Lawrence arrived back in England a full colonel with a D S O, a C B, and a recommendation from Allenby himself that he be granted a knighthood. Only a few days after his arrival he was invited to Buckingham Palace for a private investiture by King George V, but to the consternation of everyone present politely refused both his knighthood and his medals to the King personally. He told His Majesty that the British government were about to let the Arabs down over the Sykes–Picot treaty: that he had pledged his word to Feisal that he would support him come what may, and that he might be obliged to fight Britain’s French allies for the Hashemite cause in Syria. Curiously, though, the man who refused to become a British knight also told the King that he was an ‘Emir’ (Prince) among the Arabs – a tide which he is nowhere recorded as having been granted officially. And while he refused his British medals, he accepted the Croix de Guerre from the French: the very nation whom he told George V he regarded as being his enemies. These inconsistencies suggest that there was, as usual, a darker level to Lawrence’s actions: after all, knighthoods and DSOs were almost ten-a-penny among those who had fought in the Arab campaign (though Croix de Guerre were more exotic). As Lawrence had told Hubert Young (who would himself later be knighted) in 1918, ‘there is plenty of honour and glory to be picked up without any great difficulty’. 1Like the woman who wore ordinary clothes at the opera while everyone else wore evening-dress, Lawrence automatically became distinct, not through his acquisition of honours but by his conspicuous rejection of them. Even his admirer Liddell Hart was shrewd enough to observe that for Lawrence ‘self-deprecation, like his rejection of distinction, was a kind of vanity – his wisdom led him to see the absurdity of acclamation, then found himself liking it, then despised himself for liking it’. 2The rejection of honours by the war’s most famous hero, the man whom, by 1919, the press were already calling ‘the most interesting Briton alive’, 3of course, immediately devalued such distinctions. Not surprisingly, many who had fought four hard years, some of them in conditions far more appalling than those Lawrence had seen, who had survived terrible hardships, perhaps performed great feats of personal bravery, and justifiably felt themselves deserving of recognition, were incensed by his apparent mockery.

Lawrence’s commitment to the Hashemites was, however, also very real. He was determined to vindicate the promises he had made to Feisal during the war, and to rescue his own sense of honour. Within days of arriving back he was bombarding War Office and Foreign Office officials with his views, and on 29 October – the day on which he met the King – he also appeared in front of the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet. The meeting opened with a eulogy by Lord Curzon, acting Foreign Secretary, on Lawrence’s achievements, upon which Lawrence ungraciously blurted out: ‘Let’s get to business. You people don’t understand the hole you have put us all into!’ – causing the volatile Curzon to burst into tears. Lawrence’s views were uncompromising, but they did not encompass the single Arab state Hussain had demanded from McMahon in 1916. Mesopotamia, he said, should be divided into two, with Sharif Zayd in Baghdad, presiding over the northern part, and Sharif ‘Abdallah, in Basra, supervising the southern. Feisal, in Damascus, should rule the whole of Syria, with the exception of the Lebanon, which should go to the French, and the Alexandretta district, which should be jointly run by the Allies. In Palestine, the Arabs would accept Jewish immigration as outlined in the Balfour Declaration in 1917, but would resist any attempt to establish a Jewish state there. A single British authority, based in Egypt, should watch over the fledgling Arab states, which would effectively cut out Anglo-Indian interference. Lawrence already knew that British hands were tied by Sykes-Picot: Mosul, in Mesopotamia, had been allocated to the French, while Palestine had been assigned to international administration. If Britain opposed French aspirations both in Palestine and Mesopotamia, which she coveted for her own sphere of influence, she would find it most difficult to oppose French claims in Syria too.

The armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, and the Peace Conference began at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris in January the following year. Here, Lawrence drew great attention to himself by his flamboyant adoption of Arab headdress, his fluent Arabic and his obvious devotion to Feisal. Acting as Feisal’s interpreter, he laid out the Hashemite proposals on 6 February. The French had been determined from the beginning that there would be no concessions over Syria, and demanded that both littoral and inland Syria should be governed by a single authority. These demands were supported by a vigorous campaign in the French press. Lawrence and Feisal had two strong cards, however: first the backing of the American President, Woodrow Wilson, who proposed a policy of self-determination for Syria, and second, General Allenby’s army, which was still actually deployed in the country, and which the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, refused to withdraw until the conference had made a decision. No such decision was ever reached, however. President Wilson stood by his belief that an inquiry should be set up to ascertain the will of the people, and in June the King-Crane commission arrived in Palestine. The commissioners probed deeply and made extensive inquiries, and in August reported to Wilson in Washington in favour of a temporary system of Mandates, proposing the United States as mandatory power for Syria, Great Britain for Iraq, and excluding France entirely on the grounds that a French Mandate in Syria would lead to war with the Arabs. The commissioners also recommended abandoning the idea of creating in Palestine a Jewish Commonwealth, which they believed could not be established without force. The King–Crane report was a remarkable and prophetic document, but predictably it was ignored by France and Britain. By the time it was released, Wilson himself was ill, and without his impetus the European Allies simply decided to make a settlement of their own. In September Lloyd George informed French Prime Minister Clemenceau that he was pulling British troops out of Syria and Cilicia on 1 November. The British garrisons in Cilicia – west of the line drawn by Sykes-Picot – would be replaced by French troops, while those in Syria proper would be replaced by an Arab force. British troops would, however, remain in Palestine and Mesopotamia. At first Lawrence regarded this as a victory, and he wrote personally to Lloyd George, thanking him for the decision: ‘… you have kept all our promises,’ he wrote, ‘… and my relief at getting out of the affair with clean hands is very great.’ 4He returned to England and on 1 September, with as little ceremony as had attended his commission in the army in 1914, he demobilized himself from it forthwith.

Lawrence’s gratitude was premature. Even if he did not grasp that Britain’s withdrawal would leave Syria wide open to French aggression, Feisal certainly did. In September the Sharif arrived in London and complained bitterly that the Arabs were now at the mercy of the French in the Lebanon. The British cabinet advised him coldly that he must negotiate with France alone, however, effectively washing their hands of the Arabs. Lawrence, whose machinations at the Peace Conference had made him persona non gratain France, was no longer in a position to help his friend, and fell into deep depression. The consequences were unhappy ones for Feisal. He was obliged to come to a provisional understanding with Clemenceau, but on returning to Syria in January 1920 was promptly accused of ‘selling out’ by the Nationalists, and obliged to abandon it. In March 1920, the General Syrian Congress proclaimed him king of an independent Syria which theoretically included the Lebanon, northern Mesopotamia and Palestine. This angered both the French, who were already in control of the Lebanon, and the British, who were seeking control of the other two regions. Only a month later, an Allied conference at San Remo decided that Britain should have a mandate for influence in Mesopotamia and Palestine, while the French should be the mandatory power in all of Syria. The Arabs saw, finally, that they had been abused and cheated by Britain and France, and from that moment lost faith in the European powers. The upshot was inevitable: using the excuse of attacks on French personnel and property, French forces moved into Syria in July 1920, swatted aside a force of 2,000 regulars and irregulars which prepared to defend Damascus, and drove Feisal into exile. The Nationalists were suppressed as fiercely as they had been under the Turks; the press was muzzled; French was substituted for Arabic in law courts and schools. The situation which both Lawrence and Feisal had most dreaded during the hard years of fighting had ultimately come to pass.

Lawrence never fulfilled his threat to fight against the French. By early 1919 other developments were taking place in his life. First, he had long wished to turn his experiences into a book, and had begun to draft out Seven Pillarsduring the Peace Conference. The first few chapters were written purely from memory, but in May he was flown to Cairo in one of the Handley-Page bombers being transferred to help put down the anti-British insurrections there – to pick up his Arab Bureau files. On the way, his aircraft made a bad landing at Centocelle in Italy, killing the pilot, fatally injuring the co-pilot, and leaving Lawrence himself with a fractured collar-bone. He completed his journey only a few days later, however, continuing to work on his book in the aircraft. In September he was back in Britain, where his growing fame as a media personality had led to his being elected to a Research Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford – the same institution by which, as an unknown postgraduate scholar, he had been rejected in 1910. The Fellowship was worth Ј200 a year, and enabled Lawrence to continue with his work on Seven Pillars.However, in December the manuscript was stolen at Reading station while he was changing trains, obliging him to begin all over again. In January 1920 he moved to London, and began work on the new text in a flat in Barton Street, borrowed from his friend Sir Henry Baker, where he wrote more than 400,000 words in three months, during marathon sittings. This was not quite the superhuman effort it appears, for most of the new text was lifted directly from Lawrence’s wartime dispatches and reports in the Arab Bulletinwhich he had with him in London, checked against the dates in his two skeleton diaries. Any discrepancies between Seven Pillarsand the official reports, therefore, cannot be explained by faulty memory: in any case, Lawrence’s memory was superb: he once told Clare Sydney Smith he could remember everything he ever read in a book, and never forgot a date. 5Lawrence’s documents were extraordinarily well written, but once they had been strung together, he realized, they did not make a book – at least, not the work of art he had craved to write. The book had no personality, no dramatic structure of its own, and – more important – no great emotional climax of a personal nature: a story must have a clearly identifiable hero who was seen to overcome great obstacles and to evolve spiritually in response to his experience. This was to be his magnum opus,his definitive statement of himself to the world. He had performed heroic deeds, certainly: he had saved the life of Gasim, had made a reckless ride of 560 miles through enemy-held territory alone, had devised a brilliant guerrilla strategy, had fought scores of actions against the Turks. These incidents were admirable, but they were not sufficient to lend the book the dramatic edge Lawrence required. He solved the problem by inventing a series of personal incidents which would give fire to the story – none of these can have been taken from his dispatches or diaries, because none of them is mentioned therein. He had not been sent to Arabia on an intelligence-gathering mission by the Arab Bureau, he wrote, but had gone there of his own initiative because his inspiration told him that the Revolt lacked leadership – a leadership which he alone could provide. He had adopted Arab ways as if born to them, as if he were fulfilling some messianic prophecy. On his first journey in the Hejaz, he had witnessed a charade by two Arab Sharifs which defined the cruelty and inter-tribal hatred inherent there: the petty hatreds which could only be overridden by his own advocacy of a romantic and abstract idea. He had been obliged on his first major operation to shoot a man in cold blood; he had performed camel-journeys impossible for normal human beings, and, like Jesus Christ, he had been betrayed, horribly tortured and humiliated, but had risen again to bring his struggles to full fruition, now so brutalized that he had ordered the massacre of helpless prisoners. The addition of these nuances and others, a careful ‘elaboration’ on the mundane details, pushed what might have been no more than a well-written memoir into the realms of Malory and Homer, full of larger-than-life incidents, and larger-than-life characters: the noble prince Feisal, the brave veteran warrior Auda, the despicable traitor ‘Abd al-Qadir, the heroic knights Sharif ‘Ali, Sharif Shakir, Za’al Abu Tayyi and Talal al-Haraydhin, the indolent Sharif ‘Abdallah, the ‘rat’ Nasib al-Bakri, the ‘clowns’ ‘Farraj and Da’ud’, the paternal Allenby, the gallant but rigidly hidebound British regulars Young, Joyce, Dawnay, Newcombe, Garland (all of whom are sniped at surreptitiously under the cloak of high praise), and above all the elvish Bedu against the goblin Turks, with Lawrence, the ‘Prince of Mecca’, the Merlin-King Arthur figure rolled into one, with his ‘Round Table Knights’ – ninety hardened Bedu warriors sworn to protect him unto death. Under Lawrence’s fluent pen, Seven Pillarsgrew from a series of dispatches into an epic of the calibre of Lord of the Rings:in 1928 he wrote Jim Ede: ‘[in my book] I was trying very hard to do a thing for which I am totally unfitted by nature: – to produce a work of creative imagination …’ 6

The text also had an ideological purpose, however. Almost simultaneously, Lawrence was fighting a campaign in the press in support of the Hashemites, and the secondary objective of Seven Pillarswas to provide a glowing encomium on Feisal and his Arabs by painting the story of their heroic struggle in the Pre-Raphaelite hues of Burne-Jones. Many Arabs resented this view. As historian George Antonius wrote, it was not that Lawrence lacked perception or intelligence, but simply that, like everyone else, his intellect was subordinate to a set of schemata which were defined by his culture. He could not help seeing the Arabs through the romantic images he had learned as a youth: the Bedu, the Ashraf, the self-sufficient peasants of the Euphrates – these were ‘noble’ Arabs. The townsmen, the ‘craven’ villagers of the sown, were not. The paradox was, of course, that it was within the ranks of precisely these townsmen and villagers that the spirit of Arab Nationalism burned most fiercely. Paradoxically, and unintentionally, Lawrence’s pro-Bedu, pro-Ashraf stance amounted to an anti-Arab policy in many people’s eyes. Lawrence’s official biographer Jeremy Wilson writes: ‘Seven Pillarsoften tells less than the whole truth, concealing politically damaging matters … Lawrence also plays down the enormous contribution to the Revolt made by non-Arab personnel … This emphasis cannot be excused by the claim that [he] was writing about only his experience of the war.’ 7