Lawrence’s first meeting with Feisal, 23 October 1916
Ninety years ago, on 23 October 1916, the momentous first encounter took place between Captain TE Lawrence, a relatively junior British intelligence officer from Cairo, and Emir Feisal, the 33 year old third son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca.
Earlier that year, in June, Hussein had initiated a revolt of the Arabs living in the Hejaz against Turkish rule. Early operations had gone well, with both Mecca and Jidda quickly secured. But momentum waned when the Arabs failed to capture Medina and concerns rose among the British authorities in Egypt and the Sudan about the state of the revolt.
On 13 October Lawrence and Ronald Storrs, the Oriental Secretary to the British civilian administration in Cairo, left to visit the Hejaz and report back on how things were progressing. Lawrence’s position was curious. He still worked for the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo and technically took leave to go to Arabia. Foremost in his mind was the desire to establish which of Hussein’s four sons was likely to prove the most capable and dynamic leader of the Arab forces during the revolt.
Lawrence and Storrs arrived in Jidda on 16 October and had a meeting with Emir Adbullah, Hussein’s second son. Three days later Lawrence travelled north to Rabegh and spoke to Emir Ali, the Sherif’s oldest son, and to Emir Zeid, the youngest brother. None of them appeared to Lawrence to possess the right combination of personality and insight to lead the Arabs to victory. Already he had a vision of an independent, post-war Arabian state and to achieve this he knew it was essential to find precisely the right man.
Leaving Rabegh, and with his British army uniform swathed in an Arabian cloak, Lawrence rapidly journeyed 100 miles north by camel to Hamra in the Wadi Safra. He was taken straight to Feisal’s house. In one of the most memorable passages of Seven pillars of wisdom, he described what happened next:
He led me to an inner court, on whose further side, framed between the uprights of a black doorway, stood a white figure waiting tensely for me. I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory. Feisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, in his long white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.I greeted him. He made way for me into the room, and sat down on his carpet near the door. As my eyes grew accustomed to the shade, they saw that the little room held many silent figures, looking at me or at Feisal steadily. He remained staring down at his hands, which were twisting slowly about his dagger. At last he inquired softly how I had found the journey. I spoke of the heat and he asked how long from Rabegh, commenting that I had ridden fast for the season.
"And do you like our place here in Wadi Safra?"
"Well; but it is far from Damascus."
The word had fallen like a sword in their midst. There was a quiver. Then everybody present stiffened where he sat, and held his breath for a silent minute. Some, perhaps, were dreaming of far off success: others may have thought it a reflection on their late defeat. Feisal at length lifted his eyes, smiling at me, and said, "Praise be to God, there are Turks nearer us than that". We all smiled with him; and I rose and excused myself for the moment.
Lawrence returned to Cairo and in November was officially transferred to the Arab Bureau. He wrote a number of important reports which not only outlined what Hussein’s forces would need to achieve success – regular supplies, weapons and ammunition, and money – but also identified Feisal as the man who could most effectively bring this about. As this passage shows, there had been an immediate meeting of minds between Lawrence and Feisal. They entertained similar ambitions and their personalities complemented each other. In December 1916 Lawrence was sent back to the Hejaz to rejoin Feisal as his personal liaison officer. He remained with him until October 1918 and together, as Lawrence had predicted at the very start, they guided the Arab army north to Damascus.
T. E. Lawrence, Seven pillars of wisdom (from eBooks@Adelaide) Book I 'The Discovery of Feisal'.
Wikipedia.org entry for Emir Feisal