Very few of the events concerning T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt can be pinned down with any accuracy. The Arab protagonists left no record of their actions and motivations, and the single account of the Revolt is Lawrence’s own, his famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written after the war, lost, rewritten from memory and published in 1926. By then, though, the image of Lawrence as a true British hero was firmly in place; he was almost universally seen as a soldier of integrity and a brilliant strategist, honest and courageous, who acted with genuine altruism in leading the Arabs to victory and was betrayed by his own officers. The image is a beguiling one, and stood the test of dozens of biographies. Even one of his closest friends describing him as “an infernal liar” didn’t crack the facade.
But with the gradual declassifying of British war secrets – and dozens more biographies – elements of a different truth have slowly been taking hold. Lawrence was undoubtedly close to British Intelligence; indeed, even in his early 20s, Lawrence’s work on an archeological dig in northern Syria may have been a front, enabling him to photograph engineering work on the nearby Berlin–Baghdad railway. His supposed altruism during the Arab Revolt seems to have been firmly rooted in a loyalty to his own country and a hatred of the French. During the Revolt, Lawrence was well aware of the Sykes–Picot Agreement that was to carve up the Levant, and seems to have wanted to establish Arab self-rule mostly to stop the French gaining any control. Although his own conscious betrayal of the Arabs racked him with guilt, he justified himself on the grounds that it was more important to defeat Germany and the Ottomans. Details have also emerged of Lawrence’s dishonesty and self-glorification: biographers who have compared Seven Pillars to documentary evidence have regularly come up against inconsistencies and outright lies perpetrated by Lawrence, often for his own self-aggrandizement.
Lawrence is much less highly regarded in Jordan, where he is often seen as an imperialist who sought to play up his role in what was essentially an Arab military victory, achieved and led by Faisal. Although he pretended to have Arab interests at heart, in fact – as was shown by the events after the Revolt – his loyalty to British interests never wavered.
Nonetheless, as the years pass and the biographies pile up, the myth persists of Lawrence the square-jawed, blue-eyed buccaneering English bedouin as portrayed by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia. But in 1919, Lawrence’s friend Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen recorded a conversation that they’d had about the text of Seven Pillars: “He confesses that he has overdone it, and is now terrified lest he is found out and deflated. He told me that ever since childhood he had wanted to be a hero. And now he is terrified at his brazen imagination. He hates himself and is having a great struggle with his conscience.” This seems as appropriate an epitaph as any to a life still shrouded in mystery.