Our family’s rich and interesting history has always managed to stand on its own, without embellishment or exaggeration.
In the Smithsonian Magazine of July 2014, written by Scott Anderson, on the life of Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, it is stated:
Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies—including one considered a masterpiece—over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication. As Gen. Edmund Allenby, chief British commander in the Middle East during World War I, noted, Lawrence was first among equals: “There is no other man I know,” he asserted, “who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”
Part of the enduring fascination has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful spectre of what might have been if only he had been listened to.
A brief synopsis of the life of Lawrence of Arabia
It is written that he called himself an ‘ordinary man’ but Thomas Edward Lawrence lived an extraordinary life (1888-1935). According to Jeremy Wilson in his book; Lawrence of Arabia, a Pocket Biography, ‘T.E. Lawrence became famous after the First World War because of the remarkable role he had played while serving as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18. When the war ended, an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, toured Britain and the Empire giving an outstandingly successful slide-show about Lawrence’s achievements. The romantic story of Lawrence’s campaigns in Arabia and Allenby’s in the Holy Land appealed strongly to a British public sated with horrific accounts of trench warfare on the Western Front. From this beginning grew the legend of ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘.
Born in Tremadoc, Wales, in 1888, Thomas Edward – known as Ned – was the second of five illegitimate boys. Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Chapman, left his first marriage when he fell in love with the family governess, Sarah Junner. His parents assumed the name of Lawrence and remained unmarried.
After much travelling, the Lawrence family eventually settled in Oxford where young Ned went to school and university. He loved history and travel, spending his youth exploring castles and old churches. After a study trip in Syria where he walked over a thousand miles to study remote Crusader castles, Lawrence graduated with a first-class honours degree and decided to become an archaeologist.
He returned to the Middle East, working from 1910-1914 at an excavation in Carchemish, northern Syria, where he continued his love affair with all things Arabic. It was here he formed a close friendship with a young Arab worker, Dahoum, who became his traveling companion and assistant.
Lawrence was back in England when war was declared and was keen to contribute to the war effort. He was assigned to the British Army in Cairo and using his knowledge of Arabic, he interviewed Turkish prisoners, gathering military information along the way. It was through this process that he soon became familiar with Turkish Army locations and strengths, which were passed up the command chain.
The chief elements of the Arab strategy which Faisal and Lawrence developed were to avoid capturing Medina, and to extend northwards through Maan and Dera’a to Damascus and beyond. Faisal wanted to lead regular attacks against the Ottomans, but Lawrence persuaded him to drop that tactic. Lawrence wrote about the Bedouin as a fighting force:
‘The value of the tribes is defensive only and their real sphere is guerrilla warfare. They are intelligent, and very lively, almost reckless, but too individualistic to endure commands, or fight in line, or to help each other. It would, I think, be possible to make an organized force out of them.… The Hejaz war is one of dervishes against regular forces—and we are on the side of the dervishes. Our text-books do not apply to its conditions at all.’
In 1916, he was sent as a liaison officer to join the Great Arab Revolt, led by Prince Faisal (who eventually ruled as head of the House of Saud from 1964-1975). He took money and guns and helped keep the Revolt alive. Lawrence was a renowned military strategist and with his help and using guerrilla tactics, they struck at Turkish lines of communication but avoided direct confrontation.
In the spring of 1917, Faisal attacked Aqaba, a valuable port town and Turkish fort. Lawrence was actively involved and joined the Arab fighters riding hundreds of miles across the desert to strike the Turks where they least expected it. It was all kept secret from London: “I decided to go my own way, with or without orders”.
It was a stunning victory. Lawrence travelled to Cairo to report the taking of Aqaba to his commander, General Allenby, who was delighted and promised to supply whatever resources he could spare. The Arabs were now part of a general Allied push for Damascus. General Edmund H H Allenby, who died from an aneurysm in 1936, was to become not only a Field Marshall with the honours GCB (Knight Grand Cross of the Bath), GCMQ (Grand Cross of St Michael and St George), GCVO (Grand Cross of the Victorian Order), partly but not fully, on the back of Lawrence’s effort, he was also made 1st Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe.
Allenby is quoted as saying with regards Lawrence:
“I gave him a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign. He was the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners and their mentality.”
With the Allied victory came disappointment for the Arabs, when they were finally informed of Britain and France’s decision regarding the future of Syria. As a British Officer with the rank of full Colonel, Lawrence immediately returned to London to present the Arab point of view to the British government. In an act of protest, he refused to accept medals from the King and wrote repeatedly to newspapers to promote Arab independence.
As a man of understanding and vision TE Lawrence opposed the allied agreement which eventually determined the borders of Iraq as it is now. He said separate governments should operate in the predominantly Kurdish and Arab areas in what is now Iraq. Based on the current Middle East situation, maybe he should have been listened to. These proposed borders would have replaced those drawn up in the 1916 allied agreement, which was negotiated between Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot on behalf of Britain and France.
Hania Farhan, regional director of the Middle East and North Africa, Economist Intelligence Unit in 2005, said: “The map shows that the opinions of those who knew the region well were often ignored, as the colonial powers in London and Paris had their own agendas and did not appear to care about the facts on the ground or the people of those areas.”
Lawrence travelled with the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as Prince Faisal’s translator. He witnessed first-hand how the Arab voice was ignored by Western leaders culminating in the decision that France should take custody of Syria. There would be no self-governed Arab state. For the Arabs and Lawrence it was a bitter blow.
Lawrence and Celebrity
That same year Lowell Thomas, an American actor and broadcaster brought his “slide and lantern” lecture to London and made Lawrence a star. But bitter about the Paris settlement and tired of the limelight, Lawrence tried to escape his celebrity. Thomas continued to have great respect for Lawrence, and remained an ardent supporter and defender of the man.
Lawrence retired and wrote his war memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which were published privately in 1926.
In 1920, Churchill called Lawrence back into government service, to work as advisor in the Colonial Office where he would help to construct a pro-Arab settlement for the Middle East.
Following the Cairo Conference in March 1921 Faisal was installed as the ruler of Iraq and his brother, Abdullah, was appointed the King of the new country of Trans-Jordan. Lawrence thought it was a more honourable settlement – at last.
Always shying away from celebrity, from 1922-1935 Lawrence returned to the relative anonymity of the armed forces, first as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force and later as a private in the British Army. In an effort to disguise his celebrity, he assumed the names of John Hume Ross and then Thomas Edward Shaw. He was still hounded by the press but managed to enjoy a few happy years working as a mechanic.
The End of a Legend
In 1935 he left service and planned an early retirement in his dream home, Clouds Hill, in Dorset. In May of that year Lawrence was racing back from the local post office when he lost control of his motorbike and crashed at high speed. Suicide and other conspiracy theories have been floated about the crash. After several days in intensive care Lawrence was declared dead. Interestingly, one of the doctors attending him was neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who consequently began a long study of the loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries. His research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists
Lawrence’s funeral service was attended by many powerful and influential figures including Winston Churchill, who deemed him “one of the greatest beings alive in this time”.
For his efforts, which did not go unnoticed, Lawrence was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath on the 7th August 1917, appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order on 10 May 1918, awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honour (France) on 30 May 1916 and awarded the Croix de Guerre (France) on 16 April 1918.
The Royal Society of Asian Affairs, who hold the map discussed below, periodically awards two medals, the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal and the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal, to individuals who have distinguished themselves in their contribution to knowledge and understanding of Asia.
Remembered on the Silver Screen
Lawrence and his actions were further immortalised on film in an 1962 historical drama off 220 minutes Running Time. Directed by David Lean (Bridge over the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India) and produced by Sam Spiegal (African Queen, The Night of the Generals and On the Waterfront) for Columbia and Horizon Pictures, it was nominated for 10 Oscars in 1963 and won seven Academy Awards. It also won the best Motion Picture – Drama from the Golden Globe Awards and the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.
Hal Erickson describes the movie for Rotten Tomatoes as a: sweeping, highly literate historical epic covers the Allies’ mideastern campaign during World War I as seen through the eyes of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, in the role that made him a star). After a prologue showing us Lawrence’s ultimate fate, we flash back to Cairo in 1917. A bored general staffer, Lawrence talks his way into a transfer to Arabia. Once in the desert, he befriends Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish (Omar Sharif, making one of the most spectacular entrances in movie history) and draws up plans to aid the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks.
No one is ever able to discern Lawrence’s motives in this matter: Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) dismisses him as yet another “desert-loving Englishman,” and his British superiors assume that he’s either arrogant or mad. Using a combination of diplomacy and bribery, Lawrence unites the rival Arab factions of Feisal and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). After successfully completing his mission, Lawrence becomes an unwitting pawn of the Allies, as represented by Gen. Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and Dryden (Claude Rains), who decide to keep using Lawrence to secure Arab co-operation against the Imperial Powers. While on a spying mission to Deraa, Lawrence is captured and tortured by a sadistic Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer). In the heat of the next battle, a wild-eyed Lawrence screams “No prisoners!” and fights more ruthlessly than ever.
Screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson used T. E. Lawrence’s own self-published memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as their principal source, although some of the characters are composites, and many of the “historical” incidents are of unconfirmed origin. Two years in the making (you can see O’Toole’s weight fluctuate from scene to scene), the movie, lensed in Spain and Jordan, ended up costing a then-staggering $13 million and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The 1962 Royal Premiere in London was virtually the last time that David Lean’s director’s cut was seen: 20 minutes were edited from the film’s general release, and 15 more from the 1971 reissue. This abbreviated version was all that was available for public exhibition until a massive 1989 restoration, at 216 minutes that returned several of Lean’s favourite scenes while removing others with which he had never been satisfied.
The Link to Carruthers
So, what is the link between our clan and family and Lawrence of Arabia?
Interestingly the link is through the Chiefly line of Holmains and the explorer Alexander Douglas Mitchell-Carruthers, known as Douglas Carruthers. He was the eldest son of the Reverend William Mitchell Carruthers and a direct line from John Carruthers 12th of Holmains and 8th Baron.
Douglas was an acclaimed explorer in the Middle East in the early 1900s. It was through his reputation as such that during the First World War he was employed by the British War Office to compile maps of the area. During this period he met and became a good friend of T E Lawrence through their shared cartographic and geographical interest in the Middle East.
Douglas’s later career, after his second marriage, consisted largely of writing, map-making and assisting other explorers and travellers through his areas of expertise. His books are still available today.
According to Christopher Murray of the Observer Newspaper:
The map, entitled “Hejaz Railway to Wadi Sirhan” was donated to the Royal Society of Asian Affairs by Douglas Carruthers, a cartographer, in 1962. This was the same year that the Academy Award-winning film starring Peter O’Toole as the British officer was released.
Lawrence penned it for Carruthers during the first World War, in the years immediately following his May 1917 march from El Hajh, on the coast of the Red Sea, to the pivotal Turkish gulf port of Aqaba in what is now Jordan.
Lawrence became a hero in the Western imagination for leading Arab fighters through a barren plain shown on the map called “El Houl” or “The Terror” towards Aqaba. The Ottoman had their guns pointed out towards the sea, never expecting an attack from behind through what they considered impassable sands.
Author Daniel Wolfe, who wrote a 2002 biography of Lawrence for young people noted that the map represents “the coming together of Lawrence’s nondescript mapmaker past and his most historic moment.”
The Drawing of the Map
Lawrence was well aware that his travels towards Aqaba had cartographical significance. Having met and befriended the explorer and cartographer Douglas Carruthers in the latter stages of the war, Lawrence created this map for him sometime between 1918 and 1922.
Using his notebooks, he carefully plotted the map on a single sheet of tracing paper, signing it and annotating it with the words ‘This is the only drawn copy so please do not lose it prematurely’.
It remained with Douglas Carruthers until in 1962, when he decided to donate the map to the Royal Society of Asian Affairs, in whose collection it has remained until now.
The Route to Aqaba
On 9 May 1917, Lawrence and the Arab armies set out north from the Red Sea port of Al Weih to capture Aqaba and to drive the Arab revolt further north. Having first reached the Hejaz railway, on 19 May they embarked the next stage of their trek into the barren lands towards Wadi Sirhan—the historic route that is recorded in this map. Lasting five days until 24 May 1917, this journey would prove to be one of the most hazardous expeditions Lawrence ever undertook in Arabia.
Lawrence’s notebooks, now in the collection of the British Library, later worked into the magnificent prose of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, provide a powerful evocation of this journey through harsh the and pitiless Nefud desert. The landscape challenged even a seasoned adventurer like Lawrence with intense heat (“…Air streaming past as thick smoke with dust sun-blinking in it. Iridescent dusk...”), and blinding mudflats: “Sun reflects from them like mirror—flame-yellow, cutting into our eyes, like glare burning glass on closed lids. Head if veiled too hot: besides camel might stray … Heat in waves and eyes often going black.”
A fascinating tale of a fascinating man and as a family, we were there.
It is always interesting to appreciate, without exaggeration, just how interconnected to international events Carruthers actually were and remain so to this day.