharif read McMahon’s correspondence as assurances of a commitment by the British to keep their word and grant Arabs a united independence once the war was over. But Lawrence knew the correspondence should be seen in wider context. As he wrote, “Our check in Mesopotamia was a disappointment to us; but McMahon continued his negotiations with Mecca, and finally brought them to success despite evacuation of Gallipoli, the surrender of Kut, and the generally unfortunate aspect of the war at the moment.”[24]

Ironically on the very day the Arab Revolt began, 5th June 1916, the Germans blasted Lord Kitchener to Kingdom Come while on the HMS Hampshire in the North Sea. A life time of lauded imperialist heroics against the natives of Africa and Asia had come to a drenched end at the bottom of the sea at the hands of an enemy equally apt with modern technology. Kitchener’s death brought home a truism to the British establishment that it was one thing to invade, occupy and slaughter the darker shades of humanity but quite another to wage on Germany as Churchill conceded in the first months of World War Two:

“Indeed one may look back with envy to the past, and to the Victorian Age when great controversies were fought about what now seem to us very minor matters. When great states fought little wars and when the pugnacious instincts of our people were satisfied with such comparatively harmless objects as Cetewayo, the Mahdi, President Kruger and the Mad Mullah – I mean the the Mad Mullah of Somali land.” [25]

Returning to Lawrence, who knew the promises, assurances and commitments made by McMahon were lies and not worth the paper they were written on:

“It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest advisor of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff…” because as he acknowledged, what was at stake for England was a “cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.”[26]

Lawrence confirms the British were in a desperate situation in the first half of 1916 when he states that England’s “forces were falling back shattered from the Dardanelles” and the “slow-drawn agony of Kut was in the last stage” before the surrender.[27]

The “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is a long and lyrical account of how he defrauded and duped the Arabs of the Hijaz, to do British bidding during World War One. At one stage in the revolt he wanted to unload the untarnished truth and let Abdulla, the Sharif’s son,know that “the promises of Great Britain” to his father were worthless:

“I longed to tell him that the half-witted old man had obtained from us no concrete or unqualified undertaking of any sort, and that their ship might founder on the bar of his political stupidity; but that would have been to give away my English masters…”[28]

Lawrence’s references to the promise of freedom and independence in his Seven Pillars are clearly the ruses he used to persuade Arabs of the Hijaz to lead a revolt against the Ottoman forces. And he had no choice but to deploy this trick because the British Empire had already faced three defeats at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and the Americans had not yet entered the war to rescue its former imperial master.

At another stage during the revolt, Lawrence claimed that the fraudulence of his business “stung” him: “I was raising the Arabs on false pretences, and exercising a false authority over my dupes…”[29]

What’s interesting is that Lawrence admits to the struggle of not only deceiving hisArabsbut also the struggle of the need to deceive himself:

“The war for me held a struggle to side-track thought, to get into the people’s attitude of accepting the revolt naturally and trustingly. I had to persuade myself that the British government could really keep the spirit of its promises.”[30]

The Arab aspirations were nothing more than a ruse in England’s bid to win the war against Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire. As he freely admits, “I exploited their highest ideals and made their love of freedom one more tool to help England win.”[31]

Finally, as the Revolt drew to a close he acknowledges that the he had been practisinga deceit that “others had framed and set a foot” for two years.[32]

There is no doubt that if the British Empire had not been defeated at Gallipoli, Kut or its Anglophile protégé Ibn Saud had not been knocked out, the “Arab Revolt” as it is known today, would not have happened.And the revolt was certainly not about adding “much-needed glamour” to World War One as Norman Stone, Professor of International Relations, recently wrote. Apologists for Lawrence’s trickery claim he suffered ‘prigs of consciousness’because he confesses in his book that he was “duping” Arabs. However, in a world of geopolitical manoeuvring admitting one is being duplicitous is not the same thing as admitting one is wrong.

Furthermore, early in the 1920s Lawrence was provided with another opportunity to wear Arab desert garb and showcase his deviousness. Winston Churchill (who had become of the Colonial Secretary),sent him on a mission to the Arabian Peninsula. This time it was to bribe and threaten the Sharif of Mecca, the very man who was cajoled into doing England’s bidding, that if he didn’t accept a Zionist-friendly, Anglo-Hijaz treaty with a clause legitimising Britain’scolonial project in Palestine, he would inevitably need to contend with a revived Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi henchmen (what today, we would call al-Qaeda).[33]

The Sharif rejected British imperialism’s bribes, threats and its colonial Zionist project in Palestine. By the mid-1920s Ibn Saud and the Wahhabis had invaded and occupied Hijaz. The Sharif of Mecca was deposed, exiled and thereafter the British and Saudis have been living happily ever after in war, occupation and venality.

 Nu’man Abd al-Wahid is a Yemeni-English independent researcher specialising on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its political interests in the Arab World. A full collection of essays can be accessed at www.churchills-karma.com. Twitter handle: @ChurchillsKarma.

[1] T.E. Lawrence “Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph”, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books), 1983, pg. 566

[2] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “The First World War in the Middle East”, (London: Hurst & Company), 2014, pg.79

[3] ibid.

[4] David French, “The Dardanelles, Mecca and Kut: Prestige as a Factor in British Eastern Strategy, 1914-1916”, War & Society, 5 (1), May 1987, pg. 49

[5]Ulrichsen, op., pg. 80

[6]French, op. cit., pg.51

[7] ibid.

[8] Ulrichsen, op., pg. 82

[9] ibid., pg. 84

[10]ibid., pg. 89

[11] ibid.

[12] H.V.F. Winstone, “Captian Shakespear, A Portrait” (London: Quartet Books), 1978, pg. 196-197

[13] Quoted in ibid., pg. 205

[14] ibid., pg. 216

[15] ibid.,

[16]Lawrence, op. cit.,pg.266

[17] Gary Troeller, “The Birth of Saudi Arabia”, (London: Frank Cass), 1976, pg. 91

[18] Eugene Rogan, “The Arabs: A History”, (London: Penguin Books, 2009), pg.220

[19]Troeller op. cit., pg.81

[20]Ulrichsen, op., cit.,  pg. 132

[21] ibid., pg. 133

[22]Lawrence, op. cit., pg. 59


[24] ibid., pg. 61

[25] Martin Gilbert, “The Churchill Papers, Volume: At the Admiralty September 1939-May 1940” Heinemann: London, 1993, speech to lobby journalists 29.2.1940, pg 832

[26] Lawrence op. cit., pg. 24

[27] ibid., pg. 51

[28] ibid. pg.220

[29] ibid., pg.387

[30] ibid., pg.458

[31] ibid., pg. 560

[32] ibid., pg. 569

[33] Askar H. al-Enazy, “ The Creation of Saudi Arabia: Ibn Saud and British Imperial Policy, 1914-1927” (London: Routledge, 2010), pg. 109 and 111.

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