Journal Essay

Review Essay: Lawrence of Arabia

Eamonn Gearon

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Mr. Gearon is co-founder and managing director of the Siwa Group, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins (SAIS) and a senior fellow at the Middle East Policy Council.

The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia, by Dick Benson-Gyles. The Lilliput Press, 2016. €25.00, hardcover.
"For Only Those Deserve the Name": T.E. Lawrence and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by Mark Calderbank. Sussex Academic, 2017. $64.95, hardcover.
Lawrence of Arabia's War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WW I, by Neil Faulkner. Yale University Press, 2016. $37.50, hardcover.
T.E. Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol: The Royal Navy's Role in Creating the Legend, by John Johnson Allen. Pen and Sword Military, 2015. $17.44, hardcover.

To a greater or lesser extent, the four volumes under consideration here all involve — or revolve around — Thomas Edward Lawrence, a junior officer in the British Army based in the Middle East for much of the First World War. Each book looks at a particular aspect or aspects of Lawrence, his private and professional life, and his role before, during and after World War I, in and out of Arabia.

The degree to which Lawrence's name still sells books is clear from the fact that his surname features in the title or subtitle of each of these new publications. Rightly or wrongly, T.E. Lawrence is undoubtedly the most instantly recognizable name from the First World War in the Middle East. His continuing fame, almost a century after the war's end and more than 80 years since his premature death in 1935, is due to numerous factors. Among these are the lecture-film shows by American broadcaster Lowell Thomas, which made Lawrence a household name; Lawrence's own book about his wartime experiences, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and its popular abridgement, Revolt in the Desert; and finally, David Lean's seven-Oscar-winning 1962 epic, "Lawrence of Arabia."

The degree of attention the person of Lawrence continues to attract is unarguably out of all proportion to his importance, either during the course of the war itself or in connection with his role in the post-war peace settlements that were responsible for redrawing the map of the Middle East. The second point of note is that Lawrence became a legend even before his untimely death at 46, following a motorcycle accident on a quiet country road in Dorset. Whether or not they deserve their fame — or infamy — legends are not subject to the same rules of proportion or balance to which mere mortals must submit. So it is with Lawrence of Arabia.

There is no doubt that he was a fascinating character, as can be readily seen from his extensive correspondence (edited by Malcolm Brown, 1988) and to a lesser extent from the official, secret reports he and other members of the Arab Bureau produced during the second half of the First World War (see The Arab Bulletin: 1916-1919 [4 volumes], 1986; ed., R.L. Bidwell). Founded in 1916, the Arab Bureau was set up within the British Foreign Office and based in Cairo until it was abolished after the war. Tasked by the British government to "harmonise British political activity in the Near East … [and] keep the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Committee of Defence, the War Office, the Admiralty, and Government of India simultaneously informed of the general tendency of Germano-Turkish Policy."

The importance of the Arab Bureau lay not in its fame, its size, nor even perhaps its impact on British foreign policy in the execution of the war. Throughout its brief life (1916-20), the existence of the Bureau was unknown to both the general public and the British government at large, a secret section within the Cairo Intelligence Department. Not seeking fame, the Arab Bureau was also small enough to be overlooked by those outside its ranks. With most of its operatives spending extended periods, sometimes years, on the ground in various Middle Eastern theaters of war, from North Africa and Palestine to the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, Cairo-based members operated out of a small number of cramped rooms in the Savoy Hotel.

The Arab Bureau's greatest success was in bringing together a heterogeneous group of individuals whose sole common denominator was firsthand experience of one or more of the Middle East's regions, in-depth scholarly knowledge, or a bit of both. Academic disciplines that members could boast of included Biblical archaeology, pre- and post-Islamic history, physical geography and languages. Heavily weighted in favor of scholars, its members also included museum directors, members of the British Parliament, travelers, adventurers and authors. Before the war, few of its number were professional soldiers. And, with the notable exception of Gertrude Bell, all of its number were men.

When brought together, this disparate group produced the best intelligence on and about the greater Middle East then available. Although the Arab Bureau was created to address the exigencies of an ongoing war in the Middle East, this reviewer would argue that its abolition shortly after the end of hostilities was a mistake. The Bureau undoubtedly made mistakes, but what branch of government, let alone secret intelligence, does not? However, in terms of its scope and ambition and, most important, in bringing together expertise from diverse disciplines, it was a great example of how to gather intelligence that provides lessons from which contemporary governments could well learn.

Returning to Lawrence, alongside his letters and the secret intelligence reports he produced for the Arab Bureau — neither of which were ever intended for publication — we have those works produced by Lawrence in his own lifetime that were very much written with a public audience in mind. Already noted, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph is rightly the most famous of these, although others of his writings, especially The Mint, are deserving of the reader's attention. Detailing his experiences as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force, a general publication of The Mint was only realized posthumously, in 1955, by Lawrence's brother and executor, Professor A.W. Lawrence. As Lawrence had assumed and been recruited under a new name, The Mint is a deeply personal memoir laying out the experiences of 352087 A/c Ross, from his basic training in the RAF in 1922 and his later service in England in 1925-26. Written in a simpler, more accessible style than the occasional purple prose of Seven Pillars, The Mint reveals the everyday experiences, deprivations and disappointments of a middle-aged man who finds himself in the company of — as the author would characterize it — brasher, less sensitive, typically younger and lusty men.

Together with his writings, the fact that Lawrence never married nor appears ever to have had an intimate relationship with a woman has led to claims about his sexual proclivities that range from asexual to prurient. These most personal matters aside, his life, activities, alleged opinions and putative motivations have been plundered by countless biographers from his time to our own. Lawrence was clearly a complex melange: here a romantic dreamer, there a political realist; a man sympathetic to the cause of Arab nationalism and an advocate of Arab independence, and a loyal servant of British imperial interests in the Middle East, India and beyond. He was also a brilliant academic and an author of considerable flair who demonstrates a high degree of technical expertise.

With so much ink already spilt over the life and legend of Lawrence, is there anything original left to be said, and do any of these books succeed? On both counts, yes. Each work under consideration variously reveals something more about Lawrence, his life both before and after the war, as well as a brilliant new assessment of the First World War in the Middle East. To place them in roughly chronological order, I will look first at Dick Benson-Gyles's genuinely original and revelatory biography, The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia.

This is the best biography about Lawrence written in many years. While certain recent works about the young Lawrence, wartime Lawrence and post-war Lawrence have done little more than regurgitate and rewrite older (and in many cases better) works, The Boy in the Mask breaks new ground, not in one area but two. First, Benson-Gyles provides a wealth of important new biographical data about Lawrence and his family's Anglo-Irish background. This will prove useful to Lawrence scholars for a generation, but it makes fascinating reading for the general audience. Second, the area where this book scores doubly is in offering the most plausible solution yet to the enigmatic dedication in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "To S.A." But I am not about to spoil the surprise!

Of all the theaters of war in the Middle East, the Arab Revolt is, with the possible exception of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, the best-known front. Again, this is thanks to Lawrence and his intimate association with it. The Anglo-French-backed Arab Revolt broke out in June 1916, when an Arab Bedouin force attacked the Turkish garrisons at Mecca and Medina. This was the start of a campaign that would last just over two years, ending with Arab and Allied forces taking Damascus from the Ottomans at the end of September 1918.

As John Johnson Allen rightly points out in his book T.E. Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol: The Royal Navy's Role in Creating the Legend, the Arab Revolt was a guerrilla war fought in some of the hottest, driest deserts on earth, but it would never have succeeded had it not been for the activities of the Red Sea Patrol squadron of Britain's Royal Navy.

To my knowledge, the fascinating story of the Red Sea Patrol, described by the author as a "motley collection of ships," has never before been so extensively told as it is in this admirable work. The fact that the activities of the Red Sea Patrol have to date been largely neglected by historians should not allow the reader to imagine it was therefore relatively unimportant. Quite the contrary. Were it not for this squadron's providing both sea-to-shore bombardments of Ottoman positions and supplying men and matériel, the Arab Revolt would have been stillborn.

Following the war, in conversation at the Versailles Peace Conference, South Africa's General Botha expressed astonishment to Emir Feisal that his revolt had succeeded while the Boers failed. Feisal replied, "That was because you had not Admiral Wemyss and his ships to help you." Lawrence endorsed this sentiment when he wrote of Admiral Wemyss, "…he, with his active mind and broad intelligence, had taken the greatest interest in the Arab Revolt from the beginning [and] acted Godfather till the Arabs were on their own feet."

The approach to the war in the Middle East taken by the eminent British archaeologist and historian Neil Faulkner is to look at a much bigger picture. Lawrence of Arabia's War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WWI, offers readers as comprehensive a picture of "Lawrence's War" as is possible in one volume. Not only is Faulkner's history of the Arab Revolt and the wider war in the Middle East very readable, it is unique. As co-director of the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP) in Jordan, the author has spent a decade leading teams of professional and volunteer archaeologists in annual field work along the course of the Hijaz Railway. Not only has this extensive field work yielded a wealth of archaeological data, it also infuses the text and allows the author to provide a critical reassessment of Lawrence, his role in the Arab Revolt, and how its outcomes continue to inform conflicts in today's Middle East.

In the introduction to his own work, "For Only Those Deserve the Name": T.E. Lawrence and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Mark Calderbank says, "I do not seek certainty so much as intelligent speculation." This goes some way to excusing what might be seen as the shortcomings in what is nevertheless an interesting book. To recommend it, the first part of the book deals primarily with the composition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, along with some interesting material on Lawrence's literary influence and mentors, with whom he consulted as he wrote and edited his magnum opus.

The second part of the book, where most of the author's original research is to be found, will surprise some readers and irritate others. "The sole area of knowledge which I have exploited more deeply than has been done hitherto, as far as I am aware, is masochism." It may be that many people today are genuinely fascinated by the alleged sexual proclivities of others, but such interest is not universal. Nor are the purported revelations about Lawrence provided here convincing, and many of them have been superseded by evidence provided by the defense.

It seems likely that Lawrence of Arabia will continue to sell books for some time to come, some of them misplaced hagiographies or unwarranted hatchet jobs. Each of the titles considered here has succeeded in offering something new, some more than others. However, in broader terms, what is clearly happening is that the First World War in the Middle East is benefitting from being afforded a great deal of serious research and repositioning the "sideshow" to center stage.