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Lawrence of Arabia – Excavating a Legend



Review of the talk by Dr Neil Faulkner
on November 22nd 2017

This was a new approach to the challenge of interpreting T.E.Lawrence, being an academic research approach addressing the legend, the biography particularly around 1916-18, and 10 years of field work on the Jordan section of the Hejaz railway.

  
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence
Photo: Lowell Thomas (1919)
from the book "With Lawrence in Arabia" by Lowell Thomas

Dr Faulkner opened with a timeline of the Lawrence legend, much of which depends on the various drafts of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which Lawrence wrote, and lost and rewrote, to set out his experiences.  It is interesting that he was not well known until 1919 yet his exploits with the Arab revolt, the railway sabotage and the rush to Aqaba, were all three years earlier.  This was owing to the role of American journalist Lowell Thomas who promoted Lawrence into a media superstar of his time with over one million people seeing the show which promoted Lawrence’s exploits and apparent heroism.

The other side of Lawrence was the deeply disturbed man suffering from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder; the shame of having persuaded the Arabs with promises of British and international political support which were dashed in the peace conferences after the first world war.  Those who saw the film on Gertrude Bell shown in Cranleigh Arts centre a month before this talk will have heard and seen a very different angle on the achievements of Lawrence.

The early years of Lawrence’s life provide an interesting backdrop to his tormented character.  He was an illegitimate child of parents who never married and was given the surname of Lawrence.  He was a misfit, gay and sado-masochistic in a time when all these where not accepted in British society.  Dr Faulkner continued his commentary on the legend with the developing media image which continued long after his death, including the 1962 film made famous by Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle.

The interest of Dr Faulkner’s lecture lies in the evidence collected in analysis of some of the sites in Jordan where the Arabs, in revolt, attacked the Turkish garrison stations which were regularly spaced along the line from Medina to Damascus.  The guerrilla military actions caused the large garrison of the Ottoman Turk army based in Medina to be spread thinly along the line with only around 200 soldiers per station.  Dr Faulkner shared evidence of British-made artefacts and military bits and pieces to confirm his assertions that Lawrence was indeed in the action and that his involvement was not the myth and lie claimed by many.  A specific focus was on the area known as Tooth Hill.  It is disappointing that the field research covered only a small part of the railway and did not include areas of action on what is now the Saudi proportion of the disused railway.

This photograph shows CDFAS member Gina Dennison in 1979 next to one of the railway engines destroyed by the Lawrence-led Arab forces near Al Ula station.

Dr Faulkner explained that 10 years of field research underpinned his conclusion that Lawrence was “The theorist of modern guerrilla warfare”.  Your reviewer feels that was not completely convincing in archaeological terms although the supporting 550 page book expands the simple theory with extensive modern historical analysis; a good read for Christmas!

Stephen Dennison

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Neil Faulkner's website