Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)

The beginnings of civilization were here. The beginning of writing, of agriculture and architecture, of art, music, religion. I read Samuel Noah Kramer’s books on Sumeria, read the Gilgamesh epic, poems like The Lament over the Destruction of Ur. I read Leonard Woolley’s books on his excavations, I read about Dilmun, the Assyrians, about Jericho and Megiddo. I read Carter’s story of his famous find in the Valley of Kings. I learned names of kings and read about their reigns: Ashurbanipal, Sneferu, Sargon and Nebuchadnezzar among them.

I read about Palestine and the formation of Israel, about how the artificial nations of the Middle East came to be in modern times. I read about the oil, the rivalries, and the machinations of Western nations in crafting those states. I read about how the borders were created – Winston’s Hiccup: “Churchill himself boasted in his later years that he had created Jordan ‘with the stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo’.”

And of course I read about Lawrence. I read his most famous works – Revolt in the Desert perhaps 40 years ago (and started re-reading this week). I still have a copy, the first American printing of 1927. I read his autobiographical Seven Pillars, too, or at least part of it. I can’t recall finishing it and my own copy has long since vanished from my bookshelves, along with many other books about the Middle East. (However, a few still remain; sadly, Jon Kimche’s Seven Fallen Pillars, about the Middle East from 1945-52, is also missing).

As Martin Liebman wrote (rather enthusiastically) in his review of the film:

Rightly regarded as one of the finest movies ever made and a picture that leaves behind a legacy that speaks to the power of perfect filmmaking and the lasting impact that is the filmed marriage of faultless craftsmanship and enthralling story, Lawrence of Arabia is the movie that typifies cinema greatness, that is arguably the epic that defines epics, the picture that remains the textbook answer for the question of why movies are made and how a medium so influenced by external sources and so inundated with mediocrity, disappointments, and disasters remains a legitimate canvas for the most serious artists. It’s a film that absolutely encapsulates everything that’s so wonderful about motion pictures, a demonstration of the entire process completed with faultless execution, and at about double the runtime of most pictures at that.

Lawrence was a strange mix of pragmatist and romantic. He was ot a little angry over what he saw as the great betrayal of his aspirations for the region, at the 1919 Peace Conference. That disappointment coloured his memories and comes through in his writing. He was critical of the military leaders and policy makers both during and after the war. He wrote, in the introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement, but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a an may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt. We were fond together, because of the sweep of the open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The moral freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.

All men dream: but nor equally, Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. I meant to make a new nation, to restore! a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but 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.

Although the movie focuses on the military campaign, the story is far more than that – and only books can give you the more complex, tangled tale.

It’s the story of how the intervention of Western ideas, culture, politics, commerce and technology into this world irrevocably altered it and created the Middle East of today. It’s a bit like a political version of climate change: the effects are visible for all to see, and historians can lay out the path, but there are deniers – many politicians among them – who argue that their nation’s interference wasn’t the reason for the result. Or that the result is the fault of some other force. Tanta stultitia mortalium est.

A company of the 1/4th East Lancashires

Lawrence was an odd, awkward character; brilliant, quirky and fiercely independent. Not good stuff for the military, but militarily successful in many ways, despite his antagonism towards it – so much so that his campaigns are still studied in military academies like West Point. Partly colonial, partly modern in his views; definitely an outside-the-box kind of thinker.

Hard to have as a hero figure, but certainly a character one can respect and admire, one you even stand in some awe of, once you read about his actual exploits and the conditions he worked under. After all, who before him had ever turned down a knighthood, walking out of Buckingham Palace leaving the King and Queen slack-jawed in astonishment? A man who desperately tried to avoid being mythologized, too. Someone I want to know more about.

I think in part we are attracted to people like Lawrence because they represent mystery and elusiveness. He was intensely private and wanted to remain anonymous (to the point of re-enlisting first in the airforce, then in the tank corps after the war as a private under an assumed name so he would not be treated differently). His reticence for the limelight is so at odds with today’s selfie culture; an age of graphic (and shameless) tell-all autobiographies and celebrity sex tapes “leaked” to public viewing of the most intimate of acts. I much prefer the quiet reluctance of Lawrence to today’s attention seekers.

Lawrence in ArabiaHaving been re-awakened to the history recently, I started reading Scott Anderson’s recent book, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East this week. Arrived from Amazon last week. It’s superb reading.

As a journalist Anderson covered Middle East conflicts and spent four years researching the book. It’s not a simple biography of Lawrence – it’s a mix of tales woven into the tapestry of World War I: spies, adventurers, oil interests, politics, nationalism and economic imperatives. And At the centre of it is the figure of T. E. Lawrence.

Great book – fascinating people and times and lots of subtexts, with plots and politics to make turbid the waters.

It’s a story about others, too. Lawrence is only one character – albeit the main one – portrayed in the book. There are several fascinating players; mostly spies – American, Jewish, German and British, each with his or her own agenda and national/political interest. It’s stuff you expect from Le Carre or Ludlum.

As Nick Romeo wrote in his Christian Science Monitor review of the book,

Anderson interweaves the stories of Lawrence, Prüfer, Aaronsohn, and Yale to create a rich and detailed account of European machinations in the Middle East during a critical and turbulent period. The subtitle of Lawrence’s sprawling autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is “A Triumph,” but it’s hard not to feel that his story is closer to a tragedy. After the war ended, Lawrence was sidelined at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as Britain and France lived out their fantasies of a “Great Loot,” dividing up the Middle East and ignoring their own promises as well as innumerable religious and political subtleties in the region.

The Kirkus review is more succinct: “A lively, contrasting study of hubris and humility.”

And somewhat curiously, I have a family connection to both the period and the place. My grandfather, a veteran of WWI, served in Egypt.

According to my aunt Mary, in World War One, my grandfather Frank Chadwick – born in 1888, the same year as Lawrence – was stationed in Egypt and Palestine during the war. It’s a bit hard to get all the details, because my aunt has since passed away and her children live in South Africa (my family seems to have a penchant for the far-flung corners of the Commonwealth).

Mary said Frank fought in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, but it’s hard to confirm the details. The KRRC didn’t get the Egypt until 1918, and was in France for most of the war as far as I have been able to discover.

My own research suggests that if he was in the KRRC, he served on the Western Front first because the KRRC was fighting in France until 1918, when it left for Palestine and Egypt. There was a Frank Chadwick in the KRRC mentioned in contemporary dispatches, first as a 2nd Lieutenant, then promoted to Lieutenant (Dec. 14, 1915), later as acting captain awarded the Military Cross. Apparently he even got a medal. He was cited for conspicuous bravery, too, in 1918:

Lt. (A./Maj.) Frank Chadwick, M.C., K.R.R.C., .Spec. Res. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer was placed in command of the battalion on the death of the C.O. He” led it with great skill throughout the operations, especially in a counter-attack on a village, into which he penetrated, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and capturing a number of prisoners. Taken in rear by enemy machine guns, he was grounded in the act of withdrawing his battalion.

My aunt apparently had a box of his medals, although I never saw them. She’s gone now, but I will have to contact the remaining relatives to see what they have for me to further explore. I don’t know if this is my grandfather, but if it is, I am mighty proud of his record.

However, if he was in the KRRC, that would suggest he was not mustered out in 1918 with the majority of the army, and stayed on for further duty. I have no evidence of that (After all, he had a young son at home: my father, born in 1914). Still searching for some record I have not yet uncovered (maybe I’ll never find it…).

Frank was later a reporter in the Oldham Chronicle (newspaper ink seems to run in the family blood) and covered the cotton industry of England’s north after WWI and through to WWII. He was a reporter when Gandhi made his famous visit to those mills in the 1930s. Unfortunately his writing has not been digitized and made available online (yet) so I don’t know if he ever met Gandhi.

Another possibility for Frank’s service is the Territorial Armies (there was also the the King’s Own Royal Regiment which had units in Egypt, but no luck on finding a connection there so far).

The 42nd (East Lancashire) division was part of the New Force or Territorial Armies. It served in Egypt and later Palestine from 1914. There was a Manchester Brigade, stationed around Cairo and then Alexandra, from September 1914. At least one battalion (1/10) was formed in Oldham (Frank’s home town), in August 1914, and possibly a second (2/9) shortly after. There were many of its units that served in the Middle East. Tracking them is difficult because a lot of official records were lost (burned during the Blitz). Also, the regiments were posted hither and yon, moving around a lot (1/5, for example, went to Egypt, then Gallipoli, back to Egypt, then to France). Some even changed designation (the 1/6 became the 1/5, for example) or were subsumed into other units as the war dragged on.

Several Lancashire units served in the Middle East and have quite a history:

  • Egypt 1914-17: 1/4th & 1/5th East Lancashires
  • Palestine 1917-18: 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires
  • Egypt 1916: 6th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires, 11th East Lancashires
  • Mesopotamia 1916-18: 6th East Lancashires, South Lancashires & Loyal North Lancashires

As the Lancashire Infantry Museum notes, soldiers from that county went all over the Middle East, even to East Africa:

Egypt. The Suez Canal was a vital strategic link with the British Empire in the East and, being vulnerable to Turkish attack from Sinai, was a high priority for reinforcement. Early arrivals, in September 1914, were 1/4th and 1/5th East Lancashires, the Blackburn and Burnley Territorials of what became 42nd East Lancashire Division. They left Egypt in May 1915 for the Gallipoli campaign but returned the following January, together with the 11th East Lancashires (from England) and the three 6th Battalions. All six battalions were assigned to the Suez Canal Defence Zone, but in February the three 6th Battalions sailed for the Persian Gulf and the 11th for France. The East Lancashire Territorials remained and took part in the desert campaign which, in August 1916, defeated the advancing Turks at Romani. By January 1917 the two battalions had advanced across Sinai to El Arish on the Gulf of Aquaba, and it was from there that they were ordered to France.

Palestine In June 1917 the 1/12th Loyal North Lancashires were among the reinforcements for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force which had by then pushed the Turks back to Gaza in Palestine. Its new commander, Allenby, had been ordered to expel the Turks from Palestine and capture Jerusalem. The 2nd Loyal North Lancashires also joined this force, having spent a year in Egypt to recover from their campaign in East Africa. Both Battalions took part in the Allenby’s successful advance, earning six Battle Honours including Gaza, Jaffa and Jerusalem before they departed for France in April 1918.

Plus there were Lancashires in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) although not any unit I believe my grandfather was in:

Tigris. In February 1916 the 6th Battalions of the East Lancashires, South Lancashires and Loyal North Lancashires, veterans of Gallipoli, were sent to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where an Anglo-Indian force was besieged by the Turks at Kut-al-Amara. The relief force made some progress up the River Tigris, capturing Turkish defensive lines at Hanna and Falahiya, but repeated and desperate assaults on very strong positions at Sanna-i-Yat failed with heavy casualties and Kut fell at the end of April. A Victoria Cross was awarded to the Reverend Addison, Chaplain to 6th Loyal North Lancashires.

Kut-al-Amara. A renewed British offensive astride the Tigris was launched in December 1916, and the three 6th Battalions were heavily involved in fierce fighting to clear successive Turkish positions, including the Dahra and Shumran Bends. At the latter, on 25th February 1917, a Victoria Cross was won by Private John Readitt of the South Lancashires.

Baghdad. The Lancashire battalions then earned immortal honour for their gallant assault crossing of the River Diyala, 7th-10th March, which led to the fall of Baghdad. Captain Oswald Reid of 6th Loyal North Lancashires earned a Victoria Cross on this occasion for the stand he made when isolated on the far bank for thirty hours.

Adhaim. The advance continued to the River Adhaim where, on 17th/18th April, all three battalions took part in a brilliantly-executed silent night attack, during which the Lancashire troops were ferried across the river and scaled cliffs to surprise the Turkish pickets and then routed the main enemy force. This success was followed by an action at Dahuba on the 24th April and a fierce fight at Band-i-Adhaim on the 30th, when the Turks were again defeated. The three 6th Battalions subsequently took part in many successful minor actions to clear the Jabal Hamrin, and remained in Mesopotamia until the Turkish surrender.

Kut-al-Amara is the site of a famous battle – the Siege of Kut – that ended in tragedy for the British and a humiliating surrender of some 8,000 troops. Nowadays it’s one of those forgotten battles on forgotten fronts – like the war in East Africa, unknown except to a few who study the Great War and military history aficionados like myself.

Lawrence attempted to negotiate for the captives’ release, but was unsuccessful. Not everything he did was the stuff of legend.

Anyway, I digress, as is my wont. I am still trying to find some record of my grandfather’s service, a journey that has led me through some fascinating material about the war in the Middle East where I was told he served. And it has renewed my interest in the region.

I met Frank Chadwick only once, when he and my grandmother, Winnie, visited Canada from England in the 1950s. I was 6 or 7 years old, so my memory of them and their visit is choppy and fragmented. I never got to know my father’s father as I did my mother’s father (who lived nearby in Toronto), so I never had the opportunity to ask Frank about his time in the Great War. And to ask if he ever saw or even met Lawrence during his time in Egypt.

I never knew of the connection between Frank and the events in the movie until a few years ago. When I sat there, in the dark theatre, eyes glued on the screen watching the movie for the first time, I had no idea there was any such link. Had I known, I would have written him about it, back in the days when we all wrote letters and there was no social media or email.

Today I have to content myself with reading Anderson and watching for the umpteenth time the movie. Well, it’s not a bad fate: both are excellent in their own media. Still, there are so many things you wish you could change, things you wish you could have asked, when it’s far too late to do so. I wonder if my own grandchildren will have such regrets, many decades from now.