First Guerilla Lawrence Teaches Petraeus

Setting the Desert on Fire; T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia 1916-1918, James Barr, 2008

Col. T.E. Lawrence

A detailed history of Britain and Lawrence covering the same material that comprised the David Lean movie masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia. Arabia was a minor theater in WWI where the British, based in Cairo, were primarily concerned to protect and keep open the Suez Canal to assure continued trade with India and her other eastern colonies. When the Arabs started a disorganized uprising against the Turks, France and Britain saw an opportunity to use the Arabs in a limited effort to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain’s oral and written agreements with the Arabs were disingenuous and designed to cover the true Imperial Colonial intentions of the the two Western powers should the Ottoman Empire be destroyed. Controversy over these agreements and letters continues to this day.

As it transpired, Britain had an emotional interest backed by influential Zionists at home in turning Palestine into a British colony. The discovery of oil in Mesopotamia lured Britain into wanting a colony in this area as well. The French were interested in establishing colonies in Syria and Lebanon. Oil had not yet been discovered in the area called the Hijaz which include the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca and neither France nor Britain had any particular colonial aspirations for this area.

The Turks using German engineering had built a railway from the northern city of Aleppo through Damascus, parallel and East of the Jordan River and Red Sea all the way to Medina. Arab Tribal raids prevented the Turks completing the railroad to Mecca. This railroad was critical for supplying Arabia from Turkey and was the key to Ottoman control of the Arab lands. The British wanted to capture the Red Sea port at Aqaba from which they would be able to launch raids on the railroad and disrupt Turkish supply and control. Because Aqaba was heavily defended against the sea, the British were unwilling to mount a serious attack with their limited Cairo resources.

Alec Guiness as Prince Feisal

British or any foreign (infidel) visitors were unwelcome in Arabia but the British did manage to send at least one raiding party to attack the railroad. They desperately needed to evaluate Arab leader Sharif Husein ibn Ali and his four sons who were fighting in the Arab uprising. Enter the young, Oxford educated, Arabic speaking intelligence officer Lawrence who was finally invited to accompany a small group setting out to meet one son Sharif Feisal ibn Husein and offer his evaluation of the relative merits of the four sons. Lawrence had his own ideas about fighting strategies which he shared in long discussions with Feisal with whom he hit it off. Lawrence was soon traveling on other missions to meet other tribal leaders and study ways to disrupt the railroad. When he met the fearsome outlaw Auda Aba Tayi, a wild plan was conceived to attack Aqaba from behind, a plan memorably captured in Lean’s movie. The plan worked and Aqaba became the principal supply route for attacks on the railroad throughout the remainder of the war.

Auda Quinn as Auda
Lawrence learned to use gold to buy the temporary allegiance of tribe members for a raid after which the tribe members could share the loot taken in the raid itself. The tribes would disburse into the desert until Lawrence got the money to finance further raids.

After the British suffered a costly defeat attempting to capture Gaza, General Edmund Allenby was given command of the Arab operation. He immediately recognized the importance of the Arab revolt and Lawrence’s ability to cut the railroad and pressure the Turks from the East if coordinated in time with British attacks from the West. In this way, Allenby successfully captured Jerusalem.

Lawrence pioneered the extensive use of camels, some imported from Egypt and Sudan, the use of armored Rolls Royce cars for rapid movement in raids, and the use of air reconnaissance, cover, and bombing in support of raids.

Feisal and Lawrence at Peace Conference

A final, very successful push by the Arabs and Allenby allowed the Arabs, led by Feisal, to enter Damascus in triumph. During the peace negotiations in Paris, Britain folded to pressure from France and Syria and Lebanon were ceded to France. The British appointed Feisal King of newly created Iraq and his brother Abdullah was appointed king of newly created Jordan. The British retained control of Palestine. After the war, the Turkish commander remained in control of Medina until the influenza epidemic wiped out his troops and he was forced to leave. Shortly thereafter, ibm Saud, rival for power to Ali Husein swept into Medina to oust Husein and create today’s Saudi Arabia. ibm Saud had had his own British champions, led by Harry Philby, throughout this period, so Britain was financing both rivals simultaneously. Ali Husein went into exile on Cyprus. Oil was discovered in newly created Saudi Arabia shortly afterward.

Current day Iraq American strategists have been studying the tactics of Lawrence and learning from his experience. Their primary lesson learned seems to be the value of paying tribal leaders cash for their support in insurgency battles.

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