20 November 1915 – Lawrence

The above picture shows Thomas Edward Lawrence long after the Great War, when he is a mere enlisted airman trying to fly under an assumed name. Foiled in that attempt to escape his own legend, Lawrence of Arabia was perhaps trying to connect with the ghosts of his brothers, who have both been killed flying combat missions a few weeks apart during 1915.

This has been a busy year for Lawrence as well as a tragic one. Recruited to help draft a military map of the Sinai a few weeks into the war after the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, he commissioned as a lieutenant and shipped off to Cairo before the end of 1914. Experts on the Arab world were at a premium. Having returned from a survey of southern Palestine for the British Museum and Lord Kitchener only in February of the year the war began, Lawrence’s book detailing the civilian mission, The Wilderness of Zin, was sent to the printer at almost the same time he left for Egypt.

T. E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley holding a relief from Herald's Wall, Carchemish 1911

T. E. Lawrence (left) with archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Herald’s Wall during the Carchemish dig of 1911

He has since proven an adept intelligence hand. For nearly a year, Lawrence has interviewed prisoners, examined aerial photos, drafted maps, handled covert information from sources inside enemy territory, and traveled to Greece in order to work out a smooth information-sharing relationship with the British intelligence office in Athens. He has also written reams of copy: an officers’ handbook on the Ottoman Army, daily Intelligence Bulletins “for the edification of twenty-eight generals,” and most significantly, secret plans to spark an Arab uprising.

Beginning in January, Lawrence proposed an amphibious assault on Alexandretta, landing troops in the vital crossroads region of Turkey and cutting off the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad. This action, he proposes, will incite the disaffected Arabs of Syria and Iraq and Arabia to revolt against their masters in Constantinople. While approved by London, the operation was not carried out due to the demands of the Gallipoli beachheads. Yet his essential theory is correct: the Arabs are indeed quite ready to shed the shackles of the Ottoman caliphate, and the Sharif of Mecca is eager to break Turkey’s nominal control of the holy city.

He has also written Syria: the Raw Material, a white paper analyzing the region that will become the future states of Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Taking an intersectional approach that includes an appreciation for language, customs, and religion, Lawrence advises against trying to impose an outside strongman. “The only imposed government that will find, in Moslem Syria, any really prepared groundwork or large body of adherents is a Sunni one, speaking Arabic, and pretending to revive the Abbasides or Ayubides,” he declares, foreshadowing the next 100 years of regional history.

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A map of western Egypt, where Turkish-backed Libyan militants will soon be arriving

Today, Second Lieutenant Thomas Lawrence arrives in Sollum, a town on the border of Libya. Situated at the long end of a desert track, far past the end of the coastal motor road and well beyond the reach of the rail line to Dabaa, it is a remote headquarters for the sparsely-patrolled western sector. British intelligence has been watching a Turkish-led uprising across the border in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) since the summer, when militant followers of the Senussi sect massacred Italian troops garrisoned in Tripoli. Ominous signs indicate that the insurgency is now turning in Egypt’s direction, threatening to to catch the British empire’s vital Suez canal link with India in a double pincer opposite Turkish attacks in the Sinai. Troops and weapons are already being directed to the scene.

Lawrence is here to deliver a new telegraph cipher for secure communications with Cairo. Ever the scholar, he has devised it himself in answer to London’s concerns that nationalists in Egypt’s state-owned telegraph company may have cooperated with German intelligence to break the ciphers already in use. Creating the encryption scheme in a single morning, Lawrence’s arrival today to drop off copies earns him a commendation for “exemplary service” in what is to be one of the least-known, but most formative campaigns of the war. It is a stepping-stone to his ambitions of Arab revolution.