5 June 1917

“Can’t stand another day here. Will ride N. and chuck it.”

(From Lawrence’s pocket diary, British Library, Add MS 45983 A.)

Meanwhile, in a cryptic message in his field notebook – later heavily crossed out – he wrote:

“Clayton. I’ve decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way: for all sakes try and clear this show up before it goes further. We are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it.”

(From Lawrence’s notebook, undated but c. 5 June 1917, British
Library, Add MS 45915.)

Two days before, the party had arrived at Nebk, appointed as the rallying place for the Arab army which was to advance on Akaba. Here, Nasir and Auda would pause while continuing to enrol the
local tribes to their cause. But here also, the feelings of guilt and shame over the duplicitous role Lawrence felt he had been playing came to a head.

So he embarked on a journey that would take him north through dangerous country into Syria.

“I felt that one more sight of Syria would put straight the strategic ideas given me by the Crusaders and the first Arab conquest, and adjust them to the two new factors — the railways, and Murray in Sinai.

“Also a rash adventure suited my abandoned mood. It should have been happiness, this lying out free as air, with the visible life striving its utmost along my own path; but the knowledge of the axe I was secretly grinding destroyed all my assurance …

“… So in resentment at my false place (did ever second lieutenant so lie abroad for his betters?) I undertook this long, dangerous ride, in which to see the more important of Feisal’s secret friends, and to study key-positions of our future campaigns: but the results were incommensurate with the risks, and the act artistically unjustifiable, like the motive. I had whispered to myself ‘Let me chance it, now, before we begin’, seeing truly that this was the last chance, and that after a successful capture of Akaba I would never again possess myself freely, without association, in the security lurking for the obscure in their protective shadow.”

Events of 5 June 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

Accompanied by just two men, he rode north from Nebk.

2 June 1917

Arriving at an encampment of tents near Ageila, a troop of men emerged.

“They were Auda abu Tayi, safely back from Nuri Shaalan, with the one-eyed Durzi ibn Dughmi, our old guest at Wejh. His presence proved Nuri’s favour, as did their strong escort of Rualla horse; who, bareheaded and yelling, welcomed us to Nuri’s empty house with a great show of spears and wild firing of rifles and revolvers at full gallop through the dust …

“… through the afternoon we received fusillades of honour, deputations, and gifts of ostrich eggs, or Damascus dainties, or camels, or scraggy horses, while the air was loud about us with the cries of Auda’s volunteers demanding service, immediate service, against the Turks.

“Affairs looked well, and we set three men to make coffee for the visitors, who came in to Nasir one by one or group by group, swearing allegiance to Feisal and to the Arab Movement”.

Events of 2 June 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

But the journey from Wejh had seen Lawrence gripped by a growing repulsion over his role in recruiting the Arabs using false assurances of their independence. In contrast to his account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in the privacy of his field notebook for this day he confided:

“All day deputations, fusillades, coffee, ostrich eggs. Dined with Auda. Lies.”

(From Lawrence’s notebook, British Library, Add MS 45915.)

c. 27-31 May 1917

“Howeitat hospitality was unlimited,” wrote Lawrence of their stay at Isawiya. “We feasted on the first day once, on the second twice, on the third twice”.

Starting each morning between eight and ten, Lawrence, Nasir,
Nesib and Zeki were ceremonially led on horseback to the tent of their host for the meal.

“… at last, two men came staggering through the thrilled crowd,
carrying the rice and meat on a tinned copper tray or shallow bath, five feet across …

“The first dip, for me, at least, was always cautious, since the liquid fat was so hot that my unaccustomed fingers could seldom bear it: and so I would toy with an exposed and cooling lump of meat till others’ excavations had drained my rice-segment. We would knead between the fingers (not soiling the palm), neat balls of rice and fat and liver and meat
cemented by gentle pressure, and project them by leverage of the thumb from the crooked fore-finger into the mouth. With the right trick and the right construction the little lump held together and came clean off the hand; but when surplus butter and odd fragments clung, cooling, to the fingers, they had to be licked carefully to make the next effort slip easier away …

“Our host stood by the circle, encouraging the appetite with pious ejaculations. At top speed we twisted, tore, cut and stuffed: never speaking, since conversation would insult a meal’s quality …

“At length some of us were nearly filled, and began to play and pick … When all had stopped, Nasir meaningly cleared his throat, and we rose up together in haste with an explosive ‘God requite it you, O host’, to group ourselves outside among the tent-ropes while the next twenty guests
inherited our leaving.”

Moving north to Abu Tarfeiyat, the feasting continued. Soon, Howeitat hospitality was taking its toll.

“… Nesib broke down, and on plea of illness took refuge inside Nasir’s tent, and ate dry bread thankfully. Zeki had been ailing on the road, and his first effort at the Howeitat sodden meat and greasy rice had prostrated him … Nasir’s stomach had had long experience of tribal ways and stood the test grandly. It was incumbent on him, for the honour of our guesting, to answer every call; and for greater honour, he constrained me always to go with him. So we two leaders represented the camp each day, with a
decent proportion of the hungering Ageyl.

“… These people were achieving in our cause the height of nomadic ambition, a continued orgy of seethed mutton. My heaven might have been a lonely, soft arm-chair, a book-rest, and the complete poets, set in Caslon, printed on tough paper: but I had been for twenty-eight years well-fed, and if Arab imagination ran on food-bowls, so much the more attainable their joy.”

Events of 27-31 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

27-28 May 1917

Having reached Wadi Sirhan, on the evening of 27 May the
Howeitat were found to be at Isawiya, at the camp of Ali abu Fitna, chief of one of Auda’s clans.

“Our march was prosperously over. We had found the Howeitat: our men were in excellent fettle: we had our gold and our explosives still intact. So we drew happily together in the morning to a solemn council on action. There was agreement that first we should present six thousand pounds to Nuri Shaalan, by whose sufferance we were in Sirhan. We wanted from him liberty to stay while enrolling and preparing our fighting men; and when we moved off we wanted him to look after their families and tents and herds.

“These were great matters. It was determined that Auda himself should ride to Nuri on embassy, because they were friends … Auda would explain to Nuri what we hoped to do, and Feisal’s desire that he make a public demonstration of adherence to Turkey. Only so could he cover us, while still pleasing the Turks …

“… we laded six bags of gold into Auda’s saddle-bags, and off he went.”

Events of 28 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

24 May 1917

Just before noon, on the fifth day of their crossing of El Houl, one of the Arabs was found to be missing, his riderless camel led by one of the Howeitat. Surly and ill-natured, Gasim was unpopular with the other Arabs, and …

“… they did not greatly care …

“I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue. My shirking the duty would be understood, because I was a foreigner: but that was precisely the plea I did not dare set up, while I yet presumed to help these Arabs in their own revolt …

“So, without saying anything, I turned my unwilling camel round, and forced her, grunting and moaning for her camel friends, back past the long line of men, and past the baggage into the emptiness behind. My temper was very unheroic, for I was furious with my other servants, with my own play-acting as a Beduin, and most of all with Gasim … It seemed absurd that I should peril my weight in the Arab adventure for a single worthless man.”

Lawrence found Gasim, “nearly blinded and silly”, an hour and a half later. On the way back, they were met by Auda.

“Auda pointed to the wretched hunched-up figure and denounced me, ‘For that thing, not worth a camel’s price . . .’ I interrupted him with ‘Not worth a half-crown, Auda’, and he, delighted in his simple mind, rode near Gasim, and struck him sharply, trying to make him repeat, like a parrot, his price.”

That night, after five days crossing El Houl, the Arabs arrived in Wadi Sirhan. But another of their party was missing – a slave. Months later, Lawrence would learn that his dried-up body had been found, next to his camel, far out in the wilderness, having succumbed to heat and thirst.

Events of 24 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

20 May 1917

With Sherif Sharraf’s eventual arrival at Abu Raga came the welcome news that there was water to be found ahead on their march at Wadi Diraa. Having met with Sharraf, Lawrence’s party started out again on 17 May, reaching Wadi Diraa two days later. Here, they rested and watered in anticipation of the next stage of their march – across El Houl, a barren plain of abominable desolation.

On the evening of 19 May, they crossed the Hejaz railway, fixing charges to its rails and pulling out the telegraph wires. Ahead of them the next morning lay El Houl.

“We, ourselves, felt tiny in it, and our urgent progress across its immensity was a stillness or immobility of futile effort. The only sounds were the hollow echoes, like the shutting down of pavements over vaulted places, of rotten stone slab on stone slab when they tilted under our camels’ feet; and the low but piercing rustle of the sand, as it crept slowly westward before the hot wind along the worn sandstone, under the harder overhanging caps which gave each reef its eroded, rind-like shape.

“It was a breathless wind, with the furnace taste sometimes known in Egypt when a khamsin came; and, as the day went on and the sun rose in the sky it grew stronger, more filled with the dust of the Nefudh, the great sand desert of Northern Arabia, close by us over there, but invisible through the haze. By noon it blew a half-gale, so dry that our shrivelled lips cracked open, and the skin of our faces chapped; while our eyelids, gone granular, seemed to creep back and bare our shrinking eyes. The Arabs drew their head-clothes tightly across their noses, and pulled the brow-folds forward like vizors with only a narrow, loose-flapping slit
of vision.

“At this stifling price they kept their flesh unbroken, for they feared the sand particles which would wear open the chaps into a painful wound: but, for my own part, I always rather liked a khamsin, since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strength, and conquering its extremity. There was pleasure also in the salt sweat-drops which ran singly down the long hair over my forehead, and dripped like ice-water on my cheek. At first, I played at catching them in my mouth; but, as we rode further into the desert and the hours passed, the wind
became stronger, thicker in dust, more terrible in heat. All semblance of friendly contest passed. My camel’s pace became sufficient increase to the irritation of the
choking waves, whose dryness broke my skin and made my throat so painful that for three days afterwards I could eat little of our stodgy bread. When evening at last came to us I was content that my burned face still felt the other and milder air of darkness.”

Events of 20 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

15 May 1917

At Abu Raga, Lawrence’s party remained for three days while awaiting the arrival of Sherif Sharraf from the railway.

“Our morning passed with Auda talking of the march in front, while Nasir with forefinger and thumb flicked sputtering matches from the box across his tent at us. In the midst of our merriment two bent figures, with pain in their eyes, but crooked smiles upon their lips, hobbled up and saluted. These were Daud the hasty and his love-fellow, Farraj; a beautiful, soft-framed, girlish creature, with innocent, smooth face and swimming eyes. They said they were for my service. I had no need of them; and
objected that after their beating they could not ride. They replied they had now come bare-backed. I said I was a simple man who disliked servants about him. Daud turned away, defeated and angry; but Farraj pleaded that we must have men, and they would follow me for compan
y and out of gratitude. While the harder Daud revolted, he went over to Nasir and knelt in appeal, all the woman of him evident in his longing. At the end, on Nasir’s advice, I took them both, mainly because they looked so young and clean.”

Events of 15 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

14 May 1917

“The weight is bearing me down now … pain and agony today.”

On 13 May, Lawrence – beset again with fever and boils – confided some of his misery to his pocket diary.

The following day, rest was taken in Wadi Jazil, a gorge full of tamarisk sprouting from a deep sandy bed. Next to a pool of brackish water, camp was made. Here, at Abu Ragu, for the next few days, they awaited the arrival of Sherif Sharraf, who was away raiding the railway.

Possibly it was this afternoon when Lawrence first met the servant boys named Daud and Farraj in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Ali and
Othman in reality). Lawrence was resting …

“when a youthful voice made me see an anxious Ageyli, a stranger, Daud, squatting by me. He appealed for my compassion. His friend Farraj had burned their tent in a frolic, and Saad, captain of Sharraf’s Ageyl was
going to beat him in punishment. At my intercession he would be
released. Saad happened, just then, to visit me, and I put it to him, while Daud sat watching us …

“Saad’s reply was not comforting. The pair were always in trouble, and of late so outrageous in their tricks that Sharraf, the severe, had ordered an example to be made of them. All he could do for my sake was to let Daud share the ordained sentence. Daud leaped at the chance, kissed my hand and Saad’s and ran off up the valley; while Saad, laughing, told me stories of the famous pair. They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy
affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed. If sexuality entered, they passed into a give and take, unspiritual relation, like marriage.”

Events of 14 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

9 May 1917

With Feisal’s good wishes sounding after them, Lawrence and a small band of 45 Arabs rode away from Wejh in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun.

“The desert route to Akaba was so long and so difficult that we could take neither guns nor machine-guns, nor stores nor regular soldiers …

“Sherif Nasir led us: his lucent goodness, which provoked answering devotion even from the depraved, made him the only leader (and a benediction) for forlorn hopes …

“Auda and his kinsmen were with us; also Nesib el Bekri, the politic Damascene, to represent Feisal to the villagers of Syria …

“Feisal made up a purse of twenty thousand pounds in gold — all he could afford and more than we asked for — to pay the wages of the new men we hoped to enrol, and to make such advances as should stimulate the Howeitat to swiftness.

“This inconvenient load of four hundredweight of gold we shared out
between us, against the chance of accident upon the road. Sheikh Yusuf, now back in charge of supply, gave us each a half-bag of flour … and Nasir took enough on baggage camels to distribute a further fourteen pounds per man when we had marched the first fortnight, and had eaten room for it in our bags.

“We had a little spare ammunition and some spare rifles as presents; and loaded six camels with light packs of blasting gelatine for rails or trains or bridges in the north. Nasir, a great Emir in his own place, also carried a good tent in which to receive visitors, and a camel load of rice for their
entertainment.”

They seemed a small party to win a new province, mused Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The march to Akaba had begun.

Events of 9 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

7 May 1917

On May 6, a new recovery crew, led by Capt Henderson, drove out
in a Crossley tender and Model-T Ford car to salvage the wreck of Capt Stent’s aeroplane that had crashed on May 1. Unable to cope with the sandy terrain, the Model-T Ford car would have to be towed for much of the way, before being abandoned early on the second day. Shortly after, an aeroplane landed near the party, and Lawrence flew back with the pilot to Wejh. Later in the day, his pocket diary recorded a meeting in Wejh with Sir Mark Sykes, who had been in the Hejaz to speak to Sherif Hussein and Feisal.

It would take the recovery party another three days to find the wrecked aeroplane and tow it back to Wejh, returning on 10 May.

In an account of this trip written many years later, Henderson gave an interesting insight into working alongside Lawrence in the desert.

“He always looked upon these jobs as a sort of picnic and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. He was a most economical companion, needing very little water for his personal requirements; no matter how badly we prepared our food, he relished it. In the Wadi Hamdh, when the progress of our car was reduced to about one mile per hour on account of thick thorn bushes and large boulders, and in a very unpleasantly hot temperature – we measured it once, 131o in shade – his temper remained imperturbable as ever. He had a marvellous reserve of energy and seemed to show little sign of tiredness after a hard day’s trekking which included digging out the car from soft sand.”

(Memoir of Capt T. Henderson in T. E. Lawrence By His Friends edited by A. W. Lawrence.)