Why is the Memorial doing an exhibition on Lawrence of Arabia?
More than 70 years after his death, T E Lawrence remains one of the most compelling and intriguing figures of the Twentieth Century. His enigmatic personality, his intimate involvement in the emergence of the modern Middle East and the achievements of his extraordinary life, ranging from the guidance of the Arab revolt through the meticulous writing of Seven pillars of wisdom to the development of high speed air-sea rescue boats for the Royal Air Force, have secured him a place as one of the world’s most famous men. Yet so much of what we know about him is uncertain. Many facets of what he did remain overshadowed by nagging doubts of misrepresentation and obfuscation. He, himself, deliberately laid trails to confuse and confound people whom he knew one day would be re-examining his life. As an intensively private individual, he struggled daily with the overwhelming power of his celebrity. Yet, he did much to enhance this and regularly used it to advance his own agenda.
But, apart from the universal appeal of his unique personality, what has Lawrence got to do with Australia? Why should the Memorial consider him sufficiently important to focus a major, special exhibition on his wartime achievements?
The answers, as befits Lawrence, are complex but persuasive. For many Australians the war against the Ottoman Turks after Gallipoli revolves around the actions and adventures of the Australian Light Horse (ALH). The self-sufficient, bush-hardened Light Horseman sitting astride his waler, seeking battle and relentlessly pursuing the Turks through the unforgiving landscape of Palestine and Syria is one of the central images of the Australian history of the First World War. It is an integral part of the national character that Australia took away from the events of 1914-18 and absorbed into its emerging national self-consciousness. In stark contrast to the stasis and agony of the Western Front, the war of the ALH appeared to be fast-paced, action-packed and demanded personal initiative and self-reliance as the new Crusaders finally liberated the Holy Land. The Light Horsemen were distinctively Australian and, after their story was laid down in a remarkably evocative official history published by Sir Henry Gullet in 1923, they developed a legendary reputation.
Examined decades later, interesting parallels can be seen between the myth of Lawrence of Arabia and the legend of the Light Horse. This new exhibition seeks to explore these parallels, beginning with the popular representations of both before returning to explore their factual basis and the historical context from which they emerged. It will look exclusively at neither Lawrence nor the Light Horse, but cover both side-by-side, as well as the other elements of the 1st Australian Imperial Force that fought in Palestine between 1916 and 1918, such as No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps.
Together Lawrence and the Light Horse played central roles in General Sir Edmund Allenby’s campaign against the Turks from Gaza to the northern reaches of Syria. Their paths crossed regularly in the advance along and astride the Jordan Valley, and finally came together at Damascus on 1 October 1918. The controversies surrounding the capture of the city, and the underlying issues they reveal, highlight the tense relationship between these two allies and the differing motivations that drove them both.
In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence also included observations of the few Australians he came across in the desert. Most notable was Sergeant Charles Reginald Yells who trained squads of Arabs to use the Lewis gun during their raids on the Hejaz railway. Lawrence’s description of Yells, whom he always called ‘Lewis’ after the guns he commanded (like his British counterpart Sergeant Brooke who became ‘Stokes’ and oversaw the Arab trench mortars), shows both a sharp eye for detail but also subtle awareness of national traits that might possibly have been exaggerated for literary effect:
Lewis was an Australian, long, thin and sinuous, his supple body lounging in un-military curves. His hard face, arched eyebrows, and predatory nose set off the peculiarly Australian air of reckless willingness and capacity to do something very soon. Stokes was a stocky English yeoman, workmanlike and silent; always watching for an order to obey. (Seven pillars of wisdom, Book V, Chapter LX)
Drawing on a number of the artefacts borrowed in 2005 by the Imperial War Museum London for its powerful biographical exhibition about Lawrence, and the Memorial’s rich collections of material relating to the history and experiences of the Light Horse, the exhibition aims to re-examine the First World War in the Middle East from an Australian perspective and the historical consequences of this campaign which are still being felt today.