Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Recommended: Lowell Thomas Discovers Lawrence of Arabia

T.E. Lawrence and Lowell Thomas

By Mitchell Stephens

Originally presented in The History Reader, 19 June 2017

During the First World War Lowell Thomas was confirming—as he zipped to Europe, through Europe and then to the Middle East— that being in motion was his preferred state. And the direction he preferred for all this moving about, the direction that might best satisfy his adventure addiction, was also becoming clear: toward the increasingly exotic. From Egypt Lowell had made it to Palestine.

And now he was hearing talk of a significant military campaign under way in Arabia—at the time, for a European or American, among the most exotic locales on Earth. Lowell had even spoken with a colorful Englishman, in the habit of dressing in Arab robes, reputed to be riding at the head of the Arab forces.

Arabs were among the ethnic groups using the First World War as occasion to try to gain independence from the sprawling, heterogeneous and increasingly rickety Ottoman Empire and Turkish rule. Since that empire was allied with Germany in this war, and with an eye toward postwar influence in the region, the British were enthusiastically encouraging this “Arab Revolt”—supporting it, advising it, funding it. They were primarily working with the Hashemites, Sherif Hussein bin Ali and his sons, who had dynastic claims in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz. Major T. E. Lawrence first tagged along with an emissary to the Hashemites, then became an emissary himself. . . 

That initial mention of Major (he had been promoted) T. E. Lawrence in one of Thomas’ notebooks was an account of the effort a month earlier by Lawrence and some Arab forces to hold on to the town of Tafilah, just south of the Dead Sea, which the Arabs had captured and the “Turks” were trying to retake. Here it is in its entirety:

 At southern end of Dead Sea, he & six Bedouins ran into outposts of a whole Turk Division, only had one machine gun & he was manning that. Held Turks off until he could send for re-enforcements. Said: “I believe I ran, yes, I’m sure I ran. But I kept count of the number of paces I ran so we had the range.”

When his re-enforcements arrived he left part of his men where they were & took most of his force around behind Turk Div. Killed divisional commander, took 500 prisoners & killed all the rest.

In his shows and writings, Lowell Thomas would go on to, as Ben Hecht later put it, “half invent the British hero, Lawrence of Arabia.” And this is Thomas’ initial sketch of that supposedly fearless, shrewd, indomitable leader of Arabs and slaughterer of Turks. It is, therefore, a significant piece of evidence.

Lowell Thomas seems to be either taking notes in these initial paragraphs on “Maj. T. E. Lawrence” or writing from notes, and given the appearance of the first person in them, they appear to be notes from an interview with T. E. Lawrence himself.

In that case the story of T. E. Lawrence’s holding off a whole Turkish division at Tafilah by firing a machine gun came from Lawrence. And that story is almost surely untrue. It does not appear again—even in the most hagiographic biographies of T. E. Lawrence, even in the one Thomas himself would write.

A few pages later in this notebook, Thomas returns to the subject of “Maj. T. E. Lawrence.” Here Thomas records a full seven pages of notes. He jots down his first description of Lawrence: “5 feet 2 inches tall. Blonde, blue sparkling eyes, fair skin—too fair even to bronze after 7 years in the Arabian desert. Barefooted, costume of Meccan Sherif.” We know that at this time T. E. Lawrence, in full Arab dress, posed for photographs by Harry Chase. And these extended notes by Thomas include discussions of T. E. Lawrence’s adventures that must have been based on interviews in Jerusalem with Lawrence.

The dozens of biographers of T. E. Lawrence disagree on the extent of Lawrence’s own responsibility for inflating his accomplishments and thereby helping create the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia.” But it is apparent even from Thomas’ initial efforts to record T. E. Lawrence’s story—which would also have been Lawrence’s initial brush with attention outside the military—that T. E. Lawrence inflated some of his accomplishments and therefore contributed quite a bit to that legend. There is other such evidence. If “Lawrence of Arabia” was half invented, Lowell Thomas must share credit for the invention with T. E. Lawrence himself along with some of his votaries in the British military.

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1 comment:

  1. Hey Lowell Thomas, nice boots!...took him awhile to lace those babies up.