Lawrence and the Armenians

by John E. Mack

The name of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) is not generally associated with the history of Armenia. This is understandable, since the activities which brought Lawrence world renown were confined to the Hedjaz and to the lands of the Middle East bordering the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. He does, however, have a connection with Armenian history that is little known, insufficient to warrant the title of Lawrence of Armenia, but perhaps not without some interest.

The first Armenian Lawrence seems to have known was Dr. Assadour Aram Altounyan, who by that time was one of the most prominent physicians in the area. Altounyan was an 1885 graduate of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and had lived in Europe while continuing his studies. (He passed away in 1949 at the age of ninety-five.) He was the first physician to introduce the technology of X-rays to the Middle East. When Lawrence arrived, Altounyan was completing the construction of the famous hospital in Aleppo bearing his name. Lawrence enjoyed the hospitality and warmth of Dr. Altounyan and his Irish wife during the period between 1911 and 1914, when, in his twenties, he was working on the archeological site at Carchemish in southern Anatolia. He later developed a close friendship with the doctor’s son, Ernest, who also became a surgeon. Lawrence and Ernest Altounyan met once more at the Paris Peace Conference, but did not see each other again until 1932.

After that Altounyan confided personal problems to Lawrence in long, intimate letters. He aspired to be a poet and sent Lawrence work for him to criticize. Lawrence apparently did not think very highly of Altounyan’ s talents and discouraged him gently. Altounyan’s only published poetry is, to my knowledge, a long paean to Lawrence entitled Ornament of Honour. [1] In 1933 Lawrence wrote to Robert Graves, “I think Frederic Manning, and an Armenian, called Altounyan, and E. M. Forster are the three [persons] I most care for, since Hogarth died.” [2] Perhaps Lawrence’s attitude toward Armenia was influenced by his relationship with the Altounyan family. [3]

During his desert campaign to liberate the Arabs from the yoke of the Ottoman Turks, Lawrence apparently received invaluable aid from two Armenian medical students who wanted to serve as doctors in the Arab Revolt Army. In the spring of 1918, along with George Chamichian (“Colonel Haig”) they were brought before Lawrence at Azrak. Lawrence questioned the two students closely about the movements of the Turkish troops, but they had no information of interest to “El Aurens.” Haig, on the other hand, who had spent time in Aleppo, was able to provide him with intelligence concerning the size and the equipment of the Turkish contingents. That evening, Lawrence took the two Armenian medical students and George Chamichian to Prince Faisal’s tent, where Faisal told them how grateful and pleased he was to have Armenians assisting in the liberation effort.

The suffering of the Armenian people during World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire created sympathy for the Armenians in Allied diplomatic circles and provided the potential conditions for the establishment of an independent Armenian state. Turkish barbarity in 1915 resulted in the massacre of about one third of the Armenian population and deportation of another third, principally to Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1916 the Russians occupied Turkish Armenia, but planned to colonize the country with Cossacks and thus barred the return of the surviving population. Arthur Balfour, as Foreign Secretary in the Lloyd George government, argued in the House of Commons in July, 1918 for Armenian self-determination, and Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, which included the recommendation that the non-Turkish nationalities of the Ottoman Empire should be given a chance to achieve “autonomous development,” could also be interpreted as supporting Armenian independence.

The diplomatic jockeying during the months following World War I was to determine the future shape of the Middle East. Lawrence’s influence on British policy during the closing weeks of 1918 and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 derived from his role as an intelligence officer in Cairo, his influence among the Arabs during the campaigns in Arabia and Syria, his knowledge of the Middle East and its people, and, above all, from the force of his personality. Although the principle focus of Lawrence’s efforts was upon Syria and Iraq, he had definite opinions about Armenia.

On October 29, 1918, two weeks before the Armistice was signed, Lawrence appeared before the “Eastern Committee” of the British War Cabinet to give his views “concerning the settlement of the conquered territories” in the Middle East, among which was included Armenia. According to Cabinet records, Lawrence

suggested that Adana, Mersina, and Port Ayas might form part of an Armenian State. The Arabs would welcome such a State in Cilicia. There had been no Armenian massacres during the war in Aleppo or Syria, owing to local Arab influence, which had prevented their occurrence. There were a large number of Armenian refugees in different parts of Syria. The Armenians were now very much scattered, and only formed an insignificant percentage of the population in the six so-called Armenian vilayets. He therefore thought that the Armenian State where the Armenians could collect should be near to the sea and modest in size. [4]

In another meeting of the Eastern Committee two months later it was resolved that should such an “Armenian State be constituted, and if a great power be called upon either by the League of Nations, or by the people themselves, to act as protector to the new State, Great Britain should refrain from advancing any claims, and should support the case of either America or France preferably…” [5]

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British pressure was exerted upon the American delegates to take responsibility for the Armenian mandate. Within a week of the conference’s opening, Lawrence was drawn into a discussion of the Armenian question at an official dinner. An advisor to the U.S. delegation recalls in his diary, “There was a unanimous opinion among the British present that the U.S. should take Constantinople, and agreement, although reluctant on the part of Colonel Lawrence, that it should take Armenia…” [6] As it turned out, the Americans were also unwilling to assume this responsibility. [7]

It is in the context of this shared ambivalence – reluctance on Lawrence’s part to have the Americans undertake the protection of Armenia, and his knowledge that the Americans were similarly reluctant – that one should, I believe, judge the interview he gave Lincoln Steffens, an observer at the Peace Conference. [8] Steffens called the meeting “the queerest I ever had in all my interviewing life.” Lawrence seems to have been his most difficult self, morbidly teasing and ironic, seeking to persuade without appearing to do so. The American appears earnest, practical, moralistic and, at times, naive. Steffens had sought the meeting “to learn from this Imperial pioneer something about the practical politics of Asia Minor and the Near East.” Lawrence used the occasion, as Steffens realized later, to lay a case before him for the American mandate over Armenia. It is difficult to tell sometimes in Steffens’ account when Lawrence is “at work” trying to make a real argument and when he is simply enjoying himself at the other’s expense. Through much of the interview Lawrence leads Steffens to make outlandish suggestions and then offers judgments upon them as if they had not emanated from him at all.

Lawrence’s basic proposal, outlandish in itself, was that the Armenian back country, “where the natural wealth is,” should be cut off from the front, where most of the Armenians lived. The precise borders of these regions was never specified. “The American mandate was to be over the Armenians” (including, presumably, both this “front” region as well as the many refugees created by World War I) while “some other ally – not the British, but another equally practical power – was to get Armenia. ” [9] The Turks were later ruled out as the “equally practical power” and Lawrence was strongly anti-French. Could he have had in mind the Russians? Lawrence’s argument for this split was that Armenians, being one of the “old races,” like the Syrians, Greeks, and Jews, “do not care for hard labor” and hence would never work on the land. They belong instead to the business classes, “merchants, traders, shopkeepers, moneylenders, peddlers, nonproducers. They will practice medicine, law,” Lawrence went on, “any profession which, like a business, gets a variable share of the finished, final coined form of the commonwealth after the common people have had it. But to go out and by the sweat of the brow to dig up and manufacture the raw stuffs of the earth into marketable commodities – no.” The Armenians were, he said, the “perfection of the true commercial spirit.” [10] Cheap labor from “really backward” nations should, therefore, “be brought to Armenia and put to work.” Why such labor might not be employed by the Armenians themselves in their own country Lawrence never says. He asserts only that the Armenians “want to live on the coast, in cities, on rent, interest, dividends and the profits of trading in the shares and the actual money earned by capital and labor.” [11]

Lawrence’s purpose does not appear to have been to insult the Armenians so much as the Americans. He seems to have seen in America the beginning of the commercial spirit, “the early state of the development of this sort of man.” He leads Steffens to say, “if we could, by governing the Armenians, see close up the practical workings of our culture; if we could understand that what we were looking at and dealing with in the Armenia of today is the American of the future …” [12]

Perhaps Lawrence had no serious hope of being persuasive, for his penetrating irony could only, in the end, have irritated Steffens, however accurately he may have hit his target. He was especially sarcastic on the subject of American “idealism” or “Christian ·idealism,” by which he meant our ability as a nation to espouse the highest of moral principles, including official support for self-determination, while at the same time massacring or sequestering the native Indian population and successfully pursuing a frankly imperialist policy abroad. Lawrence clearly saw this apparent contradiction as evidence of hypocrisy. He led Steffens to suggest that this “idealism” of Americans would permit them to massacre or otherwise abuse the Armenians as they had the Indians without international scandal. The Americans would accomplish the task “with thoroughness, gradually, but completely.” “He reminded me,” Steffens wrote, “that we were so idealistic and enjoyed such repute for philanthropy that we seemed to be able to do anything within reason without losing either our idealism or our good name.” Steffens continues:

“There was no scandal, was there, over your Indian policy?” he asked. “And you never ceased to think that what you did was right? You have conquered part of Mexico, you have occupied Hawaii, taken the Philippines and Puerto Rico by force of arms from Spain; freed Cuba and kept a mortgage on it; you have bought the Danish Islands; and you have put your Marines ashore in Central America and forgotten them. You will soon be forced to restore order in the rest of Mexico. And yet, “he said, with admiration, I thought, “you are still for self-determination for small nations. You are a small empire, and you have warned us in your Monme Doctrine that you are going when you get ready to be a great empire. And yet you are anti-imperialists. You have just fought a war against German Imperialism, and–”
“So did you,” I shot in.
“Oh, that is different,” he fired back. “We are Imperialists. We frankly call ourselves an Empire and we fought honestly for our Empire against the German’s Empire. But you – you fought against empire for self-determination.” [13]

It is hard to know what Lawrence was up to in this interview. He was depressed and bitter in the aftermath of his personally traumatic role in the campaigns of the war, and frustrated over his inability to bring about in the Great Power diplomatic trading in Paris what had been promised to the Arabs during the war. He had no particular animus toward Armenians, was fond of the only Armenian family he knew well, and generally respected them as (along with the Jews and the Arabs) one of “the clever races.” [14] We can only surmise that Lawrence had no serious expectation that the Americans, despite their “Christian idealism,” would take any real responsibility for this tragically victimized people, and a visionary American radical like Steffens would have been an ideal object upon whom to vent his spleen.

There was of course to be no Armenian mandate, no permanent independent Armenian state. The Transcaucasian federal republic formed in March, 1917, broke up into the three independent republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in May, 1918. But the Kars region was lost to Turkey in June, 1918, and the Armenian Republic fought over its territories with the other two Caucasian republics. In June, 1920, the U.S. Senate declined the Armenian mandate. Nevertheless, in the Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Allied prime ministers in August, 1920, Armenian independence was recognized, and President Wilson drew borders which awarded a large portion of Turkish territory to the new state. But the treaty never took effect, as Turkish and Soviet forces carved up most of the Armenian Republic between them before the end of 1920 and Caucasian Armenia was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the Armenian Soviet Republic in 1921. This part of Armenia has, of course, remained within the Soviet Union since that time.

There is a cruel irony in a British foreign policy document of 1921 containing recommendations for Armenian refugees in Iraq. The two possibilities for them were given as “transfer to the new Armenian State” or “emigration to America.” Many Armenian refugees did of course come to the United States after World War I. But the possibility of an Armenian State had been precluded several months before by the military actions of Turkey and the new Soviet regime.

William Westermann, one of the American delegates to the Peace Conference, felt keenly disappointed with his government’s refusal to accept responsibility for Armenia. He wrote:

The liberation of Armenia was the one outstanding result expected from the Near Eastern negotiations at the Peace Conference. The failure to meet this general expectation was indirectly a result of the struggle among the Allied Powers for equality or priority of opportunity in the commercial exploitation of the old Turkish Empire in the case of a successful termination of the war. In the pursuit of these objects the independence and protection of Armenia became a thing men talked about, but did not work for.

Directly, the United States is responsible for the present plight of the Armenians, by default of service. An essential weakness of our position in all Near Eastern affairs was that we had not declared war upon Turkey. Hence we could not, in the period of the armistice, send troops into Turkish Armenia when such action might have saved many thousands of people from starvation. Not having declared war upon Turkey, we were always, during the period of discussion, outsiders, impotent to affect the actual course of the negotiations or put our own stamp upon the decisions taken. Even so, we, the people of the United States, might have saved the Armenians, had we been willing to accept a mandate, preferably for all the northern part of the Turkish Empire, but at least for the Armenian portion. We may justify ourselves as we will. The mandate for Armenia was offered us and we refused to accept its obligations and the undoubted troubles which their acceptance would have entailed. [15]

Although he had been influential in British Middle East policy after World War I, and an advocate of Armenian independence, Lawrence never wrote after 1920 how he felt about the events which overtook Armenia. Surely, like Westermann, he must have been disappointed. We are left only the personal expression in 1933, long after his withdrawal from public life, of the fondness he felt for “an Armenian, called Altounyan.”


1 E. H. R . Altounyan, Ornament of Honour (London: Cambridge at the University Press, 1937).

2 David Garnett, ed. The Letters of T. E. Lawrence (London : Cape, 1938).

3 Robin Maugham, Escape from the Shadows (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972)

4 Cabinet papers , Public Record Office, London, October 29, 1918.

5 Ibid., December 16, 1918.

6 David Hunter Miller, My Diary at the Conference of Paris, (New York: Appeal Printing, 1924, Vol. I, p. 74).

7 Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle Bast, 1914-1956 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), p. 55; and Edward Mandell House and Charles Seymour, What Really Happened at Paris (New York: Charles Scribner’ s Sons, 1921), p . 17.

8 Lincoln Steffens, “Armenians Are Impossible: An Interview with Lawrence of Arabia,” Outlook and Independent, October 14, 1931: 203-205 and 222-224.

9 Ibid., p. 204.

10 Ibid., p. 222.

11 Ibid., p . 222.

12 Ibid., p. 223 .

13 Ibid., p. 223.

14 Arnold W. Lawrence, ed ., Oriental Assembly (London: Williams and Norgate, 1939).

15 William Linn Westermann, “The Armenian Problem and the Disruption of Turkey,” cited in What Really Happened at Paris, pp. 178-179.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1980 John E. Mack, M.D.
Originally published in Ararat, Summer 1980, Vol 21, No. 3, pp. 2-6