Thursday, December 06, 2007

The power behind the throne

The Australian news channel ABC has broadcast some of the only wartime footage of T.E. Lawrence in his role as Feisal's adviser in Aqaba. You can see it here. Lawrence is the second from the right in the group shot which begins 21 seconds into the footage, in the white headdress and black woollen cloak and wearing a wristwatch. Feisal, wearing a black headdress, is seated right of centre.

It's worth watching this closely. Notice how Lawrence stands until Feisal bids him to sit down, and how Lawrence beckons another man round to sit between him and the camera, so that he is almost invisible, but still sitting closest to Feisal, who frequently turns to him. Notice how Lawrence deals directly with Feisal when he is translating, barely looking at Lowell Thomas, and keeps his back to the camera.

This film illuminates advice contained in the Twenty Seven Articles that Lawrence had written for the benefit of his colleagues about six months earlier, in August 1917. With the film in mind, here are some extracts:

(3) In matters of business deal only with the commander of the army, column, or party in which you serve. Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the C.O., however great the temptation (for efficiency's sake) of dealing with his underlings. Your place is advisory, and your advice is due to the commander alone.

(4) Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can.

(5) Remain in touch with your leader as constantly and unobtrusively as you can.

(7) Treat the sub-chiefs of your force quite easily and lightly.

(8) Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed. Do not be too intimate, too prominent, or too earnest.

Lawrence's anonymity is probably accentuated by the black and white film: in reality the fair-skinned Lawrence would have stood out more. What is so interesting is the impression one gets that Lawrence is subservient to Feisal: partly this is due to their difference in height, partly to the obsequious mannerisms - watch the hand wringing - that Lawrence adopts, which reminds me of Harold Nicolson's later comment about him: "What an odd shifty charlatan that man is."

Lawrence knew that this was all pretence. "It’s a kind of foreign stage" he wrote to an old friend later in 1918, "on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language, with the price of failure on one’s head if the part is not well filled". In reality, as Lawrence privately admitted, he was the power behind the throne. Telling his boss Clayton how to send intelligence to Feisal he wrote: "Information had better come to me for him since I usually like to make up my mind before he does."

Hat-tip: Mal Booth

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