T. E. Lawrence and the revolution in British military thought

John Keegan wrote in The Face of Battle about the paradoxical preference of military historians for the study of armed forces in peacetime: “War…is the institutional military historian’s irritant. It forces him, whose urge is to generalize and dissect, to qualify and particularize and above all to combine analysis with narrative – the most difficult of all the historian’s arts.” My research this summer will not focus on war – but it will also not focus on institutions in the conventional sense. My research falls into the rather foggy field of military intellectual history, which is the history of military concepts and ideas.

It is not an unimportant subject. Military thought in the most abstract sense later becomes the basis for strategy and finally action in the field. The military thought that I am mainly concerned with is that which developed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War in response to the new type of fighting that was seen for the first time in that war. The progression from the essentially Napoleonic style of warfare that predominated prior to the First World War to the highly mobilized form that warfare has taken since is one of the great revolutions in military thought, and the most relevant one for militaries today. This revolution began in the United Kingdom and was urged on by British military theorists, the two most important being J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart. Their radical new ideas helped lead to the widespread mechanization of armies – or the reliance of armies on mechanical rather than muscle power. The trend that they helped to launch has continued to the point where today armies in the first world are almost entirely mechanized.

But while this was undoubtedly an important development, it is one that T.E. Lawrence seems on the surface to have nothing to do with. Lawrence (of Arabia) served as a liaison officer with Arab revolt against the Turks during the First World War. He is not remembered primarily (if at all) as a military thinker. He nevertheless was a military theorist, albeit one with limited influence and one who never published a book explicitly on the subject. But his influence, such as it was, was limited to the most important military intellectual of the period – B.H. Liddell Hart. The purpose of my research is to determine to what degree T.E. Lawrence contributed to the development of Liddell Hart’s theories, and thus to the revolution in military thought as a whole. My research will also explore possible connections between Lawrence and J.F.C. Fuller. If as a result of my research I can demonstrate that Lawrence had a significant effect in the shaping of Liddell Hart’s or Fuller’s theories, then we will have to conclude that the tactics and organization employed by modern armies were at least in part inspired by those of Bedouin insurgents during the First World War.