World News

Australia forgives Lawrence of Arabia's history

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia has finally forgiven Lawrence of Arabia for writing it out of the history of the Middle East campaign of World War I, honouring the enigmatic Englishman with an exhibition at its national war museum.

Enigmatic Englishman Lawrence of Arabia stands on the balcony of the Victoria Hotel in Damascus in this handout photo taken in October 1918. REUTERS/Australian War Memorial/Handout

But Australia’s War Memorial is using the exhibit to highlight the overlooked role of Australian troops and their commander Henry Chauvel, who played a crucial role in the defeat of Turkish Ottoman forces in Palestine and Syria.

In his famous war memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as T. E. Lawrence, ignored the role of Australia’s Light Horse in securing Damascus, instead claiming the victory for his Arab forces.

“Essentially it was Chauvel who took the town as the overall commander,” exhibition curator Mal Booth told Reuters.

“What Lawrence was trying to do was make the best case he could for Arab self-determination. I think he inflates the Arab claims in Damascus.”

The misconception was reinforced in David Lean’s epic 1962 movie about Lawrence and his Arab revolt against the Turks, which depicted a triumphant entry of the Arab army into Damascus in October 1918.

Lawrence, who later changed his name to Shaw and died in a motorcycle accident in 1935, wrote Seven Pillars with a clear view to talk up Arab war victories to promote Arab independence.

“The book is just a designed procession of Arab freedom from Mecca to Damascus,” Lawrence wrote in the introduction. “It was an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, a Vietnam War veteran, said Lawrence’s omissions were symbolic of many British historians who ignore Australia’s military role.

“It has been a frequent phenomenon for various Brits to write Australia out,” Fischer told Reuters.

He said he was angry that London’s Imperial War Museum also ignored the 47,000 Australians killed fighting on the Western Front in World War 1.

“So nothing is new. It is my hope that the Australian War Memorial will provide some balance in its new exhibition.”


Australia’s official World War I historian Charles Bean wrote that Australians under Chauvel’s command swept into Damascus at 5 a.m. on October 1, 1918, and were greeted as liberators.

But they pushed on out of the town within two hours to chase fleeing Turkish units along the Aleppo road, clearing the way for the Arab army to enter Damascus later the same day. Lawrence later made a grand entry in a Rolls Royce.

Lawrence wrote of the importance of an Arab victory at Damascus in Seven Pillars.

“I was very jealous for the Arab honour, in whose service I would go forward at all costs. They had joined the war to win freedom, and the recovery of their old capital by force of their own arms was the sign they would best understand.”

Booth said while many Light Horse supporters were offended by Lawrence’s version, the debate about who was first into Damascus was secondary to the defeat of Turkish forces the previous week.

Lawrence in 1927 admitted to a biographer that the Damascus chapter of Seven Pillars was full of half truths, Booth said.

Australian national or colonial forces have fought with British or American troops in every major conflict since the Sudan in 1885, including the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion.

The Australian War Memorial exhibition, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, features items from Australian and several British institutions. It includes his Lee Enfield rifle, on loan from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, who is also Queen of Australia.