Helping lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916-18, the man who would become known as Lawrence of Arabia took considerable pride in his abilities with a camera.
By any standards, T.E. Lawrence was an unusual soldier. In his compulsively readable dispatches, he vividly and at times extravagantly described the exotic campaign in which he was engaged, well beyond the normal requirements of lucid military reportage. He also created a striking visual record of his war, using his personal camera with a skill approaching that of a professional.
In this, he was moved by two complementary impulses. He was involved in a dangerous, hard-fought conflict about an issue that mattered greatly to him—the future of the Arabs—and he was determined to do his absolute best to help achieve the outcome he desired. (That he failed to live up to his high hopes gave rise to the sense of guilt that would haunt him for the rest of his brief life.) However, he also saw that the war in the desert, crucially different from the squalid fighting on the Western Front in France and Flanders that claimed the lives of two of his brothers in 1915, provided him with a unique opportunity to produce the masterwork of literature he had dreamed of creating as a schoolboy. He longed to become a writer who might rival Melville, Whitman, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, or Rabelais. He would never make that grade. In a letter to novelist E.M. Forster, creator of Howards End and A Passage to India, he would write: “You can rule a line, as hard as this pen-stroke, between the people who are artists and the rest of the world.” He well knew on which side of the pen-stroke he stood.
However, events conspired to give him a high-profile role in the Middle East war of 1916-18, as the epic story he dreamed of writing was unveiled. If his imagination was not up to devising superb fiction, nonfiction would do just as well. After years of struggle, he put the point in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his bid to join the literary giants. Typically, his explanation was somewhat tortuous:
I had had one craving all my life—for the power of self-expression in some imaginative form—but had been too diffuse ever to acquire a technique. At last accident, with perverted humour, in casting me as a man of action had given me place in the Arab Revolt, a theme ready and epic to a direct eye and hand, thus offering me an outlet in literature….
The captions with his photographs are relevant extracts from his writings. As he wrote the text, his eye recorded the scene with a view of capturing what he was conveying in carefully crafted words, preserving in beautifully composed photographs the sights he had seen. The images on these pages should therefore be looked at in a special way. They are not holiday “snaps,” taken merely to recall events when he was safely home; rather they are aspects of his ambition, fragments on which his reputation might be made.
It was a rare man who took these distinctive photographs. Thomas Edward Lawrence was born illegitimate in 1888, the son of an Anglo-Irish country gentleman who had decamped with his children’s governess and founded a new family, eventually settling in the English university city, Oxford. The name Lawrence was an invention—his father’s real name was Chapman—which explains why he later preferred to be known simply by his genuine initials, T.E., and why he had no qualms about changing his surname, first to Ross and then to Shaw. The second of five brothers, he received a sound education at City High School in Oxford, and then at the university, where he earned a degree in history, with First Class Honors, at Jesus College. He spent the next few years as an archaeologist at a major dig in Syria sponsored by the British Museum. Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he joined British Army Intelligence in Cairo, becoming an expert on maps and on the logistics of the Ottoman Turks, against whom Britain and France were fighting in that sector of the war.
When the Arabs revolted against their Turkish masters in 1916, he was one of a number of British advisers who were given field postings to the new ally. He stayed while others came and went, becoming the principal liaison officer between the leading Arab field commander, Emir Feisal, and the commander in chief of British forces in Egypt and Palestine, General Sir Edmund Allenby. From that point until his return to Europe in October 1918, he rode on raids, blew up trains, and generally lived a life that inspired legends and an epic movie. Thanks largely to the brilliant American publicist Lowell Thomas, who mounted a stage entertainment celebrating Lawrence’s war exploits that played to huge audiences in Great Britain and the United States, Lawrence joined a short, distinguished list of British heroes whose names are linked with far-flung parts of the world: Clive of India, Gordon of Khartoum, Scott of the Antarctic, Lawrence of Arabia.
Photography was a legacy from his father. He had taken photographs as he traveled ever since he was a teenager. He had been the principal photographer at the dig at Carchemish. In 1913 he had been photographer to an expedition in Sinai, providing archaeological cover with his Carchemish colleague, Leonard Woolley, for what was essentially an intelligence survey of an area of Turkish territory, directed by Captain S.F. Newcombe, who later served with him in the desert. The British Museum was still putting together the product of their efforts, The Wilderness of Zin, as war clouds gathered in the summer of 1914. In uniform and sent back to the Middle East to join an intelligence think tank in Cairo, he packed his camera in his luggage, as he also did when he sailed to Jiddah on the Red Sea coast (now in Saudi Arabia) in late 1916 to meet the leaders of the Arab Revolt and begin the two years of intense activity that would make his name. As a captain and later lieutenant colonel, Lawrence was the name behind the camera, carrying out fieldwork for his country, his Arab friends, and ultimately his own cause. As Lawrence of Arabia, he became the man the photographers sought, at first with his willing cooperation. Later, to his increasing distress, he became a celebrity in the movie star mold, craving privacy his past would forever deny him. This fame effectively killed Lawrence’s career in photography. One lone photograph in this collection dates from a postwar visit to the Middle East. After that, it seems he gave up his camera. Later, when serving in India as Aircraft-man Shaw in the Royal Air Force (part of his retreat from publicity), he hardly ever left camp, never venturing to photograph sights that must have been as eye-catching as anything in the desert. There’s another twist to the story.
When he came to produce his book, he sought the help of leading contemporary painters to illustrate it. If his tale was not the imaginative one he’d dreamed of, it could at least be illustrated by imaginative artists rather than his own photographs. Fortunately, he did not destroy those photographs. Instead, he supplied them with vital if somewhat basic captions, marking only the merest handful “Unidentified.”
There were only two photographs in the popular edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published after his fatal motorcycle accident in 1935. In 1939 his younger brother, Arnold, decided to offer a large selection of his photographs for publication in an anthology of Lawrence’s minor works, Oriental Assembly. He explained he was driven to publish them not only because some of the negatives were beginning to decay but because “some of these photographs possess a peculiar value as representations of country which has never been photographed, and of the mode of life which was exacted by the physical environment and is now ceasing to exist.” But the book did not display the photographs at their best, cramming numerous plates per page into a volume measuring six by eight inches.
MALCOLM BROWN, a freelance historian at the Imperial War Museum, London, is author of Lawrence of Arabia, the Life, the Legend, co-author of A Touch of Genius: The Life of T.E. Lawrence, and editor of T.E. Lawrence: The Selected Letters and Secret Despatches from Arabia.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue (Vol. 18, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: T. E. Lawrence War Photographer
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