Damascus 1918 - Who Struck Lawrence of Arabia and Why?

by John Boyce and David Holloway

Lawrence of Arabia describes in the final chapter of his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ how he, dressed as usual in his Arab robes, had an encounter with “a medical Major” at the hospital shortly after the fall of Damascus in October 1918. In his book, T.E. Lawrence writes with pride about the cleaning up of that hospital under his orders, describing it as “a charnel house yesterday” and recounts how this officer demanded if he spoke English and then called the place “scandalous, disgraceful, outrageous, (you) ought to be shot….” at which Lawrence describes his own response as:  “I cackled out like a chicken, with the wild laughter of strain”. For this Lawrence says he was called a “bloody brute”, at which he hooted again, only to find “he smacked me over the face and stalked off, leaving me more ashamed than angry…”(note 1)

There is, however, a rather different version of T.E. Lawrence’s encounter with a member of the Allied military in Damascus at that time…….

 

Historian David Holloway, the author of books about the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment (note 2), found during his research that the Langtip brothers, who all served in that regiment,  had told their family a contradictory tale about Lawrence’s behaviour in Damascus, and what was done about it.

Corporal Leslie Langtip (Image: Australian War Memorial

The family were told by the brothers upon their return to Australia in 1919, that Corporal Leslie Langtip (note 3) came across a rather scruffy chap in Arab dress who was beating some weary, bedraggled Turkish prisoners by the side of a road in Damascus. The Lighthorseman intervened, saying words to the effect that the ‘Arab’ should leave them alone, they’ve had enough, and they’ve lost the war, “Lay off, Mate!” But the ‘Arab’ persisted, whereupon Corporal Langtip punched him in the mouth and stopped him!

 

This may be family folklore, but as David Holloway has reflected (note 4), there may well be truth in the story – after all, was Lawrence reluctant to confess to the world that a “mere” enlisted man had struck him? Perhaps also, was it embarrassing to Lawrence in those days that the soldier in question was an Australian, and of Australian-Chinese ethnicity at that? Or was it because this was a punch to stop Lawrence from mistreating a prisoner-of-war?

_______________________

Notes

 

1 ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence (London 1926) Chapter 122

 

2. Dr David Holloway OAM  ‘Hooves, Wheels and Tracks’ (history of 4/19 PWLH and its predecessors, published by Regimental Trustees 1990) and ‘Endure and Fight’ (4th LH Regiment AIF detailed history 1914-19, published by 4 LH Memorial Association 2011)

 

3. 2348 Corporal Leslie Langtip DCM, enlisted with his three brothers Ernest, Bertie and Henry in the 4th Light Horse Regiment in Jan 1916 and served together as a LH section in Egypt,  Palestine and Syria. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1918 for gallantry at Kaukab just near Damascus. All four brothers returned safely from the war in June 1919. His father Chin Lang Tip, a market gardener, had emigrated to Australia in 1867 and married an Anglo-Australian, Mary Ann Prout. (Subsequently the Lang and Tip parts of his name were joined together).