Revealed: TE Lawrence felt ‘bitter shame’ over UK’s false promises of Arab self rule

Deleted chapter of book by British spy who supported Arab revolt reveals his true feelings about insincere pledge of self-government

TE Lawrence was “continually and bitterly ashamed” of the betrayal of the Middle East following the Arab revolt in which he became a British national hero, according to a chapter in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which he decided to remove before publication.

He was persuaded to remove the chapter by his friend, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and it was never printed in any edition. However, for the first time, an extremely rare copy of the manuscript – including the expunged chapter – has come to the open market with a price tag of £65,000.

Famously portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence was the Oxford-educated scholar and spy who helped the Arabs throw off the yoke of the Ottoman empire in the Arab revolt, at the height of the first world war. He became a British hero for his actions.

The revolt began in 1916 when the Arab military pushed back against the advancing Turkish forces from the Ottoman empire. Lawrence worked closely with Faisal I bin Al-Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi to help defeat the Ottomans, with the Arabs working under the illusion that this would result in a unified Arab state. However, after the conflict, the region was divided up by Britain and France, and the western countries were accused of reneging on the deal.

Manuscript of Lawrence’s account of his time in the Middle East, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, including the expunged original first chapter.
Manuscript of Lawrence’s account of his time in the Middle East, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, including the expunged original first chapter. Photograph: No Credit

Lawrence’s account of the revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was published in 1926, but in 1924 he produced a “prospectus” of just 100 copies of the opening chapters of the book to circulate around potential investors in the style of an early crowdfunding project.

In it, Lawrence, who died in 1935, maintained that his aim while in the Middle East was always to help the Arabs establish their own sovereignty.

He wrote that the Arab revolt was “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia”, and said he believed he was helping them to create “a new nation, to restore a lost influence” and to build “an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts”.

He also indicated some satisfaction when things began to look bad for the western powers that had exerted their influence in the territory after the conflict, writing: “When we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French colonial policy ruined in the Levant. I am afraid that I hope so.”

Scott Anderson’s 2014 biography, Lawrence in Arabia, points to this dichotomy in how Lawrence was perceived – by some as a friend and ally to the Arabs and as much betrayed by the British as they were, by others as being completely complicit in Britain’s intentions to rule in the Middle East and as much a betrayer of the Arab cause.

Faisal I bin Al-Hussein, centre, with his delegates and advisors, at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. TE Lawrence is on his left.
Faisal I bin Al-Hussein, centre, with his delegates and advisors, at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. TE Lawrence is on his left. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

The deleted first chapter of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom points to the former, says Glenn Mitchell, senior specialist at Peter Harrington, the rare book dealer that has obtained this copy of the prospectus and is bringing it to market.

“This ‘suppressed’ first chapter was meant to open Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” said Mitchell. “It is an outward statement that it was Lawrence’s intention, his vision, if you like, that the Arab revolt was a war fought by Arabs for Arabs – and, ultimately, Arab independence from both Ottoman Turkey and the great powers. George Bernard Shaw thought that he shouldn’t open his book with such a statement; that it was, perhaps, too frank.”

Lawrence set up his own printing company to produce a subscription edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and about 100 copies were sent out to drum up financial support. Shaw was sent a copy to pass literary judgment on Lawrence’s writing, and as well as urging him to remove the first chapter, he also edited out several potentially libellous comments.

In the excised chapter, Lawrence writes: “For my work on the Arab front I had determined to accept nothing. The cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw in me a free agent of the British government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward.

“In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.”

Mitchell said: “This is all made complex by the nature of Lawrence’s personality. The title of one of his many biographies is Backing into the Limelight. He shunned publicity but he also craved attention. He is not going to explicitly say ‘I betrayed the Arabs’, but it is clearly implicit here. In the preface to the trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he gave his reason for omitting it: ‘My best critic [Shaw] told me it was much inferior to the rest.’

“The ‘suppressed’ first chapter encapsulates Lawrence’s ambiguity about the whole project of telling his story of the Arab revolt. He believed that it was a story that must be told but that he couldn’t tell, despite his intimate involvement.”

• This article was amended on 2 November 2022. In an earlier version the caption for the Versailles conference photograph stated that TE Lawrence was standing to the right of Faisal I bin Al-Hussein; we meant to the left.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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