Lawrence of Arabia’s dramatic and innovative style of guerrilla warfare changed the Middle East forever. North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap once told a French diplomat that his “fighting gospel” was the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who served as an advisor to the Arabs during the First World War. The Frenchman was puzzled about the connection between desert warfare in Arabia and jungle fighting in Vietnam. Giap was quick to point out that Lawrence’s autobiography was about guerrilla leadership, not about the terrain in which guerrilla warfare was waged. Giap would achieve great tactical success against French and American forces, during the Cold War, with Lawrence’s handy advice always nearby.
In his book, Guerrilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, military historian James Schneider has written an account of the life of Lawrence, a young Englishman who developed a unique strategy that many insurgent leaders, like Giap, embraced in rebellions in their respective countries. Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, his governess. They took the surname Lawrence, moved to Wales, and sent him to school, where he graduated with honors. At the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence, who was now a lieutenant in the British Army, was given the task of surveying the Negev Desert in Palestine because of its strategic importance.
Using his keen intelligence, Lawrence immediately immersed himself in his work. His ability to learn quickly and his command of the Arabic language caught the attention of his superiors. When Ronald Storrs traveled to meet with Arab leaders to initiate a revolt against the Ottoman Empire of the Turks, Lawrence obtained permission to go along. It was a decision that would change his life, and the Middle East, forever.
Through his dynamic and innovative methods, Lawrence was able to unite Arab tribes, which had been at war with each other for centuries, to rid themselves of their Turkish masters. He believed that fighting the Turks in conventional battles would be fruitless. Outgunned and oftentimes outmanned, Lawrence instead used a hit-and-run strategy to keep the enemy off balance. By attacking the main rail line that kept the Turkish Army supplied and reinforced, Lawrence was able to tie up enemy troops protecting remote outposts. In doing this, the mobile Arab forces were able to strike at a moment’s notice (Minutemen?), destroy sections of the railroad, and erode the enemy’s morale (classic guerrilla tactics). It was a strategy of “geographical interest” that Lawrence and his Arab forces followed.
For his role in the capture of Damascus, Lawrence was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He assisted in establishing an Arab provisional government in the city, which in 1920 fell to the imperialistic French. After the war, Lawrence served in the Royal Air Force. He developed a keen interest in motorcycles, an interest that eventually caused his death in 1935 when he lost control of his motorbike and crashed in the English countryside.
Indeed, Lawrence was a true visionary in guerrilla warfare. Lawrence wanted to create a lasting peace in the Middle East, a peace that unfortunately has still not taken hold in the troubled region. Most of the data in this article came from Military Heritage magazine. THE END